The Big Picture?

If you set aside Russian interference, fake news, political squabbling, and photographs of cute puppies, Facebook really is a remarkable tool.

It sometimes affords us the opportunity, the spark, to think beyond where we are. I suspect I’m like most Americans: I get too easily entangled in the minutia of daily living to think beyond my overly cluttered existence.

That’s a reason why I’ve always admired people like Stephen Hawking and some theologians—they focus on The Big Picture. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we headed?

Early this morning—after I let the dog out to do its business, after I pondered whether I put 10 or 11 teaspoons of coffee in the coffee maker, and right after I checked to make sure I didn’t put my tee shirt on backwards, again—I ran across a Facebook posting that caught my interest.

The posting involved two of my high school friends, neither of whom I have seen since we graduated 50 years ago. (But I’ve kept up with them on Facebook, another benefit of Facebook).gods_450pixels

Pat Pearce, a very talented musician in Kansas City, Mo., posted the photograph that you see on this page. This is a reposting. The photo has circulated widely on Facebook.

To which William (Bill) Shull, a successful and astute lawyer in Warrensburg, Mo., commented: “Pure coincidence, obviously. The dude on the left only has four fingers on his right hand!  Actually, that is amazing if it’s true. It makes you wonder if ‘historians’ actually have factual history figured out.”

Pat’s posting and Bill’s comment brought about memories of a book that I read years ago. It was by an archaeologist (sorry, I don’t recall his name or the book title) who wrote about why there are ancient pyramids located in most cultures around the world.

His take—no, not that ancient aliens built the pyramids around the world—was that trade routes back then were more widely established, even across oceans, than what is commonly believed today.

As commerce was established, religious missionaries made their way into native cultures and brought along concepts like pyramids. Sometimes conquerors came, too, and so did shifts in cultures, and there was an establishment of new norms imported from other cultures. Then comes McDonald’s, Air Jordan tennies and tee shirts displaying Bob Marley (Oh, well, hmm, this last bit is my take on the archaeologist’s take).

Bill brought up an interesting point in his comment: Do historians “actually have factual history figured out”?

My answer: seldom, sometimes, not often, more often than not, no, maybe yes, heck, I got no idea.

It’s easy to interpret history incorrectly, especially on cultures that existed many thousands of years ago and no written records exist today. And it’s even easy to re-interpret and reshape history where written histories do exist today. Think Columbus—once a good guy (back when I was in elementary school), then a bad guy as details about him emerged. Think Hitler, bent on wiping out anything Jewish. Think of what’s happening now—some American political leaders are trying to rewrite history in their own image.

One of my great interests is the 1804-06 Lewis & Clark Expedition. The explorers maintained extensive journals of what they saw and experienced. Their journals have been published word-for-word multiple times over the last two centuries. Many, many books have been published about the two leaders, their companions, the natives they met, the landscape, and the wildlife. The amount of scholarly research is stunningly impressive.

I’ve found, though, that sometimes modern interpretation of historical figures or events may be less accurate than what actually occurred or what people were all about. Even for the most careful of historians and writers, one missed word in the reading of the journals, the incorrect analysis of a vague phrase, an inability to understand what it’s really like to be attacked by a grizzly bear—and suddenly the facts of history are unintentionally revised. Try as one might, it’s impossible to feel the sweat and physical strain of something that happened in the past, the mental anxiety of a person, the real thought process behind why a person did this or that.

After I let in my dog, who is now snoring on the couch, and remembered I had put in three too many teaspoons of coffee, I did a bit of online research on the photograph reposted by Pat. The photo appears to have originated from research done by Jim Allen, author of Atlantis: Lost Kingdom of the Andes (I haven’t read this book). Click here for more info about Jim’s research. Disclaimer: I make no guarantee on the photo’s authenticity, whether Jim Allen actually exists, or, for that matter, whether who I am that I think I am.

It’s been an enjoyable and interesting morning thanks to Pat, Bill, and the photo. I got to ponder part of The Big Picture.

And I discovered I do have my tee shirt on correctly, for once.

And I got to wonder when the aliens will return. This time, will they bring intelligent life to Earth?

 

Treed by wild hogs while delivering “heat and light” to Americans

The yuletide season is the time of year when my feelings of gratitude go out to a group of extremely busy employees at an organization whose work over the last 241 years helped create America: the carriers of the United States Postal Service.

Mailman circa 1900

This holiday season postal carriers will deliver more than 15 billion pieces of mail, including 850 million packages. That’s 10 percent more than last year’s yuletide season.

Most Americans know little, if anything, about the Post Office’s prestigious role in the development of our country. Some folks know, of course, that Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster. But that’s about it.

I’ve been reading an interesting book—How the Post Office Created America by Winifred Gallagher—that delves into the postal service throughout America’s history, including recent challenges faced by USPS in the digital age. For anyone interested in America history, Gallagher’s 2016 book offers a fresh view of how our country evolved.

Back when our fledgling country was only 13 states, thick forests and rugged terrain isolated communities from one another. Communication was extremely limited due to the lack of roads. Only narrow paths linked some communities; in some places, the only way from one community to another was trudging through pathless forests.

The first stamp issues were authorized by an act of Congress and approved on March 3, 1847. The earliest known use of the Franklin 5-cent stamp is July 7, 1847, while the earliest known use of the Washington 10-stamp stamp is July 2, 1847.

Gallagher relates life-endangering episodes that mail carriers encountered while traveling through the great wilderness. One carrier, for instance, was treed by aggressive wild hogs. Another was badly delayed after being struck in the head by a floating log when swimming across a stream while leading his horse. Always, the threat of hostile natives existed—native Americans early on; later on, gun-toting robbers.

Early post offices were usually located in local taverns. Recipients of mail often read newly arrived letters and newspapers out-loud to folks who eagerly gathered to learn the news. News, it seems, drew interest even if it was only tidbits about someone’s Aunt Sally in a far-away hamlet. And a dram or two of whiskey heightens interest in news, too, you know.

Our country’s founding fathers—Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and, among others, (here’s a fellow few modern American are familiar with) Dr. Benjamin Rush—strongly believed the new United States would only survive if a communications network was established to connect widely scattered and culturally diverse hamlets, towns, and cities.

An early postal truck designed for muddy roads.

In short, the country desperately needed a postal service that would be a “means of carrying heat and light to every individual in the federal commonwealth,” according to Dr. Rush, who by some historical accounts was less than an adequate physician but one heck of an intellectual.

He and others also thought western expansion hinged in many ways on the availability of a reliable and affordable communication lifeline (a postal system, in other words) for adventuresome farmers and merchants to remain in contact with family members back at the old homestead. “Pioneers were likelier to venture into the wilderness if they anticipated maintaining a link to the great world,” Gallagher pointed out.

Oh, the good ol’ days!

Another goal was to make postal delivery affordable for every American. In 1779, the postal delivery fee was dependent on how far the item was sent. The cost ranged from 6 cents for 30 miles or less to 12 cents for 150 miles (back then, 1 cent could buy a pound of coffee). With inflation over the last two centuries taken into account, the six and 12 cents of 1779  is the equivalent of $1.59 and $3.18, respectively, in today’s currency. This is considerably more than the 49-cent cost of a first-class mail stamp of 2017 that will carry a letter to anywhere in the U.S. All in all, the Post Office has kept postal delivery reasonably affordable.

The U.S. postal system was a bold revolutionary idea designed to connect all people in the nation. Until the Post Office’s creation, the best mail systems were in Europe. Those were sketchy at best; the cost of delivery so exorbitant only the rich could afford it.

After the federal government established the Post Office, the service subsidized—through various configurations of public-private endeavors that spanned decades—the creation of roads, shipping on waterways, and rail lines that could be used for mail delivery. There was another great advantage. This new transportation infrastructure was there for the public’s use, too, a huge benefit that allowed Americans to more easily travel from here to there.

A 2006 stamp that commemorated the animated movie Beauty and the Beast.

“The public-private collaboration between the post and the independent carriers it paid to move the mail caused dirt roads to shoot through dense forests, turned remote hamlets into centers of civic life, and supported the sense of an American identity,” Gallagher wrote.

In 1790, the mail system consisted of only 75 post offices and 1,875 miles of post routes. By 1830, the numbers had increased to 8,400 post offices and 115,000 miles.

Now, the USPS delivers mail to more addresses in a larger geographic area than any postal service in the world. Each year the Post Office delivers 154 billion pieces of mail to more than 156 million addresses in the U.S. This is about 47 percent of the world’s volume of mail.

All of this history, of course, may mean little to us in comparison to our great desires of today to have holiday cards and gifts arrive before Christmas. Nonetheless, the history is a good reminder of how we got to where we are as a nation.

Ponder the history a bit when you see a postal carrier headed to your mailbox. And offer the carrier a hearty thank you.

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