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Friday, June 26, 2009

IX at 37

“Time will show that this is the most important law in our culture over the last 40 years,” USA Today columnist Christine Brennan wrote recently.

The most important? That must be some kind of law!

Brennan is a sports columnist specifically, and like it or not — and there are plenty in both camps — the law to which she refers has profoundly changed the nation’s sports scene.

Yet the word “sports” never appears in its language.

The law, passed in 1972, is known as “Title IX.” It was one of the amendments to what is now called the “Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act,” after its author, the late Hawai`i congresswoman who as a young woman had faced several obstacles in her quest for a college degree. A few days ago at the White House, various speakers marked Title IX’s 37th anniversary.

“No person in the U.S. shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded in participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving federal aid,” Title IX reads.

Most American high school and college team photos were a strictly male affair from early days until not too long ago
In 1972, according to the National Women’s Law Center, fewer than 32,000 women participated in intercollegiate athletics, and women’s sports programs received just 2 percent, nationwide, of colleges’ athletic budgets when the law was signed. In the eyes of the bill’s backers, this was an obvious and raging inequity. And since just about all colleges and public school systems receive federal funding, the national government was in a position to try to correct it.

Nothing less than fully equal opportunities for both sexes would be acceptable.

When it came to sports, the U.S. Department of Education interpreted the mandate to mean that young women should have the same level of equipment, practice time, quality of coaching, facilities and housing, and even publicity. And of most concern to the women athletes, they should have the same access to financial assistance in the form of athletic scholarships as well.

College and even high school football are expensive, but lucrative, spectacles. This is a Clemson University game
Since football, in particular, is played almost exclusively by men and is a terribly expensive sport to field, the government did not require an absolute 50-50 split of all athletic expenditures on college and high-school campuses. But schools could not use the high cost of football to justify denying women full access to sports of their choice. In fact, the law demanded:

Title IX is predicated on women and girls’ right to experience the satisfaction and joy of athletic competition
• “athletic opportunities that are substantially proportionate to the student enrollment” — an enormous hurdle for institutions where lots of women are enrolled but which had barely given women’s sports a thought;

• OR “continual expansion of athletic opportunities for the underrepresented sex” (women, almost always) — a bit more do-able;

• OR “full and effective accommodation of the interest and ability of the underrepresented sex” — open to considerable interpretation.

Title IX had no impact on the number of cheerleaders, pep squad members, and majorettes, of which there were already plenty
After several class-action lawsuits and demands by the education department, the average U.S. college now offers women the opportunity to participate in nine different sports, including basketball, volleyball, and soccer. In a letter to women’s-advocacy groups a month before his election, Barack Obama wrote that Title IX had made “an enormous impact on women’s opportunities and participation in sports.” Two months into his term as president, he signed an executive order creating a new Council on Women and Girls “to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy.”

In the view of one woman — my middle daughter, Dr. Juliette Landphair, who is dean of Westhampton College, the college for undergraduate women at the University of Richmond in Virginia — Title IX “has been hugely successful. So much so that the female varsity student-athletes at UR have no idea about it and just assume athletics has always been some sort of ‘right.’ It has made athletics a part of middle-class U.S. culture for girls as well as boys. Many other societies (e.g., Mexico) where, say, soccer is huge, do not have girls playing at a younger age the way the U.S. does.”

Local soccer leagues and Little League softball are no longer the end of the athletic line for girls
Girls who play sports are more confident, Juliette believes. “They are healthier (fewer occasions/desire to do drugs, drink). They find great friends and are exposed to opportunities they would never have had without sports.”

One “would be hard-pressed to find parents these days who do not want their girls playing some sort of sport,” Dean Landphair concludes.

I issued an invitation on Facebook to anyone who wanted to comment on the impact of Title IX. Linda Bjorkland replied from St. Paul, Minnesota: “Best thing that ever happened for young to the vote perhaps.”

It used to be an insult to say that someone played “like a girl.” These women could give all but the most muscular men a good game
Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote on a White House blog that “what I learned from my coaches and teammates” while playing high-school sports “extended well beyond the basketball court. . . . I’m often reminded that in basketball as in diplomacy, you have to know when to throw elbows and when to show finesse.”

Title IX detractors, mostly male, say the law has unleashed a wave of reverse discrimination, forcing institutions to eliminate men’s teams — often golf, wrestling, and track — to pay for all the new women’s sports. To use a sports cliché, Title IX has unevened the playing field, in some people’s view. A fellow with the online name “spikerritz,” for instance, wrote, in the parts that are tame enough to be quoted here, “Title IX is a joke. . . . It cost me personally a wrestling scholarship at the University of Colorado.”

All Title IX did, he continued, “was erase opportunities for men.”

Another man, using the name “DelcoDad,” stated, “Title IX is based on a false premise: that girls are as interested in competitive sports as boys. . . . At the high school level, Title IX often means that the girls’ soccer coach demands as much pay as the boys’ football coach, which is ludicrous on many levels. Count Title IX among the subjects about which one is not permitted to speak the truth.”

The intercollegiate athletic program at Howard University in Washington, D.C., is sometimes brought up as an example of this point of view. In 2007, its student body was two-thirds female, but women made up only 43 percent of the college’s athletes. The university responded by eliminating men’s wrestling and baseball and adding women’s bowling. The impact of Title IX’s proportionality standard “has been disastrous,” Wade Hughes, Howard’s former wrestling coach, wrote on “The Root” Web site, because “far more males than females are seeking to take part in athletics.”

In other words, schools must offer and fund sports programs for women beyond what they even want or need.

Carol Hutchins
Coach Carol Hutchins’ softball teams have chalked up more than 1,100 wins in her 25 years at University of Michigan. It’s safe to say that she makes considerably less than head football coach Rich Rodriguez’s $2.5 million annually
The U.S. Department of Education took a look at coaches’ pay at several universities in the year between July 2007 and June 2008. It found a great disparity. At private, Jesuit Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., for instance, coaches of male sports teams earned an average of $125,420 compared to $53,620 for coaches of female teams. The gap was roughly the same at public Syracuse University in New York State. But at Marquette University, another Roman Catholic college in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, coaches of male teams made about four times as much as female teams’ coaches. Virtually all men’s-sport coaches are male; about 52 percent of coaches of women’s teams are male as well.

As you might imagine, this gulf in the compensation of coaches prompted lively debate. Some who commented said that a coach is a coach — teaching, motivating, inspiring — with similar responsibilities and time required to do the job. Equality is equality, these proponents argued. Anything less is un-American. So there’s no excuse for paying the coaches of men’s programs like princes and the coaches of women’s programs like relative paupers.

Others countered that men’s sports are generally more visible, recruiting of athletes is critical and time-consuming if winning is to be achieved, competition for top-flight coaches is more acute, and attendance and fan interest are greater than they are for most women’s sports.

It’s not hard to see why football is the Big Man on Campus when it comes to revenue. This is a North Carolina State Wolfpack crowd
And this doesn’t even include the “elephant in the room”: the revenue that men’s sports — football and basketball in particular — rake in compared with mostly non-revenue-generating women’s sports. Therefore, goes the argument, coaches of men’s programs richly deserve their higher pay.

Softball is a fast-rising intercollegiate sport. Women at large U.S. universities have competed for a national championship since 1982; men, playing baseball, since 1947
Whether one applauds Title IX or not, it has clearly changed the sports landscape. According to a longitudinal “Women in Intercollegiate Sport” study funded by Smith College and Brooklyn College, in 1970, two years before the law was enacted, the average number of women’s sports teams at each U.S. university was 2.5. By 2008, the number had jumped to 8.65 per school. And the study found that 2,755 new women’s-sports teams had been added nationwide just in the decade from 1998 to 2008. Another study, quoted in the Desert Beacon blog in Nevada, looked at the high-school scene. Whereas only 7 percent of high school athletes were female in 1972, the report showed, the figure had grown to 40 percent by this year.

You’ll recall that Title IX never actually mentions athletics, though it has become part of the American sports lexicon because of its effect on athletic competition and competitors. Title IX supporters are not resting on the laurels of girls’ increased participation in sports, or a vast escalation of funding for women’s sports and scholarships; they are beginning to look more closely at girls’ status in education as a whole. President Obama himself has called for “similar, striking advances for women in science and engineering.”

Virginia Tech
This is graduation day the Virginia Tech University, renowned for its engineering and science program. The picture illustrates the gender imbalance in such fields
But the idea that girls are somehow neglected or short-changed in academic subjects, even the traditionally male-dominated sciences, is preposterous, Title IX’s critics reply. John Hinderaker, a Minneapolis lawyer, and two other authors of the Power Line Weblog, scoff that “the comparison between female participation in college athletics and female participation in science and engineering is beyond specious.” Sports involve men’s and women’s teams, competing for resources, they say. “But men and women do not compete for slots on the same teams.” In graduate engineering, they continue, “the tracks are the same for both genders. Thus, men and women are in direct competition for the same slots. If the government wants to control that competition, it must override decisions about who the best-qualified competitors are. The analogy in the sports context would be requiring men’s basketball teams to include a certain number of women.”

Participation in college sports is an end in itself, Power Line argues. It is athletes' reward for superb performance. Thus “a prima facie case can be made for ensuring that participation rates do not favor one gender.” But science is “very different,” the authors maintain. Promoting high-quality science and engineering, and a good livelihood for those who study in these fields, are the primary aim. If the government goes further and, Title IX style, tips the scale in favor of selecting women in the name of promoting equal participation, it will undermine American scientific excellence.”

Proponents of turning the Title IX attention to school matters besides sports note not only a male dominance in many science and math classrooms, but also a notable absence of women science teachers and professors
Christina Hoff Sommers, an American philosopher and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute — best known for her scathing critiques of feminists in books such as The War Against Boys — has noted that by 2002, women were already earning nearly 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees and at least half of the Ph.D.s in the humanities, social sciences, life sciences and education, while men retained majorities in fields such as physics, computer science, and engineering. “Badly in need of an advocacy cause just as women were beginning to outnumber men on college campuses, well-funded academic women’s groups alerted their followers that American science education was ‘hostile’ to women,” Hoff Summers wrote. “Soon there were conferences, retreats, summits, a massive ‘Left Out, Left Behind’ letter-writing campaign, dozens of studies and a series of congressional hearings.”

Will a switch of Title IX emphasis to academics help American science as much as it helped women’s basketball? Hoff Summers asked. “Activist leaders of the Title IX campaign are untroubled by this question. Some seem to relish the idea of starkly disrupting what they regard as the excessively male and competitive culture of academic science.”

If you are confused by all this back and forth regarding equity in school sports and school itself, so are most Americans, even though we don’t seem to hesitate to offer our opinions when asked.

So what’s your vote?: Title IX is “the most important law in our culture” (Brennan) or “a bad joke” (Hinderaker and his Power Line co-bloggers).


Bed and Buzz

On the mercifully lighter side . . .

Another relatively obscure person with a fascinating life story has left us at age 92. John Houghtaling was never well known beyond his family and industry, but the product that he invented was an icon of American travel a generation ago.

John Houghtaling is the Magic Fingers man!

He was not a masseur, but his beds were, sort of, in motels all over America. Not sleazy “no tell motels,” either, but entirely respectable Mom and Pop establishments on the main drags of every decent-sized town. Surface travel in the 1960s and 1970s was grueling. Most highways were narrow and dotted with traffic lights and stop signs. Speed limits were modest, and you couldn’t go fast anyway because you were following one truck after another that was moseying down the pike. Then the roads ran right into towns, slowing you to a crawl.

Here’s an old motel on historic U.S. Route 66 out West that might have featured the Magic Fingers experience. Might still today, in fact
When you finally made it to the Mountain Aire Lodge or Sleep Rite Motel or Carl’s Cozy Cabins, you were bushed and really ready to relax. Many of these little places had no swimming pool, only three or four fuzzy channels on black-and-white TV, and window air-conditioning units that dripped and rattled and put out mere wisps of lukewarm air if they worked at all.

But if you were lucky, a Magic Fingers “relaxation service” — “featured in over 10,000 hotels and motels throughout the world” — was attached to your bed! In fact, there were 250,000 units in hostelries across the United States alone in Magic Fingers’ prime in the 1960s.

Magic Fingers Box
This Magic Fingers box has seen its share of customers
On your nightstand, you’d find a box about the size of an alarm clock, affixed with a sticker promising that the Magic Fingers would “quickly carry you into the world of relaxation and ease.”

“Try it,” the label urged. “You’ll like it.”

Millions did, by dropping in a quarter that got your entire mattress vibrating for 15 minutes. The idea was that the tingle would gently glide you into a comfy, satisfying sleep. Jimmy Buffett even sings about the sensation, in “This Hotel Room”:

Put in a quarter.
Turn out the light.
Magic Fingers makes you feel all right.

I don’t recall a lot of “tingling relaxation and ease” during my few Magic Fingers moments
My own experience with these units was that even if the slight jiggles would prompt me to nod off, I’d jolt awake when the unit shut off. This may have been the idea. With just one more quarter, and then another, you might finally settle into the embrace of Morpheus.

John Houghtaling — pronounced “HUFF-tuh-ling” — did not come up with the idea of a vibrating bed, but he simplified it. And the catchy name “Magic Fingers,” which he and his wife devised, didn’t hurt sales. As Houghtaling’s New York Times obituary noted, “The earliest vibrating beds predated the Industrial Revolution and were powered by household servants. Then came steam power, and after that, electricity. Mr. Houghtaling’s great innovation was to separate the motor from the bed.”

The problem with most earlier models, which were vibrating slabs built into mattresses, was that their manufacturers had to peddle the entire bed to motel owners — rumbling slabs and all. This was a hard sell for Mom and Pop proprietors, who had already invested in perfectly good beds and didn’t have $200 to $500 times 20 or 50 or 100 room “units” to spend on new-and-improved shaking beds.

Magic Fingers unit
This is the prototype of the Magic Fingers motor unit, packed in what looks like little more than a tin can, then a snazzier cover
In his basement in Glen Rock, a New Jersey suburb of New York City, Houghtaling tinkered with small motors. “I can’t tell you how many I went through,” he told American Heritage magazine in 2000. “I finally got to about 250th of a horsepower.” In the final prototype, weights were attached, slightly off-center, to a revolving disc that, in turn, was clamped to the motor. The offset weights caused the whole unit to vibrate, and the tricky part was determining exactly the right degree of oscillation. The completed fixture was placed in a can-like casing, then hung upside down and wedged into a space amid four different coils — not in a mattress but in the box spring below. A wire from the coin box set off the shaking.

John Houghtaling sold Magic Fingers to distributors — $2,500 for 80 units and three days of training.

The distributors went town to town, convincing motel owners to test and buy them. Although Houghtaling made a good living, he missed out on a fabulous one, since it was the dealers — not he — who collected the coins, splitting the proceeds, 80/20 with motel proprietors. One of Houghtaling’s sons, Paul, recalls meeting a distributor whose sales territory included six western states. “He’d drive the circuit and come back with $6,000 or $7,000 dollars in quarters” — literally a nice “chunk of change” in 1967 or 1968.

Father and son
Paul Houghtaling says his father was always tinkering with gadgets, had a cheerful outlook on life, and always preferred to work for himself rather than some big company
The Houghtalings themselves serviced a few Magic Fingers units in the Miami, Florida, area. Paul remembers scooping up a few stray quarters that had fallen behind the bed or nightstand and been overlooked by motel housekeepers.

Overly torqued Magic Fingers beds became superb props for slapstick comedy. The gag beds produced teeth-jarring shudders that, no matter how frantically a pajama-clad “guest” clung to the headboard, tossed him or her onto the floor. In the 1987 movie “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” a Magic Fingers unit vibrates so violently that a beer bottle explodes on the bed.

The dated technology and slightly frowzy connotation of a vibrating bed put an end to most of Magic Fingers’ motel trade, except in a few vintage motor-court-type establishments off the beaten path. As the Daily Finance Web site noted, “By the seventies, the scarred, fake-wood and brass boxes would seem to be a foundational part of the iconic sleazy motel room, as much a requirement as shag carpeting, cheap paneled walls, and unwashed comforters.” Daily Finance adds that the Best Western chain of independently owned motels specifically advised its proprietors not to offer Magic Fingers because they “cheapen the accommodations.”

Magic Fingers lost its customer base, too, because thieves kept breaking into the coin boxes or stealing them entirely. This problem was eventually addressed when Houghtaling devised a card containing a magnetic stripe that the customer would swipe through the pay box in lieu of depositing quarters. It was an early version of today’s debit card or key-entry card used to access hotel and motel rooms today. But the public’s fascination with trembling beds had waned.

People might have felt a little funny plunking their money into a box for 15 minutes of vibration from a motel bed. But they’re investing many times more in various vibrating lounge chairs to this day
Magic Fingers units are still sold on the Web, not to motels but to individuals. Often they’re baby boomers who are nostalgic, truly enjoy the tingle, or are disabled and perceive a bit of therapeutic relief from the unit’s rumblings. And any number of vibrating recliner chairs have borrowed the concept and are selling at a premium price.

Bloggers and their readers who heard about John Houghtaling’s death posted several reminiscences about the Magic Fingers device. One wrote that when, as a kid, he and his family would stop at a bargain-rate place, “usually called the ‘Dew Drop Inn’ or ‘Piney Top Motel,’” he and his brother would invest a quarter “out of our hard-earned allowance and put the quarter in the ‘Magic Fingers’ coin box. 9 times out of 10 it had no power left and would vibrate so slow that it was more annoying than relaxing.” Another online writer recalls being too embarrassed to try the unit. “If it worked, it might make such a racket that the entire motel would know. . . . It might be so old that if I inserted a quarter it would short out the device and sparks would fly and catch the bed on fire, causing the fire department to respond, leaving me to guiltily explain how my depraved actions resulted in the loss of the motel.”

One little quarter would have satisfied a young man’s curiosity about Magic Fingers. Now he’ll have to go a ways to find an operating unit to try
Now, he says, he regrets not investing that quarter. “I will spend the rest of my life wondering whether I could have enjoyed two nights being blissfully vibrated to la-la-land.”

Fifteen minutes at a time.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Bushed. Exhausted. Apparently the word traces to the Dutch word for woods or wilderness, traipsing around in which is indeed tiring.

Embrace (or into the Arms) of Morpheus. Morpheus was the son of the Greek god of sleep. But it was a Roman, the poet Ovid, who gave him his own job, as the god of dreams. So it’s zzzz time when you fall into the arms of Morpheus.

Laurels. Awards or honors. Roman heroes were often crowned with stems of the laurel, or bay-leaf, bush. To “rest on one’s laurels” means that you are satisfied with your past achievements and not interested in working particularly hard to earn more.

Mosey. To amble, proceed at an extremely leisurely pace. The word may trace to an Old English word that refers to moving about in a dull, stupid way.

Prima Facie. From the Latin meaning “at first appearance” or examination. When one has a prima facie legal case, it means there’s apparent evidence of guilt that only strong refuting testimony could disprove.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Hatred and Tranquility

A week or so ago, when I heard that an 88-year-old virulent white supremacist had shot and killed a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a few blocks away, my thoughts drifted to a serene spot — an almost eerily peaceful, contemplative patch of green — 2,200 kilometers (1,340 miles) away in the Great Plains state of Oklahoma.

There’s a tranquil reflecting pool at this place, in a pleasant park dotted with rows of empty chairs — all tightly framed by hovering skyscrapers, whitewashed churches, and nondescript government buildings in the heart of the bustling business district of Oklahoma City, the state capital.

Murrah Building
The Murrah Building was not particularly distinctive, architecturally or in function
Another ordinary government enclave, the Alfred P. Murrah Building, housing federal agriculture officials, Army and Marine Corps recruiters, health agency workers, credit union clerks, drug agents and other bureaucrats, once stood there, nearly unnoticed and rarely remarked upon. Some of the employees’ little children played or napped in the building’s day-care center.

Until one unfathomable moment on a Wednesday morning in 1995.

All was normal at 9:01 a.m. on that “hump day.” Most of the worker bees were at their desks or pouring coffee down the hall. The children were at their chalkboards or blocks or sippy cups.

Murrah Building after bombing
It’s remarkable that any part of the building still stood after the titanic blast
One minute later, half the building was gone, its glass façade ripped from steel beams and parts of nine floors pancaked into a nine-meter (30-foot) crater; 168 people lay dead or dying, and 850 more had suffered wounds or burns. In an instant, one government worker lost her mother, two children, and part of her leg.

They did not, literally, “know what hit them”: the deafening concussion and towering fireball from an ignited 1,800-kilo (4,000-pound) bomb made of blasting caps, bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, and liquid solvent called nitromethane packed into drums in a rented truck that had been nonchalantly parked out front.

Aerial view of blast
Devastation spread far and wide, particularly directly across the street from the blast site
In that minute of carnage, 326 other structures and 86 vehicles in a 16-block radius had also been destroyed, set ablaze or disfigured. Damage estimates downtown-wide, calculated much later, would top $650 million.

“I think I know what they mean by terrorism now,” said Dr. Carl Spangler, the first physician to reach the Murrah Building. “It was terror.”

Horrified, disbelieving Oklahomans and more than 3,000 others from across the nation rushed to help with the rescue, recovery, and rebuilding effort. By noon, four thousand people had lined up to give blood. Local merchants emptied their shelves of work gloves, paper masks, bottled water, and boots. Housewives, office workers, and school kids brought in more clothes and toiletries and sunscreen than donation centers could handle. “Florists sent tens of thousands of flowers to funeral and memorial services [attended by almost 20 percent of the area’s population] free of charge,” according to The First Decade, a short history of that terrible day and what followed, published by the Oklahoma City National Memorial Foundation in 2005. “A single county in New Jersey sent $100,000. Turkey’s ambassador donated $10,000 to the American Red Cross, and the consul general of Japan sent the same amount to the state.”

The Murrah Building explosion was the most extensive, abominable act of “domestic terrorism” in the nation’s history. And what seemed like the most inexplicable. Unlike the places that foreign terrorists would target with deadly effect six years later — the Pentagon in Washington that is the locus of American military might and New York’s World Trade Center towers that seemed to epitomize American capitalism — the Murrah Building was that out-of-the-way bureaucratic beehive, bothering no one.

Timothy McVeigh
Timothy McVeigh never wavered in stating what he believed to be the righteousness of his deed
But it bothered 27-year-old Timothy McVeigh, a decorated Army Gulf War veteran who loathed the federal government for what he considered its “usurpations” — he loved to pick words from the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence — against ordinary citizens. Gun owners and grunt soldiers in particular. McVeigh had even traveled to Waco, Texas, two years earlier to shout his support for religious fundamentalists called Branch Davidians barricaded inside a ranch house and menaced by federal agents. In the months after 76 of the Davidians, including two pregnant women and more than 20 children, died in the inferno that ensued when agents stormed the compound, McVeigh seethed over what some called the Waco “massacre” and another siege-gone-violent at a place called Ruby Ridge in Idaho, in which the wife and daughter of a cornered white supremacist were shot and killed by federal agents.

McVeigh vowed revenge. “Blood will flow in the streets,” he wrote a boyhood friend. “Good vs. Evil. Free Men vs. Socialist Wannabe Slaves.”

Along with two confederates who helped him fashion the truck bomb, McVeigh would take that revenge in unsuspecting Oklahoma City on the second anniversary of the Waco firestorm.

“I am sorry these people had to lose their lives,” McVeigh said of his victims years later as he was moved to death row at a U.S. penitentiary in Indiana. “But that’s the nature of the beast. It’s understood going in what the human toll will be.”

If there is a hell, McVeigh added, “then I’ll be in good company with a lot of fighter pilots who had to bomb innocents to win the war.”

After various appeals and postponements, McVeigh was executed by lethal injection at 7:14 a.m. on June 11, 2001 —three months before the first of three passenger planes hijacked by Islamist terrorists slammed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

These chairs are made for contemplation, not relaxation
Today in downtown Oklahoma City, where the 168 brass and glass chairs — 19 of child-size proportions — fill the footprint of the Murrah Building, visitors are moved to somber silence and to tears. The chairs are arrayed in nine rows and inscribed with names according to the floors on which the victims fell. Five other chairs that sit off by themselves acknowledge those killed in two other buildings and on the street below.

“It would make me proud if someone got tired and they could maybe sit in my mom’s chair,” said Clint Siedl, who was seven years old when his mother died in the blast. “I’d probably walk up and say, ‘Hi, I’m Clint Siedl. This is my mom’s chair.’”

Within four months of the cataclysm, a memorial committee — not a “blue-ribbon” handful of the city’s rich elite but 350 people from all walks of life — had been formed and set to work. How, they asked, should the people who died on April 19, 1995 be remembered? Can any good come from their deaths, and what message should our shaken prairie oiltown send to the world?

The mission statement upon which they settled proved so enduring that its preamble is now chiseled in granite over the two entry gates to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum grounds. It reads:

We come here to remember
Those who were killed, those who survived
And those changed forever.
May all who leave here know the impact of violence.
May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.


There’s simplicity in these “naval blue” brass panels and in the inscription

Architects who presented visions of a memorial were invited to not only walk the cleared land where the Murrah Building had stood and observe photographs, artifacts, and keepsakes left at the scene, but even to draw inspiration from a chance recording of the blast, caught on audio tape at a water-commission hearing nearby.

Five finalists were chosen from an astounding 624 entries. On June 24, 1997, the design of the husband-and-wife team of Hans and Torrey Butzer, with their colleague Sven Berg, who were all studying architecture in Berlin, was selected unanimously in blind judging.

The Butzers did not just fly in to present their drawings and supervise the installation. They moved to Oklahoma City — and live there to this day — to work with families and others in the interpretation.

Construction barrier
This construction fence was a barrier, but also a magnet that drew hundreds of people daily to the blast site
To many of the relatives of those who died that spring day in 1995, there was nothing that the Butzers could design that would remember their loved ones better than the crude chain-link fence that stood for four years around the Murrah Building’s tattered remains, to which the city’s shaken citizens brought teddy bears and toys, quilts and hand-drawn posters, flowers and American flags.

The Butzers and Berg had already envisioned a tiny section of that fence somewhere on the memorial grounds. But after listening to relatives and survivors, they gladly incorporated 64 meters (210 feet) of it. To this day, visitors leave mementos that are periodically collected, indexed, and stored.

There’s a haunting quality to the “sacred room,” as the Butzers describe the Oklahoma City National Memorial — open to the sky and stars and swirling Oklahoma rains, and to the wind that does indeed come “sweepin’ down the plain,” as the “Oklahoma!” Broadway musical’s title song lustily avers.

Memorial park
The memorial park is open to the world, and to each person’s interpretation, any time of any day
The “Outdoor Symbolic Memorial,” as the park is officially called, is accessible without any charge, 24 hours every day.

At night, the glass bases of the empty chairs glow like luminescent tombstones. To the east of them stands a remnant of a Murrah Building wall — a “chunk of ragged concrete and protruding rebar,” as one account describes it. Blast survivors are named and remembered as well, on a plaque inside a small chapel.

Chairs at night

The march of memorial chairs accentuates the magnitude of the outrage at Oklahoma City

Memorial pool
The memorial’s pool is indeed a place for reflection
The 91-meter (300-foot)-long reflecting pool — a “liquid mirror,” the memorial staff calls it — extends the length of the chairs along the path of what used to be N.W. Fifth Street, where McVeigh parked his rigged Ryder truck. The pool is but two centimeters deep, accentuating the mourning-black granite beneath. Water bubbles soothingly across the surface, which depresses toward the middle, suggesting, slightly, the blast crater.

High on a hill beyond is a listing elm tree, perhaps 90 years old. At the time of the explosion, it shaded the employee parking lot in which most of the cars were blown to bits or incinerated. But the tree endured, leafless but alive. It came through the intrusions of ladders and chain saws afterward, too, as technicians rudely retrieved bits of evidence hanging from its branches.

Survivor Tree
The Survivor Tree is a tough old plant, for sure
The gritty old elm is thus revered as “The Survivor Tree” — a symbol of the people and the city that came through the ordeal. And Oklahomans’ love for the gnarled tree extends beyond the capital. Cuttings from it are grown in nurseries and sold across the state.

The memorial’s features that live longest in Carol’s and my memories are the nearly identical, bronze-clad “Gates of Time” that bookend the reflecting pool. An inscription on the gate to the east reads 9:01 — the last minute of innocence before the deadly convulsion. Etched on the western gate is 9:03 — by which time McVeigh had had his way.

In a curious relationship unique to this memorial, the outdoor site is interpreted by U.S. Park Service rangers, even though the memorial is owned by an Oklahoma-based public-private partnership that draws no government support. When Congress granted the site its “national” designation, those involved in Washington and Oklahoma City agreed that visitors, used to finding helpful rangers at important monuments and memorials, would expect and welcome the guidance of the men and women in Smokey Bear hats.

Museum display
One gets at least a hint of the destruction inside the Murrah Building in this display at the memorial museum
At the time of McVeigh’s demented handiwork, the headquarters building of the Journal-Record, the city’s business newspaper, stood across the street from the Murrah site. Every window of that building imploded, several walls collapsed, and 126 journalists, clerks and pressmen were injured. The newspaper’s operations moved elsewhere, and part of the building was converted into an interactive memorial museum in which visitors take a chronological, self-guided tour of the events of that spring day. The museum is divided into “chapters” with names like “Confusion,” “Chaos,” “Watching and Waiting,” and “Hope.” In a children’s area, youngsters and their parents alike are encouraged to “draw what you feel” and send their artwork home via e-mail.

The total estimated cost of the museum and the outdoor memorial was $29.1 million.

One visitor left this message there:

Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum
At the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, one cannot help but ponder matters larger than a single tragic event
This tragedy did not tear the heart out of the heartland. It only made the hearts of the people larger.

Another wrote:

Please let this place breed love and tolerance for each other. It has touched my heart like no other site on earth.

In 2002, Edward T. Linenthal, a professor of religion and American culture at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, who wrote a book, The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory (Oxford Press), provided eloquent insights into the lessons of it all in an interview with Architectural Record magazine.

Survivors, family members, rescuers, and others feel an “ownership” of such tragedies, he pointed out. “[N]o one should be surprised that these kinds of events bring people together and tear them apart. . . . No one should be surprised about concerns that someone got more relief money than someone else. . . . or that [some people regard the site] as ground too sacred to be built upon.”

In Oklahoma, Linenthal found “the democratic arts to have been practiced in a majestic way,” starting with a moving mission statement before designs were ever debated. “People gained a public voice in the process and felt enfranchised.”

At the same time, he told Architectural Record, “People can hope for too much. If [they] expect a memorial to resolve the grief and emotions that they feel, I think they are in for a tremendous disappointment.” Memorializing a violent event is not about resolving or coming to “closure,” he said. “It’s about enduring.”

Oklahoma City skyline
After the events of April 19, 1995, can Oklahoma City ever again be thought of only as an oil town, livestock center, or state capital?
So enduring that, in any discussion of terrorism, one need say only “Oklahoma City” for people to know what took place on N.W. Fifth Street in 1995. It is not the lasting image that the town would have chosen, just as Waco wishes the Davidians had settled elsewhere.

But there’s pride on the Oklahoma prairie in how their people responded to hatred, and what they built in the name of love.


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Hump Day. Wednesday, the middle day of the work week. It’s all downhill to a weekend after that!

Nonchalant. With blithe unconcern or indifference. Behaving matter-of-factly in a situation that might normally evoke extreme reactions.

Smokey Bear. He is a brawny but gentle mascot of the U.S. National Park Service. In his trademark drill-sergeant hat, he sternly reminds campers, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.”

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Friday, June 12, 2009

Valley of the Stun

Only one lonely, two-lane highway pierces Monument Valley, a vast natural wonder that straddles the Arizona-Utah border in the Desert Southwest. And then one unpaved, rutted, 27-kilometer [17-mile] loop trail winds through it once you get there.

Monument Valley
Stubs of sandstone jut upward like broken lower teeth on Monument Valley’s desert floor
The air is clear there and often scalding hot, the desert floor still wild, and the red-rock formations that seem to march in review will take your breath away.

Until this spring there was but one motel anywhere nearby – an old lodge that advertises “refrigerated air conditioning,” “iron and ironing boards,” and “bathing amenities.” You can rent John Wayne movies if you stay there. That’s significant, because more than anyone, that rugged star of epic western movies brought attention to this remote, prehistoric time capsule. More about “the Duke” in a bit.

Now that that paved road passes nearby, a new inn has opened right at the entrance to the eroded old loop trail, and people like me have spread the word about the stunning spectacle of buttes and spires, the days of undiscovered desolation for Monument Valley are gone forever.

East and West Mitten Buttes
East and West Mitten buttes take their place among the formations
Unlike the Grand Canyon off to the west in Arizona, whose beauty emanates from the cliffsides of a single, awe-inspiring gorge, or Arches National Park to the north in Utah, where one must hike to see many of the amazing formations, Monument Valley’s rocky “Mittens,” “Three Sisters,” and other towers of red rock rise in a staggering panorama that can be visited and photographed up-close as well, via that dusty trail.

Three Sisters
The “Three Sisters” spires poke out of the desert
For Carol and me, it is Monument Valley more than any of the other spectacular parks that pulls us back to the Southwest for another look, and then another, as the sun paints each formation, turning dark silhouettes a dappled sepia, then fiery crimson depending on matters as mercurial as a passing puffy cloud. To the Navajo people who live here, this is a sacred place, a shrine to Mother Earth and Father Sun. To them – and others who come from the world over to behold it – it is Nature’s might and God’s artistry entwined.

“Nowhere in the world can one find a similar effect of nature’s work,” wrote Josef Muench, the German-born photographer whose work turned Arizona Highways from a travel magazine into a catalog of landscape art. “Words alone cannot begin to describe the thousand-foot pyramid and castles, the slender tower, bridges and arches that dominate Monument Valley.”


Believe it or not, the sandy path that looks like an expanse of beach is the ROAD that ordinary vehicles travel through the heart of Monument Valley

Like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley is a national park. But the nation is not the United States of America. Monument Valley is the jewel of several Navajo Nation tribal parks within the vast, three-state, largely sovereign homeland of the Diné – “the People” – as the Navajo call themselves. (It’s clear why they use another name: “Navajo,” assigned to the tribe by the Spanish, traces to a word that means “thief.”)

And the story of Monument Valley is tied inextricably to the Navajo people and their history.

At 70,000 square kilometers [27,000 square miles], Navajoland, as the Diné like to refer to what whites once called the Navajo Reservation, is larger than 10 of the 50 U.S. states. It is also the largest Indian nation in both size and population (174,000). Another 75,000 Navajos live elsewhere, including large cities like Arizona’s capital of Phoenix.

Code Talkers
These Navajo Code Talkers were photographed on the island of Saipan in 1944
People the world around have heard of Navajos because of their singular contribution to the Allied victory in World War II. Navajo Code Talkers joined every landing and parachute jump by U.S. Marines in the Pacific theater of war. Once ashore they transmitted messages by telephone and radio in their native language, baffling the Japanese, who mistook it for a secret code that they never succeeded in cracking.

Navajo mother and child
A Navajo mother and daughter inspect the long, thick fleece of a Churro sheep
But the world is coming to know the Navajos of Monument Valley as well. “Navajos are nomads and adaptors,” writes K.C. DenDooven, publisher of the “Story Behind the Scenery” series of interpretive books, including a new one on Monument Valley. “They live by their rules and at their own pace – both of which in many ways are distinctly different from the white man’s. Sheep and wool [and the intricate Navajo rugs made from wool] are one of the main forms of industry throughout the entire Navajoland. Sheep wander. Navajos wander.”

The ancient Anasazi built cliff dwellings throughout the Four Corners area. This one can be found at Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado
Their ancestors, Athabascan people who first crossed the Bering Strait from Asia into present-day Alaska and Canada 35,000 years ago, eventually migrated southward into barren lands that are boiling hot each summer and cold enough to dust the sandstone with snow each winter. Like us today, they came upon remnants of an earlier, mysterious native culture that we have named the Anasazi – Navajo for “ancient ones” – who built homes on the cliffsides, carved rock engravings called petroglyphs, and created painted pictographs.

Then they disappeared without a trace. Driven to starvation by the harsh conditions perhaps, or driven out by marauders.

It’s hard to believe this “painting” is made of loose sand
The Navajo paint, too, in sand paintings using bright pigments ground from the rocks, as part of the healing ceremonies of medicine men. When the rituals are completed, the paintings are destroyed and the sand disbursed.

Navajos weave and dye their own woolen rugs in a multitude of hues
Navajo clans dotted the remote hills of what is now northern Arizona and New Mexico with little cohesive government. That changed with the coming of Spaniards in the 1500s. Bent on colonizing the area for New Spain (Spanish-controlled Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean and the distant Philippines, run as a viceroyalty from Mexico City), the Spanish sent out soldiers and missionaries. But the nomadic Navajos proved to be elusive converts, resisting Christianity, the Spanish language, and any notion that they would meekly settle down and tend to crops. The Spaniards’ fortunes dimmed further when the Navajo stole their horses – they were thieves indeed in that instance – and used them skillfully to elude and bedevil their would-be conquerors. When the Spanish proposed treaties, not one Navajo entity or spokesman could be found to agree.

So the Navajo held out, beyond Spanish control or that of the Mexican Empire that succeeded New Spain in 1821.

But the U.S. territorial government that came next had greater resources, and therefore better luck, in its series of “Indian Wars” against the Navajo and Apaches. In 1862, Gen. James H. Carleton, commanding U.S. forces in Arizona and New Mexico, decided that it was time to put an end to the “Indian troubles.” As the Web site puts it, “His plan was to put [native peoples] on a reservation under military guard, teach them farming and livestock raising to encourage self-sufficiency.” Carleton ordered Col. Christopher “Kit” Carson, a legendary western scout and frontiersman who thought he had settled into peaceful retirement in New Mexico, to round up Navajos and Apaches, kill any who resisted, and bring the captives to Fort Sumner at Bosque Redondo (“Round Wood”), an Indian reservation and trading post in southern New Mexico.

Bataan Death March
It’s estimated that one in four U.S. and Filipino soldiers driven along the Bataan Death March did not survive the brutal ordeal
White soldiers killed the livestock of each Navajo family, who were then ordered to chop down every tree and cut their wheat and corn. Starved into submission, the Navajo were marched at gunpoint in what the Diné call “The Long Walk” from their homeland to Bosque Redondo. It was a journey that one day would be compared to the earlier Trail of Tears following the “Indian Removal Act” of 1831 that uprooted eastern Indians and prodded them on foot to reservations in Oklahoma, and to the Bataan Death March of captured Americans and Filipinos by Japanese soldiers in the Philippines during World War II.

Any trust that the Indian people of the American Southwest had invested in whites before Bosque Redondo was replaced by hatred, suspicion, and defiance – attitudes that linger, in varying degrees, to this day.

Only 6,000 Navajos survived the Long Walk, though others fled to hide in the Grand Canyon and elsewhere. The captives faced a difficult choice between accepting “civilization” and white ways, or extinction. Exclusion and segregation onto reservations, not assimilation into the larger culture, were official U.S. policy for the “red man.”

An unidentified Navajo, quoted on, wrote in 1865:

Bosque Redondo
Indians who survived the Long Walk gather near the Bosque Redondo trading post
Cage the badger and he will try to break from his prison and regain his native hole. Chain the eagle to the ground – he will strive to gain his freedom, and though he fails, he will lift his head and look up at the sky which is its home – and we want to return to our mountains and plains, where we used to plant corn, wheat, and beans.

So many Navajos died of dysentery, malnutrition, and, metaphorically, heartbreak at Bosque Redondo that the U.S. Government abandoned its attempt to “civilize” them. The government signed a peace treaty releasing the captives. At dawn on June 18, 1868, a column of 7,000 Indians, 1,500 horses and mules, 50 Army wagons, and 2,000 sheep stretching 16 kilometers [10 miles] long left Fort Sumner. It was the Navajos’ Long Walk in reverse, this time without hostile armed escort, back to their homeland in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona.

Navajo siblings
This Navajo brother and sister were photographed, reluctantly it would seem, in 1915
There, they would have the hard land much to themselves for decades to come. An occasional prospector passed through, unsuccessfully looking for gold or silver. Archaeologists and anthropologists descended upon Anasazi cliff dwellings. And collectors’ agents plundered the ancient sites. But the region’s harsh climate and nearly bone-dry terrain held no long-term appeal to white settlers.

Did we say “harsh”? Of course, Carol’s photo was shot on infrared film, which exaggerates the terrain’s extremes
In 1923, a white sheep rancher named Harry Goulding and his wife, whom everyone called “Mike,” moved into the valley. They would build a trading post from which to sell supplies, Indian rugs and jewelry, including rings and necklaces made of turquoise, the robin’s-egg-blue gemstone that is one of the Navajos’ sacred stones. For centuries, Navajo hunters have worn turquoise to bring success, shepherds donned it to assure the fertility of the flock, and warriors carried it to inspire victory.

The hogan is the pragmatic but extremely modest traditional Navajo home. It’s made from the crude and scarce materials available
According to K.C. DenDooven’s account, the Navajos who helped Harry Goulding construct his lodge had never before seen a two-story stone building; their people lived in hogans – always east-facing toward the morning sun – made of wooden poles, tree bark, and mud. Navajos would later move into modest trailers or small houses, but they continue to build hogans for religious ceremonies and tourist demonstrations.

The Gouldings’ trading post still stands, more as a museum next to the old motel that I mentioned. But the Navajos’ wool, once delivered to Harry’s place by horse and wagon, is now carried to fair-sized towns by pickup truck. From time to time, sheep and goats are also herded along the park’s sand dunes for the benefit of tourist photographers.

Business was anything but brisk at Goulding’s Trading Post in the 1930s. The only roads were old, pitted trails. Monument Valley lay unnoticed to just about all whites except the Gouldings and Muench the photographer.

But one day, Harry Goulding told Muench that they should gather some of his black-and-white photos – the technology to produce today’s stunning color shots hadn’t yet been perfected – and drive to Hollywood, over in California. And that they did. There, they spread a photo album before producers who had been filming barely-believable “westerns” in the California desert or on contrived back lots. Surely, Goulding and Muench told the movie moguls, a rugged-rock backdrop of the real West would be an improvement.

John Ford, already a noted screenwriter and director who had delivered a silent western spectacular, “The Iron Horse,” about an early railroad across the West, and his production chief, Walter Wanger, were sold on the spot. (However, after Goulding and Muench left, Ford dispatched an aide to fly over the area to verify that the valley looked as astounding in situ as it did on film.) By the time Goulding and Muench reached Williams, Arizona, 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Monument Valley, on their trip back home, crews had already descended, buying food and other supplies for the first film shoot.

Besides John Wayne, notable “western” regulars Thomas Mitchell, Andy Devine, and John Carradine appeared in “Stagecoach,” along with several Monument Valley scenic shots
The result was the classic 1939 western “Stagecoach,” starring John Wayne in his breakthrough role as the Ringo Kid. It was Ford’s first “talkie” western and the first of ten he would film on location in Monument Valley. The plot concerned “men and women on the last frontier of wickedness!” enduring a harrowing trip by stage across dangerous Apache – not Navajo – land. (“These hills here are full of Apaches. They've burnt every ranch building in sight!”) The surroundings looked appropriately stark.

In the long run, Monument Valley’s panoramas, as much as famous actors, were the stars of “Stagecoach” and other movies filmed there, bringing the park’s red-rock splendor from obscurity into the world’s imagination. There’s now a “John Ford Point” in Monument Valley, marking a spot from a scene from “The Searchers,” supposedly set in Texas but filmed in Ford’s favorite Navajo valley. Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper rumble through Monument Valley on their motorcycles in the 1969 counter-culture
Many a Hollywood actor, or perhaps a stunt man or woman “double,” has driven one sort of vehicle or another down the dusty road through Monument Valley
classic, “Easy Rider.” In “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” the Griswold family’s station wagon falls apart in a most unfortunate place: forbidding Monument Valley. Stanley Kubrick picked a perfect spot for an alien planet’s bleak terrain in his “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It was, of course, Monument Valley. Tom Cruise even climbs a Monument Valley spire in “Mission Impossible II,” a practice that in real life is sternly prohibited by the Navajos in this sacred place.

Lots of TV shows and music videos have been shot in the valley as well, all thanks to Harry Goulding and Josef Muench’s sales pitch.

Some of the visuals shot in Monument Valley, including those of visitors lucky enough to arrive in early spring, show the rabbitbrush, cliffrose, aptly named snakewood bush (rattlers, you know), scarce cottonwood trees, and the purple sage – after which Zane Grey’s best-known western novel and the country-rock group “New Riders of the Purple Sage” are named – are in vivid bloom. Many of them spring to life again, fleetingly, after a summer deluge and flash flood. Otherwise, they lie dormant beneath the sizzling sun.

But the red rock, blue sky, white clouds and occasional snow, raging black thunderheads, and flat-green brush supply plenty of color without them.


Monument Valley sunsets are worth waiting for

Monument Valley is, of course, a prime geological exhibit. For hundreds of millions of years, sediment eroded from surrounding mountains coagulated into a vast table of solid sandstone, 300 meters [1,000 feet] deep, spread over 259 square kilometers [100 square miles]. Then came a slow geological uplift that turned what had been a basin into a
Monument Valley
You can see many geological folds, layers, and striations in this up-close view of a Monument Valley formation
high plateau. And once again millions more years of erosion followed. They left behind the hardest slabs and slivers of rock, looming as pinnacles, buttes, and arches above the land that we know as Monument Valley. I say “know as,” because it’s not really a valley at all! It’s a sweeping plain without many surrounding mountains but punctuated with those magnificent red-rock formations.

But neither the rocks nor their gorgeous depictions in western movies brought many outsiders to Monument Valley until the 1940s, when the main road from Kayenta, Arizona, up into Utah was finally paved. Miners came to extract uranium but left after 20 years when the veins played out. Still, 11,000 tons of ore containing “yellow-cake uranium” mined there would supply the Manhattan Project – the top-secret, all-too-successful effort to build an atomic bomb in the desert next door in New Mexico.

The Navajo’s traditions and humble lifestyles haven’t changed much since this photo was taken in 1915
All the while and afterward, the Navajos stuck to their sheepherding and crafts – a proud but meager existence. Today, according to the Utah Department of Community and Culture, “Despite its significant economic potential, socio-economic conditions on the Navajo Nation are comparable to those found in some underdeveloped third world countries.” About 55 per cent of the Navajo people live below the poverty level compared to 12.8 percent for the United States overall. A Navajo’s average annual per capita income is about $6,000. It’s $47,000 nationally. Unemployment in Navajoland ranges from 36 percent in tourist and crop season to more than 50 percent each winter. And in another measure of the bleakness of one’s days in this barren but beautiful land, there are, even today, just 3,200 kilometers [2,000 miles] of paved roads in all of the Navajo Nation; West Virginia, a relatively remote and rural place of about the same size, has nine times that much good roadage.

As tourists slowly but insistently began to come calling in Navajo land in the late 1960s, the Navajos tightened their organizational structure, changing their designation from Indian tribe to Navajo Nation and asserting even greater control over their economic and political life.


The Navajo Nation’s sovereignty from U.S. control, yet coexistence with the states and federal government around it, are embodied in its official seal. It displays 50 arrowheads – representing the U.S. states – in an unbroken circle around a drawing that shows four great mountains that border Navajoland, and three species of livestock.

Responding to increased tourist traffic, the Navajos set up a small souvenir shop and a gatehouse at which a $5 fee to enter the dirt loop road is collected. Tribal members increased their horseback and wagon tours to hidden parts of the park, including a place called “Mystery Valley” that contains Anasazi pueblo ruins and rock art such as a petroglyph of a sheep.

It became clear to many visitors that Monument Valley equals or surpasses the scenic grandeur of better-publicized and more accessible U.S. National Parks, and we have all wondered why it never became one.

The answer traces to Navajos’ national pride, plus their lingering suspicion and defiance of whites.

As I’ve noted, few outsiders had discovered Monument Valley before John Ford and his film crew arrived. But Roger Toll had. He was the superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, the original U.S. national park far to the north in Wyoming. In 1931, he was dispatched by federal authorities to traverse the West and identify sites where national parks could be established before developers gobbled up the land. He showed up in Monument Valley and was, not surprisingly, “blown away” – to use today’s vernacular – by what he saw. Toll wrote a report that enthusiastically recommended creation of a vast new national park there. It noted that the State of Arizona and the U.S. Indian Service, predecessor of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, would no doubt be thrilled with this addition to the nation’s scenic attractions.

He said nothing at all about what the Navajos might think.

Toll’s plan proceeded cheerfully through the federal bureaucracy. Patronizingly, it stipulated that local Indians could continue living – no doubt far away from tourists – in the new park, and they could keep their sheep, too. No doubt they’d prosper, relatively speaking, as seasonal park hands.

Congressional approval seemed certain, and the relatively compliant Navajo Tribal Council signaled that it, too, would go along.

Perhaps inspired by this notable upcropping, Roger Toll gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the notion of a Monument Valley U.S. park that never materialized
But in a stroke of truly bad timing, the new U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, showed up in Tuba City, Arizona, the Navajo Reservation’s largest city, 120 kilometers [75 miles] from Monument Valley. He carried a startling new mandate for the Navajo people. To curb what had become a serious problem of overgrazing in the sparsely vegetated area, Collier ordered a “stock reduction” program. It cut the size of many Navajo sheep herds by half or more, resulting in even greater destitution – and documented starvation – among the Navajo people. As one U.S. Park Service history concluded, “No event since the exile to the Bosque Redondo was more demoralizing. . . . The Navajos became suspicious of any government program . . . as a threat to the Navajo way of life.”

So suspicious that the Navajo Tribal Council angrily rejected the Park Service’s plan to create a dandy new national park in and beyond Monument Valley.

The opening of The View, the Navajo Nation’s new motel and visitor center from which tourists can take decent, if distant, panoramic photos of Monument Valley’s formations, illustrates a predicament for the Navajo people: a tug-of-war between traditional ways geared to livestock herding, rug weaving, and the spiritual power of the surroundings; and the forces of modernity, including tourist money and what it can buy. Even 18 years ago, a report about the U.S. Park Service’s Navajo National Monument, not far away, observed, “A recent trip to Farmington Mall [over the state line in New Mexico] revealed scores of young Navajos in the classic garb of the generic teenager: unlaced tennis shoes with the tongues hanging out and heavy metal T-shirts of popular groups. The demands of the modern world have an overwhelming character. They hegemonize indiscriminately.”

Navajo Nation
The Navajo Nation flag was designed by J.R. Degroat, a New Mexico Navajo. It was selected over a 139 competitors in a contest and adopted in 1968
Standing on that balcony, watching visitors’ cars inch their way along the torturous dirt road through Monument Valley, Carol and I lamented the day that is almost sure to come, when – for the “convenience” of visitors, that road will be paved, and then widened, and then, perhaps, interspersed with gas stations and convenience stores and a gaudy Indian casino. When that day arrives in a place that is holy to the Navajo and serene to everyone who beholds it, honking cars and lines of campers, crowded overlooks, clouds of CO2, and scraps of litter tossed at the great rocks and stuck in the trees will have turned Monument Valley into America’s latest paradise lost.


While We’re There

I should also mention three other remarkable places to see within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation.

Two are national monuments, administered by the National Park Service.

Betakin Canyon
These cliff-dwelling ruins at Navajo National Monument overlook Betakin Canyon
Navajo National Monument protects what’s left – after serious erosion and the depredations of relic thieves – of three cliff dwellings of ancient puebloan people. Access is along short, self-guided trails.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument also features cliffside Anasazi ruins. They can be viewed from the opposite rim, but access to the canyon floor is restricted to tours by park service rangers or Navajo guides. Inside the canyon, two towering sandstone spires that together are called Spider Rock have been the setting for a number of television
Canyon de Chelly
Seven Navajo riders and a dog cross the Canyon de Chelly in this photograph, taken about 1904
commercials. According to Navajo beliefs, the taller of the two is the home of Spider Woman, sometimes called the “Spider Grandmother,” who threw a web laced with dew into the sky, creating the stars. De Chelly, pronounced “de SHAY,” is a combination of Spanish and Navajo words meaning “inside the rock,” as in finding oneself in a tight canyon surrounded by high, red bluffs.

My favorite, outside of Monument Valley, is Four Corners, the only place in America where four states – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah, touch. It takes forever and half a tank of gas to reach, but it’s one of those places where you feel compelled to get a picture, no matter what it takes to get there.

Even if there isn’t much of a there there.

Four corners
We’ll show you this tasteful photo of the point where four Southwest states come together, rather than the disgusting one of me trying to position myself in all four at once
All of the four abutting states would surely have ignored the place had the Navajo not set up a modest monument, ringed by flags of the four states and a few sorry shacks from which one can purchase jewelry, a cold drink, or fried Indian flat bread. Criss-crossed lines on a U.S. Department of the Interior marker denote the convergence point of the four states. Of course, tourists cannot resist turning themselves into quadrupeds, down on “all fours”: left hand in Utah, right hand in Colorado, right foot in New Mexico, left foot in Arizona, and dignity out the window.

I remember my remark to Carol in that circumstance: “Yes, I know I look stupid. Just take the photograph!”


Hold the Croutons

One last thing, completely off the subject:

If you’ve followed these postings, you know that I like to note the passing of those who have done interesting things, whether or not the person has reached the threshold of fame.

Norman Brinker, who died on June 2 at age 78, was such a guy. Norm had an important influence on my life, at least as of late. He is credited with having invented . . . the salad bar! . . . that long table of fruit and veggies that might have been good for you if you hadn’t heaped on bleu cheese dressing, sunflower seeds, bacon bits, and maybe a glop of chocolate pudding from the “dessert bar,” squeezed into a crevice in the mound of food on the plate.

In the 1960s, Brinker started a chain of casual “Steak & Ale” restaurants in which he gave customers the option to fix their own salads or even make a main course of them. So, a tip of the lettuce tongs to Norm!


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Depredations. The ravages left behind by plunderers or marauders.

Forbidding. Stark, rugged, even life-threatening.

In situ. In its full and natural setting. Someone commissioning a photograph of a gate, for instance, might ask that it be captured in situ, including the fence and landscape that surround the gate itself.

Traverse. To cross or pass through a place. The word’s root is the same as the root of “travel.”

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