How to survive like Atlas during our 13 seconds

Thirteen seconds is about how long it takes you to pick up a glass of water from a table and take a couple of sips.

On this May 4 of the year 2020, many of us in the older generation remembered 13 seconds that happened 50 years ago. Those 13 seconds are how long National Guard troops fired on a crowd at Kent State University. Four people were killed; nine people, wounded.

The late ‘60s and early ‘70s spanned an era of activism and awareness-building for our society, as well as incredibly tough, complicated issues. The Vietnam War. Racial inequality. Women’s rights. Gay rights. A crooked president. The environment. Energy crisis. Student strikes. Buildings burned. Passionate speeches. Angry backlashes. Riots. Teargas. People arrested. People shot and killed.

Old Main in 1891. From Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections

Old Main in 1891. From Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections.

In May 1970, I was a journalism student at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. One student demonstration after another culminated on the evening of May 8 with an unknown arsonist setting fire to Old Main, the oldest building on campus. Hundreds of people watched as thick flames consumed the 108-year-old building. People were shocked, silent, as we listened to the relentless knell of flames engulfing the iconic building. People cried.

The red brick building, with its creaky wood floors, drafty class rooms, way too cold in the winter, way too hot in the summer, was a special place for me. The granite slab steps going up to the entrance were deeply worn by footsteps of students long-gone and ones still alive.

One warm spring I went through a semester-long class about Beowulf and other early forms of literature in a second-floor classroom so hot that steady drops of sweat drowned Grendel. I studied classic mythology in Old Main and became good buddies (metaphorically speaking, that is) with Zeus, Athene, Apollo, Venus, and Titans like Atlas. On some late evenings, six-pack of brew in hand, my friends (real people, not gods) and I sneaked into the building and sat on hard, splintery auditorium seats and figured out ways to solve the problems of the world. If only people would listen to us…

Old Main burned on May 8, 1970.

The morning after Old Main burned.

Since then, I’ve often thought that our country’s society is like Atlas holding up a huge globe that represents the heavens. With knees bent, he strains to keep the heavens held high. There are many versions of the Atlas story. The most popular says he was given the punishment by Zeus for leading the Titans in a losing battle against the Olympian Gods for control over the heavens.

In my version of Atlas and his burden, there’s a lot of grunting, moaning, knees and arms wobbling, occasional cursing, sweat flopping everywhere, and sometimes unsteady stutter-steps to rebalance the globe. Atlas is us, the common folk, and the globe is every challenge facing our society. It’s our fate, our burden, if you will, to keep things balanced and make better. If the globe falls, it’s over.

Despite the violence, despite the Kent State bloodshed, despite burned buildings and uncounted numbers of arrests around the nation, the few years before Kent State and a couple after were days of grand optimism. Many people believed they were changing things, making things better. It seemed as if everyone spoke of change. Our lives will be better. America will be better.

And so, generally, in some ways it did become better over the last five decades. Atlas was holding on tight to the globe. Yet, not tight enough. There has remained a dangerous off-kilter tilt, even before coronavirus.

Old Main in flames on May 8, 1970. From Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections.

Old Main in flames on May 8, 1970. From Colorado State University Archives and Special Collections.

Many people are barely making it in our America, despite the fact that we live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. The glass ceiling still exists for women. Me, Too, is righting some wrongs. Environmental progress was made and then abruptly undone over the last three years. Ghettos are still there with poverty, injustice, crime, inequality. Americans with Asian features or dark skin are attacked. Neo-Nazis are increasing in numbers.

Now, in our time of face masks and home quarantine, the knees of Atlas are shaking more than ever. His hold is weakening. These are signs warning us to re-balance. We need to stop attacking each other. We need to support others. We need to stop listening to liars. We need to realize that when a political leader says “fake news,” it’s probably not fake. We need to verify information through credible sources, not Fox News or Facebook or Twitter posts. We need to study candidates for office closely and vote right. We need to grasp the truth of things and act accordingly.

We’re sitting in our own Old Main. Our 13 seconds are ticking. It’s time to tighten our grip on the globe.

It’s our time to deliver help to the Post Office

Benjamin Franklin is probably turning over in his grave.

His beloved postal service is rapidly spiraling toward collapse thanks to embroiled politics, the Internet and coronavirus.

What this may mean to every American: Private vendors buying various parts of a financially strapped postal service, which will likely result in interrupted mail service, higher postal rates, less emphasis on deliveries to rural areas and small towns, fewer delivery days during the week, and patchy service to the 160 million homes and businesses in the United States. In essence, we all could end up saying a sorrowful farewell to the nation’s only universal delivery and communication network that connects all of us and is among the largest employers in all of the 50 states.

Benjamin Franklin—if you don’t recall this from your high school history class—was the postal service’s first postmaster. He believed the service was a vital key to the survival and success of the fledgling United States. He was correct, and the same tenet has held true since the Continental Congress created the service and Franklin was sworn in 245 years ago.

Many Americans incorrectly think the USPS—the United States Postal Service—is a part of the federal government. This is not the case and hasn’t been since 1971 when the USPS was created and began funding itself through its services and products (in other words, no taxpayer money is used to fund the postal service).

With coronavirus upon us, the mail volume has plummeted and is predicted to drop by 50 percent over the coming next year, unfortunately enough to match the steep plunge that happened during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Coupled with that devastating outlook, the USPS has been the victim of irascible politics and other complex issues.

{For more information about these issues, click on the newspaper links at the end of this article. Make sure you read the White Paper by the NALC (National Association of Letter Carriers); it’s the most informative.}

While some Americans may think a USPS collapse is no big deal, just consider that the 640,000 postal workers annually deliver 1.2 billion—that’s “billion,” not million—prescription drug shipments. This is a service that has become more critical in the medical urgency of the coronavirus pandemic.

With that and other tough challenges as the backdrop, the postal service needs help from Americans in convincing congress that it should receive in this economically devastating time of coronavirus the same consideration for financial stimulus presented to airlines, hotels, banks, and other industries. So far, the postal service’s plea to congress has fallen on ears that are deaf or plugged up with the yukky wax of politics.

The way you can help is simple. It takes only a couple of minutes. Click on this link—ACTION NEEDED—and you’ll be taken to a site that provides an easy step-by-step pathway for sending an electronic letter to your congressional representatives and senators. Note: Make sure to include your two senators; the main roadblock has happened in the senate chambers.

By the numbers:

  • The Postal Service adds 4,071 addresses to our delivery network every day.
  • Each day the Postal Service processes and delivers 187.8 million pieces of First-Class Mail.
  • On average, the Postal Service processes 20.2 million mail pieces each hour, 336,649 each minute and 5,611 each second.

Source: One Day in the Life of the U.S. Postal Service

 

Learn more:

READ THIS: White Paper by NALC. April 8, 2020.

The Postal Service needs a bailout. Congress is partly to blame. July 15, 2020, Washington Post.

What’s an Essential Service in a Pandemic? The Post Office. April 14, 2020, New York Times.

White House rejects bailout for U.S. Postal Service battered by coronavirus. April 11, 2020, Washington Post.

 

Thomas Paine, Mo Rocca and prettiest girl ever

While my beautiful wife Patty and I have been in isolation like millions worldwide, I’ve made use of my time by contemplating what none of us ever want to think about: one’s own demise.

I’ve also pondered Thomas Paine, a guy named Mo Rocca and my memory of the darn-tootin prettiest girl in the history of the universe.

I decided to pen my own obituary after attending the memorial service of a friend who wrote his own obit. It sounded good, more enjoyable and undoubtedly more accurate than his family could write. He passed away in the early coronavirus days when self-quarantine was not yet a thing

My friend was a writer and I suspect he believed people get too serious in obits, so he decided to write in some fun details—like how his father, an old-time pilot—flew over the family farm, which was snowbound, and dropped a note to let the older children know that their mother had given birth to a son in a nearby city hospital.

Tragically, too many grieving families are now fretting over what to write about their loved ones lost to coronavirus. I’m not planning on catching the illness (no one does), but, just to be safe, I decided time spent on my obit might be a practical gift for those I leave behind.

So, after sighing, contemplating, sighing again, I got off to a stellar start, inserting the “?” at strategic spots where facts are yet to be determined: Gary Kimsey died on _?_ at _?_. He was _?_ years old. During his life, he….

My brain power suddenly drained away at the “he….” Sigh. Which of my great deeds should I record? Sigh. The time I almost died from exhaustion from going on a long hike without taking enough water? Or the time when I was six years old and I learned maybe it’s not a good idea to roll around in a mud puddle with your Sunday school clothes on? Or perhaps my great discovery of two arrowheads in our backyard (my kids thought it was pretty neat) or—more sighing—maybe I should just make up stuff?

After destroying too many brain cells pondering how great Gary Kimsey should have been in life, I moved on to a book, Mobituaries, by Mo Rocca, a correspondent on CBS Sunday Morning. Mo—he seems like a guy okay with being called by his first name—updated obituaries “for great lives worth reliving.” Maybe Mo’s obits could give me ideas for making my life great in my obit.

I’m an occasional nonfiction reader (give me a good ol’ thriller novel instead), but my uncannily patient friend Jerry Kelsey, who has miraculously put up with me since we attended high school together in the late 1960s, had kept saying the word Mobituaries to me since the book was published in late 2019.

So, just to appease the Kelsey chap, I finally decided to get it on my Kindle. I checked Amazon and then asked myself, “Is Mo really worth paying $14.99?”

Well, shucks not. I suspected Mo would squander my $14.99 on a lavish lifestyle.

On the local free library website, I discovered (hey, maybe I can use this discovery in my obit?) that Mo’s a popular dude. However, I had to wait 10 weeks because so many people were in the online checkout line ahead of me.

Eventually Mobituaries arrived on my Kindle. Unfortunately, the library lets people check out online books only for 21 days. Yesterday, ye gads, I discovered (hey, a discovery for my obit?) that 20 days had swept by. I had yet to read a Mo word. So hurriedly I decided to read at least some, lest the Kelsey gent makes an inquiry.

One of Mo’s obits was about Thomas Paine, the fellow who wrote Common Sense, which got Americans jazzed up about fighting the Brits. Paine led a hero’s life gone misunderstood. His story—as told by Mo—is something we never learned in high school history class.

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

I was surprised to discover (ah, another discovery for my obit) that Mr. Paine coined the sentence “These are the times that try men’s souls” so often used today.

I blame my learning oversight on the snoozy style of my high school history teacher. Lest you think otherwise, my oversight had nothing to do with keeping close attention on the pretty girl at the nearby desk, right? Now, a half-century later, I recall she was certainly very, very pretty, but have no idea what she looked like. Or her name. Or the color of her hair. Or, I wonder now, was she a figment of my teenage imagination, a distraction to keep from snoring in history class?

Anyway, let’s put that aside way aside and go back to Mr. Paine’s sentence: He wrote it to describe stuff Americans faced around the time of the Revolutionary War. I hope, but am uncertain, that when he penned “men’s” he also meant women had souls that could be tried, too.

Today, Mr. Paine’s sentence can easily be used to reflect what’s happening in the world. This time of coronavirus indeed tries our individual and collective soul. Infection rates continue to soar. Deaths are so plentiful that some stressed communities are storing caskets of loved ones in refrigerated trucks until something can be done with them. No end is in sight.

In the inevitable end—as leaders have promised—we will have muddled through this. Revolutionary Americans survived. So shall we.

Fanny Brice

Fanny Brice circa 1930

Meanwhile, I found Mobituaries to be an engaging book structured so the reader can skip around hither and tither. After reading Mo’s obits about dragons and Paine today, I swiped across my Kindle screen to the story of Fanny Brice, the early 20th century singer, comedienne and inspiration for Barbara Streisand’s 1968 film Funny Girl.

I got as far as “Fanny’s troubled love life was…” when the library very rudely and very abruptly snapped away my online book, leaving me screeching, “What? What? What was her troubled love life?” My 21 days had expired.

I hurried to the online library to check out the book again, only to discover (hey, another discovery) that it wouldn’t be available for checkout again for at least two months.

Two months! Two months? What about Fanny’s troubled love life?

Amazon’s $14.99 looks pretty good right now, even if I am supporting Mo in a life of what could become decadence, debauchery and debasement.

Meanwhile: Gary Kimsey died on _?_ at _?_. He was _?_ years old. During his life, he made great discoveries, like Mo being a popular dude, 21 days go by fast, Tommy Paine wrote that thing, takes forever to check out a good book, and the prettiest girl in the universe may only be a figment.

Well, dagnabbit, that’s a hoot of an obit, ain’t it?

Larry Steward’s story, the obit that he wrote himself

Note from Gary Kimsey, who edited this story: Larry Steward was a journalist and educator who inspired hundreds of students when he taught photography at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and as the general manager of the Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation, comprised of CSU’s newspaper, magazine, and radio and TV stations. Larry passed away March 4 after almost four years of battling ALS, a terminal motor neuron disease that gradually robs patients of their strength and control and ultimately leads death. 

Larry was shy about talking about himself to others. So, many of his friends and colleagues today know only a few details about his younger years. With that realization in mind, Larry penned the following story about himself (I added in the artwork and cutlines). He wrote this article in the style of an obituary, using the third-person voice (“he” and “his,” for instance) rather than first-person.

I met Larry in 1971 when I was editor of the Rocky Mountain Collegian, CSU’s student newspaper. He became my news editor and then, when he was editor the next school year, I was his news editor. We became lifelong friends and spent many days over the years fishing in the Cache la Poudre River in northern Colorado—and he always caught the most trout.

The following story that he wrote about himself is more than obituary. It’s a story about a remarkable life of creativity, humor, dedication, optimism, exuberance, and love at first sight, twice. Enjoy reading it!

 

Photo by Greg Luft

His given name was Lawrence Eugene, but for the first 19 years of his life everyone called him Corky. That’s because when his father, Earl, first saw his son, he said he looked like a “corker” and the name just stuck.

Corky was born on November 18, 1946, during a massive blizzard that closed roads, businesses and schools for more than a week. At that time the Steward family was living on a farm in a remote area of southeastern Colorado, so his brothers and sister did not learn of his birth until Earl flew over their farm in his Piper Cub airplane and dropped a little parachute with the message that declared the family had a new baby boy. Corky was born prematurely so he had to be transferred by ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Denver where his first month of life was spent in an incubator.

The isolation on the farm turned out to be too much for his mother, Annabelle, so the family moved to nearby Lamar in the spring of 1948.  The house they moved into had been a U.S. Post Office that Earl had moved onto a foundation from Hasty, Colorado, a nearby small town. The two-bedroom, one-bathroom home created a real challenge for bathroom time and other space for a family of seven.

But city life was marred by Annabelle’s persistent and debilitating high blood pressure and migraine headaches. To mitigate Annabelle’s illnesses, Corky and his older sister, Patricia, and brothers, Richard (Dick), John Robert, and Linden Michael, were sometimes not permitted in the house to avoid complications for their mother.

In 1953, the family’s physician urged Annabelle to have experimental surgery in hopes of reducing her blood pressure and migraines, which had elevated to dangerous levels. After much prodding, Annabelle decided to have the surgery in Denver but, after the procedure, she died from complications of a blood clot.

Larry’s self-portrait from 1972. Larry enjoyed drawing cartoons, and he was very good at it. While still in high school in Lamar, Colo., he drew weekly cartoons for the Lamar Daily News.

Earl, overcome with grief, turned to his daughter, Pat, and her husband, Bill Waldrip, and asked them to care for Mike, who was 11, and Corky, who was 7. The newly formed family lived in the Lamar area for nearly a year before moving to La Junta, Colorado, where Bill worked as an airplane mechanic. The airport was a former World War II U.S. Army Air Force base that was turned over to civilian control after the war.

The former airbase had decommissioned World War II fighter aircraft and bombers in the hangers that had been abandoned by the military after the war. Pat and Bill and the boys lived in what had been officers’ quarters. The location turned out to be a boys’ playground paradise, and the boys spent many hours playing in the old airplane and on the grounds of the airbase.

Since the airport in La Junta where Bill worked was four miles outside of town, Mike and Corky took a bus to and from school. Sister Pat loved to tell a story about the time Corky was “goofing around” after school and missed the school bus. Pat said she became quite worried when Mike showed up at the bus stop but Corky was nowhere to be found. The way she told the story, when she finally discovered Corky walking home, his eyes lit up expecting his sister to give him a ride the rest of the way home, she told him “next time, get yourself to the bus stop on time!” She then turned the car around and sped away, leaving her youngest brother to walk the rest of the way home. “He sure as heck never missed the bus again,” she liked to say with a mischievous smile.

In 1955-56, Earl courted and later married Othel (Wright) Conklin, who was widowed following the death of her first husband, Kermit. After Earl and Othel were married and with the addition of Othel’s two children, Dave and Karen, the blended family now numbered nine, but since Dave Conklin and Dick Steward were out of the household nest, the competition for resources wasn’t as intense as it might seem.

Corky and Mike moved back to their Lamar home during the summer of 1956.

 

In school, Corky participated in band, theater, and dabbled in sports, including football, track and wrestling. He also loved to draw cartoons as a hobby, and during his junior year in high school, Corky was hired as a cartoonist for the Lamar Daily News. He drew a weekly cartoon strip and, less frequently, editorial cartoons.

One of Larry’s cartoons from his days at the Rocky Mountain Collegian. He drew this cartoon in 1972 when Richard Nixon was running for re-election and the scandalous activities of Vice President Spiro Agnew were not yet widely known. Nixon, though, had plenty of problems of his own doing to deal with.

The news editor, Fred Betz, Jr., involved Corky in all aspects of newspaper operations, including photography, selling advertising, and the newspaper design.

After he was graduated from Lamar Union high school in 1964, Corky attended Lamar community college and Eastern Montana College in Billings on a journalism scholarship and worked summers as a lifeguard in Lamar and later as a swimming pool manager in Holly, Colorado.

During this time, the U.S. was becoming deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War, and in 1966, Corky faced a major decision: either join the military or be drafted. Since voluntary enlistment meant he could choose a military occupation rather than being assigned to the infantry, he enlisted and, after basic training, attended the U.S. Army photography school.

He joined the Army on the “buddy plan” with Dan Scriven, his life-long chum and next door neighbor, but one day after they entered basic training the pair were separated (so much for the buddy plan).

Once he was in the Army, Corky made the immediate transformation to Larry (or, “Hey, maggot!”) since no drill sergeant would call him “Corky.” Going forward, only family and Lamarites would ever refer to him using his childhood nickname.

Larry did well in basic training. He was named a squad leader and later selected as the outstanding trainee of his company. Following basic, Larry attended photography school in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he graduated as one of the top students in the photography class.

Patriotism: Larry with medals awarded to him when he was in the military.

After photography school, he was sent to South Vietnam. He was assigned to the 1st Military Intelligence Battalion Aerial Reconnaissance service in Da Nang, Saigon, and finally Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. Within four months of his arrival in Vietnam, he was awarded an Army Commendation Medal, the Air Medal, and was promoted to Specialist 5th Class (the equivalent rank of Sergeant).

After leaving Vietnam, he was assigned as the senior television cameraman and a member of a 16-mm film crew at the Medical Field Service School television station at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, where he remained until he received an honorable discharge in June 1969 to attend classes at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

At CSU, he initially majored in fisheries biology, then graphic arts and finally journalism and technical communication. During his time at CSU, he worked at the Rocky Mountain Collegian in a number of positions before becoming the editor-in-chief during fall 1972 and spring 1973. He also worked at the student radio station, KCSU; served as a volunteer for the Silver Spruce Yearbook and made extra money as a 16-mm film stringer for two Denver television stations.

After he was graduated in 1973, he worked as a photographer, reporter, columnist, and section editor for the Fort Collins Coloradoan newspaper. While at the Coloradoan, he was honored by the Colorado press Association for his reporting.

 

He met his first wife, Suzanne Lois Hembree, while at the Rocky Mountain Collegian when she came to the newspaper office to drop off a press release. She and Larry chatted for quite a while. As soon as Suzanne left the office, Larry turned to a nearby co-worker and announced, “That’s the woman I’m going to marry.” There’s no other way to describe it: It was love at first sight.

It turned out, however, that Larry would have to wait because his roommate, Don Skitt, was dating Suzanne at that time, so he had to wait until Don and Suzanne broke up. Larry then made his move and asked Suzanne out on a date. The first date was the day Suzanne completed her finals so when he went to pick her up at her apartment, he knocked on the door several times, unaware that she had been so exhausted that a glass of wine put her to sleep. After being stood up, Larry swore he would never ask her out again. Well, love overcame stubbornness. They were married 15 months later.

Larry said he was attracted to Suzanne because of her quick wit and many puns, her sense of humor, and her engaging personality. They were married on November 24, 1975, in Fort Collins at St. John the 23rd Church.

After living in Fort Collins for the first four years of their marriage, they moved to Denver where Suzanne gave birth to the couple’s first child, Jeffrey Lawrence, in September 1980, and to their second child, Jennifer Honorine, in February 1982.

Suzanne and Larry remained married until Suzanne’s death from cancer March 8, 1985.

In December 1986, Larry returned to CSU after he was hired as general manager of the student media department. In 1989, Larry was graduated with an MBA from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

During his tenure as general manager, Larry was recognized by a number of professional organizations and served on several student media professional organizations, including being twice elected as VP and president of the Western Association of University publication managers, a prestigious organization representing large university media managers.

Larry also taught classes in photojournalism, digital photography and business communication for the Journalism and Media Communications department at CSU.

 

In April 2002, Larry met Janet Lewis-Jordan, who was working as a dental management consultant for a large national firm. They hit it off great right away and, as he had experienced almost three decades earlier, Larry knew immediately that this was once again love at first sight. Janet and Larry were married in August 2003 at the Danforth Chapel on the CSU campus, and they spent their remaining years together in love and very grateful for each other.

Larry and Janet Steward.

Larry retired from the university in August 2004 to help Janet start her own dental management consulting corporation, Steward and Associates, which eventually evolved into Janet Steward Consulting.

In 2008, Larry became the organizing executive and the president of the Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation, a not-for-profit organization closely affiliated with CSU. The not-for-profit employed 250 students and more than 100 student volunteers in the operation of the daily student newspaper, the campus radio station, cable TV, and campus magazine. He remained as president and CEO at the RMSMC until his retirement in July 2015, when his as-of-yet undiagnosed illness began to take its toll.

 

Several years prior to his retirement from the RMSMC, Larry began to notice fatigue and weakness in his arms and hands. After many months working out in an attempt to regain his strength, Larry finally figured out that what was going on was not normal and started the medical journey to find out why. In September 2016, he finally was diagnosed with ALS, a terminal motor neuron disease that gradually robs patients of their strength and control and ultimately leads death.

The adventurer: Larry, back in his 30s, coming out of an old mine that he explored in Hewlett Gulch in the Poudre Canyon. Larry loved hiking with Janet and their two dogs, Jack and Teddy; fly-fishing; salt-water fishing; biking; and photography.

Despite the death sentence that comes with ALS, Larry maintained a very positive attitude and lived his life as someone who looked for the positive rather than the negative related to his debilitating disease. Janet was close by his side every step of the way, becoming a care-provider whose goal was to make his life as comfortable and pleasant as possible.

Larry passed away at home on March, 4, 2020. He is survived by his loving wife, Janet; his son, Jeffrey, and his wife, Thuy, and their daughter, Annie; daughter Jennifer and her husband, Jeremy, and their son, William; his stepdaughter, Lee-Ann and her husband Rick Castro, their son, Tyler, and daughter, Mckenna; his stepson, Alistair Jordan and his wife, Kimberly; and numerous nieces and nephews and grand nieces and nephews.

–30–

Note: The “–30–“ is a symbol that Larry and other journalists back in the day typed in (using typewriters, of all things!) to show that their story has ended.

How I spent my 70th birthday

January 29, 2020—how in the holy heck of hell’s bells tinkerbells did this day arrive so quickly?

The age of 70 is something that happens to old guys, not young whippersnappers like me.

For most of us, birthdays—even milestone ones like, gag and yuk, 70—are usually routine days in the routine times of our routine lives. Maybe a party is in store. Or a special dinner. Or some gifts.

Pretty much, though, we pass through the day without much thought to where we’ve been or where we are now. Every birthday, however, should be coveted as more than the routine of life. We’ve made it another year. We’ve conquered the calendar again. We’re still breathing. We’re still moving, loving, enjoying, although probably much slower than we did at age 18.

My first thought this morning: Why, it was just yesterday when my friends Richard Hutchcroft and Brad Thomas and I sped across the Missouri state line and into Kansas so we could drink beer at the Anchor Bar, a sleazy 3.2 joint in Kansas City, Kansas.

That was on the night of my 18th birthday and we went Kansas-bound because in the state of Missouri, where the three of us lived in Independence, a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., the drinking age was 21. In Kansas, it was 18. Richard had turned 18 years old just 27 days earlier but had been partaking of Anchor Bar brew for a while before then. So had Brad who, well, was just a kid who wouldn’t 18 until February.

Today, the good thing about turning so mature (hey, no way I’m saying “so old”) is that everyone pays due homage to you. They all have great respect for your age and accumulated wisdom, you know, and they revere you. Right?

Ah, gosh, early this morning I received this text from my nephew Ron West:

“Happy birthday! So how does it feel being so old? When you were young, the Dead Sea was just sick. Dinosaurs roamed the earth. You’re old enough to remember when emojis were called hieroglyphics. But don’t worry. Your doctor says everything is normal for your age; of course, dying is normal for your age. Ouch! You are so old you get nostalgic over Neolithic cave paintings. OK, one more: Aging gracefully is just a way of saying you are slowly looking worse. Hope you have a nice birthday!”

Well, what can you say? Ron is 13 years my junior; he’ll eventually get to this point. So I’m saving his text to return to him then.

And there you have it, a portrait at age 70, cherry pie at the Englewood Cafe.

I started off today in sort of a routine way. A friend, Jerry Herman, is staying with us in Independence for a few days from his North Carolina home. Jerry, who my lovely, good-humored wife Patty and I went to high school with in Independence, came to see his mother, who is in an assisted living home.

This morning Jerry and I went to a local Denny’s Restaurant to have breakfast with a bunch of guys I call the Breakfast Boys. Most are retired. Among them is Richard Hutchcroft, my old (er, my mature) friend from the Anchor Bar run.

Except for me, the Breakfast Boys are all Trump supporters and they are occasionally prone to speak less than kindly about those worthless Democrats, those damned liberals, those…Well, you get the picture.

I know for certain, if I had been back in Colorado today—where Patty and I live in the warm months of the year—and I took to breakfasting with local Breakfast Boys there, theirs would be pithy comments about worthless Republicans, that damned Trump…. Colorado is more liberal than Missouri—how’s that for a broad, fact-free generalization? You know, of course, that I can get away with such generalizations. After all, I am of a more mature age today.

I’m at an age where I appreciate people’s different views on such things as religion and politics. I take it all in stride, figuring that on such topics I’m not going to change anyone’s opinions. And, frankly, it doesn’t make much difference to me what people think. I’m at the more mature age where I know that for me the most important view to pay attention to is my own opinion. In other words, my opinion is right and yours is blaaaaaaa … imagine my tongue and lips rapidly flapping as I scoff out a raspberry. I can do stuff like that now and people just excuse it by blaming it on my more mature age.

I wanted to eat at Denny’s this morning because breakfast is free for a customer whose birthday it is. I tried to order my usual—boring, bland oatmeal—but the waitress informed me that for a free breakfast I had to order “Build Your Own Grand Slam”—four breakfast items from the menu. So I had eggs, bacon, hash browns, and buttermilk pancakes. I put on five pounds of carbs and fat by the time I finished and belched. Us more mature guys can belch any time and any where we want.

Throughout the day I received happy-birthday texts, Messenger messages, Facebook posts, Facetime calls, or emails from my daughter and son, and from friends, some just barely younger than I am; others, decades younger. Their missives were all sweet and fun. This was a day when I reflected on how fortunate I am to have such friends and relatives.

One text came from a friend who is just a young whippersnapper himself. Jerry Kelsey—he’ll be 70 this year—and I played on our high school’s basketball team back in the day, along with Richard. Our team had the distinction of setting the Kansas City School District record for scoring the lowest number of points (26) in a game; our opponent in the game set the record for scoring the highest number of points (118) in all of the school district’s history. Our respective record-setting scores were posted for years and years and years up on a wall board at the fieldhouse where all of the Kansas City teams played. The record still stands, unfortunately, as far as I know. When you get old—I mean, more mature—you fondly gaze back on medals, awards or recognition you’ve received over the many years. In my case, 26 to 118 is a recognition scrawled in indelible ink on the thin parchment of my memory.

Jerry Kelsey’s text: “Congratulations on another trip around the sun. Notables sharing your special day: Tom Selleck, Oprah and Adam Lambert. If you had the looks, money and eye shadow of those three I could say I knew you when I could run and dribble a basketball off my foot at the same time.”

Jill Clark, a young lady I worked with before retiring in 2014, sent this text: “Happy Birthday, Master Kimsey! How are you celebrating today? I hope it may involve a nap, a book, a good movie, and some cheap but delicious beer. Cheers to you!”

Now, I don’t know how Ms. Clark knew my routine so accurately but she pretty much described every day for me, including birthdays. Please understand, it’s tough being retired. Even on your birthday, you have to decide whether to get up in the morning and wait a while before taking a nap…or, instead, just pull the covers back up again and take a nap. After all, why waste energy getting out of bed?

Patty, who I’ve known since we were 13 (we met the year JFK was assassinated), asked what I would like to do on my birthday. I’m sure she envisioned my answer would involve going to a good movie, reading a book, napping, and/or drinking cheap but probably not delicious beer (hmmm, I wonder if she’s ever mentioned my routine to Ms. Jill Clark?). Or—Patty secretly may have hoped—a nice dinner at an overly expensive plush restaurant that has white tablecloths, lemon slices in the water and snooty waiters with noses stuck so high in the air that you can see their nose hair and—again, gag and yuk—other things.

To answer Patty’s inquiry, I blurted out: “I want to go to Englewood Café for a piece of cherry pie.”

I hadn’t been there for more than a year and I was long overdue for cherry pie. In case you didn’t know it, cherry pie is a well-known elixir that will restore you to a less mature time of your life.

For those of you who don’t live in Independence, the Englewood Café is one of those classic decades-old greasy spoons where blue-collar workers and your parents and grandparents hang out. My parents dined there almost every day in the last years of their lives.

The décor is simple. There is a big picture of Marilyn Monroe hanging on one grayish wall. On the back counter are pictures of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. The counter has space for nine stools—the padding on the tops don’t all match and two stools are missing. The swinging door into the kitchen is so worn in the area pushed by the hands of waitresses that the paint is gone and the area is now blackish brown. Meanwhile, tile squares on the floor are chipped and well-worn by countless shoes stepping on them. To the café’s credit, however, all the tables and booths appear to be level. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating. We only sat at one table.

The daily specials are written on a chalkboard. Today: Corned beef hash, 2 eggs, HB (hash browns), toast—$6.79. Hot tenderloin sandwich (you also get breaded tomatoes, corn and green beans)—$6.59.

Gollygeewiz, it’s hard to beat those prices.

My quest, though, was cherry pie. The list of pies is scrawled on another chalkboard hanging on the back counter. Today, there were 11 types of pies offered. Pies are baked elsewhere and are delivered on Tuesdays and Fridays. So you have to get there on those days or immediately the next day to have a good selection before this or that type of pie runs out.

One cherry pie for me (including a big scoop of ice cream), one coconut cream for Patty, a coffee for each of us. Total: $12.36.

As we ate, we eavesdropped on a waitress, who was in her forties, quizzing a customer sitting at the counter. He was an old guy—that is, definitely more mature than me—and she was trying to help him remember where he misplaced his cell phone. Finally, she said she didn’t want him to go around phone-less so she promised to take him to get a new phone. This is the type of place the Englewood Café is—waitresses go out of their way to help customers, especially mature regulars who sometimes may have difficulty helping themselves.

My cell phone rang—this happened moments after I had checked to make sure I hadn’t indeed misplaced my phone, too—and the caller was Bruce Horovitz.

Bruce is the best writer I know. He is a genius at turning a phrase; he makes wonderful poetry out of words and sentences that other writers only make dull. I’ve known Bruce since we worked at the same college newspaper. He became a long-time business reporter for USA Today until the newspaper offered a buyout about three years ago. He was outa there in a flash but is still writing, now stuff that he wants to write. He said over the phone that he has added a new twist to his life: volunteering to help the needy in his hometown of Falls Church, Va.

Years ago Bruce related an interesting personal story about how he met his wife Evelyn, a gracious and kindly lady. I couldn’t quite recall all of the details, so today I asked Bruce to again tell me the story so I could pass it on to Patty, who enjoys hearing romantic stories.

Bruce was vacationing in Copenhagen and just happened to meet a beautiful young lady outside of a castle. They conversed a bit and then each went on their own way. As sometimes happens with tourists moving about in the same touristy areas, they kept running into each other that day.

The next morning Bruce went into a coffee shop and from somewhere behind him came a woman’s voice: “Bruce.”

He says he knew two things at that very moment. First, he wondered who in the hell knew him in a foreign country where he hardly knew anyone. Second, he was captivated by the voice.

“It had such a musical lilt that I knew that’s the woman I was going to marry,” he told me today.

He turned around and happily discovered that it was the voice of Evelyn, who just happened to be in the same coffee shop. Yes, they did marry, and now they have two daughters: one in college, the other in high school.

At the end of the afternoon today, Patty’s daughter, Amy Broughton, came by with, among other things, a sack full of birthday gifts from World Market, a place that offers exotic items: a big bag of popcorn popped in coconut oil and seasoned with pink salt from the Himalayas; waffle caramels; and chocolate-covered dates. Patty’s other daughter, Kelly Teegarden, mailed me a box of tasty Bateel dates stuffed with almonds, hazel nuts, pistachios, and dried orange rinds. They came in a fancy metal box. I think Kelly sent me this gift not so much for the dates but for the nifty box—she knows I like boxes (and that’s a story for another day).

So, this was my day, my birthday, the Big 70. How was your day?

 

Thanksgiving: What’s fact, what’s fiction

For most American families, the Thanksgiving holiday is abundant with good cheer, good food, a wonderfully smelling roasted turkey, family and friends, maybe a football game on the TV, and a great sense that all is well in the world. It’s a time to enjoy, relax, reflect, and express thanks.

When I was a kid—just like youngsters of today still do—we cut out the shapes of turkeys and Pilgrim hats from colored paper and decorated walls of the classroom. Back then, as now, Thanksgiving was a grand marketing opportunity for advertisements featuring clean, well-dressed Pilgrims and Native Americans happily eating dinner at a long table covered by a white tablecloth.

What the Mayflower may have looked like when it set sail for the New World. Note the supply of apples in the lower left corner. The fruit and vegetable supplies soon ran out and the crew and passengers came down with scurvy. Painting by Bernard Gribble

It wasn’t until I was an adult in my later years that I became interested in genealogy and discovered I am the descendant of six colonists who came to America on the Mayflower: William Brewster and his son Love Brewster; Richard Warren; William Mullins and his daughter, Priscilla, age 18 when they set sail; and John Alden, who married Priscilla not long after her father and step-mother, Alice, died shortly after reaching America.

Back then, the population of Europeans along our Eastern seaboard was severely limited; in fact, almost nonexistent outside of the Mayflower settlers and a few others at small colonies scattered long distances away along the coast.

As a result, a fair amount of intermingling of Plymouth families occurred during the first few generations, this among the original Mayflower families and others who later immigrated there. By the fourth generation, the intermingling produced a lady named Janet Murdock, who married my ancestor Stephen Tilson, whose English grandparents immigrated to Plymouth shortly after they were married in 1625.

After discovering this ancestral tie to the Plymouth colonists, I puffed myself up and thought, “Well, hey, this is pretty neat! I must be a very special guy, having come from such special ancestors.”

Self-aggrandized as I had suddenly become, I probably should’ve let things alone. But…I decided to find out how many Mayflower descendants are alive today. I expected maybe a couple of dozen, if that. After all, those Pilgrim people lived a long, long time ago. There couldn’t be many descendants alive today. Gosh, I mused to myself, I really am special!

Well, uh, as I discovered on the Internet, the estimated numbers are 10 million descendants in the U.S. and 35 million worldwide. Some descendants comprise notable figures in American history. Among John and Priscilla Alden’s descendants, for example, are U.S. Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams; poet William Wadsworth Longfellow; Julia Child, chef, author and TV personality; and actors Orson Welles, Raquel Welch, Dick Van Dyke, and Marilyn Monroe.

Here’s an interesting point to consider: The nation’s public schools have about 50 million enrolled students this year. The 10 million Mayflower descendants in the U.S. means that in any given public school classroom today, which usually have about 30 students, give or take, there may be at least one or two students related back to the Mayflower folks. Most kids, unfortunately, don’t know it. Nor do their parents.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to a couple of topics. First, I want to encourage people to delve into their own ancestral past. It’s amazing what could be found there—maybe kings or queens, or perhaps inventors or great authors, or maybe a famous outlaw or soldier, or a Pilgrim or two. Second, my interest in genealogy has encouraged me to learn many things about history that I once never imagined I would find interesting. Case in point: the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. I’ve done considerable research and reading since learning that my ancestral line, on my mother’s side, is connected to the Pilgrims.

One of the important things I discovered: The arrival of the Mayflower and its 102 passengers and their survival in America comprise one of our nation’s most important historical events (and yet—just a side note here—very little attention is given to telling their real story in the curriculum of our public schools).

It’s a story of bravery, grit, determination, optimism, and great faith. The themes behind the adventure cover about every literary genre one can think of: humans against nature, love of fellow beings and the land, the demands of sacrifice, overcoming major challenges, a quest for religious freedom, and, among others, the bold search for something better.

In the fall of 1620, 102 Mayflower passengers and crew—there were about 30 crew members—spent 66 tough, nearly unbearable days on the tiny ship, often amid terrible storms and big terrifying waves. The ship was 80 feet long and 24 feet wide (in comparison, a tennis court is 78 feet long and 36 feet wide).

Rough seas for the Mayflower.

One terrifying storm cracked a massive wood beam that supported the ship’s frame. This had the potential to leave the ship stuck drifting at sea. Fortunately, the passengers had in their supplies and equipment a large iron screw mechanism that they used to help raise the beam back into place. In another storm, a young passenger was swept off the deck. He was saved only because he had the presence of mind to grab one of the ship’s lines so he could be pulled back on deck. One crew member, who had taunted the passengers over their seasickness, died during the voyage—the passengers saw this as a sign from God, the sailor’s punishment for being so cruel.

Passengers were required to spend most of their time in a deck below. They squeezed into thin-walled, cramped great cabins with low ceilings (you had to hunker down if you were more than five feet tall). Each passenger had living space about the size of today’s single bed, if that.

Imagine the body smells—no deodorant, no clean clothes, no showers or baths. Imagine the lack of privacy when it came time to do your personal business. Imagine weathering bad storms, not knowing if the old clinker of a ship would sink at any moment. Imagine the snoring at night. Imagine…well, you get the point.

It wasn’t a fun trip. Lousy food. Poor water. Short tempers. The supplies of vegetables and fruit soon gave out, resulting in a lack of vitamin C and then scurvy. Gums bled. Teeth fell out. Breaths stank. Colds, fevers and coughs were easily passed around due to the cramped quarters. Soon, everyone was sick. All in all, a trip you wouldn’t want to make, never, ever.

When they reached America and finally stepped on shore, this on Nov. 13, 1620, the first thing some of them did was consume raw blue mussels abundant along the shoals during low tide. They must have sighed with great relief—finally, finally fresh food—oh, joy!

And then, their hungers satisfied, the violent vomiting and diarrhea set in from shellfish poisoning.

Imagine that, too. You somehow manage to survive more than two horrible months on the dreadful ocean and the first thing you eat on shore is so toxic you feel like you want to die. This, by the way, is one of those stories you don’t hear in school.

Another usually untold story relates to the makeup of the passengers. There were 50 men, 19 women and 33 young adults and children. Most Americans today believe they were all Pilgrims. However, only 41 were. The rest were what the Pilgrims called the “Strangers”—non-members of the Pilgrims’ religious sect: hired hands, farmers, servants, and children, four of whom were indentured servants, given over to the Pilgrims by their parents before the Mayflower set sail.

The Pilgrim’s religious sect believed its congregation should be separate from the Church of England, thus the basic reason for seeking refuge in the New World. Back home in Europe, they were threatened by jail time or worse (and, in fact, William Brewster once was jailed for his religious beliefs). The Pilgrims were the first refugees to step on our soil—and, comparing the trials and tribulations of today’s refugees seeking to enter the U.S., they didn’t have to do complicated legal wrangling or sneak in by digging a hole under a border wall.

Many Americans believe the first landing was at Plymouth. It wasn’t. The first on-shore steps—the place of the eating of the blue mussels—happened at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. It was in there, too, in a lower deck of the Mayflower, that 41 adult males signed the Mayflower Compact, a document of about 200 words. This was the earliest document that called for self-governance in America even though, under the terms of the compact, they would remain loyal to England’s King James.

Today, Americans generally believe—if they know about it at all—that the Mayflower Compact originated because all of the settlers were in gentlemanly accord on governance issues. The truth is, the Pilgrims drafted the document because the Strangers were ready to revolt and go out on their own. The Strangers were angry because the Mayflower had sailed beyond the jurisdiction of where the colony was supposed to be located. The Pilgrims saw that splitting up the small number of colonists would likely have ended in disaster; the larger number of 102 at least gave hope for success. So Pilgrim leaders drafted the Mayflower Compact as a way to quell the conflict and maintain peace.

Signing of the Mayflower Compact. From Library of Congress.

A month later, the Mayflower arrived at a settlement site the voyagers named Plimouth (the spelling later become “Plymouth”) after the port city from where they sailed away from England. Plymouth was the wrong place, however. The colonists had a patent to settle at the Hudson River near Manhattan, which was part of the Colony of Virginia at the time. They missed the mark due to irascible winds, storms and dangerous shoals. Nonetheless, the ship’s commander decided the passengers were too sick and frail to sail on to the site where they were supposed to settle, so, in essence, he announced to them, “This is it, folks, all out”—my words, not his, but the sentiment is the same: Like it or not, here’s where we stop!

Myth has it that the colonists stepped upon Plymouth Rock as they disembarked. There is, however, no historical accounts or facts that back up this long-held assumption.

Myth has it that the Pilgrims took their first steps on land on top of Plymouth Rock. There are no historical accounts or facts to back up this assumption.

Another typically untold story is the tragic circumstance through which the Pilgrims and Strangers were lucky enough to settle on land previously cleared by Native Americans. Upon the Mayflower’s arrival in the Plymouth bay, there were no natives to be seen in the area, only mysterious scatterings of bleached human skulls and bones. Regardless of the carnage that appeared to have taken place there in the not-so-distant past, the Pilgrims considered the vacant land to be a miracle, a true gift from God.

Unbeknown to the Mayflower voyagers, the new homeland was littered with the aftermath of a holocaust. Large numbers of natives—thousands upon thousands, possibly 90 percent of them—died from 1616 to 1619 along the Atlantic seaboard from what is believed to be bubonic plague brought ashore by European fishermen.

Many of us, by the way, incorrectly think only a few Europeans visited America prior to the Mayflower’s arrival. In reality, an estimated 300 ships a year fished for cod off the northern East Coast. Sailors often visited natives to trade and mingle. Such interactions didn’t always turn out well for the natives. Case in point: the bubonic epidemic for which the natives had no antibodies. As the plague progressed along the coast, so many natives died that no one—like those at the site of the new colony—was left to bury the dead.

The first year for the settlers was nearly disastrous. Half of the 102 colonists died from sickness and malnutrition. Many survivors were left like Priscilla Mullins. One day her parents and brother were alive, and then they were dead, leaving her in an untamed land with little hope of returning to the civilization of Europe.

Miles Standish (left) looks on as Priscilla Mullins and John Alden are on their bridal procession.

Priscilla’s dire situation, I imagine, helped in her decision to marry John Alden. A marriage of convenience, perhaps, no doubt? It’s hard to say. Today, Priscilla and John are probably the most well-known of the colonists, thanks to a narrative poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, published in 1858 by one of their descendants, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose works are still studied today in colleges. In the poem, Miles Standish asks John Alden to speak on Standish’s behalf to the single Priscilla. He does and Priscilla replied, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” So he did and they married. A good lesson for all of us: Never ask anyone else to proclaim your love to another!

Anyway, the Thanksgiving story that we hold near and dear today is true in some ways and pure fiction in other ways. Parts of the modern story were created by marketing experts who saw ideal opportunities for selling more food, merchandise, cars, and other retail products during the Thanksgiving holiday.

One part of today’s telling of the colonists’ story is true. Some natives did help the colonists at times, showing them, for example, how to cultivate corn, catch fish, remove sap from maple trees, and avoid poisonous plants. Even with the help, it was still definitely touch and go for the settlers. They had to rely on their own initiative, their rapidly developing skills, hard work, luck, and, as they believed, the intervention of God

Many of the colonists had to develop new skills to meet the challenging intricacies of farming and building shelters. William Mullins—Priscilla’s father—may have been somewhat unprepared. He was a shoemaker by trade.  He brought along 126 pairs of shoes and 13 pairs of boots—the sign of a true entrepreneur when it came to retail merchandising. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to wear out even one pair on the soil of the New World. He died within four months of reaching America.

The name “Thanksgiving” wasn’t used by the Pilgrims as we use it today to mark the annual holiday. They believed a thanksgiving was a time of devotion and spiritual thought. In the 170 years after the Pilgrims’ arrival, there were often festivals of harvest in the fall throughout the American territories. The concept of an official Thanksgiving celebration originated in 1789 with a proclamation by George Washington. After that, a designated day of thanksgiving was honored on and off until it became a federal holiday during the Civil War. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists celebrated their first harvest with feasting that probably took place in late September or October rather than late November. The event was also a celebration to give thanks that they survived their first year in the New World. Within that first year, half of the colonists had perished from disease and malnutrition. That included 78 percent of the women.

This First Thanksgiving—as we call it today—was a three-day event. The local sachem (it’s a native name for “leader”) Massasoit and 90 to 100 members of the Pokanoket, a local tribe that in 1621 began interacting with the colonists, participated in the celebration. Historians are unsure why the natives were in the area. Massasoit’s village was a three-day walk away. The end of the harvest season may have been a time when he and his group made rounds to visit other native tribes; and, perhaps since they were already in the area, they were invited to the colonists’ festivities. Regardless, the natives didn’t come merely for a single dinner. They showed up with five freshly killed deer and intended to stick around for a while.

There were no pumpkin pies since the colonists didn’t have butter, wheat flour or a stove to cook in. They didn’t have potatoes, either; spuds weren’t available to them back then. It would be years before white potatoes, which originated in South American, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, reached Plymouth. Sweet cranberry sauce likely wasn’t on the menu since local cranberries were used more for tart garnish. It would be another 50 years before an English writer described boiling cranberries and sugar into a sweet, delectable sauce. Nor did the colonists and natives have forks. Forks didn’t show up in the colony for another seven decades. So it was fingers and knives to eat with.

In addition to the deer, the menu may have consisted of ducks and geese—they were plentiful at that time of the year in the nearby bay—and squash, beans, corn, barley, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce, parsnips, and beans from the harvest, as well as striped bass, cod and bluefish. It’s possible, too, that the menu included native wild plants: Jerusalem artichokes, grapes, walnuts, chestnuts, and garlic. There may also have been lobster, seal and swans on the menu. Every history book and account that I’ve read about the menu seems to have its own version of what was or wasn’t served.

It was a big chore to prepare food for the approximate 150 diners—the surviving colonists and the approximate 100 natives. Only four married women were still alive by then, so they likely had help from children, servants and unmarried men. And perhaps some natives. I’ve wondered about what was recorded from back then about “unmarried” men helping with the dinner. What about the married guys? The image in my mind: The married guys were lounging around smoking big cigars, drinking beer—of course, yes, my over-wild imagination. It was the culture at the time (and often even now) that food preparation was woman’s work.

Were turkeys on the menu? Historians are divided over whether they were. Some say nay. Others say yes. Most admit no one knows for certain.

Many Americans believe turkeys were served at the First Thanksgiving. That may have or may not have been the case.

Wild turkeys, though, were definitely available to the Plymouth settlers. It was a common bird in the New World and a popular one that could be domesticated. Many decades later, Benjamin Franklin called the turkey a “a true original native of America” and “a bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who would presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” (Just a fun aside here: Regardless of common American lore, Franklin did not campaign for the turkey to become our national symbol. Instead, he wanted an image of Moses extending his hand over the sea, commanding it to overwhelm the pharaoh in an open chariot. Franklin’s proposed motto was “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”)

Today, some Americans think turkeys were unknown to the Pilgrims and Europe prior to the arrival of the Mayflower. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The conquistadors, after they arrived in the 1500s in Mexico, found that natives of Central America had domesticated turkeys. Turkeys were then imported to Spain and, by the 1520s, had become a regular food for Christmas meals in England.

The turkey gained popularity in the United States thanks to a writer and editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of the Mary Had A Little Lamb nursery rhyme. She thought we needed a national holiday to unify the nation; the day, she believed, should also have religious overtones.

Sarah Josepha Hale, the lady largely responsible for the Thanksgiving holiday. She lobbied five presidents before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a federal Thanksgiving Day.

In 1827, she published a novel, Northwood; Or Life North and South, Showing the True Character of Both, that introduced the idyllic Thanksgiving table, with turkey as its star cuisine. She wrote: “[It] is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year; and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude.”

Hale was one of the earliest trendsetters in our country’s history. She was editor of a popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, which, with a circulation of 150,000 in 1860, became the leading advocate for establishing Thanksgiving as an annual event. She published Thanksgiving recipes and menus in the magazine. She also wrote a dozen cookbooks. She petitioned five U.S. presidents to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Her successful pitch to Lincoln focused on the need to unite the country through a national holiday during the Civil War.

By the time Lincoln signed the proclamation to establish the holiday, the idea of Thanksgiving was already solidly planted, thanks to Hale, in the minds of homemakers throughout the nation. The Thanksgiving menu we think of today—roasted turkey stuffed with sage and other tasty ingredients, mashed potato dishes, and the like—was already established in their holiday menus because of Hale.

Today, about 88 percent of Americans eat 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day.

Historians believe those who attended the First Thanksgiving stood or sat on the ground because the colonist hadn’t made tables like the one shown in this painting. Nor were there white tablecloths. Smithsonian: Bettmann/Corbis

The Plymouth dining fare did not resemble what we think of today. There were no long tables covered with white tablecloths. The colonists’ had spent their precious time over the first year in farming and constructing shelters, and not making furniture for themselves. They and the natives stood, squatted or sat on the ground around campfires as meat cooked on wooden spits and stews simmered in pots.

Many modern Americans mentally view the Pilgrims as an austere, somber group of straight-back stature. That may be largely true—it’s a good PR image for the Pilgrims—but they also had ribald sides, too. A written description of the First Thanksgiving from a Pilgrim leader seems to describe a traditional English harvest festival that dated back to the Middle Ages: food, drink and games.

The colonists surely evoked God’s name and grace as they gave thanks. For Native Americans, giving thanks was an ongoing practice. Theirs was a daily routine of thankfulness. They offered a prayer or acknowledgement every time they hunted, fished or harvested a plant.

One of the likely features of the First Thanksgiving that normally isn’t thought about today is the countryside itself. Some of the surrounding Plymouth land looked barren due to previous native residents burning away vegetation to make room for crops.

But within short strolls of the new colony there were forested areas of oak, maple, hickory, birches, and other trees. These offered beautiful fall scenery unlike trees in England and Holland, from which the Pilgrims originated. Back there in civilization, typically cloudy days and warm nights resulted in muted, uninspired and bland fall colors. In contrast, fall days in the New World were sunny; nights, cool, a perfect condition for decreasing chlorophyll in leaves, allowing colorful pigments to emerge.

At the First Thanksgiving—I like to imagine—the forests were painted in fiery reds, lively amber, crimson and scarlet, russets, golden brown, and bright yellow. It would have been a visual feast for the new arrivals to America.

Now, as this year’s Thanksgiving approaches, it’s a good time to learn more about the First Thanksgiving and how a tiny group of brave people overcame the tough odds against them. Check out the resources that I listed below.

We should also give thanks for where we are, what we have and where we came from. And do as I did for myself: Learn about your family’s past.

 

Here are good resources to read (I used information from some of these to write this article):

–The nonfiction book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. It’s an entertaining account, accurate and in-depth. I highly recommend it.

Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, by William Bradford, a leader of the Plymouth colony. This is the most authoritative account of the Pilgrims and the early years of their colony.

From History.com: Thanksgiving 2019. An excellent article for learning about the history of the modern Thanksgiving.

How the turkey became Thanksgiving’s mascot.

From History.com: Colonists at the first Thanksgiving were mostly men because women had perished.

Smithsonian magazine: What was on the menu for the First Thanksgiving?

What’s a special Lewis and Clark day like?

I always approach the day of November 19 with religious reverence and a large dose of grateful joy.

When I wake up on the morning of November 19, I give thanks to the universe and to a greater power. And then comes a laugh and a day of happiness celebrating the simple facts that, No. 1, I once completed a rugged journey that few folks in our modern age have made; No. 2, I survived; and, No. 3, I’m still alive, almost a half-century later, to tell the story to you, my friend.

November 19 was the day of the year—back 46 years ago—when four of my friends and I reached the St. Louis Gateway Arch, completing a half-year, 3,700-mile journey along the trail of the 1803-06 Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Our excursion was undertaken when I was a young man, a very young man, age 23, and it was by backpack; two canoes and a kayak on the rivers; and by foot across the Rockies.

Sometimes, as we hiked the Lolo Trail, the mountain forests were so silent all we could hear was our own beating hearts.

Our journey was a poetic ballad of sweat, Nature’s beauty, friendship, aching muscles, blisters, sunburns, the fresh smell of pine trees, starry nights, snowy mornings, unbounded enthusiasm, at times gut-wrenching fear, great laughter, cold rain, and more sweat, always sweat, and always wind in our faces no matter which way we faced, a great mystery how that always seemed to be.

We started in early June at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River at the coastal edges of Oregon and Washington. The fort of today is a replica of a long-gone winter fort constructed there by the Lewis and Clark explorers in late 1805 after they spent the previous year and a half traveling through the wilderness from St. Louis. They lived at their Fort Clatsop for almost four months and in the spring of 1806 undertook a 6-month journey back to civilization at St. Louis.

One member of our group, Mike Cochran, was a cartoonist. This was his version of how Lewis and Clark and the dog Seaman felt at times as they moved along the Lolo Trail. Back in their time, Lewis and Clark rode horses across the mountains. Poor ol’ Seaman, though, had to hoof it!

From Fort Clatsop, our group—we called ourselves the 1973 Lewis & Clark Expedition—paddled up the Columbia, Snake, and Clearwater rivers, hiked across the Lolo Trail in the high mountains of Idaho and into western Montana (our canoes and kayak were trucked over the mountains), and then paddled down the Beaverhead and Jefferson rivers to the Three Forks of the Missouri River. The Missouri took us north—to within 50 miles of the Canadian border—and then curved us directly south through the Dakotas, along the edges of Nebraska and Iowa, and southeast across the state of Missouri toward the beautiful Gateway Arch towering 630-feet tall in the St. Louis skyline.

Our route from west to east covered the same territory as Lewis and Clark. The explorers, in the first half of their journey, went up the Missouri River, crossed the Rocky Mountains—from western Montana and across Idaho—on horses they acquired through trading with Native Americans. On the west side of the mountains, they built canoes and paddled down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific coast. After their winter of 1805-06 at Fort Clatsop, they returned to St. Louis mostly by the same route.

Oh, what was it that the poet Robert Burns once wrote about the best laid schemes of mice and men? The best-laid plans of Lewis and Clark reenactors often go awry, too.  We figured it’d be a little tough going up the Columbia, Snake and Clearwater rivers, against the current—and it was, but not overly bad. More importantly, we thought it’d be easy, really easy, going with the current flowing down the Missouri River. That was the deciding factor—the Missouri’s downstream flowing—for why we went from west to east. We couldn’t have been more wrong; not much was easy on the Missouri River. So much for schemes and plans.

Today’s upper Missouri River is still free-flowing, clear, swift, narrow, relatively shallow, and gorgeous through a stretch of Montana. But then, farther on, 19 dams now back up huge reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas, and the mighty river becomes what seems like one endless lake. Some reservoirs are so wide you can’t see across to the far shore. High winds often skim along the surface of the water, churning up giant, dangerous waves. Travel by muscle power was so slow that some days we struggled to make a dozen miles of progress across the reservoirs.

When they were constructed decades ago by the Corps of Engineers, the reservoirs inundated villages, farms and ranches, historic Native American sites, and, among other things, large forests. In some places, the trees were left standing in the rising reservoirs and have since died and turned an eerie pale gray.

Amid a wind storm and big waves, we paddled one day through a dead forest thick with towering gray cottonwood trees. Our boats became separated in the big waves as we maneuvered around the trees, and we were lost until we luckily spotted each other on the far side of the forest. It was an odd, dangerous and yet memorable part of our journey. After all, how many people can say they became lost while paddling big waves through a dead forest?

 

Forty-six years ago I stepped across the source of the Missouri River. This photo was published in an article that I wrote for the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine. Click here to read the article. On August 12, 1805, Lewis and some of his men reached the source not far from where I stood for this photo.  Lewis wrote in his journal that one of the men, Hugh McNeal, “had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri.”

By the time we reached the Gateway Arch on November 19, I had lost 50 pounds, capsized 22 times, and almost drowned once when I was stuck under a capsized canoe—and would’ve certainly not survived if one of our companions, Mike Wien, hadn’t happened to spot my hand sticking up for help out of the water.

This happened on the upper Missouri in Montana where the river was swift, narrow and shallow, bordered by stands of willows and pine trees. I was paddling at the bow, the front of the canoe, and I noticed the air was at the perfect temperature where you can’t feel it either warm or cool on your skin. The setting sun cast the stream into deep shades of shimmering red. Beavers were everywhere in the water. Some were surprised as our boats came alongside them. Then, there’d be a loud, sharp thwap of a tail on top of the water, a warning to beaver buddies, and the beaver dove under the water, leaving behind a swirling disturbance on the river surface.

The thwapping happened again and again, almost with a rhythmic cadence, sometimes from a cluster of beavers swimming only a foot or two away from where I sat in the canoe. I was intrigued by the all of it, the red hues on the stream fading toward gray twilight, the scent of fresh river air when I inhaled, the long darkening shadows of the trees on shore, and the comforting feel of the current gliding along under our canoe. I felt a great sense of moving in unison with Nature.

Then came a quirky rapid, a fast rise followed by a deep angled descent, and I was suddenly flipped into the cold river. I landed in a way that the current pushed me under the canoe. The boat had me hopelessly pinned between it and the rocky river bottom. And then came a hand to my hand. It was Wien’s; he was steering in the stern and had the presence of mind to back-paddle to slow the canoe so he could find me. And, now, here I am writing about it decades later.

Another time, we almost lost a companion, Mike Cochran, when giant waves, kicked up by a sudden windstorm, swamped and sank the canoe he and Clay Asher were paddling on the Snake River. This was at a location where the river flowed through a lonely, wild landscape of nothing but boulders, sagebrush, rattlesnakes, and driftwood. The river was cold, so cold my hands stung as water droplets were flung up against my skin as I stroked a paddle through the water.

It seemed to take forever to get Mike Cochran and Clay to shore. By then, Mike had slipped so far into hypothermia that we had to encircle him in a ring of campfires to bring warmth back into his body. Clay? A hardy guy, a young guy, age 18, rugged, a lover of outdoor challenges. The long dip into the cold water was just a lark for him!

We retrieved the canoe as the big waves rolled and rolled it along. Our backpacks—except the one containing our cooking equipment—were still safely tied into the boat. However, that morning we had overlooked tying in the backpack that contained the pots and pans, so it was now lounging somewhere on the river bottom.

We had plenty of food, but nothing to cook in, and we were days from the nearest town, Lewiston, Idaho. The day after the capsizing we luckily found a rusty coffee can along shore. We used the can for cooking until reaching Lewiston. There—as happened in most of the dozens of communities along the Lewis and Clark Trail—the local newspaper published an article about us. The Lewiston article included a brief account of how we lost the cooking equipment. A businessman associated with the Chamber of Commerce read the article and donated new cooking equipment to us.

 

One of the more bizarre incidents occurred along the Columbia River in western Washington. This was a land of big gray boulders, dry brown sand, no vegetation except for willows now and then along shore, rattlesnakes and creepy spiders, and heat so hot that sweat didn’t even emerge on our skin as we exerted ourselves paddling.

Unfortunately, we ran out of drinking water during the hottest part of the afternoon. We always filled containers with potable water when we were in a town, but we hadn’t been for a while and now the drinking water was gone. When I have told this story to friends since then, I always like to say our mouths became as dry and sandy as the floor of a camel-skin tent in the middle of a summer afternoon in the Sahara Desert.

It was an ironic situation. There we were, sitting alongside one of the biggest rivers in the United States and, regardless of our dreadful thirst, we refused to drink from the waterway. The reason? Self-preservation. We could see shimmering gasoline, hazy yellow chemical waste and other nasty-looking things floating along the surface—the dregs of pollution coming from upstream communities and industries. No drinking water from that river. No jumping in for a swim to cool off.

We were so tired from the heat that we could no longer paddle, so we pulled the boats onto shore. There was no shade to be found anywhere. All we could do was recline back on boulders. The hot sun in the cloudless sky, the ceaseless heat, the waves of heat over the river, the searing air drifting off the landscape—those influences mingled with our bodies and our sensibilities. We moaned. We groaned. For a while, we entertained ourselves by debating the many wonderful benefits of ice and snow. Then, we moaned again. We groaned again. Finally, we stopped talking.

We laid there, panting, moaning and, of course, groaning, unsure we could survive the heat, becoming more certain minute by minute that we wouldn’t survive. There was nothing we could do. We were stuck in the middle of nowhere with our camel-skin mouths and sweat-less skin.

Suddenly, a miracle.

Five big grapefruits came floating down the river, only an arm’s length from shore. We scrambled and retrieved them. With no hesitation at all and no thought at all (all of our sensibilities were burned away by then) as to whether polluted particles had seeped into the innards of the grapefruits, we quickly peeled away the skins and sucked down the fruity insides. Juicy, cool, quenching. Refreshing enough for us to be re-energized and able to paddle on for several hours to the next town and safe drinkable water.

Where did the grapefruits come from? Did they fall off a grapefruit truck crossing a bridge somewhere upstream? Did kids playing dodge-ball with grapefruits toss five of the fruits into the water? Did the ghosts of Lewis and Clark throw the grapefruits into the river as a special favor for us? Those explanations are as good as any. It didn’t matter, though. Five miraculous, mysterious grapefruits had pulled our over-heated bacon out of the blazing afternoon fire.

There are life lessons to be learned in the episodes I just related. Always tie in your backpacks; that is, expect the unexpected regardless of what you are doing. Always have enough water—and other necessary resources—to keep you going. Be grateful for gifts; they often can mean the difference between failure and success. Enjoy listening to the thwapping of beaver tails. And, of course, never look a gift grapefruit in the mouth. Instead, take a big bite of it.

 

A few times during our walk across the mountains we became lost as the trail disappeared in the pine forests and rocky terrain. At such times, our always optimistic leader (I say this with great admiration), Bob Miller, emphasized we weren’t really lost because, truly, we knew where we were, just that we didn’t know for sure how to get where we wanted to be. He was right. We always got there, wherever there was. Bob’s philosophy offered a great lesson that has helped me through all of these years—don’t worry so much about where you are; instead, focus on where you want to be and somehow you’ll get there.

Bob Miller on the Missouri River as it passes through the White Cliffs region in Montana. In a lengthy, eloquent description on May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis journaled that the enchanted cliffs “exhibit a most romantic appearance.” Here’s what else Lewis wrote about the White Cliffs…

We were awed just to be out there, lost or not, standing at times on the ridge of a high mountain and viewing nothing but dark green forested mountains ahead and, beyond them, more mountains and, still, beyond those, even more mountains, fading into the hazy horizon of a blue sky. At night, in places where the ambient light of communities didn’t exist, the sky was so thick with stars seeming so close to us that I felt like I could reach up and touch them. Such views few of us in today’s world enjoy.

{Learn more: What food did we eat? How experienced were we prior to our journey? Why did we go? And what became of the five of us after our expedition? (Click here to find out.}

 

It’s interesting to compare the era of Lewis and Clark’s expedition more than two centuries ago and, likewise, our journey in 1973 to what’s happened today, in 2019.

Forty-six years ago, most locals we encountered knew only scanty details, if any, about the travels of Lewis and Clark through their region. Many locals had no idea of the connections between the names of local rivers and other geographic features to Lewis and Clark. The same goes for local flora and fauna. Lewis and Clark identified 174 plants and 134 animal species previously unknown by the science of the early 19th century. Many local folks in 1973 had no idea of Lewis and Clark’s significant role in identifying and naming plants, birds and other wildlife in their area.

How Mike Cochran showed what it was like to reach St. Louis on Nov. 19, 1973.

Now, it’s easy to find information about the explorers on the internet. Prior to 1973, only a smattering of books about the expedition had been published; now there are dozens and dozens written by historians and interested lay people. The popularity the explorers gained during the 2003-06 national bicentennial celebration of their expedition continues today. Meanwhile, citizen groups like the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and such governmental agencies as the National Park Service have made strong commitments to keep alive the story of the expedition.

As a result, it’s now pretty darn hard to spit along the Lewis and Clark Trail without hitting a historic marker or statue commemorating Lewis and Clark or Sacajawea or Clark’s slave, York, or the other 29 men on the expedition or, for that matter, Lewis’ Newfoundland dog, Seaman.

This is what it was really like. Bob Miller, in the bow, and Clay Asher headed to the Gateway Arch on Nov. 19, 1973.

Today, school kids can recite dates, adventures, and Lewis and Clark journal entries that describe what happened and when and where it happened in their locality. Annual Lewis and Clark festivals are held in many communities along the trail. Bridges are named in honor of the explorers. So are streets, schools, and even a college. Many communities have named local trail systems and parks after the explorers. People frequently pick up their paddles and set out to retrace parts of the expedition’s journey on water.

During five months in 2019, for example, a small group named the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery paddled down the Missouri River from Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis. Organized and led by Tom Elpel, the group studied the landscape and the wildlife, and took time to educate people about Lewis and Clark and what they discovered along the river. The Rediscovery’s journey was remarkable. Elpel wrote 34 blog articles along the way. I highly recommend that you read all of them (Click here to read his last article from when they reached St. Louis).

Elpel’s telling the story of the Rediscovery’s journey is on par with, if not better than, a classic account written by John Neihardt, the author of the ground-breaking book, Black Elk Speaks. in 1908, Neihardt and two companions journeyed down the Missouri in a 20-foot canoe. His book, The River and I, describes the wild waterway and storied sites of the Missouri before the Army Corps of Engineers dammed much of the river. It’s a very fine read that I also recommend.

In March 2019, a federal act extended the official Lewis and Clark Trail by 1,200 miles. Where once the officially recognized trail started near St. Louis, it now goes from Pittsburgh, Pa., down the length of the Ohio River and a short distance up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, From St. Louis, the route goes another 3,700 miles up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, and down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific coast. These 3,700 miles were considered the federally designated Lewis and Clark Trail until the extension was approved in 2019.

The federal approval of the extension was a major accomplishment for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and other organizations. (Click here to read an article I wrote about the extension for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation’s website.)

{To learn more about Lewis and Clark, click here for the website of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. While you’re there, become a member—it’s a worthwhile organization that is the keeper of the Lewis and Clark story. (Here’s the foundation’s Facebook page.}

 

Today’s widespread popularity of Lewis and Clark speaks to the yearning for great adventure that many Americans have but are unable to pursue beyond short canoe trips or day hikes along the trail, or expeditions by car to follow parts of the route of the 1803-06 expedition. Some Americans turn to Lewis and Clark activities because they are are searching for a respite away from the pressures and complicated events of our times.

One important point that we have to remember, though, is that, no matter the era, whether it’s back in Lewis and Clark’s time or ours back in 1973, there will always be tough issues for our nation to face. In 2019, we have a country politically and philosophically divided in harsh ways. Back in 1973, it wasn’t so much different. A disgraced Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency as we paddled the Missouri River, and Richard Nixon was lying about Watergate and other matters.

During the time when Lewis and Clark were forging their trail, Alexander Hamilton was fatally shot during a duel with Aaron Burr, the ultimate price of political rivalry. And Jefferson’s government was involved in a war with Barbary Pirates, the first terrorists to haunt the psyche of America. In 1973, the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War. There was a severe national oil crisis. The American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and, of course, the Watergate scandal made big news headline.

And today, in 2019? Turn on a national TV news program and you’ll quickly see our world is impacted by issues—although they are far more complex today—that originated from the same underlying basic reasons that existed in Lewis and Clark’s time and in 1973: the struggle for power, greed and inequality, among others. Involving yourself in Lewis and Clark activities and the history of their expedition are fine ways to take a break from it all.

Mike Cochran drew this cartoon after he nearly died from hypothermia when huge waves sank the canoe he was in.

Anyway, those are just some of my musings as November 19 came around for its annual visit. It’s a good day of the year. A fine day to remember the way things were and to think about how they are today.

How did Lewis and Clark spend the day of November 19 in 1803, 1804, and 1805? You’ll be surprised! Click here to find out…

 

 

Learn the real story of Thanksgiving

For most American families, the Thanksgiving holiday is abundant with good cheer, good food, a wonderfully smelling roasted turkey, family and friends, maybe a football game on the TV, and a great sense that all is well in the world. It’s a time to enjoy, relax, reflect, and express thanks.

When I was a kid—just like youngsters of today still do—we cut out the shapes of turkeys and Pilgrim hats from colored paper and decorated walls of the classroom. Back then, as now, Thanksgiving was a grand marketing opportunity for advertisements featuring clean, well-dressed Pilgrims and Native Americans happily eating dinner at a long table covered by a white tablecloth.

What the Mayflower may have looked like when it set sail for the New World. Note the supply of apples in the lower left corner. The fruit and vegetable supplies soon ran out and the crew and passengers came down with scurvy. Painting by Bernard Gribble

It wasn’t until I was an adult in my later years that I became interested in genealogy and discovered I am the descendant of six colonists who came to America on the Mayflower: William Brewster and his son Love Brewster; Richard Warren; William Mullins and his daughter, Priscilla, age 18 when they set sail; and John Alden, who married Priscilla not long after her father and step-mother, Alice, died shortly after reaching America.

Back then, the population of Europeans along our Eastern seaboard was severely limited; in fact, almost nonexistent outside of the Mayflower settlers and a few others at small colonies scattered long distances away along the coast.

As a result, a fair amount of intermingling of Plymouth families occurred during the first few generations, this among the original Mayflower families and others who later immigrated there. By the fourth generation, the intermingling produced a lady named Janet Murdock, who married my ancestor Stephen Tilson, whose English grandparents immigrated to Plymouth shortly after they were married in 1625.

After discovering this ancestral tie to the Plymouth colonists, I puffed myself up and thought, “Well, hey, this is pretty neat! I must be a very special guy, having come from such special ancestors.”

Self-aggrandized as I had suddenly become, I probably should’ve let things alone. But…I decided to find out how many Mayflower descendants are alive today. I expected maybe a couple of dozen, if that. After all, those Pilgrim people lived a long, long time ago. There couldn’t be many descendants alive today. Gosh, I mused to myself, I really am special!

Well, uh, as I discovered on the Internet, the estimated numbers are 10 million descendants in the U.S. and 35 million worldwide. Some descendants comprise notable figures in American history. Among John and Priscilla Alden’s descendants, for example, are U.S. Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams; poet William Wadsworth Longfellow; Julia Child, chef, author and TV personality; and actors Orson Welles, Raquel Welch, Dick Van Dyke, and Marilyn Monroe.

Here’s an interesting point to consider: The nation’s public schools have about 50 million enrolled students this year. The 10 million Mayflower descendants in the U.S. means that in any given public school classroom today, which usually have about 30 students, give or take, there may be at least one or two students related back to the Mayflower folks. Most kids, unfortunately, don’t know it. Nor do their parents.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to a couple of topics. First, I want to encourage people to delve into their own ancestral past. It’s amazing what could be found there—maybe kings or queens, or perhaps inventors or great authors, or maybe a famous outlaw or soldier, or a Pilgrim or two. Second, my interest in genealogy has encouraged me to learn many things about history that I once never imagined I would find interesting. Case in point: the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving. I’ve done considerable research and reading since learning that my ancestral line, on my mother’s side, is connected to the Pilgrims.

One of the important things I discovered: The arrival of the Mayflower and its 102 passengers and their survival in America comprise one of our nation’s most important historical events (and yet—just a side note here—very little attention is given to telling their real story in the curriculum of our public schools).

It’s a story of bravery, grit, determination, optimism, and great faith. The themes behind the adventure cover about every literary genre one can think of: humans against nature, love of fellow beings and the land, the demands of sacrifice, overcoming major challenges, a quest for religious freedom, and, among others, the bold search for something better.

In the fall of 1620, 102 Mayflower passengers and crew—there were about 30 crew members—spent 66 tough, nearly unbearable days on the tiny ship, often amid terrible storms and big terrifying waves. The ship was 80 feet long and 24 feet wide (in comparison, a tennis court is 78 feet long and 36 feet wide).

Rough seas for the Mayflower.

One terrifying storm cracked a massive wood beam that supported the ship’s frame. This had the potential to leave the ship stuck drifting at sea. Fortunately, the passengers had in their supplies and equipment a large iron screw mechanism that they used to help raise the beam back into place. In another storm, a young passenger was swept off the deck. He was saved only because he had the presence of mind to grab one of the ship’s lines so he could be pulled back on deck. One crew member, who had taunted the passengers over their seasickness, died during the voyage—the passengers saw this as a sign from God, the sailor’s punishment for being so cruel.

Passengers were required to spend most of their time in a deck below. They squeezed into thin-walled, cramped great cabins with low ceilings (you had to hunker down if you were more than five feet tall). Each passenger had living space about the size of today’s single bed, if that.

Imagine the body smells—no deodorant, no clean clothes, no showers or baths. Imagine the lack of privacy when it came time to do your personal business. Imagine weathering bad storms, not knowing if the old clinker of a ship would sink at any moment. Imagine the snoring at night. Imagine…well, you get the point.

It wasn’t a fun trip. Lousy food. Poor water. Short tempers. The supplies of vegetables and fruit soon gave out, resulting in a lack of vitamin C and then scurvy. Gums bled. Teeth fell out. Breaths stank. Colds, fevers and coughs were easily passed around due to the cramped quarters. Soon, everyone was sick. All in all, a trip you wouldn’t want to make, never, ever.

When they reached America and finally stepped on shore, this on Nov. 13, 1620, the first thing some of them did was consume raw blue mussels abundant along the shoals during low tide. They must have sighed with great relief—finally, finally fresh food—oh, joy!

And then, their hungers satisfied, the violent vomiting and diarrhea set in from shellfish poisoning.

Imagine that, too. You somehow manage to survive more than two horrible months on the dreadful ocean and the first thing you eat on shore is so toxic you feel like you want to die. This, by the way, is one of those stories you don’t hear in school.

Another usually untold story relates to the makeup of the passengers. There were 50 men, 19 women and 33 young adults and children. Most Americans today believe they were all Pilgrims. However, only 41 were. The rest were what the Pilgrims called the “Strangers”—non-members of the Pilgrims’ religious sect: hired hands, farmers, servants, and children, four of whom were indentured servants, given over to the Pilgrims by their parents before the Mayflower set sail.

The Pilgrim’s religious sect believed its congregation should be separate from the Church of England, thus the basic reason for seeking refuge in the New World. Back home in Europe, they were threatened by jail time or worse (and, in fact, William Brewster once was jailed for his religious beliefs). The Pilgrims were the first refugees to step on our soil—and, comparing the trials and tribulations of today’s refugees seeking to enter the U.S., they didn’t have to do complicated legal wrangling or sneak in by digging a hole under a border wall.

Many Americans believe the first landing was at Plymouth. It wasn’t. The first on-shore steps—the place of the eating of the blue mussels—happened at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. It was in there, too, in a lower deck of the Mayflower, that 41 adult males signed the Mayflower Compact, a document of about 200 words. This was the earliest document that called for self-governance in America even though, under the terms of the compact, they would remain loyal to England’s King James.

Today, Americans generally believe—if they know about it at all—that the Mayflower Compact originated because all of the settlers were in gentlemanly accord on governance issues. The truth is, the Pilgrims drafted the document because the Strangers were ready to revolt and go out on their own. The Strangers were angry because the Mayflower had sailed beyond the jurisdiction of where the colony was supposed to be located. The Pilgrims saw that splitting up the small number of colonists would likely have ended in disaster; the larger number of 102 at least gave hope for success. So Pilgrim leaders drafted the Mayflower Compact as a way to quell the conflict and maintain peace.

Signing of the Mayflower Compact. From Library of Congress.

A month later, the Mayflower arrived at a settlement site the voyagers named Plimouth (the spelling later become “Plymouth”) after the port city from where they sailed away from England. Plymouth was the wrong place, however. The colonists had a patent to settle at the Hudson River near Manhattan, which was part of the Colony of Virginia at the time. They missed the mark due to irascible winds, storms and dangerous shoals. Nonetheless, the ship’s commander decided the passengers were too sick and frail to sail on to the site where they were supposed to settle, so, in essence, he announced to them, “This is it, folks, all out”—my words, not his, but the sentiment is the same: Like it or not, here’s where we stop!

Myth has it that the colonists stepped upon Plymouth Rock as they disembarked. There is, however, no historical accounts or facts that back up this long-held assumption.

Myth has it that the Pilgrims took their first steps on land on top of Plymouth Rock. There are no historical accounts or facts to back up this assumption.

Another typically untold story is the tragic circumstance through which the Pilgrims and Strangers were lucky enough to settle on land previously cleared by Native Americans. Upon the Mayflower’s arrival in the Plymouth bay, there were no natives to be seen in the area, only mysterious scatterings of bleached human skulls and bones. Regardless of the carnage that appeared to have taken place there in the not-so-distant past, the Pilgrims considered the vacant land to be a miracle, a true gift from God.

Unbeknown to the Mayflower voyagers, the new homeland was littered with the aftermath of a holocaust. Large numbers of natives—thousands upon thousands, possibly 90 percent of them—died from 1616 to 1619 along the Atlantic seaboard from what is believed to be bubonic plague brought ashore by European fishermen.

Many of us, by the way, incorrectly think only a few Europeans visited America prior to the Mayflower’s arrival. In reality, an estimated 300 ships a year fished for cod off the northern East Coast. Sailors often visited natives to trade and mingle. Such interactions didn’t always turn out well for the natives. Case in point: the bubonic epidemic for which the natives had no antibodies. As the plague progressed along the coast, so many natives died that no one—like those at the site of the new colony—was left to bury the dead.

The first year for the settlers was nearly disastrous. Half of the 102 colonists died from sickness and malnutrition. Many survivors were left like Priscilla Mullins. One day her parents and brother were alive, and then they were dead, leaving her in an untamed land with little hope of returning to the civilization of Europe.

Miles Standish (left) looks on as Priscilla Mullins and John Alden are on their bridal procession.

Priscilla’s dire situation, I imagine, helped in her decision to marry John Alden. A marriage of convenience, perhaps, no doubt? It’s hard to say. Today, Priscilla and John are probably the most well-known of the colonists, thanks to a narrative poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, published in 1858 by one of their descendants, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose works are still studied today in colleges. In the poem, Miles Standish asks John Alden to speak on Standish’s behalf to the single Priscilla. He does and Priscilla replied, “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” So he did and they married. A good lesson for all of us: Never ask anyone else to proclaim your love to another!

Anyway, the Thanksgiving story that we hold near and dear today is true in some ways and pure fiction in other ways. Parts of the modern story were created by marketing experts who saw ideal opportunities for selling more food, merchandise, cars, and other retail products during the Thanksgiving holiday.

One part of today’s telling of the colonists’ story is true. Some natives did help the colonists at times, showing them, for example, how to cultivate corn, catch fish, remove sap from maple trees, and avoid poisonous plants. Even with the help, it was still definitely touch and go for the settlers. They had to rely on their own initiative, their rapidly developing skills, hard work, luck, and, as they believed, the intervention of God

Many of the colonists had to develop new skills to meet the challenging intricacies of farming and building shelters. William Mullins—Priscilla’s father—may have been somewhat unprepared. He was a shoemaker by trade.  He brought along 126 pairs of shoes and 13 pairs of boots—the sign of a true entrepreneur when it came to retail merchandising. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to wear out even one pair on the soil of the New World. He died within four months of reaching America.

The name “Thanksgiving” wasn’t used by the Pilgrims as we use it today to mark the annual holiday. They believed a thanksgiving was a time of devotion and spiritual thought. In the 170 years after the Pilgrims’ arrival, there were often festivals of harvest in the fall throughout the American territories. The concept of an official Thanksgiving celebration originated in 1789 with a proclamation by George Washington. After that, a designated day of thanksgiving was honored on and off until it became a federal holiday during the Civil War. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

In 1621, the Plymouth colonists celebrated their first harvest with feasting that probably took place in late September or October rather than late November. The event was also a celebration to give thanks that they survived their first year in the New World. Within that first year, half of the colonists had perished from disease and malnutrition. That included 78 percent of the women.

This First Thanksgiving—as we call it today—was a three-day event. The local sachem (it’s a native name for “leader”) Massasoit and 90 to 100 members of the Pokanoket, a local tribe that in 1621 began interacting with the colonists, participated in the celebration. Historians are unsure why the natives were in the area. Massasoit’s village was a three-day walk away. The end of the harvest season may have been a time when he and his group made rounds to visit other native tribes; and, perhaps since they were already in the area, they were invited to the colonists’ festivities. Regardless, the natives didn’t come merely for a single dinner. They showed up with five freshly killed deer and intended to stick around for a while.

There were no pumpkin pies since the colonists didn’t have butter, wheat flour or a stove to cook in. They didn’t have potatoes, either; spuds weren’t available to them back then. It would be years before white potatoes, which originated in South American, and sweet potatoes, from the Caribbean, reached Plymouth. Sweet cranberry sauce likely wasn’t on the menu since local cranberries were used more for tart garnish. It would be another 50 years before an English writer described boiling cranberries and sugar into a sweet, delectable sauce. Nor did the colonists and natives have forks. Forks didn’t show up in the colony for another seven decades. So it was fingers and knives to eat with.

In addition to the deer, the menu may have consisted of ducks and geese—they were plentiful at that time of the year in the nearby bay—and squash, beans, corn, barley, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, leeks, lettuce, parsnips, and beans from the harvest, as well as striped bass, cod and bluefish. It’s possible, too, that the menu included native wild plants: Jerusalem artichokes, grapes, walnuts, chestnuts, and garlic. There may also have been lobster, seal and swans on the menu. Every history book and account that I’ve read about the menu seems to have its own version of what was or wasn’t served.

It was a big chore to prepare food for the approximate 150 diners—the surviving colonists and the approximate 100 natives. Only four married women were still alive by then, so they likely had help from children, servants and unmarried men. And perhaps some natives. I’ve wondered about what was recorded from back then about “unmarried” men helping with the dinner. What about the married guys? The image in my mind: The married guys were lounging around smoking big cigars, drinking beer—of course, yes, my over-wild imagination. It was the culture at the time (and often even now) that food preparation was woman’s work.

Were turkeys on the menu? Historians are divided over whether they were. Some say nay. Others say yes. Most admit no one knows for certain.

Many Americans believe turkeys were served at the First Thanksgiving. That may have or may not have been the case.

Wild turkeys, though, were definitely available to the Plymouth settlers. It was a common bird in the New World and a popular one that could be domesticated. Many decades later, Benjamin Franklin called the turkey a “a true original native of America” and “a bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who would presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.” (Just a fun aside here: Regardless of common American lore, Franklin did not campaign for the turkey to become our national symbol. Instead, he wanted an image of Moses extending his hand over the sea, commanding it to overwhelm the pharaoh in an open chariot. Franklin’s proposed motto was “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”)

Today, some Americans think turkeys were unknown to the Pilgrims and Europe prior to the arrival of the Mayflower. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The conquistadors, after they arrived in the 1500s in Mexico, found that natives of Central America had domesticated turkeys. Turkeys were then imported to Spain and, by the 1520s, had become a regular food for Christmas meals in England.

The turkey gained popularity in the United States thanks to a writer and editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, the author of the Mary Had A Little Lamb nursery rhyme. She thought we needed a national holiday to unify the nation; the day, she believed, should also have religious overtones.

Sarah Josepha Hale, the lady largely responsible for the Thanksgiving holiday. She lobbied five presidents before Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a federal Thanksgiving Day.

In 1827, she published a novel, Northwood; Or Life North and South, Showing the True Character of Both, that introduced the idyllic Thanksgiving table, with turkey as its star cuisine. She wrote: “[It] is considered as an appropriate tribute of gratitude to God to set apart one day of Thanksgiving in each year; and autumn is the time when the overflowing garners of America call for this expression of joyful gratitude.”

Hale was one of the earliest trendsetters in our country’s history. She was editor of a popular women’s magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, which, with a circulation of 150,000 in 1860, became the leading advocate for establishing Thanksgiving as an annual event. She published Thanksgiving recipes and menus in the magazine. She also wrote a dozen cookbooks. She petitioned five U.S. presidents to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday. Her successful pitch to Lincoln focused on the need to unite the country through a national holiday during the Civil War.

By the time Lincoln signed the proclamation to establish the holiday, the idea of Thanksgiving was already solidly planted, thanks to Hale, in the minds of homemakers throughout the nation. The Thanksgiving menu we think of today—roasted turkey stuffed with sage and other tasty ingredients, mashed potato dishes, and the like—was already established in their holiday menus because of Hale.

Today, about 88 percent of Americans eat 46 million turkeys on Thanksgiving Day.

Historians believe those who attended the First Thanksgiving stood or sat on the ground because the colonist hadn’t made tables like the one shown in this painting. Nor were there white tablecloths. Smithsonian: Bettmann/Corbis

The Plymouth dining fare did not resemble what we think of today. There were no long tables covered with white tablecloths. The colonists’ had spent their precious time over the first year in farming and constructing shelters, and not making furniture for themselves. They and the natives stood, squatted or sat on the ground around campfires as meat cooked on wooden spits and stews simmered in pots.

Many modern Americans mentally view the Pilgrims as an austere, somber group of straight-back stature. That may be largely true—it’s a good PR image for the Pilgrims—but they also had ribald sides, too. A written description of the First Thanksgiving from a Pilgrim leader seems to describe a traditional English harvest festival that dated back to the Middle Ages: food, drink and games.

The colonists surely evoked God’s name and grace as they gave thanks. For Native Americans, giving thanks was an ongoing practice. Theirs was a daily routine of thankfulness. They offered a prayer or acknowledgement every time they hunted, fished or harvested a plant.

One of the likely features of the First Thanksgiving that normally isn’t thought about today is the countryside itself. Some of the surrounding Plymouth land looked barren due to previous native residents burning away vegetation to make room for crops.

But within short strolls of the new colony there were forested areas of oak, maple, hickory, birches, and other trees. These offered beautiful fall scenery unlike trees in England and Holland, from which the Pilgrims originated. Back there in civilization, typically cloudy days and warm nights resulted in muted, uninspired and bland fall colors. In contrast, fall days in the New World were sunny; nights, cool, a perfect condition for decreasing chlorophyll in leaves, allowing colorful pigments to emerge.

At the First Thanksgiving—I like to imagine—the forests were painted in fiery reds, lively amber, crimson and scarlet, russets, golden brown, and bright yellow. It would have been a visual feast for the new arrivals to America.

Now, as this year’s Thanksgiving approaches, it’s a good time to learn more about the First Thanksgiving and how a tiny group of brave people overcame the tough odds against them. Check out the resources that I listed below.

We should also give thanks for where we are, what we have and where we came from. And do as I did for myself: Learn about your family’s past.

 

Here are good resources to read (I used information from some of these to write this article):

–The nonfiction book Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick. It’s an entertaining account, accurate and in-depth. I highly recommend it.

Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, by William Bradford, a leader of the Plymouth colony. This is the most authoritative account of the Pilgrims and the early years of their colony.

From History.com: Thanksgiving 2019. An excellent article for learning about the history of the modern Thanksgiving.

How the turkey became Thanksgiving’s mascot.

From History.com: Colonists at the first Thanksgiving were mostly men because women had perished.

Smithsonian magazine: What was on the menu for the First Thanksgiving?

Commercials: The best of the worst Super Bowl

The 53rd annual Super Bowl on February 3 was notable because, quite frankly, it was so forgettable, the most forgettable football game ever. And ever.

I make this point in the kindest way possible. I love football and Super Bowls. Like many of the 100 million Americans who viewed this Super Bowl, I’m obsessed with the thrill of the game. Give me chips and dip, a brew, big-screen TV, an overstuffed easy chair, and I transform into a football slob who yells at the referee when calls go against my team…and I want excitement in every play. They (whoever “they” are) claim that baseball is our national pastime. Nay, ’tis wrong. Armchair quarterbacking is our national pastime, not only in football and other sports, but also in politics, social issues and, well, many things.

Even though I know the players and teams gave it their best, I felt like I wasted my time watching this Super Bowl. The score was the lowest in Super Bowl history. Defense trumped offense during the game, a recipe ripe for low-scoring, less exciting outcomes. There was only a woeful tiny, tiny smattering of almost-halfway-exciting plays. The overnight ratings showed this lackluster Super Bowl had the lowest rating in the last 10 years.

The halftime show reeked of confusing boredom with rappers whose words couldn’t be understood. Adam Levine was the lead singer. He’s normally a great entertainer; this time, he was barely passable. Unfortunately, he dramatically ripped off his shirt to proudly display how his upper body is creepily etched with indecipherable tattoos. It ain’t cool, Adam, put your shirt back on.

The Super Bowl’s redeeming quality came from the commercials, most of which were humorous, entertaining and enjoyable.

Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) chased around a mutt whose barking ordered Amazon’s Echo to purchase dog food.

In a Hyundai commercial, Jason Bateman was the spiffily dressed operator of an elevator that carried riders way down and way down and down to jury duty, vegan dinner, a root canal, and, yucky, even worse.

Ragged-faced Jeff Bridges and Sarah Jessica Parker, whose chest showed more flesh than not, promoted a beer, Stella Artois, that most consumers of brew, including Mr. Bridges, just call Stella because they don’t know how to pronounce Artois.

Among other advertisements, a dragon magically melted a Bud Light commercial into a Game of Thrones promo.

There was also a crazy-fun NFL commercial where famed football heroes at a black-tie banquet (almost 50 of them in the commercial, plus a couple of refs) dove for a loose football. I still belly-giggle when I think of it.

By far, the most important commercial focused on the role of the news media.

In a harried, worrisome world where the U.S. president is quick to use the label Fake News for any news story that doesn’t support him, the commercial offered an insightful look into how democracy dies in the darkness without a free press. Narrated by Tom Hanks, the commercial sponsored by the Washington Post focused on three critical messages: knowing empowers us, knowing helps us decide, knowing keeps us free. The commercial is worth viewing—click here.

The game-winner: Jason Bateman as an elevator operator in a Super Bowl commercial. Watch...

The commercial, by the way, never mentioned the president. Nonetheless, it only took a few minutes for Donald Trump, Jr., to tweet out hateful criticism of the commercial for its “leftist BS.”

The mere fact that Don, Jr., has the freedom to speak his inane view is—I would like to emphasize—one good example of why free press (and, by extension, free speech) should be heartily supported by all of us.

On average, the time length of a professional football game is 3 hours and 12 minutes. The action—the time that the ball is actually in play—totals an average of 11 minutes. I didn’t time this Super Bowl, but I imagine the length of the game exceeded the average, this as a way to slip in more commercials, each of which cost $5 million for 30 seconds.

Having written all of the above, I’m kind of wistful now, and wishful. For 2019, I wish we would’ve had a Super Bowl of Commercials rather than a Super Bowl of Football Game.

A special Lewis and Clark day

I always approach the day of November 19 with religious reverence and a large dose of grateful joy.

When I wake up on the morning of November 19, I give thanks to the universe and to a greater power. And then comes a laugh and a day of happiness celebrating the simple facts that, No. 1, I once completed a rugged journey that few folks in our modern age have made; No. 2, I survived; and, No. 3, I’m still alive, almost a half-century later, to tell the story.

November 19 was the day of the year—back 46 years ago—when four of my friends and I reached the St. Louis Gateway Arch, completing a half-year, 3,700-mile journey along the trail of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Our excursion was undertaken when I was a young man, a very young man, age 23, and it was by backpack; canoe and kayak on the rivers; and by foot across the Rockies.

Sometimes, as we hiked the Lolo Trail, the mountain forests were so silent all we could hear was our own beating hearts.

It was a poetic ballad of sweat, Nature’s beauty, friendship, aching muscles, blisters, sunburns, the fresh smell of pine trees, starry nights, snowy mornings, unbounded enthusiasm, at times gut-wrenching fear, great laughter, cold rain, and more sweat, always sweat, and always wind in our faces no matter which way we faced, a great mystery how that always seemed to be.

We started in early June at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia River at the coastal edges of Oregon and Washington. The fort of today is a replica of a long-gone winter fort constructed there by the Lewis and Clark explorers in late 1805 after they spent the previous year and a half traveling through the wilderness from St. Louis. They lived at their Fort Clatsop for almost four months and in the spring of 1806 undertook a 6-month journey back to civilization at St. Louis.

One member of our group, Mike Cochran, was a cartoonist. This was his version of how Lewis and Clark and the dog Seaman felt at times as they moved along the Lolo Trail. A slight bit of editorial license here—back then, Lewis and Clark rode horses across the mountains. Poor ol’ Seaman, though, had to hoof it!

From Fort Clatsop, we paddled up the Columbia, Snake, and Clearwater rivers, hiked across the Lolo Trail in the high mountains of Idaho and into Montana (our two canoes and a kayak were trucked over the mountains), and then paddled down the Beaverhead and Jefferson rivers to the Missouri River. The Missouri took us north—to within 50 miles of the Canadian border—and then curved us directly south through the Dakotas, along the edges of Nebraska and Iowa, and southeast across the state of Missouri to that beautiful Gateway Arch towering 630 feet above the river.

Our route from west to east covered the same territory as Lewis and Clark. The explorers went up the Missouri River, rode across the Rocky Mountains—from western Montana and across Idaho—on horses that they traded for with Native Americans. On the west side of the mountains, they built canoes and paddled down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific coast. The spent the winter of 1805-06 at the mouth of the Coumbia and then returned to St. Louis mostly by the same route.

Oh, well, what was it that the poet Robert Burns once wrote about the best laid schemes of mice and men? The plans of Lewis and Clark reenactors often go awry, too.  We figured it’d be a little tough going up the Columbia, Snake and Clearwater rivers, against the current—and it was, but not bad. We also thought it’d be easy going with the current flowing down the Missouri River. That was the deciding factor—the Missouri’s downstream flowing—for why we went from west to east. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

Today’s Missouri River is still free-flowing, clear, swift, and gorgeous through a stretch of Montana. But then, farther on, 19 dams now back up huge reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas, and the mighty river becomes what seems like one endless lake. Some reservoirs are so wide you can’t see across to the far shore. High winds often skim along the surface of the water, churning up giant, dangerous waves. Travel by muscle power was so slow that some days we struggled to make a dozen miles of progress across the reservoirs.

 

Forty-six years ago I stepped across the source of the Missouri River. This photo was published in an article that I wrote for the Denver Post’s Empire Magazine. Click here to read the article. On August 12, 1805, Lewis and some of his men reached the source not far from where I stood for this photo.  Lewis wrote in his journal that one of the men, Hugh McNeal, “had exultingly stood with a foot on each side of this little rivulet and thanked his god that he had lived to bestride the mighty & heretofore deemed endless Missouri.”

The youngest of us was a tall, rosy-cheeked Idahoan, Clay Asher, who had just graduated from the Twin Falls high school and reached the age of 18 only a few days prior to our departure. He could paddle all day. Even with a 60-pound pack on his back, he would keep a long-legged stride going for hours along rough and steep mountain trails. He loved the outdoors. He knew the wildlife and the plant life. He had a natural instinct for navigating rapids. Most importantly, he knew how to laugh while standing soaked in a freezing downpour in the middle of nowhere. Lewis and Clark had a youngster with them, too, George Shannon, who sometimes got lost but knew how to hunt. I’ve often wondered if Asher was Shannon’s reincarnation.

By the time we reached the Gateway Arch on November 19, I had lost 50 pounds (I was on the chunky side prior to our journey…But the daily rigors of outdoor life slimmed me down considerably!), capsized 22 times, almost drowned once when I was stuck under a capsized canoe—and would’ve certainly not survived if one of my companions, Mike Wien, hadn’t happened to spot my hand sticking for help out of the water. Another time, we almost lost a companion, Mike Cochran, when giant waves, kicked up by a sudden windstorm, swamped his canoe in the cold Snake River where it flowed through an isolated landscape of nothing but boulders, sagebrush, rattlesnakes, and a bit of driftwood. By the time we rescued him, he had slipped so far into hypothermea that we had to encircle him in a ring of campfires to bring warmth back into his body.

A few times we became lost as the path disappeared while we trekked through the great mountain forests of the Lolo Trail. At such times, our always optimistic leader (I say this with great admiration), Bob Miller, emphasized we weren’t really lost because, truly, we knew where we were, just that we didn’t know for sure how to get where we wanted to be. He was right. We always got there, wherever there was. Bob’s philosophy offered a great lesson that has helped me through all of these years—don’t worry so much about where you are; instead, focus on where you want to be.

Bob Miller on the Missouri River as it passes through the White Cliffs region in Montana. In a lengthy, eloquent description on May 31, 1805, Meriwether Lewis journaled that the enchanted cliffs “exhibit a most romantic appearance.” Here’s what else Lewis about the White Cliffs…

We were awed just to be out there, lost or not, standing at times on the ridge of a high mountain and viewing nothing but dark green forested mountains ahead and, beyond them, more mountains and, still, beyond those, even more mountains, fading into the hazy horizon of a blue sky. At night, in places where the ambient light of communities didn’t exist, the sky was so thick with stars seeming so close to us that I felt like I could reach up and touch them. Such views few of us in today’s world seldom enjoy.

{What food did we eat? How experienced were we prior to this journey through Nature? Why did we go? And what became of the five of us after our journey? Click here to find out.}

Looking back now, I find it’s interesting to compare those days of Lewis and Clark’s expedition and, likewise, our journey in 1973 to what’s around today, in 2019.

Back then, 46 years ago, most locals knew only scant details, if any, about the travels of Lewis and Clark through their region. They had no idea of the connection between the names of local rivers and other geographic features to Lewis and Clark. The same goes for local flora and fauna. Lewis and Clark identified hundreds of plants and animals previously unseen by Americans of the early 19th century. Many local folks in 1973 had no idea of Lewis and Clark’s role in identifying birds and other wildlife in their area.

How Mike Cochran showed what it was like to reach St. Louis on Nov. 19, 1973.

The prairie dog is a great example. The explorers viewed it as a small dog that barks, and one time they poured buckets and buckets of water into the hole of a prairie dog colony in an attempt to flush out and capture one of the tiny critters to send back to President Jefferson, a fellow with quite an inquisitive mind. In 1973 and even today, some locals merely consider prairie dogs as a growing nuisance, not as a biological oddity as Lewis and Clark did.

Now, thanks to the popularity of the 2003-06 national bicentennial celebration of the expedition and groups like the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, it’s pretty darn hard to spit along the trail without hitting a historic marker commemorating Lewis and Clark, or Sacagawea or Clark’s salve, York, or the more than two dozen other men on the expedition or, for that matter, Lewis’ Newfoundland dog, Seaman.

This is what it was really like. Bob Miller, in the bow, and Clay Asher headed to the Gateway Arch on Nov. 19, 1973.

Today, school kids can recite dates, adventures, and Lewis and Clark journal entries that describe what happened and when and where it happened in their locality. Historians and interested authors continue to publish books with new insights about the explorers. Annual Lewis and Clark festivals are held. Bridges are named after the explorers. So are streets, schools, and even a college. And frequently people pick up their paddles and set out to retrace parts of the expedition’s.

During five months in 2019, a small group called the Missouri River Corps of Rediscovery paddled down the Missouri River from Three Forks, Montana, to St. Louis. Organized and led by Tom Elpel, the group studied the landscape and the wildlife, and took time to educate people about Lewis and Clark and what they discovered along the river. The Rediscovery’s journey was remarkable. Elpel wrote 34 blog articles along the way. I highly recommend that you read all of them (here’s the link to his last article from when they reached St. Louis).

Elpel’s story of their journey is on par with, if not better than, a classic account written by John Niehardt, the author of the ground-breaking book, Black Elk Speaks. in 1908, Neihardt and two companions journeyed down the Missouri in a 20-foot canoe. His book, The River and I, describes the wild waterway and storied sites of the Missouri before the Army Corps of Engineers damned much of the river. It’s a very fine read that I also recommend.

In March 2019, a federally approved law extended the trail by 1,200 miles. Where once the officially recognized trail started at St. Louis, it now goes from Pittsburgh, Pa., down the length of the Ohio River and a short distance up the Mississippi River, to St. Louis. From St. Louis, the route goes another 3,700 miles up the Missouri River, across the Rockies, and down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers to the Pacific coast. I sometimes wish I was a bit younger—I’ll be 70 years old in a couple of months—and still had the stamina of youth to paddle from Pittsburgh to St. Louis so I can brag that, well, by golly, I did the whole Lewis and Clark Trail.

The federal approval of the extension was a major accomplishment for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and other nonprofit organizations. (Click here to read an article I wrote about the extension for the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation’s website.)

{To learn more about Lewis and Clark, click here to go the website of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. While you’re there, become a member—it’s a worthwhile organization that is the keeper of the Lewis and Clark story. Here’s the foundation’s Facebook page.}

Today’s widespread popularity of Lewis and Clark speaks to the yearning desire for great adventure that many Americans have but are unable to pursue beyond short canoe trips or day hikes along the trail, or expeditions by car to follow parts of the route of the 1803-06 expedition.

In 2019, we have a nation that is politically and philosophically divided in harsh ways. Back in 1973, it wasn’t so much different. A disgraced Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency as we paddled the Missouri River, and Richard Nixon was lying about Watergate and other matters.

During the time when Lewis and Clark were forging their trail, Alexander Hamilton was fatally shot during a duel with Aaron Burr, the ultimate price of political rivalry. And Jefferson was involved in a war with Barbary Pirates, the first terrorists to haunt the psyche of America.

Mike Cochran drew this cartoon after he nearly died from hypothermia after huge waves the canoe he was in, capsizing it.

Anyway, those are just some of my musings as November 19 comes around for its annual visit. It’s a good day of the year. A fine day to remember the way things were and to think about how they are today.

How did Lewis and Clark spend the day of November 19 in 1803, 1804, and 1805? You’ll be surprised! Click here to find out…