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Archive for the category “County Seats”

Keep Calm and Look Far


August 16, 2017

Keep calm and look far.  

Such a grand vista. A long, straight, gently undulating highway, traversing seemingly endless beaver ponds and pastures to join the far horizon below a boundlessly pleasant summer sky. 

The American prairie makes us look far.

Gazing ahead you foresee a great drive, maybe in a car or on a bicycle.

But suppose you were all alone and badly injured and had to crawl this road instead of driving it. Would you be able to keep calm, keep your head down, pull yourself elbow over elbow again and again until you’ve met the distant horizon, not knowing how far that might be?

Long ago a man did just that. He was a fur trapper and mountain man. The locals remember him to this day.

This is Bison, South Dakota, population 333.


Here are some of the principal town establishments:  The Bison Bar, County Title office…

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…the Bison Community Center, American Legion Post 255, the Bison Senior Citizens center. Structures (and people) are plain yet sturdy, built to withstand the strong winds and heavy snows of the Northern Plains.

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The Jack and Jill grocery store dominates local commerce. I walked in at 10:00 on a Wednesday morning and noticed a handwritten sign posted on the front door. It said simply:

“We will be closed from 10:45 to 12:30 for the funeral.”

Whose funeral? Someone from the store? A prominent man-about-town? Who?

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The sign didn’t say. Apparently it didn’t have to; if you live in town you would already know. They say that in small towns everyone knows your business. That may be true, but on the other hand everyone misses you when you’re gone.

The Perkins County Courthouse occupies a prominent corner block on Bison’s Main Street.  Perkins County boasts a total population of 2,982.  Donald Trump won 83% of the vote here in 2016. Pretty good for a New Yorker.


Bison High School:  “Home of the Cardinals” — because the “Bison Buffaloes” would invite derision. While school mascot names are fun, the obelisk in front of the school teaches a serious lesson.

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This is a monument to mountain man Hugh Glass, whom I mentioned at the beginning.

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Here’s the text of the monument:

Hugh Glass. Hunter with Ashley’s fur traders, mauled by a grizzly bear while camping at the forks of Grand River north of Bison in 1823. Left for dead, he survived, crawled south between present towns of Bison and Meadow, hiding from Indians by day, to Fort Kiowa 150 miles away.  Dr. John Neihardt tells the tale in “The Song of Hugh Glass.”

Keep calm and look far. Hugh Glass reached his destination after crawling on his elbows for 150 miles. If we must, we can do the same.

These are tumultuous times. Yet like Hugh Glass we cannot stop here to re-suffer the past. America still has great places ahead of us and great achievements to offer mankind if we keep a level head “with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right.” Keep calm and look far — persistence will conquer distance.


(Note: Since visiting Bison I’ve learned that the Jack and Jill grocery store has apparently changed hands and been renamed the Bison Food Store.)

Other photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog:

Mennonite Pastries Banned in Cimmaron, Kansas

Manistique — The Battle for Michigan

Emigrants’ Return: California Refugees in Plattsmouth, Nebraska

Los Alamos:  A City on a Hill
Truth or Consequences — and Quixotic Occupy Wall Street

The Entire State is New York and Albany is its Capital

∙ February in Walterboro, South Carolina

A Big and Notable Place — Lubbock, Texas


February in Walterboro, South Carolina

February 26, 2016

This week the political media frenzy swirls through South Carolina like a transient storm.  Last Saturday the GOP held its presidential primary here and this Saturday the Democrats hold theirs.  As pundits dissect this state, wielding the scalpels of scientific polling and demographics, I thought it fitting and proper to provide a glimpse beneath the hullabaloo.

Along Washington Street in the small Palmetto State town of Walterboro, banners on the street lamps proclaim it “The Front Porch of the Low Country.” Walterboro is 40 miles from the ocean, 50 miles from Charleston, and far, far away from northern climes shivering through February squalls.  It seems peaceful here, very quiet, quiet enough to catch the slow creaking of an old red wood rocking chair.


Sidewalks in town are paved with a conglomerate made of white seashells over which I would not want to walk barefoot. (This may be purposeful — I doubt the local merchants want you to enter their shops in bare feet.)


Of course you must smile and say hello to each and every one you pass by; they will certainly offer it to you expecting the same in return.

Even though some old storefronts have changed hands over the years, the general atmosphere feels familiar, and so the former Farmers and Merchants Bank is now the Old Bank Christmas and Gifts shop. The fixture clock was almost certainly the town meeting place back in the day.


Old Bank Christmas and Gift Shop

I had lunch at the counter of Hiott’s Pharmacy down the street. The Coca-Cola dispenser on the counter is a classic and probably worth some money as an antique but they don’t seem to know that — or perhaps they don’t care.

A few old-timers sat with me at the counter and I enjoyed listening to them — accents uncorrupted by the standardized pronunciations one hears today on national newscasts.  The Southern accent is strong here but the formality of their manners is even stronger. Tags of “Yes Sir, No Sir, Yes Ma’am, and No Ma’am” punctuated their conversations like dance steps and created a kind of rhythm, a cadence, reminiscent of a high school marching band or a cheerleader squad’s holler-back routine.

Just a peek around the corner leads to the First Baptist Church and its tall white steeple. Each rural South Carolina town must have one of these. If you’ve only seen such churches in photos then you’ve missed the best effect — the majestic old oak tree covered in Spanish moss. Blue sky, white steeple, and green leaves are standard fare in these parts even in February, but wonderful to one visiting from the snowy Rocky Mountains.


The Colleton County Courthouse complements the rest. This is a two-story whitewashed building with two half-spiral staircases at the main entrance. As with most Southern courthouses a granite Confederate statue dominates the grounds. Live oak trees spread their wide branches on either side of the building.


Colleton County Courthouse. Walterboro, South Carolina


Colleton County Courthouse

Beneath the small-town quiet, Colleton County has a combative history commensurate with its South Carolina heritage — the Nullification Crisis of 1832, and a hotbed of Secession.


I chatted briefly with a few folks as I took photos of the courthouse. Around here, although people won’t ignore you they’re not mistrustful.  They do understand humor. Carrying my camera and cell phone in one hand, I asked the guard at the courthouse entrance if these items were allowed inside. He answered me with perfunctory precision:

“Prohibited items are knives and pistols and rifles.  Do you have these?”

“Well…not all three,” I deadpanned.

He let out a belly laugh and let me pass through the metal detector as I held my camera and phone to one side for him to see.  We’re all just folks.


East Washington Street business district, Walterboro, South Carolina


Other photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog:

Mennonite Pastries Banned in Cimmaron, Kansas

Manistique — The Battle for Michigan

Emigrants’ Return: California Refugees in Plattsmouth, Nebraska

Los Alamos:  A City on a Hill
Truth or Consequences — and Quixotic Occupy Wall Street

The Entire State is New York and Albany is its Capital

A Big and Notable Place — Lubbock, Texas

The Entire State is New York and Albany is its Capital

October 1, 2013

New Yorkers are funny; they always have me laughing, or at least shaking my head.

After landing at the Albany airport on a quiet, sunny Sunday afternoon I let the GPS direct me onto a backwoods route to my hotel.  Nearing a rural roadside craft sale, held in a barn, I saw a sign warning to watch for pedestrians. Then I noticed a petite Asian woman on the side of the road ready to cross.  Seeing no crosswalk but figuring that New York pedestrian right-of-way laws were very strict, I stopped my car completely and motioned for her to cross.  She hesitantly approached the edge of the road, then set her feet and tilted her head at such an angle that she could both look down and sideways at me at the same time.  I checked my mirrors; mine was the only car in sight in either direction.  I waved my hand again.  She tensed ever so slightly at the invitation, but finally declined and just stood there, motionless, looking down, refusing to place one foot on the asphalt.  Apparently New Yorkers are not a trusting breed.  I conceded the stand-off to her and drove on by.

Welcome to New York.

The next morning in downtown Albany I saw a woman’s transmission fail in the middle of an uphill street.  She was trying to climb the hill but each time she shifted into ‘Drive’ and hit the gas the car merely rolled further backwards downhill.  Wishing to help, my first instinct was to look around for someone who might have access to a pay phone. (I must have very old instincts. People have cell phones now and can call their own tow trucks.)  I noticed a middle-aged woman having a smoke outside the courthouse door and shouted to her, “Could you please call a tow truck?”  She gaped at me, pointed at her chest and mouthed indignantly, “ME? You want ME to call?” Apparently I had broken the Sacred Law of the Street. Since the whole scene was comically absurd I drifted away shaking my head and laughing.

Welcome to New York.

The previous bit of pseudo-drama took place outside the new Albany County Judicial Center, across the street from the old county courthouse.  The new building is a four-story brick structure with an underground entrance for defendants and such. All sorts of suits stood outside, exiled to the sidewalk for needing to smoke.

Albany County Judicial Center

Albany County Judicial Center

The old courthouse next door is more ornate and even has a special entrance for “G.A.R.” members.  (The G.A.R. was the “Grand Army of the Republic”, an association of Union Civil War Veterans.)

Albany has a long history. European settlement began with Henry Hudson’s 1609 voyage up the river which carries his name, looking for the fabled northwest passage to the Indies.  It was at this point that the Hudson River became too narrow for him to continue and forced him to turn back downstream.

Memorial to Hudson's ship the "Halve Maen" (Half Moon), Albany New York

Memorial to Hudson’s ship the “Halve Maen” (the Half Moon), Albany, New York

That was four hundred years ago. Ages have gone by. Today Albany is a collection of distinct parts each associated with specific periods of time.

The oldest part of Albany is along the Hudson River where I found some Dutch architecture:

The Hudson Harbor Restaurant

The Hudson Harbor Restaurant

Old Business Block along Broadway, Albany, New York

Old Business Block along Broadway, Albany, New York

The state government buildings comprise the next part of town. Albany became the permanent New York State Capital in 1797. The Capitol building itself was completed in the 1870s and looks like a European palace.  The statue in front is of Union Civil War hero (and Albany native) General Philip Sheridan.

New York State Capitol, Albany

New York State Capitol, Albany

The Classical columns on the building across the street from the Capitol make it look like a judicial building, but it’s not. This is the New York State Department of Education.

New York State Department of Education, Albany

New York State Department of Education, Albany

The building’s classical columns suggest that New York Education occupies the place Justice occupied in classical thought. Considering that these are the offices of the bureaucracy, that’s a very scary thought.

The administrative offices of SUNY (the State University of New York) are in an equally grandiose building at the foot of State Street. It’s too large to fit into one photograph.  The Gothic towers are remarkable:

SUNY Administration Plaza, Albany New York

SUNY Administration Tower and Plaza, Albany

The word “education” is derived from the Latin and means “to raise up from within.” By the two examples above it seems that the State of New York has built a grand central administration whose purpose can only be to “push down from above”, i.e. indoctrinate.

Moving on to the private sector, the next part of Albany is the Pearl Street commercial district. Many of these structures date from the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. Prominent towers and intricately carved red sandstone were the hallmark of this age. The buildings were purposely ostentatious and opulent yet beautiful; they are still beautiful today.

Gilded Age building on North Pearl Street, Albany

Gilded Age building on North Pearl Street, Albany, New York

On the building below the corner offices have alcoves jutting over the streets.  That’s the Gilded Age’s way of saying, “let me be part of the city and as close as possible to it while still enjoying my comforts.” These days the Pearl Street Pub occupies the ground floor of this old block.

North Pearl Street and Pearl Street Pub, Albany New York

North Pearl Street and Pearl Street Pub, Albany, New York

Next is an old residential area above the state Capitol, now occupied mainly by professionals. These are townhouses across from a city park.  Many have intricately painted trim.  Most have bay windows on the second floor:

Townhouses along State Street, Albany New York

Townhouses along State Street, Albany, New York

These townhouses could be mistaken for the Greenwich Village walk-ups found in Manhattan 150 miles downstream:

Walk-ups along State Street, Albany New York

Walk-ups along State Street, Albany, New York

Finally, in some mistaken vision of the future, Albany shows you the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza — a group of buildings which include four identical (and identically ugly) concrete towers, a tilted mushroom-type thing, and two stumpy 4-story buildings serving as bookends. The Plaza is integrated with the State Capitol across the street and houses various government agencies of the State of New York:

Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Plaza, Albany New York

Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York

Here’s the “tilted mushroom” building I mentioned, separated from the concrete towers by a wide pedestrian area.  I didn’t bother to look up its real name or purpose. I don’t want to know.

The 'Tilted Mushroom', Nelson A. Rockefeller Plaza, Albany New York

The ’tilted mushroom’, Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York

The Plaza was the idea of Governor Nelson Rockefeller (Republican) who was served as New York Governor during the 1960s and U.S. Vice President under Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s.  Rockefeller led the patrician wing of the Republican Party whose adherents at that time were known, unsurprisingly, as “Rockefeller Republicans.”

These days Rockefeller Republicans are called “RINOs”.  No one likes them.  In New York and elsewhere they are responsible for great government edifices just as domineering as those of the Education bureaucracy, which is dominated by the Democratic Party.  The Rockefellers intend their efforts to be unique and inspiring, yet like the tilted mushroom they just leave me shaking my head.

Other photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog:

Mennonite Pastries Banned in Cimmaron, Kansas

Manistique — The Battle for Michigan

Emigrants’ Return: California Refugees in Plattsmouth, Nebraska

Los Alamos:  A City on a Hill
Truth or Consequences — and Quixotic Occupy Wall Street

A Big and Notable Place — Lubbock, Texas

Emigrants’ Return: California Refugees in Plattsmouth, Nebraska

July 15, 2012

When you mention “Nebraska” to someone from America’s left or right coasts they will freely associate this term with the words “corn” or “CornHuskers” (the college football team), or perhaps tornadoes or blizzards.  What is often forgotten is that Nebraska’s Platte River Trail was the emigrant superhighway of the 19th Century carrying travelers from the East to the West Coast destinations of Oregon and California.  Back then traffic went exclusively from East to West; yet I’ve found that in our day the emigrants have been retracing their steps.

Founded in 1855 on the banks of the Missouri River near the mouth of the Platte, Plattsmouth is a fair-sized small town, still relatively vibrant even though it lies far off today’s interstate highways.  Back when rivers were America’s highways Plattsmouth was a popular steamboat moorage and trading post.  Its downtown streets were lined with merchants selling goods downriver while also outfitting westward emigrants on the overland trails.  According to local historian Dale M. Bowman, “The area that is now lower main street was the staging point for the South Platte Trail of the Oregon Trail.  For approximately 18 years an average of 12,000 pioneers per month headed west on this trail.” (Early History of Plattsmouth)

The business district of Plattsmouth looks much as it did a hundred and fifty years ago.   The red-bricked architecture has been preserved and the red bricked side streets provide complementary color.

Main Street Plattsmouth with courthouse tower in background

The storefronts are open.  The old hotel — The Fitzgerald — is open for business as well.

The Fitzgerald Hotel (“The Fitz”)

The 1892 Cass County Courthouse towers above the streets of Plattsmouth like a Bavarian castle above its village.  This grand and ornate style of architecture was common in its time; it provided small frontier towns with a feeling of strength and permanence.

Cass County Courthouse. Plattsmouth, Nebraska

Inside the courthouse, old black and white photographs document the town and county’s history.  There have been numerous devastating floods.

By noon it was hot and I was hungry, so I found the River House Soda Fountain and Cafe and stepped inside. Obviously this old building was once a riverport saloon — there was a long bar, fixed barstools, and a pressed-copper ceiling.  Riverboat captains had drunk here.  So had emigrants — anxious to find their fortune in the West yet hesitant enough of the upcoming dangers to take one last draft in a civilized tavern before moving along.

But that was the past.  The new owners had turned the River House into a combination antique store, sandwich shop, and soda fountain.  Free wifi available.  A dozen others were already being served as I sat down at the old oak bar.  I ordered a root beer float and an Italian sandwich.

The River House Soda Fountain & Cafe

Looking around, I could see that the River House was run by a young mother with her two daughters.  (The great majority of small town cafes I’ve seen are run by women, not men.)  Mom was directing traffic. Her mid-teens daughter was the main waitress, enthusiastically taking lunch orders.  Then there was a younger girl, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, scurrying this way and that, trying to help Mom any way she could.

I flagged down “Mom”, a youngish looking woman, and asked if there was a place where I could charge my camera battery.

“Sure, right here,” she said pointing to an outlet behind the bar.

“Thank you. That’s great.”  I handed here the battery but added, “please don’t let me forget it here.”

“No, no of course not,” she assured me but added teasingly “this battery does look a lot like the battery I use for my camera.  If you were to leave here without it…”

“I guess I’ll just have to take that chance,” I added playing along.

“So where are you from?” she asked.

“Colorado,” I answered. “Just travelling this week.  Did you grow up here in Plattsmouth?”

“Oh no. I’m from California.”

“Ah, a California refugee,” I shot back.

She didn’t reply, but instead gave me a wistful smile which I read as ambivalence about having left the Golden State.

I went on.  “There are a lot of Californians just like you moving back to the Midwest.  I met a pair of California refugees in a small town in Kansas.  They were an older, retired couple.  They bought an old bank building and a cafe next door.  They’ve turned it into a bed and breakfast and restaurant.”

She was interested.  She asked me about the particular town.  I thought for a bit and came up with “Oberlin.  Oberlin, Kansas.”

We talked a bit more about how there were so many well-preserved towns in the Midwest before she had to attend to some other customers.

I had my sandwich and my rootbeer float which hit just the right spot.  The food is usually really good in these kind of places and the River House was no exception.

I retrieved my camera battery, paid the bill, said thank you and headed back outdoors into the hot afternoon.  I don’t know what brought them here to Nebraska from California, heading from West to East along the old California Trail.  Perhaps there are no longer good opportunities in California. Or perhaps she wanted a small town atmosphere to raise her daughters.  Perhaps taxes are too high or regulation too strong.  Or maybe it was something else.

But logic tells us that whatever terrible thing the California refugee is fleeing, that thing must be more dangerous to them than Nebraska’s tornadoes or blizzards.

Other photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog:

Manistique — The Battle for Michigan

A Big and Notable Place — Lubbock, Texas

Los Alamos, New Mexico:  A City on a Hill

Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Mennonite Pastries Banned in Cimmaron, Kansas

Nebraska corn. The brown “silk” at the eartips mean harvest time is near.

Manistique — The Battle for Michigan

February 25, 2012

The Michigan primary is next Tuesday. Since political talk can sometimes become dry I thought I’d combine a travel post with some thoughts about the upcoming contest. In fact my first blog post was such a combination — “Mennonite Pastries Banned in Cimarron Kansas” — and I thought it came out well, photos and all, so here goes. (All photos are my own, taken in February, 2009.)

Manistique, a town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula along the Lake Michigan shoreline, is so small that it reminds me of an Alaskan town, or what I imagine an Alaskan town might look like.  Few of the buildings here are as tall as two stories and there are just a couple of those.  Streets are lined with piles of shovelled snow that can dwarf the cars parked next to them. In fact, in the wintertime snowmobiles become as common a means of transportation as cars. When I was here in February 2009 the noontime temperature struggled to reach 17 degrees, and that was on a sunny day.

Manistique, Michigan, February 2009

At the turn of the 20th Century Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (known as the “U.P.”) was famous for its Jacobsville red sandstone, a burgundy red stone in demand worldwide. Architects loved to use Jacobsville for the facades of their best structures since artisans could carve intricate designs into the stone without compromising its strength. Jacobsville was used in the Tribune Building in Chicago and at the original Waldorf-Astoria in New York among many other places.  Manistique has one such Jacobsville building — it originally housed a prominent bank but now a home health agency occupies the first and second floors.

Corner bank building, Manistique, Michigan, February 2009

Manistique is the seat of Schoolcraft County. The courthouse here is a fairly new ranch style building which does not photograph well.  The only markers are the county’s war memorial in front of the adjacent sheriff’s office.

Schoolcraft County Courthouse, Manistique, Michigan, February 2009

Behind the courthouse I saw two official Schoolcraft County Sheriff’s Department snowmobiles parked in a trailer.  So — the local police chase ne’er-do-wells on snowmobiles! Can you imagine if Hollywood was to make a tv show called “The U.P.”?  These cop snowmobiles would be on the opening credits tearing paths through the wilderness with sirens blaring and emergency lights blazing red and blue over the snow trails! Wouldn’t that put Erik Estrada’s old CHiPs motorcycles to shame?

Official Schoolcraft County Sheriff’s Department Snowmobile Cruisers (“Sheriff” emblem on visor)

I ate lunch at the Cedar Street Café and Coffee House. This is a fine place, built into one of the refurbished older business buildings in the old town business district. Such cafes are becoming common in small Midwestern towns. Yet they shouldn’t be called “mom and pop” places because typically they are run entirely by women entrepreneurs. The inside decor was inviting — festive Mardi Gras beads bedecked the wooden tables while oil paintings (for sale by local artists) decorated a wall of exposed brick.  Painted on the opposite wall was a country mural covering over 20 square feet from the hard wood floor to the antique pressed metal ceiling. By the way, the sausage gumbo here was just fantastic — rich brown gravy with chunks of sausage and spices over rice.  Of course I don’t know if any Louisianan would call it “gumbo” but being authentic doesn’t matter if you’re just plain good.

What’s interesting about Manistique politically is that it sits in the heart of former Democrat Bart Stupak’s 1st Congressional District, most of which was on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The majority of the people in the U.P. are the descendants of German and Polish immigrants who came here in the late 19th century to work the iron mines and rock quarries. It is a heavily Catholic, heavily Democratic, working class region. Bart Stupak represented the district since 1993 and before him, from 1965 to 1993, it was represented by the ageless Democrat John Conyers (still in Congress today but representing a different Michigan district). Obama won this district 49%-48% in 2008.

Yet Michigan’s 1st District went Republican in the elections of 2010 for the first time since 1933. Here’s what happened. During the Congressional debate over Obamacare in 2009, Stupak led a group of pro-life House Democrats wary of passing Obamacare since they feared the bill would mandate government funding of abortions. They held out for a while, but long story short Stupak and his gang finally caved to pressure from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and voted for legislation. In return for their votes they were given a pledge that Obamacare would not fund abortions, but the pledge turned out to be phony and Bart Stupak became very unpopular with his Catholic, working class constituency. Stupak decided to retire rather than run for re-election in 2010 and has since taken up the lobbyist’s trade.

In Tuesday’s primary the focus will be on Romney versus Santorum, although Ron Paul will get some votes. Gingrich isn’t campaigning in Michigan, choosing instead to concentrate his energies on upcoming primaries in the South.

Romney is the home state guy, of course. Mitt’s father George Romney was Michigan’s governor for many years. That will mean a lot. Residents of the U.P. (called “Yoopers”) are proud to be from Michigan. Local radio broadcasts Detroit Tigers games, not the Milwaukee Brewers even though Milwaukee is a shorter drive than Detroit for most yoopers.

At the same time these are exactly the kind of voters Rick Santorum is banking on. They are Catholic, working class, rural, Democratic historically but not afraid to switch parties.  Michigan’s is an open primary, meaning that registered Democrats can cross party lines to vote in the Republican primary. This might boost Santorum’s turnout in the U.P., and apparently his campaign has picked up on this possibility and has scheduled a Santorum campaign rally in the U.P.’s largest town of Marquette. (Info here. Link was good as of 2/25/12)

The Michigan Primary will put to the test two competing opinions of Santorum’s campaign strategy.  On one side is demographics expert Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute. (Henry is an old graduate school colleague of mine — he’s a very bright guy and has an unstoppable hook shot.) He wrote a piece a few weeks ago called “Two Decades Too Late” in which he described Santorum’s campaign strategy as an attempt

…to resurrect the Reagan general-election strategy of 1980 — first and foremost, to win over the conservative base on fiscal and social issues by portraying himself as a man of principle, the only candidate who will not waver.

But, according to Olsen, Santorum’s strategy is doomed to failure because the demographics of 1980 have changed during the past 30 years — a resurrection of the coalition with the old “Reagan Democrats” is no longer possible. In a nod to the timeliness of Olsen’s piece the archetypes of the 1980 Reagan Democrats were Michigan voters.  We’ll see how many Reagan Democrats turn out for Santorum Tuesday night.

On the other side of the strategy argument is Jeffrey Bell, an “early supply-sider” and author of the forthcoming book, “The Case for Polarized Politics.”  In a recent interview with James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal (“Social Issues and the Santorum Surge“), Bell argues that social conservatism is a winning strategy for the GOP because its appeal is strongest amongst not the wealthy but the working class:

Mr. Bell notes that social conservatism is largely a working-class phenomenon: “Middle America does have more children than elite America, and they vote socially conservative, even though they might not necessarily be behaving that way in their personal life. They may be overwhelmed by the sexual revolution and its cultural impacts.”

Mr. Bell squares that circle by arguing that social conservatism is “aspirational” and “driven by a sense in Middle America that the kind of cultural atmosphere we have, the kind of incentives, the example set by government, is something that has to be pushed back against.”

In an ironic twist, Santorum has become identified with the social issues mostly because of the media’s portrayal of him as such. He has not actually campaigned on contraception, abortion or gay marriage. I can personally attest to this fact as I’ve attended four Santorum events and at none of them were these issues part of the candidate’s speech. Not once.

So, Michigan will be a test. Romney has the home-state advantage while Santorum tests his campaign strategy.  We’ll see what happens in Manistique.

Snow-bound church, Manistique, Michigan, February 2009

A Big and Notable Place — Lubbock, Texas

Tuesday January 10, 2012. Downtown Lubbock, Texas.

I drove down the busy red brick pavement of Buddy Holly Avenue, past the county courthouse, and down to the old Depot District near the intersection with 19th Street to the Buddy and Elena Holly Plaza.

The Depot District, Lubbock, Texas

Completed just last year, the memorial block features a tall black statue of Buddy in his familiar pose, playing the guitar and singing.  An adjacent grassy lawn is available for summer concerts and other public uses.

Across the street is the Buddy Holly Center. There I saw Buddy’s famous horned-rim glasses displayed under glass. These were the very glasses discovered among the plane wreckage in Iowa that winter morning two generations ago. At the Center I also saw Buddy’s Fender and Gibson guitars, his high school written exams, his Cub Scout uniform, and even the .22 rifle he shot as a boy. (No photography was allowed in the museum.)

I then watched a short film in which Paul McCartney, Keith Richard and Bob Dylan explained how influential Buddy had been in their own music. McCartney even admitted that he and John Lennon deliberately mimicked Holly’s chords and riffs in most of the early Beatles songs.

The Buddy Holly Center

This was a cool day. I thanked the museum staff for staying a few minutes after 5:00 to allow me extra time in the museum.

Lubbock is fairly well spread out. This is to be expected in a West Texas city where land is flat and cheap and seems to go on forever. There are a few retail stores clustered around Broadway and Texas Avenue — but the town’s two large (15 story) buildings are 6 blocks away with little in between. So much driving — it’s an eco-freak’s nightmare.

Downtown Lubbock

Lubbock was built on the surrounding cotton crop. Cotton was first planted here in the early 1900s, and by the 1920s cotton was big business in West Texas. Texas Tech University was founded here in 1923 in part to support agri-business. The 7-story Lubbock County Courthouse was built in 1950 when Lubbock’s population was only 70,000.  There are some art deco features in the structure but the biggest impression it gives is its bigness itself. Seven stories is huge for this part of the country. Yet their foresight proved correct and the building has even been expanded over the years.

Lubbock County Courthouse

Buddy Holly’s parents arrived in Lubbock in the 1930s, coming from East Texas looking for better work. Buddy was born here in 1936. He died in an Iowa cornfield, an international star and a newlywed, 22 years later.

Lubbock knew long ago it was going to be a big place and a notable place. And so it is.

Statue of Buddy Holly, Lubbock, Texas

Los Alamos: A City on a Hill

Veterans Day is tomorrow, Friday November 11.  There are some important people not usually honored with the veterans but who should be remembered all the same.

The predecessor to Veterans Day was Armistice Day, commemorating the cease-fire at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 that brought the carnage of World War I to an end.  On that first Armistice Day, my grandfather, son of German immigrants to America, was a newly drafted member of the United States Army and enrolled in basic training. For him the armistice of 11/11/18 meant that he never saw any action in that terrible war; it may have been a death sentence commuted.

As the war in Europe neared its end, a man named Ashley Pond founded the Los Alamos Ranch School amidst the scrub pine of the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico.  Situated on a fingerlike mesa below the remains of an ancient volcano and with steep cliffs on three sides, the school emphasized academics along with challenging physical training. It was a place for turning privileged eastern boys into robust, learned men.

View of canyon below Los Alamos, New Mexico

In 1943 the Army Corps of Engineers appropriated the school and the land around it. Their intention was to establish one secret location for conducting wartime atomic research under the aegis of the Manhattan Project. Hundreds of scientists from major urban universities gathered here in one of the most non-urban settings imaginable develop the first atomic bomb.

I may owe my existence to the Los Alamos scientists.

During World War II Los Alamos was technically an Army post, entirely secret, isolated from the outside world, olive-drab and cheerless.  Residents called it “the Hill.” Outgoing mail was strictly censored. Incoming mail could be accepted only if addressed to P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  To make the post feel more like home the physicists and their families added names and numbering to the dirt paths that served as streets.  There was a Spruce Street and a Nectar Street. Homes for the highest-ranking scientists and officials lay along a path dubbed “Bathtub Row” because these were the only houses in Los Alamos with bathtubs. Director J. Robert Oppenheimer’s house still stands today at the corner of Bathtub Row and Peach Street.

Robert Oppenheimer’s House, Los Alamos, New Mexico

I walked around in awe of the place. A collection of Nobel Prize winners lived and worked right here. Their familiar names had appeared on my high school physics exams. Oppenheimer lived and worked here.  So did Enrico Fermi, Neils Bohr, the eccentric Edward Teller and many others.

After the War the area was expanded to become the Los Alamos National Laboratory — one of the largest science and technology institutions in the world. It employs nearly 10,000 people, many being highly educated technicians and research physicists. The new and expanded facility was moved from the old ranch school location to an adjacent mesa, behind heavy security.

Los Alamos National Laboratory, beyond Oppenheimer Drive

Things have changed of course. Los Alamos has grown to become a city and a county jurisdiction with its own courts.

Los Alamos County Justice Center

Los Alamos has a discernable business district with two wide avenues, stores, restaurants, and even a Starbucks. It is also a residential enclave for professionals with families.  I saw a lot of little children about.  With Halloween upcoming Central Avenue was festively decorated with flower baskets and straw-stuffed scarecrows tied to lampposts.

Central Avenue, Los Alamos, New Mexico

I ate lunch at a busy little restaurant called the Central Avenue Grill. Here the menu is best described as New Mexico chic while the diners resemble a gathering of an upscale social club. Los Alamos is a town of highly-educated white-collar employees. There aren’t any farmers or ranchers here.

My waitress was a tall, thin blond woman with a Russian accent who could have doubled for Maria Sharapova ten years ago.  I fancy she is a spy.  Foreign governments must place spies here — common sense says they simply must — and waitresses are certainly a cost-effective way of collecting the information overheard in technical chit-chat.

Over my hot Starbucks coffee I tried to comprehend the place.  Here in the course of two short years a team of physicists overcame the most complex scientific problems to produce the world’s first atomic weapon.  Meanwhile in the summer of 1945 the United States was assembling a massive amphibious force dedicated to the conventional invasion of Japan. The slaughter on the beaches was expected to be immense. My father was assigned to that invasion force, but the order to attack never came.  The men and women of Los Alamos ended the War instead. My father’s possible death sentence was commuted by scientists; otherwise I might not have been born sixteen years later.

I didn’t see any nuclear protesters in Los Alamos. Good thing. I might not be nice. Happy Veterans Day.

Truth or Consequences — and Quixotic Occupy Wall Street

On the old game show “Truth or Consequences”, a  contestant would be asked a question (“Truth”) and if answered  incorrectly he would face the “Consequences.” Sometimes the Consequences could be an embarrassing stunt. At other times the Consequences could be happy ones — such as a chance to win money or a surprise reunion with a long-lost sibling. Host Bob Barker would often close the broadcast with the phrase “Hoping all your consequences are happy ones.”

In 1950, “Truth or Consequences” creator Ralph Edwards promised to do his national tv program from the first town that agreed to rename itself for the show. Hot Springs, New Mexico won the contest and promptly changed its name to “Truth or Consequences.” The game show is long gone but the town’s strange name remains today.

So here’s the “Truth” of Truth or Consequences. “T or C” (as it’s known) is a dusty desert town of 7,000 people. The nearby Rio Grande provides water and some recreation. Cactus patches speckle the rocky hillsides. The barren face of the Caballo Range towers in the distance, and beyond that lies the ancient Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead Man.

Desert scene, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Desert towns can be odd and seem to stretch reality. Walking down Main Street feels like walking through a kaleidoscopic canyon. Storefronts are mostly trinket shops painted multiple pastel colors and the aroma of burned incense and marijuana fills the air around them.

Dust & Glitter, Truth or Consequences

Across the street a lawyer’s office is painted in red and white stripes as if it were a circus tent.

Lawyer’s offices, Truth or Consequences

Homes built of rocks cling to the hillsides above Main Street; their porch supports are stacks of rocks.  Many of the residents seem to be retirees who came here for the blue skies and warm weather. Yet this isn’t a wealthy town, so presumably many of those might be retired school teachers living on state pensions.

Hillside rock home, Truth or Consequences

As I turned the corner onto Broadway I found an open diner. I ordered some green chili or “chile verde” as New Mexicans call it. Chile verde is not simply a green version of chili con carne.  It’s a stew with meat (usually pork), potatoes or other vegetables, and chopped green chilies added for kick. This is perhaps New Mexico’s signature food — each restaurant seems to have its own recipe. Although you can find red chili on most menus here, it is referred to as “Texas Red” and is delivered to your table with some under-the-breath derision.

I overheard some waitresses chatting among themselves.

One said, “I think [man’s name redacted] might just claim my youngest to be his real daughter.”

“The one in first grade now?” another waitress asked.


“Oh she looks just like him.”

So once upon a time there was a Truth and now there are Consequences.

On my way out of town I saw, incredibly, some Occupy Wall Street protesters! There were maybe 10 of them, all old hippies, holding signs in the town park at the corner of Main and Broadway. They seemed to be a quixotic bunch, protesting Wall Street in a town too small to have a three-story bank. As I slowly drove by I could overhear one of them explain “right-wingers” this way: “It’s in their genes so they can’t resist the urge to hate.”  I’d hate to see the Occupy bunch turn into the next eugenics movement.

I tweeted about it later:

“I saw protesters today at Occupy Truth or Consequences New Mexico!! A dozen peyote-smoking middle-aged hippies. Truth!”

To my shock, I got an answer from one of them:

@que_taylor: “There were 18 of us and thank you for saying ‘middle'”

You’re welcome @que_taylor.  I looked up @que_taylor on twitter. She describes herself as “K Taylor: Math teacher, single mom with grandchildren, fan of humanitarians, love to re-post good tweets”. I looked up some of her other tweets. They weren’t as friendly as the one she sent to me:

“For one thing, #OWS are testing local police forces and local authorities; exposing the thugs and police-state mentalities.”

“Don’t put the bread in the oven until it’s done rising. #OWS far larger than T-baggers. No need to get personal.”

@que_taylor and the Occupy Wall Street people in Truth or Consequences might be having a problem understanding Truth. The police force here doesn’t seem to be thugs or the leaders of a police state. In fact their headquarters are in the Sierra County Courthouse just 200 yards away. Although the protesters are clearly visible from the courthouse the sheriff isn’t marching out with his shock troops.

Sierra County Courthouse, Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

OWS might also be having a problem understanding Consequences. If they really lived in a police state they wouldn’t be able to protest openly in the town park, and their bodies would likely wind up at the bottom of the nearby Rio Grande.

In the final analysis OWS is simply demanding things for themselves that others have earned for themselves. I was in other parts of New Mexico the same week I was in Truth and Consequences.  Here are some alternative cause-and-effect scenarios.

There’s a burgeoning energy industry in the northwestern corner of the state, near the desert towns of Farmington and Aztec.  Natural gas collection sites are dispersed among the desert rocks and sage brush. Pickup trucks servicing the sites invariably pass you at 15 miles above the highway speed limit. That’s all ok though. The ultimate consequence of the energy work are blooming desert towns with middle class jobs and homes.

Main Street Bistro, Aztec, New Mexico

Residential Street, Aztec, New Mexico

But suppose you don’t want a mortgage or a 9-to-5 job. Eschewing traditional occupations, both Jack Kerouac in the 1950s and the old mountain men of the 1830s chose to wander the countryside with a pack and a tough pair of boots. They demanded nothing from anyone. The consequences of such a life would include hiding under rock ledges during storms. However after the rain stopped they would be rewarded with sights like this:

Foliage and homes near Jemez Springs, New Mexico

Jemez Canyon, New Mexico

So in the end, the vocal residents of Truth or Consequences don’t seem to have a firm grip on Truth. Because of that they experience only imaginary Consequences. It’s sad and I feel sorry for those modern day Don Quixotes.

Mennonite Pastries Banned in Cimarron, Kansas

I sat at the soda counter at Clark’s Pharmacy, on the corner of Main Street and US Highway 50 in Cimarron, admiring the antique signs on the
wall above me.  One says “Pop’s greasy spoon — It ain’t healthy but it sure tastes good!”  Surplus antique Coca-Cola signs lay tucked away on a
shelf above the front window.  The ceiling here is made of textured pressed metal; it’s often found adorning 19th century merchant buildings but is considered too fancy and expensive for today’s construction.The soda fountain at Clark’s offers a dozen varieties of milk shakes and malts.  All are too cold to enjoy at 9 am, so I look around for something better suited to the morning.  I’d been walking about town and wanted something to eat, hopefully something homemade.

Clark’s Pharmacy, Cimarron, Kansas

Main Street Cimarron is a bit like a 1950’s movie set.  (My mind started playing “Mr. Sandman” as I looked around.)  The storefronts are in use; people are at work.  The Vogel Accounting agency is open across from Daylight Donuts and next to the Farm Bureau office and the new Wind turbine company.

At the grain elevator down the street the foreman blows the horn as I take a photo of an American flag painted on the side of his office.  This particular rendering includes bolts of lightning coming from a dark turbulent sky, reminiscent of the violent storms that rage through these plains.  Tracks of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe service the grain elevators.  These are working train tracks, not like the abandoned ones I am more used to seeing.

Grain Elevators & Office in Cimarron

The 1927 county courthouse occupies the lot across the tracks, atop a well-trimmed green lawn and enveloped by giant oak trees.  Old photographs suggest that the trees were planted at the same time the courthouse was built 84 years ago.

Gray County Courthouse

Just inside the front entrance, next to an American flag, is an Autumn tree.  (I don’t really know what it’s called because I’d never seen anything like it before so I’m calling it an Autumn tree).  Like an artificial Christmas tree, it’s supported by a central pole surrounded by green spruce fronds and decorated with Fall leaves and Halloween ornaments.  The staff must have put this together.  I hope it becomes a national trend.

Autumn Tree, Gray County Courthouse lobby, Cimarron, Kansas

Back at Clark’s Pharmacy I saw nothing to eat but candy bars and packaged cupcakes.  I asked the lady why she didn’t sell donuts like the Daylight Donuts a few doors down.  She told me she used to sell fresh, giant cinnamon rolls, baked by a local Mennonite woman, and had done so for twenty years.

“The best most delicious cinnamon rolls you’ve ever tasted!” she boasted.  I could believe it.

But one day, she explained, a state inspector decided to ask about the rolls and found out that they were not baked on-site and thus not baked in
a state-inspected kitchen.  That was the end of the cinnamon rolls after twenty years of sales.  No more.  No ifs, ands or buts.  Forbidden.  The lady offered me a packaged pastry instead, its white icing smeared all over the plastic wrapper.  I said no thanks.

So home-cooked Mennonite pastries are banned for public sale.  Who knew?  I sat there, hungry, wondering why the government would choose the nuclear option and actually ban this activity.  Couldn’t they have just decreed some ridiculous warning label be affixed such as “Danger!  Danger! Food not cooked in state inspected kitchen” instead of leaving me hungry?  Surely I could decide for myself if risk exceeded reward.

Before leaving I overheard an excited conversation about the chance of rain rising to 70% later in the week.  Fall is winter wheat planting season, and the seeds need moisture to germinate.  Mother Nature is the greatest power out here on the Kansas plains, but the state is jealous to catch up.

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