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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Here Yesterday, Gone Today

If you’re one of those people who must have the latest news, the hottest song, the newest techno-toy, catch me next time. This posting, I’m going to take my sweet time waxing nostalgic.

Let’s start up the street, at Bielski’s or Mankowitz’s or Schoeningruber’s store.

For a century and more, corner stores were an essential part of life in American cities and towns. They were neighborhood social centers — the place where families picked up food, household supplies, and gossip, sometimes several times a day.

Immigrants got a foothold there, keeping their families together in living quarters upstairs, and earning a decent living. Outside of schools and hospitals and a few offices downtown, the corner grocery store was one of the few venues where women could make their mark.

The grocer was like family, cutting meat to order, delivering food by bicycle, often selling on credit.

When author and preservationist Ellen Beasley of Galveston, Texas, photographed corner stores and interviewed their proprietors over a 20-year period late in the past century, what first caught her eye was the architecture. Many stores had what are called “chamfered corners” — cut away to allow access from both cross streets — as well as awnings, or what people in Galveston call “sheds,” extending to the street and wrapping around the corner. Beasley said these entryways were like corner shade trees, under which people would sit, play cards, and talk.

Sometimes you’d find two, three, or even four stores on a single corner. Their proprietors would open early — really early, because customers would be waiting to buy the day’s supply of fresh milk, bread, butter, and meat. With little or no refrigeration at home, they couldn’t stock up for a week. So they’d be back each morning. If the storekeeper was late opening up, you’d throw a pebble against the window upstairs and tell Mrs. Cantini or Mr. Kraftcheck to “shake a leg” and hurry down.

You couldn’t get a television set or a watch or a set of tools at these tiny stores, whose selection of goods was limited. But people liked the atmosphere.

Often it was because the father, mother, and kids who took turns running the place spoke your language and stocked the right ingredients for, in the case of my neighborhood, Hungarian goulash or Polish pierogi.

On the store walls, the owner would hang religious icons, family photos, and school diplomas: homemade, personal touches you won’t find at a Wal-Mart Supercenter.

At the Fisher Brothers’ (I think they were brothers) grocery store up at Madison and Winton avenues in Lakewood, Ohio, where I grew up, the aisles were narrow, the smells were exotic, and you could slide across the sawdust on the floor. If we were having guests for dinner, we could call one of the Fishers and ask him to slice and save us a certain cut of beef or a particular kind of bread.

The drug store across Atkins Avenue was a family operation, too. The owners knew my mom and grandmother. They knew me for sure, because they put my name on so many prescriptions. They’d take Mother’s calls late at night, come down and open up, and prepare the needed medications. Mustard plasters, even. Not to worry if we were short on cash. We could bring it next time.

When Ellen Beasley brought some of her corner-store photographs and ephemera to Washington for an exhibit, a woman who grew up in Queens, New York, came to see it. “You knew the people in these stores,” she told me. “They’d be there the next day and the day after that. Now, when you go into the convenience store, it’s a different young kid who doesn’t know you from Adam.

“And doesn’t care to.”

Refrigeration, easy automobile travel, and the development of supermarkets killed off most corner stores. Along with your groceries at a mega-store, you can get almost anything. A bathing suit, enormous cans of peaches, a hundred rolls of paper towels on a skid.

But the people there won’t know you from Adam.

Tomato Seeds to Rock Candy

“Big box” stores where you can get everything from postage stamps to clothes dryers are not some revolutionary concept. They are updated, upsized re-inventions of old-timey general stores.

I remember an authentic one — J. R. Jones’s General Store — at Greenfield Village, a historic theme park begun in 1929 in Dearborn, Michigan by automobile magnate Henry Ford. In a scene out of the 1880s — as youngsters rolled hoops, a steam carousel seated its next load of riders, and a boy on a unicycle glided by outside — a costumed volunteer invited us in.

General stores, she explained, were a rural refinement of early trading posts, carrying all sorts of things one needed to keep a household or farm operating.

This one had once stood along a railroad line in Waterford, Michigan, so James Jones could bring in quite a selection: salt pork, sugar, nails and pickles in barrels, bolts of cloth, pots and pans, chewing tobacco, jars for “putting up” garden vegetables for the winter, and patent medicines that made you feel better, mostly because of their high alcohol content.

A big draw at Jones’s store was the telephone — the first in town. People would come in, make a call, and hang out awhile, maybe over a game of checkers. The arrival of a “drummer,” or traveling salesman, would attract a crowd, eager to catch up on the news from Detroit and Waterford’s surrounding towns.

And just like so many corner-store owners, Mr. and Mrs. Jones lived right upstairs. (The second floor later became a roller-skating rink!)

It wasn’t monster outlets that put most general stores out of business. It was Sears and Montgomery Ward’s mail-order catalogs. Ward’s called its “The Wish Book,” from which folks could order fancy goods a small-town general store couldn’t match.

From Sears, you could even order a brand-new, pre-built home — complete with 600 pounds of nails, 20 cans of paint, and 15,000 asphalt shingles — delivered in two railroad boxcars.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones definitely didn’t have that in stock.

Five’ll Get You Ten

I’m mixing my time periods, I know, but the mists of what Carol and I call “Disappearing America” also cover “five-and-dime” stores, which pretty much bit the dust in the late 1990s when Woolworth’s closed its last 400 of what had been 2,500 stores.

A dime is 10 U.S. cents, and when the Woolworth, Kress, Kresge, G. C. Murphy, and McCrory companies got started toward the beginning of the 20th Century, they sold just about everything for a nickel (5 cents) or a dime. It did not take too many years for prices to go up as these stores became Main Street fixtures, but the “five and dime” or “dime store” name hung on.

Five-and-10-cent stores sold candy — lots of candy — in huge bins that sometimes ran the length of a wall. Scissors and women’s makeup and lampshades, too, and cheap perfume, gloves and scarves, underwear and school supplies — even parakeets, goldfish, turtles and, at Eastertime, baby chicks dyed purple or pink. Few of the poor turtles or colored “peeps,” as we called them, made it very far past the holiday once we got them home.

I remember big meatloaf sandwiches and french fries and banana splits at the Woolworth lunch counter, and the smell of chocolate that permeated the store.

When she recorded the song “Love at the Five and Dime,” country and folk singer Nanci Griffith included this high-school reminiscence about changing buses in downtown Austin, Texas:

“I always had just enough time to run into the Woolworth store and get myself a vanilla Coke, dig through the record bin, wink at the boys, and get back on the bus.

The Woolworth stores . . . have this wonderful smell to ‘em. They smell like popcorn and chewing gum, rubbed around on the bottom of a leather-sole shoe.”

Perhaps the most famous dime store was the Woolworth’s in racially segregated Greensboro, North Carolina. With tensions rising all over town in 1960, in walked four African-American college students. They quietly took seats at the “whites-only” lunch counter and were quickly arrested and jailed. Some say the “Greensboro Four’s” peaceful sit-in ignited a movement for equal rights that soon spread throughout the South.

Shopping centers and strip malls that popped up throughout suburbia featured discount and warehouse places, not humble five-and-dimes. A few dime stores, offering little or no parking, hung on downtown, but the quality of their merchandise and service declined.

Dime stores are all but gone now, but on the poorer sides of towns you’ll find some bargain outfits called “dollar stores.” The name, at least, caught up with inflation.

Eggs Over Easy

I can’t channel musty American institutions without recalling my favorite. It served sorta fresh, sorta prepackaged food, kinda fast or kinda slow, with great or lousy atmosphere, depending on your point of view.

The name above the door didn’t matter. We just called it “the diner.”

It got its name from the sleek dining cars on passenger trains in the 1940s. Some were actual retired railroad cars.

We loved their neon signs and old-time rock-‘n’-roll on the jukebox. And the food: cheap, greasy, full of calories. But made to order: Bacon and eggs for breakfast, and steaming coffee all day long. Meatloaf (again), liver and onions, great big burgers — served with green beans and french fries and root beer in a glass. Milk shakes made right in front of you, from real ice cream.

Diners didn’t have “servers.” A waitress named Marge or Flo, who had a few years on her but a heart of gold, seemed genuinely interested to hear about your big sales meeting or the blizzard out on the highway. She’d pull the pencil from behind her ear, tell you about the meatloaf special and the pie of the day, and pop her gum as she scribbled your order. Beneath his dangling cigarette, Sam, the short-order cook, would fry it up, ding a little bell, and yell out the serving window that your order was “up.”

We didn’t know it at the time, but diners had many elements of modern art: stainless steel, porcelain enamel, shiny chrome, checkerboard linoleum floors, and bright-green booths and counter stools.

Each diner was unique — nothing like McDonald’s or the other formulaic fast-food joints that came along in the 1960s. Most diners couldn’t compete with them. They closed and were busted up and carted off to the junkyard.

But a few survived, and retro versions of the old ones are hot right now.

Carol extensively photographed the old Modern Diner in the blue-collar mill town of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. On a Thursday night back in the ’40s, we were told, they’d line up around the block to get in there.

Thursday was payday in the mills.

The Modern Diner was one of a few “Sterling Streamliner” diners, inspired by streamlined trains such as the Burlington Railroad’s “Pioneer Zephyr.” It was silver, with one end rounded like it’s leaning into the wind. Inside: chromium stools, upholstered booths, abundant neon, and little jukeboxes in every booth.

The Modern Diner closed in the 1970s in the face of competition from new, quick-serve places. It sat empty and vandalized for years. Finally somebody bought it, moved it to swankier surroundings, and fixed it up. Now, believe it or not, it’s described as “a cool, upscale diner.”

Indeed, Americans are making new memories — still involving grease and gravy and a touch of heartburn — at diners across America. For my tastes, though, today’s Lisas or Kimberlys don’t have Marge’s panache. I haven’t met one yet who can carry off, “What’ll it be there, bud?” then, to Sam, “Cup-a-Joe. Two birds. Flip-‘em. Burn the bread. Hold the lard. Two pigs. Make ‘em holler.”

(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!)

Ephemera. Sort of a fancy, academic word for memorabilia, including simple household items that were once here, then gone. Ephemeral, in other words.

Goulash. Rich, Hungarian stew, heavily seasoned with paprika spice.

Mustard plaster. A poultice made of cloth and a paste of what, to the touch, feels like red-hot peppers. It’s an old remedy designed to relieve chest congestion.

Pierogi. Polish dumplings, stuffed with ingredients such as sausage, cabbage, and mashed potatoes.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who am I?

As your mother might have told you when she nagged you to scrub your face and comb your hair, how we look and what we wear say a lot about us.

We make assumptions about people based solely upon their appearance. Disheveled young man: rock-band drummer? Neatly attired older woman: librarian, or maybe a banker? Muscular fellow carrying a lunch pail: blue-collar working stiff.

But as my mother often said, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” (She was big on aphorisms.)

And how right she was. What if the natty lady is not a librarian but the rock musician, dressed up because she has a day job at an insurance office? What if the disheveled fellow is the construction worker who couldn’t string two notes together? The strapping specimen could be the librarian. He just happens to work out and kinda likes lunch pails.

Looks can be deceiving, as Mom Landphair alternately advised.

Without trying, people give us broad visual clues about who they are and what they care about. And Americans, in particular, are quite deliberate about it.

On the Washington Metro subway each day, thousands of people wear sports gear. A New York Yankee baseball cap, perhaps. Or an authentic Washington Capitals hockey jersey, draping clear to their knees. Maybe a purple-and-gold “Property of LSU Athletic Department” tee shirt.

Trust me, not all of these folks are athletes. For sure, they’re not Yankee or Capital or Louisiana State University players.

But there’s a good chance that the guy in the Yankee cap is a Yankee fan — maybe even a New Yorker. He’s as much as announcing it by wearing the blue and white, intertwined “NY” on his head. It wouldn’t be a stretch to peg the tee-shirt wearer as an LSU student or graduate, or at least a proud Louisianian. And it’s a good bet that anyone who would don an expensive, full-length hockey jersey, especially one of the thousands you see with the name “OVECHKIN” and the number 8 stitched on the back, is a hard-core local hockey fan. For those of you in countries that don’t have sheets of ice, Capitals’ star Alex Ovechkin is rated the world’s best, or close-to-best, hockey player.

Sometimes, too, you see elderly bald men or 150-kilo women in Caps’ jerseys with their own names sewn on the back. I find that a little creepy.

Americans openly wear labor-union buttons, crosses and other religious symbols, and colored ribbons that support the fights against scourges such as cancer or autism or drugs. I’m seeing more and more young people of all races affecting a rapper look: garish jewelry, plain dark tee shirt, dark hat cocked sideways. These folks are saying something, all right — something not-so-vaguely hostile. “You wanna make something of it?”

On my sports coat, I often wear a distinctive red, white, and blue “VOA” lapel pin, ignoring the Voice of America’s inexplicable color-scheme switch to blue and green a few years ago.

The messages can get quite specific. Americans wear VOTE!” or “Support the Troops!” buttons. We slap stickers on our car windows or bumpers that read, “My Daughter Made the Honor Roll at Millard Fillmore High!” Do they know that this can prompt a hostile response: “There goes another pushy parent”?

I keep waiting for the sticker that reads, “My Kid’s Just Average at Hannibal Hamlin High!” (Hamlin, in case you’re crazy with curiosity, was one of Abraham Lincoln’s vice presidents.)

Bumper stickers can be witty and inoffensive:

“Boldly Going Nowhere.”

“Stoplights timed for 35 mph. Also for 70 mph.”

“Honk if You Love Peace and Quiet.”

They also serve as passing soapboxes: “Save the Whales” — or the Wolves, or the Bay, or the Great Crested Newt. “Jesus Saves” is also pithy, pointed, and popular. “Kiss Me, I Recycle” is both deft and clear. The message has to be simple. There’s no room on a bumper sticker to explain exactly how we can save western wolfpacks.

Americans also pour a lot of creative energy into devising ingenious “vanity” license plates. In place of the state-assigned plate number, we substitute our own names, mushy nicknames for our spouse or pet, or clever wordplays that are just tame enough to pass state censorship. “DE-WIFED,” for instance, tells a lot about the car’s owner.

In our increasingly polarized political environment, our badges and stickers are becoming more strident and partisan. We just got over a spate of “Bush Lies!” stickers and pins, only to see a raft of “Obama is a Socialist” ones today.

It’s easy to guess how a person wearing a “Hey Barack, I’m Ba-roke” button feels about the president. Or where someone whose car bumper proclaims, “Guns Don’t Kill People; Abortion Clinics Do” stands on TWO combustible issues of the day.

From my own limited observations abroad, and from what my VOA colleagues who were born and reared in other cultures and often revisit their homelands tell me, this pent-up desire to tell the world how we feel or what team we follow has not yet swept the world. It is largely an American passion — or fashion.

A fellow in Delhi might wear a San Francisco Giants baseball cap without even knowing exactly what the “SF” on the cap stands for, what sport the Giants play, or much at all, if anything, about San Francisco. He’s wearing it because it’s American, modern, or sharp-looking.

Needless to say in a dangerous world, not everyone feels as free as Americans to walk the streets wearing more provocative symbols or slogans.

If I wore an “Impeach Obama” pin around Washington, it’s highly unlikely that it would convert an Obama supporter into a conservative Republican, let alone help trigger an impeachment drive. Likewise, an “Obama is Beautiful” button would just draw a snigger from a “Tea Party” ultra-conservative.

But wearing our emotions, preferences, or hometown pride on our sleeves, lapels, or bumpers — or atop our heads — can increase human contact.

I just assume that a Metro rider who’s wearing a St. Louis Cardinals hat is inviting me to ask if he’s from Missouri, or Cardinal fan. If the answer is affirmative and friendly, it won’t be long before we’re talking baseball, Midwest geography, or St. Louis beer. And I’ll likely give this fellow and his family all sorts of tips for their visit to the nation’s capital.

Of course, as a kitty lover, I wouldn’t know what to say to a person on the Metro who was wearing a pin that says, “Cat. The Other White Meat.”

Where Am I?

If you’ve been with me since I started blogging two years ago, you may recall that I grew up in a lower-middle-class household where no one owned, or even drove, a car. So my chances to explore the country were limited, my geographical curiosity outsized, and my longing to travel profound.

When those chances arrived in adulthood, I jumped at them. One of my early jobs — covering the odd combination of education and sports for the National Observer newspaper — took me to towns across America, whose museums and historical societies I couldn’t wait to explore. On a big U.S. wall map at home, I stuck a pin into the name of each place I visited and even strung twine to show the routes that I took to get there.

It was a proud moment when I could inform all who would listen that I had at last visited my 50th and final state: North Dakota, on the Canadian border in the often-frigid, rather empty northern plains.

Craig Wilson, a creative USA Today newspaper columnist, awakened those memories in a recent column when he asked a simple but difficult question: “What constitutes a visit?”

Does it have to involve an overnight stay? A drive-through? Of what duration? Would sticking a toe into a new state count? How about dropping out of the sky for an hour or two on a connecting flight, perhaps never leaving the plane. For it to count as a visit, must one have a meal or a drink?

Wilson, drat it, never answered his own question.

I can’t remember my own criteria when I strung the yarn from pin to pin on my map. Today, I’d say that one has to get enough of a glimpse of the terrain, and talk with enough people in at least part of a state to be able to discuss the state some time later. Merely stepping across Stateline Avenue from Texarkana, Arkansas, into Texarkana, Texas, in order to check off “Texas” on your list of states visited wouldn’t cut it, since one side of Stateline looks pretty much like the other, and because you’d still have almost 700,000 square kilometers of Texas to see.

By the way, the only state left on Craig Wilson’s “to visit” list is also North Dakota. If I were on the North Dakota Promotion Council, I’d push for a new tourism slogan.

Something like “Save the Best for Last!”

What Am I?

Ethnicity and ethnic heritage are hot-button topics in the United States. Witness the furor over legislation in the Southwest state of Arizona that’s aimed at identifying, prosecuting, and deporting illegal aliens, nearly all of whom are Latino. Arizona’s education chief also advocated, and the governor signed, a measure aimed directly at the city of Tucson, near the Mexican border, where more than half the school population is Latino. Schools there have long taught a course in Mexican history and culture.

Those who oppose such a course say it perpetuates ethnic separation rather than assimilation. You’ll recall from my last posting that, for much the same reason, the State of Louisiana ordered that all school instruction, even in primarily French-speaking “Cajun” districts, be conducted in English.

There are hundreds of ethnic societies, museums, and cultural centers across the nation. A few that I’ve visited include “Little Norway” in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin; the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in Chicago; the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina; and the Gullah Heritage Trail in South Carolina’s Sea Islands. (The Gullah people, who maintain a distinctive African language, are descendants of slaves, mostly from Angola.)

Critics of Tucson’s Latino-heritage program argue that there’s a big difference between those cultural programs and what Tucson is up to. They say a Scandinavian village in Iowa, say, enlightens outsiders — non-Scandinavians — about a culture. Tucson’s program on the other hand, they argue, teaches Latino children things they already know about themselves and foments cultural separatism.

Supporters, as you might expect, counter that such programs foster ethnic pride within a population that is often stigmatized as second-class.

Washington, D.C., is packed with ethnically-oriented national museums. They include the National Museum of the American Indian, the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of African Art.

Among them is a small, new one that is raising some eyebrows. It’s the German-American Heritage Museum, installed in a downtown Victorian row house. The museum tells the story of — and this would surprise a lot of Americans — what is historically the nation’s largest immigrant group. Washington Post writer Marc Fisher reported that the museum’s supporters — rebuffed 20 years ago when they offered to help finance the national Holocaust museum if it would balance its exhibits on Nazi atrocities against Jews with a section on the positive, democratic changes in postwar Germany — “counter[ed] the Holocaust museum with one of their own.”

Reudiger Lentz, the German-American museum’s director, adamantly denied that putting the Nazi era to rest had anything to do with opening his facility. He insisted that “its focus is on German immigration to the United States since 1607,” not on whitewashing an odious chapter in German history.

I’ve long wondered if some of the suspicions and friction created by ethnic-solidarity efforts could be assuaged with a simple flip-flop of words. If the first word were always the same — “American” — and the second identified the nationality being preserved, explained, and promoted, might a greater good as well as ethnic interests be served?

The unique heritage of American Irish, American Africans, American Italians, American Germans and the like — just like that of American Indians — would be maintained and highlighted. And so, too, would the home that they share today.

(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!)

Aphorism. An easy-to-remember saying, carrying advice on how one should conduct his or her life.

Impeach. Formally, the term refers to an accusation or indictment by a legislative body. The term is often mistakenly thought to refer to the conviction, or even removal, of an officeholder. More loosely, to impeach something — say one’s credibility — is simply to challenge it.

Natty. Dapper and up to date in one’s dress or appearance.

Pithy. Simple, direct, to the point, using few words.

Rebuff. To bluntly and forcefully reject or refuse something.

Soapbox. While a soapbox can in fact be a box holding soap, the term more broadly recalls the pre-amplification days when speakers would have to stand on raised platforms in order to shout their messages to large crowds. “Getting on one’s soapbox” means to vigorously rant on a subject.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Heartbreak Parish

It’s no longer news that on April 20th, the catastrophic explosion of an offshore rig sent an undersea gusher of oil boiling to the surface of the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana. Or that winds, tides and time have overwhelmed efforts to contain a slick the size of Cyprus, spreading globs of emulsified goo to the very edges of the tender marshes and bayous of Plaquemines Parish, and onto the barrier Chandeleur Islands.

Other VOA reporters are keeping you abreast of developments and the science of it all. I want to tell you, instead, about the place where oil threatens the wetlands and wildlife — right at the height of the spring breeding season — and has grounded an armada of small boats that in normal times pulls from the deep, 44 percent of the nation’s shrimp harvest. Thirty-six percent of the oysters, too.

Louisiana also leads the country in crawfish, crab, and alligator-meat production. And the recreational saltwater fishing industry, now idled as well, pumps another $41 million into the economies of the Gulf Coast states.

Up the road, restaurants are, together, exotic New Orleans’ largest private employer, and two-thirds of them prepare and serve seafood.

I could go on and on about oyster po-boys, shrimp étouffée, or catfish meuniére. When I wrote about New Orleans’ insatiable demand for seafood a few years back, I added, “Of course, seafood is abundant in Louisiana.”

Not right now, though, and there are fears that, to keep up with demand, Louisiana restaurants and fishmongers will turn to cheaper, imported shrimp and fish and oysters — maybe for good.

So these are tense and tenuous times in Plaquemines Parish, a place where misery has all too often dwelled. (Parishes, if you’re curious, have been the Louisiana version of counties since the days of French control, 200 years and more ago. The Catholic Church, not civil servants, set the boundaries, and many parishes are named for saints. Louisiana has held onto French ways with the law, too, preferring the Code Napoléon to English common law.)

Plaquemines’ name derives from an Indian word meaning “persimmon,” for the trees that grew outside an early fort. As you can see on the adjacent Louisiana map, it is the exposed, southeastern-most toe of the Louisiana “boot.” There, 4½ years ago, Hurricane Katrina howled ashore and flattened just about everything. Almost 2,000 people died in the neighboring parishes downwind, but just 3 stubborn Plaquemines holdouts lost their lives. Knowing all too well that there is no escape from floodwaters in a place with no high ground, most everyone else in the sparsely populated parish abandoned their farmhouses, tiny businesses, and livestock and fled inland.

About 3,000 of the parish’s 26,000 residents never came back.

Plaquemines’ fishers and beauty-shop owners and oil-rig roughnecks know something about calamities. During the “Great Flood of 1927,” parish and state officials ordered a levee dynamited in order to relieve pressure on the swollen Mississippi River that was threatening to swamp New Orleans’ French Quarter.

The Crescent City was saved, but half of Plaquemines was inundated, and thousands of people lost their homes. Many were African Americans who never returned, instead joining what’s been called the “Great Migration” into northern states, looking for industrial jobs.

It’s a good thing just about everybody left Plaquemines when Katrina struck.

Ninety percent of the parish’s long, narrow landmass — bisected by the first 110 kilometers (70 miles) of the Mississippi River — ended up under water. Half the shrimp boat fleet was destroyed, thousands of citrus trees went unpicked, seawater ruined many a rice field, and an untold number of farm animals drowned.

“New Orleans filled up with water slowly,” Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote in the Washington Post shortly after Katrina. “Davant [in Plaquemines Parish] was swept away fast.”

Katrina acted like a tsunami, he continued. “The Mississippi River came roaring through, frothy and white and mean, up over the levee on one side of town, and the salty marsh water broke through the levee on the other.” All that remained on several blocks of the town of 900, Roig-Franzia reported, “are concrete stoops.”

In Davant and throughout the parish, wood-framed houses that survived the hurricane winds “were ground into kindling” by the water surge.

Davant became a ghost town, and Plaquemines a ghost parish that years of sorrowful rebuilding had only just begun to bring back to life.

“Katrina dug a hole for us,” Louisiana shrimper Charles Robin III told Time magazine. “We’re laying in this grave, trying to dig out, and [now] this spill comes along.”

A couple of years before the storm, Carol and I had taken a boat ride down to what’s called the “Head of Passes” at the mouth of the Mississippi, where the mighty river splits into several channels as it works its way through the delta of rich soil washed downstream from as far away as Minnesota. We were off to photograph “Pilottown,” a quaint little settlement built on piers that was the base of offshore oil exploration and home to the river pilots who guided oceangoing ships up the treacherous, serpentine river to New Orleans.

Katrina pushed Pilottown completely off its foundation, and the pilots decided not to rebuild it. Only 20 or so people live in what remains. Piloting operations moved upriver to Venice, a real, terra firma town.

Seventy years ago, Harnett T. Kane, the author of 25 books about the South, wrote that the bayou country, of which Plaquemines is part, “is a place that seems often unable to make up its mind whether it will be earth or water, and so it compromises.”

Semiaquatic, somebody else described it. Almost half of the parish lies under a meter or more of water. Shorebirds, alligators, and muskrats — large, smelly rodents long pursued by Plaquemines trappers for their water-repellent pelts — live among its cattails and cypress stumps in places where salt and fresh water, silt from the great river — and now the tentacles of an oil sheen — do battle.

This is a labyrinthine world, back among the reeds and purple water hyacinths, the live oaks and overhanging Spanish moss. It’s an easy place in which to get lost, sometimes on purpose. But the people here know their way, even on the darkest night.

Although the most famous part of Louisiana’s French-speaking Acadian population lives farther west, near the cities of Lafayette and New Iberia, there are plenty of multi-generational “Cajun” families among Plaquemines’ human population as well. They are the descendants of French speakers who were expelled  from Canada’s maritime provinces by British authorities in the early 18th Century.

Today’s generation speaks a French-English patois, often with a sort of double emphasis: “I’m so happy today, me,” or “I don’t care for any, no.” They might have held tight to French had not the state required English-only instruction in school, or had so many Cajuns not found work in the English-speaking oil patch.

Plaquemines’ Acadians join with Italian Americans, blacks, Vietnamese immigrant shrimpers, and Isleños to form a generally neighborly ethnic pastiche. Isleños are descendants of Canary Islanders who came to Louisiana during Spain’s 30-year rule in Louisiana, which ended in 1802.

Most all of the parish’s citizens, living in simple frame cabins, sometimes high on stilts in Louisiana’s “wet front yard” — Kane’s words again — are Catholic. Witness the popularity of ritual blessings of the shrimp boat fleet by the nearest bishop prior to gala, waterborne processionals that usher in seasons of bounty on the sea.

They used to be bountiful, at least.

So many of Plaquemines’ people keep to themselves that the parish hasn’t a single incorporated town. The largest village is the parish seat, Point-a-la-Hache (“Point of the Hatchet”), with fewer than 700 people.

Although Plaquemines has always been more of a passage from the sea to the heartland than a destination, it had one early, shining moment. In 1682, the French explorer Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, planted a cross near the Head of Passes, claiming the entire Mississippi Valley and all the area drained by its tributaries for France. He named this vast, mostly unexplored territory “Louisiana” in honor of his king, Louis XIV.

The British had designs on the great river, too, but lost because of a bold but simple ruse. In 1699, another French explorer, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, was heading downstream in a small boat when he met the captain of a British man-of-war that was heading upstream. He convinced the Englishman to turn tail and head back out in the Gulf, explaining convincingly that the French had built a sizeable fort up ahead. Surely its cannon fire would destroy the British ship. There was no fort, and the French kept control of Louisiana for a century thereafter. The spot where Bienville delivered his lie has since been known as “English Turn.”

Real forts along the river in Plaquemines, built by Americans after the “Louisiana Purchase” from France in 1803, were captured by Confederate forces in the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s. They would soon be blasted into submission by Admiral David Farragut’s Union fleet, thus wrenching control of the entire Mississippi River from the rebels.

Over time, Plaquemines Parish became Louisiana’s favorite source of seafood, rice, navel oranges, and satsumas — a type of mandarin orange.

But a different sort of crop — corruption — has been a mainstay as well.

If you consider piracy to be a form of it, the tradition goes back to 1807, when the pirate Jean Lafitte and his smuggler brother Pierre set up operations on an island in Barataria Bay. Both were actually more middlemen than pirates. They outfitted the brigands who plundered ships in the Gulf, then bought the booty and sent it in batches up to New Orleans in flat-bottomed pirogues.

In a more traditional exercise of corruption, in 1844, 970 Plaquemines residents cast their ballots for U.S. presidential candidate James K. Polk. Problem was, only 272 voters were listed on the entire parish voter roll.

Slavery is certainly a corruption of human dignity, and Plaquemines saw its share on indigo and sugar plantations. The great manor homes of two or three of them survive as tourist attractions.

In the middle third of the 20th Century, Plaquemines slipped into the firm grip of a notorious political boss and rabid segregationist, Judge Leander Perez. "Do you know what the Negro is?” he once asked. “Animal, right out of the jungle.” The American civil-rights movement was, he said, the work of "all those Jews who were supposed to have been cremated at Buchenwald and Dachau but weren't.”

Leander Perez and his cronies bribed voters; put nonexistent, deceased, or famous people such as the baseball star Babe Ruth — a resident of New York — on the rolls; and pocketed bribes from oil companies in return for drilling rights. After Perez’s death in 1969, his heirs settled a lawsuit by returning $12 million to the parish government.

For better or worse, the names “Plaquemines” and “Perez” remain intertwined in Louisiana’s memory. Nonetheless, Leander Perez was posthumously elected to the Louisiana Political Museum and Hall of Fame.

So corruption found Louisiana, and Louisiana found oil. Big corporations have drilled among the thick Louisiana marshes for 90 years. Their crews followed canals called trainasses, cut by Cajun trappers.

By the 1940s, the companies had built an array of unsightly derricks just offshore. And in 1947, the Kerr McGee Co. erected the world’s first offshore well truly out at sea. Soon, rigs were tapping the seabed, 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) or more down. The BP company-leased rig that exploded in the Gulf on April 20th is, fittingly, called the “Deepwater Horizon.”

As I mentioned, offshore oil exploration spawned a cottage industry among Plaquemines’ blue-collar workers, who ferry food, equipment, and crews to and from the rigs — which they are usually adept at maintaining and repairing as well.

It’s too easy to say after the recent, tragic oil spill that Plaquemines residents will bounce back as they have following other disasters. But if the pellets of sludge work their way deep into the marshes and seep into the bayous that are the parish’s lifeblood, cleanup would be a nightmare. These are not the scrub-able, smooth rocks of the Alaska sound that were coated with oil from the broken tanker Exxon Valdez in 1989, or beaches whose sand could be excavated and replaced if worse comes to worst. They are intricate, interdependent, incredibly fragile ribbons of nature.

Equilibrium is everything in bayou country, Harnett Kane wrote. It’s “an agency of balance . . . among lakes, rivers, marshes, bays, and swamps.” Could there be a more unbalancing, destructive agent than choking, cloying oil?

Let’s just say that it’s a different, sadder kind of bird-watching going on right now at Plaquemines’ numerous wildlife sanctuaries. And that you won’t find the usual joie de vivre among the watchers or the rescuers of oil-covered birds. It will be some time before the good times roll again in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

(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!)

Bayou. Pronounced “BY-you,” this is an extremely slow-moving stream, often surrounded by or filled with lush vegetation.

Emulsified. A mixture of two normally unblendable liquids, such as oil and water.

Pirogue. Pronounced “PEE-rogg,” this is a small, lightweight boat with a flat bottom and a shallow draft, famously employed by the residents of Louisiana’s swampy “Cajun Country.”

Stoop. Originally a covered porch with room for seats outside a front door, it has come to refer to exposed steps on which people sit and chat with their neighbors.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Surprise City

Here’s a classic non sequitur:

Watercress and rockets.

Let me put it in the form of a question: How did Huntsville, Alabama, once a dozy little southern town whose notable claim to fame was its reputation as “The Watercress Capital of the World” morph into a globally renowned “Rocket City” almost overnight?

And how did it evolve still further into a wide-ranging technology center whose 180,000 residents bustle among military and space installations; gigantic research parks, including the nation’s second-largest by number of employees; and high-tech plants such as a Toyota facility that builds the only four-cylinder engine made outside Japan?

How? With determination, a little bit of luck, and a sophistication that those who would stereotype the South as stuck in the 19th Century would find surprising.

And there are many more surprises. Here’s a second: In the midst of breathtaking demographic and technological changes, Madison County, of which Huntsville is the seat, has managed to remain an agricultural colossus.
It ranks first in Alabama in cotton production, second in corn and soybeans, and among the nation’s leading producers of popcorn, of all things. Not much watercress any more, though, even though, 60 years ago, Madison County grew and shipped it all over the nation.

Cotton, not watercress, was King in the South, of course, and Madison County was its throne. The rich alluvial soil near the Tennessee River, which curls to the south of Huntsville, was ideal for cotton cultivation. Cotton gins dotted the countryside, brokers sampled the crop along “Cotton Row” across from the courthouse, and, eventually, thousands of workers ─ including children by the hundreds before child-labor laws and compulsory school attendance put an end to it ─ toiled at 12 textile mill “villages,” as they were called, making cloth and thread.
Then came World War II and Surprise No. 3 for anyone tempted to cast Huntsville in a sultry southern tableau of white-columned antebellum mansions, fragrant magnolia blossoms, and fancy cotillion balls.

Only the sultry part of that image really fits this city at the base of the Cumberland Plateau. Huntsville is hot as the dickens from June through September, for which the cotton farmers are grateful. But spring and fall are delightful, and winter even brings an occasional snowstorm. Huntsvillians get a taste of all four seasons, in other words.

In that regard, and in another of much greater significance, Huntsville is a lot like Washington, D.C.  Washington, a couple hours’ drive north of a former Confederate capital —Richmond, Virginia — is a “federal city,” separate from any state. Three in 10 jobs in the nation’s capital are federal ones ─ not even counting the hundreds of thousands of government-dependent and contracting jobs there and in the adjacent suburbs.

Huntsville — two hours north of another former Confederate capital in Montgomery — is what Alabamans, with some derision and a hefty dose of envy, call “the federal outpost.” According to several folks I met, the Alabama Legislature in Montgomery assumes that Huntsville and Madison County are rolling in federal dollars and don’t need as much state money for roads and schools as they’d normally get. Why, grumble the folks farther south, Madison County even has its own electric utility company that gets (relatively) cheap power from dams built by the federal Tennessee Valley Authority on the Tennessee River in the 1930s.

So Huntsville is sensitive to its reputation as a prosperous place apart. Although Huntsville’s new motto is “the Star of Alabama,” former mayor Loretta Spencer told me, “We need to be careful not to come off as elitists.” As Mike Gillespie, the longtime and current Madison County Commission chairman put it, “Our last name is ‘Alabama.’”

Still, there’s no denying that the Huntsville metro area accounts for almost half of the net new jobs created in Alabama since 2000.

Those who remember cotton-town Huntsville, population 13,000, in 1941 still can hardly believe the transformation. That’s the year, with war raging in Europe and imminent at home, that the U.S. Army picked 15,000 hectares (38,000 acres) of river-bottom land outside Huntsville for a huge chemical-warfare manufacturing and storage facility and, soon, a munitions operation producing bullets, artillery shells, and “burster” explosive charges. Redstone Arsenal, it came to be called.

Move over, watercress. Enter assembly lines and military supply convoys.

But at war’s end, with no active combat to support, Redstone virtually emptied. Troops and brass left town, women we called “Rosie the Riveter”  — who had taken jobs in the munitions plant while their men fought abroad — went back to their homes, and “For Sale” signs ringed the arsenal’s perimeter.

Powerful U.S. Senator John Sparkman — a Huntsvillian — scrambled to find a new Redstone occupant. He worked hard to land a promising Air Force wind-tunnel project but lost out to a town up in Tennessee.

Things were looking grim for Madison County, Alabama, until the biggest surprise of all startled the entire South.

Three states away, at Fort Bliss in the hot, scrubby Texas desert near El Paso, and at the even hotter White Sands Proving Ground in nearby New Mexico, 120 German scientists and engineers led by Wernher von Braun were hard, but rather unhappily, at work. They had developed Nazi Germany’s deadly V-2 missiles, been captured by Allied forces, and recruited during “Operation Paperclip” by American agents to produce U.S. ballistic missiles. Bavarians mostly, the Germans longed for some lakes and hills and an occasional cool zephyr. And the U.S. Government was looking for a place to accommodate them.

Huntsville’s nearly empty Redstone Arsenal would be chosen, not just to please the German engineers but also to move their rocketry near the Tennessee River, which provided a fine shipping channel for rocket components, eastward to waterways that led to the assembly and launch site at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Ed Buckbee, who worked with von Braun and later became the first director of the Alabama Space Camp; Rocket Center — which I’ll describe in a tad — told me about the first trip of a 24-meter (80-foot)-long Saturn booster from Huntsville to the Cape in 1963.

Things went smoothly until the enormous barge carrying the monster rocket arrived at a dam that had broken. Workers somehow lifted the rocket and carried it, portage style — though not on their shoulders — past the dam and back down to the river.

Then the fun began! Buckbee and others escorting the rocket to Florida had to duck when backwoods yokels fired rifle shots at the passing booster. Admittedly, such a thing must have been a terrifying and tempting target.

Back in Huntsville, change — and noise — were in the air. (Have you ever heard a Saturn rocket test fire or blast off?) Happy to be in high country, the Germans and their families assimilated eagerly and seamlessly, taking up residence on Panorama Drive near Monte Sano — though the “mount” was but 488 meters (1,600 feet) high — funding numerous cultural programs, and even starting an astronomical society with a planetarium that they opened to the public several times a month.

Huntsville became a powerful magnet for even more of the “best and brightest” minds from the world over once President Dwight Eisenhower created NASA, the national civilian space agency, in 1958, moved rocket propulsion operations at Huntsville out of the Army and into NASA two years later, and renamed the civilian portion of the Redstone complex the “George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.”

Then, in 1961, just after announcing the dramatic and ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the Moon by decade’s end, the nation’s new president, John F. Kennedy, made Marshall the destination of his first trip of out Washington.

Since then, the Army’s own rocket research effort and a huge helicopter program have migrated to the military portion of the Redstone complex.

Just this year, the Army Materiel Command — including its commander, Ann E. Dunwoody, the U.S. Army’s first female four-star general — have begun a transfer to Huntsville from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, as part of the military’s base realignment program. That will mean almost 5,000 new military jobs and a similar number of contracting positions for burgeoning Madison County.
Redstone and the Marshall Flight Center are off-limits to most visitors, of course. But those with a taste for space have plenty to awe them at the U.S. Space Camp; Rocket Center.

Featuring more than 1,500 artifacts — including a NASA shuttle and an array of rockets outside and a gargantuan Saturn V rocket that looms overhead inside its exhibition hall — the center, funded almost entirely from admission receipts, has a colorful story and a mission that goes beyond showing off very, very big space toys.

When Walt Disney decided to build a futuristic theme park in Orlando, Florida, in the mid-1960s, he and his design team visited von Braun, who had advised Disney filmmakers on three space-related movies.

As he listened to the famed Hollywood animator’s plans for Disney World, von Braun came to realize the value of involving the public in the nation’s space adventure.

He found state land and NASA support for a decidedly hands-on space and rocket museum. And something else as well: “space camps” and “space academies” that would take children and teens — from 40 countries to date — into the world of an astronaut, including math and science instruction, flight-deck training, and even rocket-building. The camps began in 1982 with 471 participants. By 2007, total enrollment had passed half a million young people. Three women graduates of the program went on to become U.S. astronauts.

Incubator research and biotech companies popped up in people’s garages and basements or moved to Huntsville, too, to the point that the city soon boasted the highest concentration of Inc. magazine top-500 companies in America. At Redstone Arsenal, the F.B.I. and U.S. Army located a joint Hazardous Devices School, at which civilian bomb squads — including the New York City outfit that dismantled the car bomb recently found in Times Square — are trained.

More accolades: Kiplinger’s, another authoritative financial magazine, called Huntsville America’s best city, period, in 2009, and this year Huntsville became the first Alabama city ever to make the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of a “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” that offer “experiences different from those found at the typical vacation destination.”

Forbes magazine named Huntsville one of the 10 U.S. cities best poised for recovery from the long recession. “Initially we chose not to participate” in the economic downturn, joked county commission chairman Gillespie. Unemployment, once at a 2.3 percent rate that meant just about anyone who wanted a job could get one, has crept above 6 percent, but that’s far below the national average.

It’s a brainy bunch, by and large, who do have jobs. Huntsville boasts the highest concentration of engineers, and Ph.Ds generally, in the entire nation. I overheard one local tell another over lunch, “Ever’ time I bump into somebody, I just naturally say, ‘Excuse me, doctor.”  Somebody else told me that Madison County is growing so fast that “our largest crop is subdivisions.”

And Robert Reeves, a veteran, beloved television anchorman and “Robert on the Road” storyteller, related a tale that might strike you as yet another surprise:

Like neighboring Mississippi, Alabama is still working to overcome history’s black mark for its years as a slaveholding state and, later, bastion of racial segregation. “Back in the ’60s, ‘integration’ was a word, and that’s all,” Reeves told me. “We all remember 1963, with Governor [George] Wallace standing in the doorway at the University of Alabama,” symbolically blocking two black students from enrolling.

“Well this wasn’t our way here in Huntsville. The very first college in the state to integrate was Alabama A&M, the historically black school. The [white] University of Alabama at Huntsville was second, a week later. No photographers. No police officers. A black graduate student walked in, enrolled, and went to class.

“Not too long after that, our city school system told Governor Wallace, ‘We’re going to integrate.’ He sent state troopers up here to block the schools. Twenty-five white families walked through the state troopers to keep the schools open. Four black children went to four different schools. The next day’s headline in the paper — huge line — read, ‘Huntsville Integrates.’ Right down below it: ‘Birmingham Riots. Bull Connor Releases Dogs.’”

Theophilus "Bull" Connor, Birmingham’s notorious police commissioner and staunch defender of racial segregation, employed fire hoses and attack dogs against protesters.

In short, for anyone who imagines the South as “barefoot, backward, and bigoted,” progressive, aggressive Huntsville is quite a revelation. As Mike Gillespie put it, “Change is not something that threatens us.”

Way Back When

Huntsville was the first settlement in what began as the Mississippi Territory, immediately west of Georgia. Genteel Georgia had been one of the original American colonies and states, but this was brambly wilderness.

When the area was thrown open to settlement after the colonists’ triumph in the Revolutionary War, a war veteran and trapper named John Hunt built a cabin near a refreshing spring — now the centerpiece of Big Spring Park in downtown Huntsville. A more influential settler named the place “Twickenham” after the hometown of English poet Alexander Pope. Other frontiersmen found the name prissy, and when anti-British sentiments bubbled during the War of 1812 they insisted that it be renamed for their good friend Hunt.

Huntsville was briefly Alabama’s first capital before state offices moved south to Cahawba, and then Montgomery.

As the largest cotton producer in the Southeast, Madison County was assuredly slave country, and the marauding Union Army occupied it at the first opportunity in 1862 during the U.S. Civil War. They sacked plantations and sent their owners packing, but Huntsville was largely spared from Yankee depredation.

Madison County moseyed through the next few decades largely unnoticed, growing its cotton and watercress, and it looked to be heading toward relative oblivion when textile mill after mill closed in the teeth of the 1930s’ Great Depression.

Then came the war, von Braun, and the implausible ascent of Huntsville, Alabama, into the forefront of high technology.


You may have been wondering all this time what “watercress” is. It’s a leafy aquatic vegetable, prized as a salad accent and — especially by the British — as a sandwich fixin’. It’s also a main ingredient in the widely sold “V8” vegetable juice. Watercress grows in precisely the kind of cold, high-country springs that you’ll find in Northern Alabama. But watercress devotees need not plan a pilgrimage. Only one or two farms cultivate the plant in Madison County these days.

(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!)

Cotton gin. A machine that separates seeds and husks from sticky cotton fiber. “Gin” is short for “engine.”

Genteel. Civilized, refined, cultivated.

Mosey. To amble along in no great hurry.