Monthly Archives: May 2010

They’re all gone now


“Casualties many; Percentage of dead not known; Combat efficiency; we are winning.”
— Marine Col. David M. Shoup, battle report from Tarawa, Nov. 21, 1943

A tribute on this Memorial Day to three brothers — Ray, Larry and Harold (Hally) Sieve — who fought in such Pacific hellholes as Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Saipan during the Marines’ island-hopping campaign to Japan in World War II.

Ray Sieve

Ray landed with the 2nd Marine Division at Tarawa, where four Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor. Shoup, commander of the 2nd Marines, was the only one of the four Medal of Honor recipients to survive the four-day battle for the tiny atoll in the Gilbert Islands, but he was wounded in the assault.

Larry Sieve

All of the Sieve brothers survived their hell in the Pacific and came home to St. Louis to build lives and families.
They were my uncles — my mother’s brothers.
Ray was my godfather.
They’re all gone now. RIP.

3 Comments

Filed under Americana, History, Uncle Ray

Corpses on the river


“Truth is stanger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897

The lore of the Mississippi River is steeped in the macabre.
Take, for example,
two river towns — Hannibal, Mo., and Alton, Ill. — that harbored corpses long past their appointments to become, once again, one with the earth.
A mile or two downriver from Hannibal is a natural limestone cavern where Sam Clemens, later known as Mark Twain, played as a boy.
I toured this “intricate tangle of rifts and chasms” — as Twain described it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — during a visit to Hannibal last week and heard the tale of Dr. Joseph McDowell, an eccentric St. Louis surgeon who owned the cave in the early 1840s when Twain was a boy.

Dr. McDowell

“The cave was an uncanny place, for it contained a corpse — the corpse of a young girl of fourteen,” Twain wrote in his autobiography. “It was in a glass cylinder inclosed in a copper one which was suspended from a rail which bridged a narrow passage. The body was preserved in alcohol and it was said that loafers and rowdies used to drag it up by the hair and look at the dead face.”
The unfortunate damsel was the daughter of McDowell, who believed that the cave’s constant temperature of 52 degrees Fahrenheit would help preserve the body of his child, who died of pneumonia. Twain doesn’t say whether he was one of the “loafers and rowdies” who disturbed the rest of Miss McDowell.
It’s hard to believe that his mischievous nature wouldn’t get the better of him during his frequent visits to the cave. But the body may no longer have been in the cave when Clemens reached the age of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in his best-known novels.
The corpse caused such a kerfluffle in Hannibal that McDowell moved his daughter’s body after about two years to the family mausoleum in St. Louis.
In Alton, my hometown, just upriver from St. Louis, a corpse belonging to a riverman named Deaf Bill Lee resided as a “permanent guest” in a local funeral parlor for more than eight decades — much of that time propped upright in a closet.
When I was growing up, a peek into the closet at Deaf Bill’s leathery, mustachioed mummy, attired only in a sheet wrapped around his midriff, was a welcome distraction from solemnity for bored kids attending the wakes of deceased relatives.

Downtown Alton in the time of Deaf Bill Lee

When Bill was alive, he fished the river to eke out a paltry existence. Other times, he might have been found drinking or brawling in waterfront taverns or preaching fiery, rambling sermons on downtown street corners.
He was befriended by Bill Bauer, owner of Bauer Funeral Home, who signed him into the Madison County Poor Farm when Deaf Bill’s health began to fail. He died there Nov. 13, 1915, at age 52.
Rather than have Bill buried in a pauper’s grave, Bauer accepted the body and embalmed it.

Madison County Poor Farm at Edwardsville, Ill.

Bill was rumored to have relatives across the river in West Alton, Mo. But no family members ever claimed the body and Bill stayed on at the funeral home througout a succession of owners.
Finally, in June 1996, Alton paid its final respects to Deaf Bill Lee.
The funeral home contacted the Rev. Michael Sandweg, pastor of the Catholic churches in West Alton and Portage des Sioux, just across the river in Missouri.
“Sandweg checked church records and cemeteries and learned that Edward Lee, who died in 1884 at age 4 1/2, was buried in St. Francis of Assisi cemetery,” said a story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 5, 2006. “Sandweg wasn’t sure whether the boy and Bill were related, but he heard that both had parents named Thomas and Sara.”

St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church

Bill, wearing a turn-of-the-century tuxedo and a black string tie, was laid out in a donated casket of varnished poplar with gold trim. Several hundred Altonians came to view him one last time and six members of the Knights of Columbus Council 460 in Alton served as pallbearers.
The body was taken across the river to Portage des Sioux and buried on June 24, 1996, in the cemetery of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church near the grave of an Edward Lee.
An Associated Press story at the time quoted John Dunphy, a writer and bookstore owner who had researched Bill’s story, as saying that the burial showed that “our community is acquiring a social conscience.”
“We no longer believe that human beings should be subjected to such exploitation,” Dunphy said. “I think it represents tremendous personal growth for the city of Alton.”

5 Comments

Filed under Americana, History, Journeys, Travels

A dark, compelling tale


“When I lit my candle and went up to my room that night, there set pap, his own self!”
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1885

Huck's father as depicted by E.W. Kemble for the 1885 first edition of Huckleberry Finn

One of the best opening passages in contemporary American fiction, to my mind, is about a rotting, river-borne corpse being picked apart by scavengers:
Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.
It proceeds as do all things moving down the Mississippi in the late summer of the year, at a stately pace, as if its blind eyes were busy taking in the blue sky piled dreamily deep with cloud. There will be thunder by suppertime and rain to last the whole night long but just now the early day is brilliant and entirely without flaw. How long the body has been floating would be a mystery if any individual had yet taken note of its passage and mused so upon it, but thus far, under the sky of blue and white and upon this gentle muddy bed aswarm with a school of sunfish and one or two smallmouth bass darting warily as thieves, it has passed only empty fields and stands of willow and thick brushy embankments uninhabited.
A crow screams and flaps off, bearing an eye as brown and deep as the Mississippi herself…

This is the opening of Finn, a 2007 novel by Jon Clinch, one of the best pieces of fiction that I’ve read in a long time. I won’t disclose the name of the owner of the body in question as this person figures prominently in the story.
During a visit to Hannibal, Mo., last week, I noted that the book, appropriately, was on sale at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum along with Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
This is fitting because Finn, through Clinch’s fertile imagination, builds on the story of Twain’s best-known characters, fills in gaps in Huck’s lineage and provides a back story for Huck’s abusive, ne’re-do-well father while contradicting nothing that Twain wrote.
Huck’s father, Twain tells us, was the town drunk in the fictional St. Petersburg, Mo., of the late 1840s — the title character of Clinch’s novel.

An 1841 view from Mark Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, by John Stobart

But Twain tells us nothing about Huck’s mother. Clinch imagines up a mother for Huck, and a dark, compelling tale it is, worthy of Twain’s best imaginings.
One would surmise that Clinch has had a long association with the Mississippi, judging from his poetic evocations of the river in its many moods. But his online biography says he “was born and raised in upstate New York” and that during his varied career “he has been an English teacher, a metalworker, a folksinger, an illustrator, a typeface designer, a housepainter, a copywriter, and an advertising executive.”
My hometown on the Mississippi River, Alton, Ill., even makes a brief appearance in Finn as the place where Huck’s father pays his debt to society for maiming a man in a barroom brawl with the jagged bottom of a broken ale glass.

Jon Clinch

“The penitentiary at Alton is the state’s original and Finn is among its earliest inmates,” Clinch writes. “A low stone fortress asquat by the Mississippi, it houses but twenty-four prisoners and admits into their presence nearly no air and less sunlight. He has inhabited worse places than this and he surely will again.”
It’s not necessary to re-read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn before taking up Clinch’s book.
But to do so would increase the pleasure of reading Finn.
In a Q&A with Clinch printed at the back of the paperback version of Finn, the author is asked: “How careful were you to match events in Finn to events in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”
His reply: “Extremely, although I always gave myself a certain amount of leeway. As Twain himself wrote: ‘Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.'”

6 Comments

Filed under Americana, History, Journeys, Literary musings, Travels

Rendezvous on the river: At last!


“Hannibal has had a hard time of it ever since I can recollect, and I was ‘raised’ there. First, it had me for a citizen, but I was too young then to really hurt the place.”
Mark Twain, letter to the Alta California, dated April 16, 1867; published May 26, 1867

HANNIBAL, Mo. — Our rendezvous on the river didn’t take place at the time and place we had hoped for. But when it did happen, it was a fitting footnote to two journeys.

Neal at the whitewashed fence at Mark Twain's boyhood home

Last fall, as I was riding my bicycle across the United States from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla., a friend of my son Ben, Neal Moore, was engaged in a longer and more dangerous adventure: He was canoeing the length of the Mississippi River from its headwaters at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota to New Orleans.
We had communicated by e-mail and blog before and during our respective trips, and we entertained the fanciful notion that, with a bit of serendipity and the concurrence of the river and road gods, we might cross paths at St. Francisville in southern Louisiana.
St. Francisville, a jewel of a town in West Feliciana Parish, was the place we would cross the Mississippi River — by ferry. Neal, of course, would have had to paddle past St. Francisville on the way to the Big Easy.
Unfortunately, he was still upriver in Mississippi — working on iReports as a “citizen journalist” for CNN — when we reached St. Francisville on Nov. 4 for a two-night stay.

Neal at the Java Jive coffee shop

Now, Neal is working on a book about his journey, and I — with less grand aspirations — continue to write this blog.
But serendiptity did, indeed, come into play to make possible our rendezvous on the river in a place very fitting for two people with a deep association and affection for the Mississippi: Hannibal, the boyhood home of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (aka Mark Twain).
The graduation of a longtime family friend from the University of Missouri at Columbia prompted a trip to Missouri and my hometown, Alton, Ill., on the Mississippi River just upstream from St. Louis. I made the journey by car; my wife flew into St. Louis.
After the Saturday graduation, we visited my sister and her husband in Alton, and I took my wife to Lambert St. Louis Airport for the flight back to Fort Worth. I then drove upriver to Hannibal.

The Mississippi River at Hannibal

Neal had been working on his book in Oxford, Miss., but he decamped recently to Hannibal, where he is tapping the expertise of Cindy Lovell, executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum. Through Neal’s good offices and Cindy’s hospitality, I lodged in the Becky Thatcher Room at Cindy’s rambling 1890s home filled with Twain memorabilia.
Cindy, a self-described “Twainiac,” has hung her favorite Twain quote above the door leading from the living room into the kitchen: “Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
“Dr. Moore, I presume,” I said when I found Neal on Tuesday in the Java Jive coffeee shop on Hannibal’s Main Street. He had been hunched over his laptop in the back of Java Jive working on his book amid the shop’s couches and easy chairs.

Signing the fence at Mark Twain's boyhood home

During my brief visit to Hannibal, we walked along the waterfront as the rising Mississippi crept up the brick-paved landing where steambots once put in. We toured Twain’s boyhood home and the nearby home of Tom Blankenship, son of the town drunk and an outcast from polite society who was the model for Huckleberry Finn.
I signed the whitewashed fence immortalized in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and talked Twain with museum curator Henry Sweets.
We tramped through the cave where young Sam Clemens played and where Tom and Becky got lost.
And, heeding the adage to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, we sat on Cindy’s porch swapping mostly true tales about our respective adventures, drank some robust but flat stout that I had schlepped in a growler from a brew pub in Columbia and watched as a large, well-fed raccoon repeatedly raided the bowls of food that Cindy had set out on the porch for the neighborhood cats.

On the front porch at Cindy Lovell's house

When I was a boy, more than a century after Sam Clemens explored the woods and bluffs and caves about 90 miles upriver from my own hometown on the Mississippi, Tom and Huck were guiding spirits as I and my childhood friends pursued the same sort of adventures in Alton.
In later life, I settled on a triumverate of heroes, all Midwesterners: Mark Twain, Abe Lincoln and Harry Truman. But Twain was the one who has brought the most pleasure, inspired lame attempts at literary imitation and provided a fitting quote for many an occasion.
One of them, in fact, I had affixed to a page in this blog as I prepared last year to fulfill a longtime dream to ride my bike across America:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
I’ve tried to do that most of my life. I believe that Neal, too, has taken that advice to heart.

1 Comment

Filed under Americana, History, Journeys, Travels

Who woulda thunk it?


It was another of those “who-woulda-thunk-it?” events — something so outlandish that to predict it four decades ago would have prompted sympathetic looks indicating that the one doing the predicting was a few bricks short of a full hod.
American soldiers marching through Red Square? Hah! If you believe that, I’ve got a Soviet submarine I’ll let you have for five rubles.
But, lo and behold, there it was in today’s New York Times: a photograph showing a unit of the U.S. Army, members of the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, parading through Red Square on Sunday as part of celebrations marking the 65th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

U.S. soldiers parade through Red Square. Associated Press photo by Misha Japaridze

Times change, regimes collapse and alliances shift in the world of geopolitics.
But in the early 1970s, during some of the most frigid days of the Cold War, when I was a correspondent in Moscow for The Associated Press, the Soviet Union was the West’s No. 1 bogeyman.
On quite a few occasions — on the Nov. 7 anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution; on May Day; or on Victory Day, marking the end of what the Soviets called the “Great Patriotic War” — I stood in Red Square beside the tomb of Vladimir Lenin and watched goose-stepping Soviet soldiers, tanks and armored personnel carriers, bus-length missiles and garlanded, rent-a-crowd proletarians parade along those ancient cobblestones as symbols of Soviet power and a “workers’ paradise” realized in Russia.
But American soldiers in Red Square? That would have been as unthinkable as dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov hosting a news conference in the official press center for the Moscow summit meeting of Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev.

In Red Square, early 1970s. That's me at the right.

But that happened in 1988. And I got to witness that, too, on a return visit to the U.S.S.R. for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. That officially sanctioned news conference, in which Sakharov called for the release of political prisoners still being held by the moribund Soviet regime, was for me the best evidence that profound change was taking place in Russia.
And it all came crashing down in 1991, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disintegrated and was no more. The Evil Empire exposed for the sham it was. “Upper Volta with rockets” was one description I recall from that time.
Who woulda thunk it?
“This is a world-changing event,” Sgt. Mark Kupiec, 23, of Detroit, one of the U.S. soldiers who paraded through Red Square, told The New York Times. “In years to come, they are going to be reading about this in the social studies books.”

2 Comments

Filed under Americana, History, Travels

A milestone of questionable worth


“I think writers are the most narcissistic people.”
Sylvia Plath, American poet and novelist, 1932-1963

This blog passed a milestone today: 50,000 hits since I installed a hit counter shortly after beginning these sporadic ramblings in April 2009 to chronicle a cross-country bicycle journey.
Trouble is, I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know whether to be pleased or disappointed. I have no ready, reliable means of comparison with similar blogs.
I’d like to think that 50,000 bicycle aficianados surfing the Web stumbled upon this blog and found it interesting enough to take a look. But, alas, that would be wishful thinking.
A goodly portion of those 50,000 hits are repeat readers, such as my son in Taiwan who says he checks the blog daily. That considerably narrows the audience of individual viewers.
My tech-wizard brother-in-law tells me that another chunk of those hits are by Internet “search bots” launched by such companies as Google. The “bots” continuously troll the Internet for new pages to build searchable indices for the companies’ search engines.
Evidence of that, perhaps, is that “Jim’s Bike Blog” pops up at the top of the Google list if you type the name of the blog or my name into the search window.
There’s no way to tell whether a Net surfer who happened upon the blog quickly moved on to another page or lingered awhile to read. But a “widget” on the blog, which shows where hits come from, indicates that browsers from Australia to Yemen, Andorra to Slovenia clicked onto the blog for at least a momentary perusal.
Nevertheless, 50,000 hits over a year is but a drop in the ocean when one considers that some celebrity blogs can record millions of hits in a day with a hot item on some pop flash like Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga.
The competition for attention is millions of other blogs. The website Technorati says it has indexed 133 million blogs since 2002. The number of people who read blogs daily has been estimated at 346 million. The average number of blog posts in a 24-hour period is put at 900,000. And WordPress, the platform that I use for this blog, says it hosts, as of this writing, 292,670 blogs, and counting. (See April 20 blog post, “Scribbling in the ether.”)
And consider this: When I was a working journalist, a single compelling dispatch that I wrote from Moscow, say, as a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press, or an Op-Ed piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, would command a potential audience of far more than 50,000.
So blogging, I’ve concluded, is essentially a narcissistic enterprise by those who imagine they have something to say and that people will read their musings.
But I believe that I’ll continue this blog. It’s fun to do, it allows me to continue writing after more than four decades in journalism, it allows me to learn something new nearly every day, and it keeps me from indulging in other, more dangerous vices.

6 Comments

Filed under Blogging on the road, Cool stuff

Biking for your supper


“I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.”
Eartha Kitt, American actress and singer, 1927-2008

Writing this blog is proving to be a continuous learning process.
Frequently, after I post an
item, a reader will ask a question or send along a link to a website that will steer me to new information on the topic of the blog post.
Occasionally, a reader will give me an update to a blog post written weeks before.

Logo for a Canadian film on the bicycle revolution

Such was the case this past week.
I posted on Saturday an item about pedal-powered cinemas (‘Bicycles built for view’). That prompted a query from a fellow cyclist in Fort Worth: “Isn’t there a jail in Arizona where the inmates pedal up power to watch TV?”
Sure enough, the notorious sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, Joe Arpaio, has installed a stationary bicycle in the county jail for use by female inmates to power a 19-inch television.
They have to exercise for their entertainment.
“It’s caught on,” Arpaio was quoted as saying in an April 22 CNN report. “The inmates seem to like it. The public, from what I got back, thinks it’s a great idea. I don’t know why no one’s thought of it before.”
The use of pedal power by inmates was only part of the broader CNN report about the use of stationary bikes to generate energy in a variety of establishments around the world.
My son Ben, who lives in Taipei, Taiwan, read my post on pedal-powered cinemas and sent me a link to a BBC report on the use of two power-generating stationary bikes in an upscale Copenhagen hotel, the Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers.

Biking for a meal in Copenhagen

Guests in the 366-room hotel are invited to use the bikes to generate electricity in exchange for a free meal in the hotel restaurant or bar.
“Anyone producing 10 watt hours of electricity or more for the hotel will be given a locally produced complimentary meal encouraging guests to not only get fit but also reduce their carbon footprint and save electricity and money,” the hotel said in a statement.
Hotel spokeswoman Frederikke Tommergaard told the Reuters news agency that the offer of a free meal applies only to hotel guests, not passers-by.
The value of the meal — any one of the main courses on the hotel restaurant or lobby bar’s menu — is about 240 Danish crowns (about $42), she told Reuters.
The hotel plans to test the idea for a year with a view to expanding it to more Crowne Plaza hotels, part of the InterContinental Hotels Group.
Another bit of reader feedback this past week provided an update on a post I had written on Aug. 21, “A unicycle, a quint and a Shweeb.” That post mentioned the remarkable Harrison family, Bill and Amarins and their three young daughters, Cheyenne, 7, Jasmine, 5, and Robin, 3.
They set out Aug. 1 to ride 7,000 miles from Mount Vernon, Ky., to Fairbanks, Alaska, on a “quint” stretch tandem, with five seats, seven cranks and a trailer at the rear. The bike was specially manufactured in Oregon.

The Harrisons on the road

The Harrisons call themselves the “pedouins,” a contraction of “pedaling bedouins.” You can track their journey on their Web site: http://www.pedouins.org/.
The family headed south to Florida before traveling west to San Diego, and then up the West Coast toward Alaska. They hope to arrive in Fairbanks this summer.
A reader of this blog sent to me on Tuesday a link to a video report on the family’s stop in Petaluma, in northern California.

2 Comments

Filed under Cool stuff, Environment, Journeys, Training, Urban cycling