Three Wise Men?

Monday, December 30, 2013

“We three kings of Orient are.”

It sounds good, but it’s all speculation.

Matthew does not tell us how many wise men (magi) there were. The reason tradition says there were three is because of the number of gifts, but that isn’t conclusive, of course.

Kings? Not likely. That isn’t what the word “magi” means. “Wise men” is a much better translation.

From the Orient? Well, yes, because the Orient includes the Middle East. The Bible only tells us that the wise men came from somewhere east of Bethlehem. They probably came from Mesopotamia or Persia, not from India or China.

So I don’t put too much trust in the words of the carol.

But I still enjoy singing it.

* * * * *

The picture at the top of this post is titled “The Adoration of the Magi.” The original painting is in The Art Institute of Chicago’s collection, and its online resource lists the artist as “Workshop of Cornelis Engebrechtsz” and the date as 1515-1525.

* * * * *

For more information on the historical circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth, see In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church, by Paul L. Maier.

Born in a Stable?

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Bible tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. It also tells us that he was born in a manger—a food trough for animals—because there was no room in the inn. But it may not have taken place in a barn-like structure with wooden walls as many paintings and manger scenes portray.

The hills of Judea were covered with caves, and it was common to use those caves to stable animals. The traditional site of Jesus’ birth is a cave below what is now the Church of the Nativity, shown in the first picture. The cave is still there (now called the Grotto of the Nativity), and a star marks the spot where the manger supposedly stood. That’s the second picture, with the multi-rayed star in the center of the fire-place-like opening.

Roland took both pictures during our family trip to the Middle East in 1998.

So is this location just another tradition? Technically, yes. And I’m not betting on the star marking the actual spot where the manger stood. But surprisingly enough, historians think it may really have been the stable in which Jesus was born. That’s because evidence of this traditional site goes all the way back to the second century.

Think about the stories passed down by your parents and grandparents. They may even have pointed out the house where a grandparent or great-grandparent was born. When this happens, three or four generations may pass before the information gets lost. And sometimes it lasts far beyond that.

If Mary pointed the stable out to some of the first Christians and they passed their knowledge down to their children and grandchildren, the information may still have been alive and correct in the second century. After that, the site was preserved by various other means, making it a serious contender.  

Have I stood in the stable where Jesus was born? Maybe. But no matter where the exact location is, I’m thankful for His birth.

* * * * *

For more information on the historical circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth, see In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church, by Paul L. Maier.

Was Jesus Really Born on December 25?

Monday, December 16, 2013

There is a 1 in 365 chance that Jesus was born on December 25.

No one knows the day or even the season when Jesus was born. The Bible doesn’t tell us, and the clues are inconclusive.

What the Bible does tell us is this: Jesus came to earth as an infant, born of a virgin, to save us from our sins. These facts are important, and they are recorded. The exact day of this birth is not. Obviously, God didn’t think we needed to know it.

But that doesn’t stop us from wondering.

I used to think that Jesus must have been born in the spring because the shepherds were in the fields watching their sheep, and sources I read equated that to lambing time. But modern-day visitors to Bethlehem can see shepherds in the fields all year round.

So why do we celebrate on December 25? To draw Christians away from the competition. Not from stores and shopping, but from pagan celebrations.

The early Church was surrounded by a Roman culture that celebrated the winter solstice on December 25, followed closely by the Saturnalia festival. These pagan festivities must have attracted and created a stumbling block for early Christians, so the Church sought to replace them with a celebration of its own. They did it by choosing December 25 to remember Christ’s birth.

And they had a 1 in 365 chance of being right.

* * * * *

The picture at the top of this post is titled “Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds” and was painted around 1639 by the Dutch artist Govert Flinck. The original painting is in the Louvre Museum’s collection.

* * * * *

For more information on the historical circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth, see In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church, by Paul L. Maier.

What Year Was Jesus Born?

Monday, December 9, 2013

The picture isn’t Jesus. It’s Herod the Great (also known as Herod I). And it’s because of him that we know Jesus wasn’t born in 1 A.D.

Matthew and Luke both tell us that Jesus was born during the reign of “Herod.” (See Matthew 2:1 and Luke 1:5.) Furthermore, this Herod died while Joseph and Mary and baby Jesus were in Egypt, and then Herod’s son Archelaus took over. (See Matthew 2:19-22.) Putting this together with other historical information, Biblical scholars agree that Jesus must have been born during the reign of Herod the Great.

(Historical evidence also tells us that Archelaus was soon replaced by his brother, Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas is the one who had John the Baptist beheaded and reviled Jesus before his crucifixion.)

Most historians place Herod the Great’s death in 4 B.C., although some date it as early as 5 B.C. or as late as 1 B.C. Unfortunately for our B.C./A.D. distinction, Herod the Great died too early. The sixth century monk Dionysius developed this dating system to revolve around the birth of Christ. (A.D. stands for anno Domini, which means “in the year of our Lord.") But given the probable date of Herod’s death, it’s likely that Jesus was born around 5 B.C. This means that Dionysius must have been at least one year but probably four to five years off.

So if you want to confuse your friends, tell them it’s 2018 A.D.

* * * * *
For more information on the historical circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth, see In the Fullness of Time: A Historian Looks at Christmas, Easter, and the Early Church, by Paul L. Maier.


Born of a Virgin? Really?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Yesterday was the first day of Advent, and I’m going to use my December posts to explore some questions about the first Christmas, starting with the virgin birth as told in Luke 1:26-37 (ESV).

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

That last line is key. The Bible tells of an omnipotent (all-powerful) God. What is impossible for us is possible for him.  

How did God make the virgin birth happen? I have no idea. Did He do it? I have no doubt.

I can understand people who believe that the Bible is all fiction. But I can’t understand the ones who pick and choose what they want from it.

If the Bible is true, so is the virgin birth. Some “scholars” argue that “virgin” is mistranslated and really means “young woman.” But if that were the case, why would Mary ask how she could be pregnant? She was already betrothed, so presumably she had been told the facts of life.

Okay, so what she really said was, “How can this be?” Some might argue that she was questioning how she, as a young woman, could become the mother of a great man. But that interpretation has its problems, too. Many young women raise great sons, and that was no different in Mary’s time and before. And the angel didn’t simply announce that Mary would be the mother of a great man. Her son was described as “the Son of the Most High” and “the Son of God” who would “reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Great men die. Mary’s son would be immortal.

And then there is the account in Matthew 1:18-25. When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he knew he wasn’t the father and thought she had committed adultery. But as he was getting ready to break off the engagement, an angel appeared to him in a dream, saying “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Then Matthew goes on to quote these words from Isaiah 7:14:

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.

If “virgin” meant simply “young woman,” would Joseph have been appeased by the angel’s words? If he still thought there was an earthly father, wouldn’t he have wondered why he wasn’t the one given the honor of helping Mary conceive this holy child?

If God is God, He is omnipotent. Any other type of God is impotent, and an impotent God is no God at all.

I believe in the omnipotent God of the Bible. That’s why I answer the title questions this way:

Born of a virgin. Really.

* * * * *

The picture at the top of this post is titled “Praying Virgin” and was painted around 1720 by an unknown Italian artist. The original painting is in The Art Institute of Chicago’s collection.

Another Voice in the Crowd

Monday, November 25, 2013

They say that there are a few events in history so unforgettable that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing at the time. September 11, 2001 was one of them. But for my generation, the first was President Kennedy’s assassination.

There are many voices out there right now to tell you where they were and what they were doing at the time. But by the 75th anniversary of President Kennedy’s death, most of those voices will be gone, and mine could be one of them. So this is the time to record my recollections for posterity, or at least for my own descendants.

On November 22, 1963, I was an 8th grader at DeTour Township School in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (That’s DeTour in the picture.) It was a small town, and the one-story brick building included all the grades. The elementary school classrooms were at one end, the high school classrooms were at the other, and junior high was sort of in the middle, although it shared some rooms with the high school.

I was in one of those shared rooms. Technically it was the home economics classroom, but it was also used for sex education (segregated by gender), and study hall. It was also the only room in the school with a television set.

I don’t remember the specific reason I was there that day, although I have a vague impression that it was a study hall. But I do remember the school secretary rushing in, crying. She said something like, “Turn on the TV. The President’s been shot.” We sat there watching the coverage until the principal announced that school was cancelled for the rest of the day.

School was also cancelled on Monday for the funeral. My first reaction was happiness. Not for the cause, of course, but because we had just recently gotten our first TV, and I was looking forward to watching the daytime shows.

But this was before cable, and all three channels showed the funeral procession and the funeral with flashbacks to and commentary on the assassination. I was totally bored. Now, that sounds callous. But at the time, I saw the world through twelve-year-old eyes.

It was, however, the first time I paid attention to national or world news. Even though I had lived in Jordon and Scotland by then, President Kennedy’s assassination changed “current events” from a school subject into a living one.

November 22, 1963. A day I will never forget.

Prepared for the Worst

Monday, November 18, 2013

At this time of year, the picture could show people lined up waiting for the door to open and the Black Friday sales to start. But in fact, this is a picture of people crammed inside a store waiting to get out. Or, in most cases, waiting to return to their shopping.

I wanted to get something from Target yesterday. The Chicago Bears game had just been suspended because of the threat of severe weather and tornados. Still, the satellite picture seemed to indicate that I’d have time to run my errands before the bad weather hit our town.

But the storm traveled faster than I did.

I had just finished checking out but was still in the store when the staff announced that we should leave our carts where they were and follow employees to a safe area. They had walkie-talkies and were monitoring them, and one employee led us to an interior hallway. More and more people kept coming, and soon we were packed in, not quite like sardines, but without a lot of personal space. You can get an idea from the picture, which I took with my phone.

The staff let us know when the threat was over, and we went back to our business. I doubt that the storm lasted more than half an hour, but when I left the store I drove through flooded streets, and the news was full of reports of tornados touching down in the surrounding areas.

Target had a plan, and the staff knew how to execute it. I was impressed.

And grateful.

Honoring America's Veterans

Monday, November 11, 2013

On this Veterans’ Day, I want to honor my two Navy men and all the men and women whose service has made this country strong. But I’m not going to use my own words, because Ralph Waldo Emerson said it much better than I can.

A Nation's Strength

Ralph Waldo Emerson

What makes a nation's pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng? 
It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock. 
Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.
And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.
Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor's sake
Stand fast and suffer long.
Brave men who work while others sleep
Who dare while others fly...
They build a nation's pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.

Thank you for your service.

Autumn in the Midwest

Monday, November 4, 2013

Saturday I drove to Indianapolis for a writers’ luncheon. On the way down, the sun was still fighting the darkness and a fine mist veiled the scenery, so I barely noticed the trees. But on the return trip, the sun highlighted the gorgeous fall colors.

That and a few lines in a poem written by a friend inspired me to write this one.

A Feast for the Eyes

Driving alone I-65,
The trees are a candy store assortment
Of cinnamon, tangerine drops, and butterscotch. 

Walking through a duneland forest,
The path is a farmstand cornucopia
With cranberries, walnuts, and butternut squash. 

Living autumn days,
The landscape is a Midwest banquet
That feasts the eyes while feeding the soul.

A New Office and an Old Saint

Monday, October 28, 2013

The title is a little misleading. I have a newly remodeled office in the same place it has been for the last year and a half, and sixty-four isn’t old these days. I’m also using the word “saint” in its secular meaning rather than its Christian one (although Roland meets that one, too, in the sense that all Christians are saints).

I’ve been wanting wood floors in my office ever since we moved into this condo and I ended up in a carpeted room, but we didn’t have the time or the money then. I also got stuck with the wrong bookcases, which looked the worse for wear after surviving the flood of 2008. (My April 30, 2012 post explains how I ended up with them.)

So I’m excited that I finally got to redo my office. You can see the new cherry floors in the picture at the top of this post and two of my four new bookcases in the one below. I also got new window coverings, and we painted the walls a mint green.

Roland painted the walls, that is. He also assembled the bookcases and helped me move the heavier furniture out of and back into the office. Then there is the fact that my meticulous husband was willing to spend half a week in cramped rooms filled with extra furniture and piles of books.
I knew on my wedding day that I was marrying a keeper. I still know it over thirty-four years later.
The office needed a makeover, but I’ll take the saint just as he is.

Sharing Blog Posts

Monday, October 21, 2013

This is not a legal blog, nor is it aimed at writers (although I do have some writers among my audience). But recently I’ve had several inquiries about using material posted on other blogs, so I thought you might be interested in how the copyright laws apply. That way, if you want to pass on an interesting post, you’ll know what to do.

Blog posts are copyrighted. They don’t require any magic words or even the copyright symbol. Just assume that you need permission to copy them for distribution.

You can provide a link, however. Research papers include a bibliography so that others can find the sources and read them. A link is simply another way of providing source information.

There are three exceptions to the general rule that you need to get permission. While they are too complicated for a blog post, I have included brief summaries. For a more detailed discussion, see my book Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal (KP/PK Publishing 2013), available from Amazon.

  • Titles, names, short phrases, slogans, ideas, and facts cannot be copyrighted.

  • “Fair” uses. The copyright laws protect fair uses, but what uses are fair? Unfortunately, there is no bright-line test. Still, the courts usually find that parody, reviews, news reporting, and research are fair uses as long as the user doesn’t borrow more than is necessary to make his or her point. Reprinting an entire blog post is rarely a fair use.

  • Material in the public domain is not protected by copyright. Works that were published before 1923 are in the public domain. Some later works are, too, but there the rules get trickier. If a blog quotes something you know is in the public domain (e.g., a sonnet by William Shakespeare), you can use the quoted material any way you wish.

If you want to share a blog post and don’t know whether your use falls within an exception, get permission or just provide the link. It’s as simple as that.

Wanted: Superhuman Pastor

Monday, October 14, 2013

October is Pastor Appreciation Month, and I’m dedicating this post to my son-in-law, Peter Ill (shown in the picture on his ordination day), and my pastor, Donald Stock. The two men are in similar positions right now. Each is currently serving as the associate pastor of a large church (over 1,000 members) with a school and a senior pastor vacancy, meaning that each is currently the sole pastor of a congregation that should have at least two pastors.

As a minister’s daughter, I know what congregations expect from their pastors and their pastors’ families. Here is a template want ad for a senior pastor, but it works equally well for associate, assistant, and sole pastors. If your denomination ordains women, feel free to change the gender-specific words.

Wanted, Senior Pastor. Position requires 150 hours a week attending meetings, counseling members, visiting the sick, teaching confirmation and Bible classes, leading services, and evangelizing. [If the church has a school, add “The position also requires working with school staff to raise funds and pacify the parent-teacher’s association.”] The winning candidate will be a dedicated family man who is actively involved in the community and spends many hours in Bible study and prayer. Someone who can go without sleep is preferred. Sermons should rival those of great orators such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, and Billy Graham but must be given extemporaneously since the pastor will not have time to prepare them in advance. The candidate must be all things to all men, women, and children. Sinners need not apply.

The ideal candidate will have a spouse who views being a pastor’s wife as her full-time occupation and who will also be a dedicated wife and mother. Children should be perfect angels who can spout Scripture upon demand and unselfishly stand aside to let other children attend events with limited capacity or win awards that the minister’s child has earned.

Pastor and family are not allowed to complain about anything that happens at church or home. They must be gracious at all times, even when the congregation cuts the pastor’s salary or insurance benefits and provides substandard housing.

If you are qualified for this position, please send your resume to [fill in name and address here].

Satire aside, this is the month to make a special effort to say thank-you and pray for your pastor. I emphasize special effort because you should be doing both all year long.

Thank you, Pastors Ill and Stock. I’m praying for you.

Natural Strength Training

Monday, October 7, 2013

I walk regularly, but I’m remiss in my strength training.
Except for this past Friday.
I’ll be re-doing my office later this month, with wood floors and new paint and window coverings. But I also ordered four bookcases to replace the crummy ones I have now. Although I don’t need them for almost three weeks, I placed the order early because the website made it sound as if the free delivery came by mule cart.
When I returned from my walk on Friday morning, there were four big boxes in the hall outside my condo unit. Each box was 72 by 18 inches and, according to the information stamped on it, weighed 98.56 pounds. I wish I’d taken a picture of the boxes stacked in the hall, but I had already brought them inside before I thought of it. The picture at the top of this post shows two of the boxes after I wrestled them into our unit.
My first thought was that the boxes were too narrow. At that point, I fervently hoped that the back came in two pieces (it did). Since Roland was at work, my second thought was to wonder how I would get them into the unit all by myself. I suppose I could have called a neighbor for help, but I’m too stubborn.
One box was standing on end, leaning against the wall. I managed to shuffle all 100 pounds of it to the door, angle it slightly to get it over the threshold, and lean it against the wall in the foyer. A second box was lying on top of the other two, so I slid it off and wrestled it onto its end. Then I shuffled it in as I had done with the first one.
The other two were a bigger challenge. From their totally prone position, where was no way I could get them to stand on end. Shoving them from behind looked as if it would work until I bumped up against the threshold. Unfortunately, I couldn’t lift them even the fraction of an inch necessary to get them over it.
But human ingenuity is a marvelous thing. I used a screwdriver to cut the tops open, then removed several shelves. That lightened each box enough so I could lift it slightly and slide it over the threshold. The open end of the box also gave me a handhold to pull rather than push. You can see the open ones in the last picture.

I’m just grateful that someone let the delivery men into the building so I didn’t have to get those boxes into the elevator and down the hall.

But who needs a gym for strength training when bookcases will do?

Calling a New Pastor

Monday, September 30, 2013

My church is in the process of calling a new senior pastor. The Call Committee will present three names to the Voters Assembly tonight, and we will vote to issue a call to one of them.

The process in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod is both similar to and different than the call process I experienced growing up in the United Presbyterian Church. In both cases, the congregation gets to decide who they want to call, and the minister gets to accept or reject it. And both denominations rely on God’s guidance for the decisions to extend and accept (or reject) the call. But the process in the Presbyterian Church gave the voting members of the congregation a chance to hear a sermon and talk to a candidate before voting, while the LCMS is concerned that too much vetting will turn it into a secular hiring process.

Still, the process revived memories of my own experiences, and I wanted to share a couple of them with you.

When I was growing up, the search committee came to my father’s current church, heard him preach, and talked with him after the service. If they liked him better than they liked any of the other candidates, they asked him to come to their church on a Sunday morning to preach. Afterwards, the members of the congregation who stayed for the meeting would ask him questions before voting. Of course, we would not be there during the discussion and the vote. That’s when someone usually took us over to see what Presbyterians call the manse (a parsonage to some denominations) where we would live if Daddy became the minister of that church. I think there may have been a potluck in between the service and the meeting at some of the churches, but I don’t remember for sure.

Two things stand out for me. The first is what I referred to as Daddy’s “candidating” sermon. He always used the same one. I liked the sermon but thought it was a little misleading. Daddy was an intellectual who liked to explain what the Bible meant in the original Greek or Hebrew and whose sermons were filled with Biblical history and geography. That took the first two-thirds of his usual sermons, with the last third as practical application. His candidating sermon (“Fishing Season is Open”) was more folksy than normal. If people were misled, however, I never heard them complain about it.

The other strong memory is when Daddy candidated in Schoolcraft, Michigan at what he hoped would be (and was) his last congregation. Mama did not like the manse (pictured above), which was poorly insulated. But the biggest problem was the bedrooms. They were large but there were only two of them for my parents, my two brothers, and myself. And neither room was quite large enough to divide into two. I don’t know how my father talked my mother into it, but he accepted the call. It was a good decision: my parents were happy with the church and the church was happy with them. (Unfortunately, I had to share a bedroom with my parents. Fortunately, I was in college and only home summers and holidays.)

At least our new minister will get to chose his own home.

Never Safe

Monday, September 23, 2013

When I heard there had been a shooting at the Washington Naval Yard, my first reaction was a selfish one: I was thankful that it didn’t happen at Newport News, Virginia, where my son’s ship—the USS Abraham Lincoln—is in dry dock for refueling and overhauling.

When people hear that John is in the service, they think of danger. When I tell them he is assigned to a ship that is being refurbished and may not even go to sea until his enlistment is up, they think he is safe. But last Monday’s shootings and 9-11 both remind us that death can come at any time and any place.

For me, September 11, 2001 began in a conference room in Chicago waiting for the weekly management meeting to start. As usual, we had a video hook-up with our New York office, located only a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Around 8:00 a.m. Chicago time, the manager of our New York office was called out of the room. When Joe returned to the video conference, he said his building was being evacuated and left abruptly.

At that time I was flying to New York on business every couple of months. My company held two Board meetings a year at Windows on the World at the top of Tower 1, and I sometimes browsed the shops in the concourse. So I could have been there.

Our building in Chicago was close to the Sears Tower, so it was also evacuated. I got home just after noon and sent an e-mail to my family reassuring them that I was not in New York. But it wasn’t until I got a frantic call from my daughter, who was away at college, that I realized I should have used the telephone rather than just sending an e-mail.

Yes, death can come anywhere, at any time. The important thing is to be ready.

But what does it take to be ready?

Romans 10:9 says: “That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, You will be saved.” (NIV)

Faith in Christ is the only way to heaven. Referring to Christ, Acts 4:12 puts it this way: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (NIV)

I feel for the family members and friends of the victims of the Washington shooting and for the family of the shooter. But I am also concerned for the victims themselves. I hope they were ready for death when it came.

From Pen to Typewriter to Windows 8

Monday, September 16, 2013

My laptop went into hospice care last week. It's an essential tool for my writing career, and I was terrified that it would die at the most inconvenient moment. So I replaced it.
I exaggerate, of course. A computer isn’t an essential tool. Shakespeare wrote with pen and ink and Hemingway used an old-fashioned typewriter, yet they both managed to produce master works that are still selling today. And when I’m away from my computer, I use pen and ink, too. So a working laptop isn’t a necessity.
But it is a huge convenience.
Typewriters were the technological preference of most individuals when I was in college. They were imperfect time-savers. To make corrections, I used an eraser, whiteout, or correction tape. Not very professional looking. So I had two alternatives: (1) hire someone else to type my papers or (2) type each page until it came out error-free. I was too cheap (or too poor) to do the first, so I chose the time-consuming second option.
Then there was that back-up copy. Before the invention of carbon paper, it was done manually. I used carbon paper, but that had its problems, too. Correcting the copy was a messy job that often left an unreadable blob where the error had been. Thank goodness for the invention of the photocopy machine.
I’m sure it was even worse in Shakespeare’s time. Imagine re-copying everything in long hand.
Now the computer saves our changes and spits out back-up copies in seconds. Sometimes it even makes changes automatically—whether we want them or not. (I’m a big fan of turning off most of the auto-correct options.)
In my 30 or 40 years of computer ownership, I’ve progressed from DOS to various versions of Windows, including Vista, XP, and, most recently, Windows 7. Now I have to get used to Windows 8.
New technologies can be daunting, and we have to be careful not to rely on them. But I can’t imagine going back to my typewriter days.

The First Americans

Monday, September 9, 2013

I come from good American stock, but it is not old American stock. My ancestors didn’t immigrate from England and Germany and Canada until the 1800s.

The Native Americans were here hundreds of years before that.

Roland and I ended our vacation at Cahokia Mounds near Collinsville, Illinois. Cahokia Mounds is an ancient city built by tribes of the Mississippian culture. From approximately 700 to 1200 A.D., they were the North American version of the Mayans and the Aztecs. Like Americans today, the Mississippians were a diverse population: farmers, craftsmen, fishers, hunters, and traders. With a population between ten and twenty thousand, Cahokia was the largest city north of Mexico. The picture at the top of this post is an artist’s rendering of what Cahokia may have looked like.

Unfortunately, the Mississippian cities did not stand up to weather and intruders as well as the Mayan and Aztec cities did. This is because people tend to use the building materials that are most readily available. In Central and South America, that was stone. Here, it was dirt. So although the Mississippian structures were just as large, they were neither as impressive nor as long-lasting. Still, some did survive. The second picture shows what archaeologists have named “Monks Mound,” which is the largest structure at Cahokia. Those are stairs climbing its face, and there are plenty of them.

Although the Mississippians disappeared around 1200, they were the forefathers of the Native Americans who populated the continent when the white man arrived. Native Americans like the Shawnees.

In the middle of our vacation, we stopped at the Shawnee Indian Mission in Fairway, Kansas. It consisted of three brick buildings, one of which is shown in the third picture. The Mission was a boarding school (1839-1862) founded to “Americanize” the Shawnee children to help them fit into the white man’s world. Apparently the Shawnees themselves were split on whether that was good or bad, but on the whole I think it was a shame that those children lost their cultural identity.

As we look back on the history of this great country, let’s not forgot to honor its original settlers.

Another Type of Pioneer

Monday, September 2, 2013

Labor Day celebrates the American worker. It may have started with labor unions, but it soon grew broader than that.

This post celebrates an American worker who was also a pioneer. She made great strides for American women, proving that they have as much courage as men and are capable of doing many of the same things, including joining them in the skies. And although it wasn’t exactly a labor union, Amelia Earhart was one of the founders and the first president of the Ninety-Nines—an organization of women pilots that still exists today.

On our summer vacation, Roland and I visited Amelia Earhart’s birthplace in Atchison, Kansas. She was born at her maternal grandparents’ house, shown in the second picture. She also spent a lot of time there during her early years.

Amelia was always a dare-devil. The third picture shows a replica of the roller coaster she built in her grandparent’s back yard after seeing one at the 1904 World’s Fair. I don’t know if the scale is correct or if the one Amelia built was taller. Amelia Earhart: Young Aviator by Beatrice Gormley (part of the Childhood of Famous Americans series), has the roller coaster starting at the top of a tool shed. Either way, her grandparents soon put a stop to the experiment.  

But they couldn’t stop Amelia’s quest for adventure.

Among Amelia’s many accomplishments were being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean (unfortunately, she was not allowed to pilot the plane on this 1928 flight); the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic (1932); the first woman to fly nonstop across the U.S. (coast to coast in 1933); and the first person (male or female) to fly solo between Honolulu, Hawaii and Oakland, California (1935).

Those achievements weren’t enough for her. She also wanted to be the first woman to fly around the world at its greatest circumference: the Equator. She would take a navigator with her and make several stops for fuel and a little sightseeing.

On May 21, 1937, Amelia and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Oakland, California, in an Electra airplane. They headed from west to east, and everything went fine for most of the trip. Amelia and Fred made it to Lae, New Guinea without any major problems. They were now about three-quarters of the way through their planned route.

When they left Lae, they headed for tiny Howland Island, where they would refuel before continuing on to Honolulu. The crew estimated that they had about twenty hours worth of fuel, which left them little margin for error.

Ships from the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard monitored the Electra’s radio signals. Amelia and Fred maintained radio contact most of the way, but there were indications that they were having problems with their radio. And in those days before sophisticated equipment, the radio was a crucial navigational aid.

The last communication from the Electra came a little over twenty hours into the flight. Amelia’s message indicated that the crew was having trouble finding Howland Island.

Amelia and Fred were lost at sea on July 2, 1937. After an exhaustive search for the plane, Amelia was declared legally dead on January 5, 1939.

There have been many theories about what happened. The two most widely accepted are: (1) the plane ran out of fuel over the Pacific Ocean or (2) knowing that their fuel situation was desperate, Amelia and Fred tried to land on the uninhabited Gardner Island and ended up crashing on the reef. Either situation would have killed them.

Although the official search ended long ago, adventurers and researchers still spend significant time and money looking for remnants of the Electra and answers to its disappearance. Maybe one day we will know the rest of the story, but that day isn’t here yet.

Even so, Americans are indebted to Amelia Earhart for her pioneering spirit and her example to other women.

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The photo at the head of this post shows Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan. The picture is in the public domain.

Steamboat Days

Monday, August 26, 2013

Some pioneers and goods traveled west by steamboat. As noted in last week’s post, the Missouri River made a great road. For the times. If you were lucky.

In the years before the Civil War, steamboats carried passengers and freight up and down the Missouri River. It could be a hazardous journey. The river was constantly changing course and washing away the riverbanks, causing trees to fall into the water. The submerged trees were the death of many a steamboat.

That includes the Arabia. On September 5, 1856, it hit a submerged log that ripped open the hull. The boat was close to the banks and took a while to sink, so passengers and crew had time to climb into a rowboat that made multiple trips until every human being on board was safely on shore. The only casualty was a mule who had been tied up and was forgotten in the scramble.

The boat’s owners may have thought they could come back in the morning to salvage the cargo, but by that time most of the Arabia had sunk into the silt. The boat and its cargo were lost.

Fast forward 130 years, when several local businessmen heard about the Arabia and became obsessed with finding and recovering it. They were ordinary small businessmen, not scientists or archaeologists or even historians, but they studied and they learned and they did it right. After locating the steamboat in a farmer’s field and getting the farmer’s permission to excavate the site, the men took all possible precautions to preserve the boat and its contents.

Our vacation included a stop at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, where the history and the cargo are on display. Much of the ship had crumbled over the years, but most of the cargo was intact. That includes china, woolen goods (coats, bolts of fabric, and hats), and even wooden clothes pins. All of the cotton dresses had disintegrated, but they left thousands of buttons behind.

Fashions change and dryers have replaced clothes pins, but I appreciate people who preserve our history.

The Lure of the West

Monday, August 19, 2013

Can you name the longest river in North America? No, it isn’t the Mississippi. The correct answer is the Missouri. It starts on the western edge of Montana and flows east partway through North Dakota before turning south. It continues south through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa; cuts through the north-east corner of Kansas; and flows east again through Missouri before joining the Mississippi River just north of St. Louis.

The Missouri River is deep and wide and makes a great road for river travel. No wonder Lewis and Clark chose to follow it on their way west.

The picture at the top of this post shows the Missouri River at Fort Osage, which was one of the sites we saw while on vacation. The original fort was built under the direction of William Clark. (Yes, that’s the Clark from Lewis and Clark. He noticed the location while on his expedition west and thought it would be a good place for an outpost.) The fort functioned as both a military compound to foster good relations with the Indians and a trading post between 1808 and 1827. The second picture shows the current buildings, which are a reproduction.

River travel wasn’t the only way west, of course. Another of our sightseeing stops was at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri, which is dedicated to the three overland trails that began at or near Independence: the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail, and the Oregon Trail.

Heading west meant leaving extended family and friends behind, and the parting at journey’s beginning was often the last time they saw each other. But that didn’t mean the pioneers forgot the people they left behind, and they made use of every opportunity to send or receive letters. How those letters arrived changed over time, but for a year and a half (from April 1860 to October 1861), they travelled by Pony Express.

St. Joseph, Missouri, has a Pony Express Museum located in the original Pony Express stable (partially reconstructed after a fire). There were Pony Express stations all along the way where riders changed horses several times before they handed the mail pouch off to another rider.

The Pony Express service was inaugurated with a race between mail heading west and mail heading east. Both left on April 3, 1860 and took ten days, but the westbound mail arrived in Sacramento before the eastbound mail arrived in St. Joseph. They didn’t leave at the same time, however, so I’m not sure who actually won.

The last two pictures show the Pony Express Museum/Stable and a tableau of the start of the race from St. Joseph.

I may be a Midwestern girl at heart, but I'm still fascinated by the lure of the West.

The Forgotten War

Monday, August 12, 2013

Until World War II came along, World War I was called “the great war” and “the war to end all wars.” It was the first war featuring airplanes and armored tanks and chemical warfare and submarines. (Although submarines had been used in earlier wars, their design turned them into one hit wonders. See my August 6, 2012 blog post on the H.L. Hunley.)

So why are there so few World War I memorials compared to World War II memorials? At least it seems that way in our U.S. travels, where Roland and I have seen several memorials and museums dedicated to World War II and its various battles but none (that I remember) dedicated to World War I.
Until last month, that is. On our vacation to Kansas City, Missouri, we visited the
World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial, pictured above. The second picture shows the grounds as taken from the top of the tower.

Why did we enter World War I? After all, the war was happening “over there” and had little direct impact on the U.S. Although some Americans travelled to Europe to volunteer to fight or to serve as nurses in field hospitals and many immigrants worried about their relatives in Europe, the war didn’t touch most people living in this country. Then Germany sank the Lusitania, a British passenger ship, and American lives were lost. (See my July 2, 2012 post.) Even then, the U.S. was reluctant to enter the war.

Historians don’t agree on the actual precipitating event, and it may be a combination of several factors, including the Lusitania. Then there was the British interception and decoding of what is known as “the Zimmerman note.” The message from Germany’s foreign minister, Arthur Zimmerman, to the German ambassador in Mexico involved a German plot to persuade Mexico to declare war against the U.S. in order to keep us occupied and out of the war against Germany. And it didn’t help Germany’s cause that its submarines seemed to be targeting U.S. cargo ships after Germany had promised President Wilson that it would leave neutral shipping alone. If Germany was trying to discourage our participation, its actions had the opposite effect.

There is practically no one left who remembers World War I, and that may be part of the reason it tends to be forgotten. But the Civil War was even earlier, and that war still generates significant interest. So the problem is probably the seeming remoteness of the war’s effect on Americans. The Civil War was fought on our soil: World War I was not. U.S. involvement in World War II also started on our soil—or at least in a U.S. territory at a U.S. military base—when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and it took us by surprise. Our involvement in those wars also lasted longer and had more American casualties.*

Still, World War I was a significant episode in U.S. history, and it is worth remembering.

* * * * *

* The Civil War lasted for four years with approximately 625,000 casualties (Union and Confederate combined), and our involvement in World War II also lasted almost four years with just over 400,000 U.S. casualties. The U.S. involvement in World War I, in contrast, lasted less than two years (April 6, 1917 – November 11, 1918) with less than 125,000 casualties.

Learning Our Heritage

Monday, August 5, 2013

Can you recite the U.S. Presidents in order? I can’t. But I can, and do, enjoy learning about them. Many people don’t realize how much history they can absorb just by visiting the Presidential Libraries spread across the country.
When Roland and I went on vacation last month, we spent the majority of it in Kansas City, Missouri. What is there to do in Kansas City, you ask? More than we had time for in six days. The vacation was actually eleven days because we made some other stops to and from, but Kansas City was our main destination.
Okay, so we aren’t into beach vacations. Well, Roland might be, but I’m not. Since we both enjoy learning about history, many of our trips have that as the focus. This one was no exception.
Our first stop was West Branch, Iowa, where we visited the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (pictured above). The library part of any Presidential Library is primarily a research facility, with that president’s papers as the backbone of a larger collection. These libraries are manna for biographers.
The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, like most, is also a museum, which is the part aimed at the general public. The exhibits show Herbert Hoover’s life and times and include many interesting tidbits. Did you know that Hoover met his wife while they were both geology students at Stanford University? In the late 1800s, that made Lou a very progressive woman.
Herbert Hoover’s birthplace is located in the same complex. The second picture shows the tiny house. Two small rooms for a family of five. 

The second day we were in Kansas City, we visited the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. The third picture is the building, and the fourth shows one of the exhibits: a reproduction of the Oval Office during Truman's tenure.

Here’s another interesting tidbit. Even though Harry Truman and Bess Wallace knew each other since they were children, they did not get married until they were in their 30s. Bess’s well-to-do parents did not want her to marry Harry because he was just a farmer without a college education, and he was also a poor businessman. Guess they couldn’t see that presidential job coming . . . .

The U.S. government runs Presidential Libraries and Museums for every former President from Herbert Hoover through George W. Bush. You can find their locations at this link: Some earlier Presidents also have Presidential Libraries and Museums run by private foundations. I’m aware of (and have visited) two: the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum located in Springfield, Illinois, and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum located in Staunton, Virginia.

If you want to teach your children about their American heritage or learn about your own, check out the Presidential Libraries.

Lighthouse Daughters--Ida Lewis

Monday, July 29, 2013

Abbie Burgess Grant was a well-known, romantic figure in her day, but Ida Lewis may have been the most famous of the lighthouse daughters.

Idawalley (Ida) Zorada Lewis’s father was appointed keeper of the beacon on Lime Rock in 1853, but he did not move his family there until 1857, after the government constructed a dwelling on the tiny island. The oldest of four children, Ida was 15 when they moved to the lighthouse.

Four months later, Ida’s father had a paralyzing stroke. Between them, Ida and her mother managed both the lighthouse and a household that included Ida’s paralyzed father and an invalid sister. Because of these responsibilities, Ida did not have time to attend school. She did play an important role in her siblings’ education, however.

The lighthouse was surrounded by water. The only way to make the one-third mile trip to shore was by boat. Ida was already an excellent swimmer, and she now became an excellent rower as she ferried her siblings to and from school. She also picked up supplies when needed.

A newspaper article credited Ida’s father with this quote:

            Again and again I have seen the children from this window as they were returning from school in some heavy blow, when Ida alone was with them, and old sailor that I am, I felt that I would not give a penny for their lives, so furious was the storm.

But Ida always got them home safely.

Ida’s rowing and swimming skills were to make her famous. She is officially credited with saving 18 lives, but she kept no records and the actual count is probably much higher.

The first recorded rescue occurred in 1858, when Ida was sixteen. Four boys went out for a sail, and one of them decided to show off by climbing to the top of the mast and rocking the boat back and forth. The boat capsized, and the four youths struggled to hold on to the overturned boat. Ida rowed over and pulled each of the four into her own boat.

Several of Ida’s rescues occurred when soldiers were returning to Fort Adams after a night of too much drinking. It strained the wiry Ida to pull these uncooperative men into her boat, but she never thought twice before helping them.

At one of those times, Ida was sick with a cold and was warming her feet at the fire when her mother cried out that a boat had overturned. Ida ran to the soldiers’ aid without taking time to put on a coat or shoes. With the help of a younger brother, she pulled two men into her boat in the middle of a snowstorm. She later received a Congressional medal for this rescue.

Because the lighthouse was so close to shore, and with Ida’s growing fame as a rescuer, tourists swarmed over the tiny island, interrupting the family's solitude and leaving litter and destruction everywhere. Ida also had some famous visitors, including President Ulysses S. Grant.

After a four-year engagement to William Wilson, Ida married him in 1870 and quickly regretted it. Although she never got a divorce, she soon returned—alone—to Lime Rock.

Ida and her mother continued to keep the Lime Rock Light for Ida’s father until his death in 1872, when Ida’s mother became the official keeper. Ida received the appointment in 1879 and continued it until her death in 1911.

* * * * *

For more information on Ida Lewis and Lime Rock Light Station, see pages 42-48 of Mind the Light, Katie and/or check out the following websites:

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The illustration shows Ida Lewis on the cover of the July 31, 1869 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Lighthouse Daughters--Abbie Burgess (Grant)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Unlike Catherine Moore, Abbie Burgess did not have to go outside to light the lights. The 28 lamps hung in two stone towers attached to opposite ends of the keeper’s dwelling. But that didn’t mean it was an easy life.

Matinicus Rock Light Station was a lonely, barren outcropping located five miles from Maine’s Matinicus Island and twenty miles from the mainland. Fourteen-year-old Abbie moved there in 1853 when her father received the lighthouse keeper’s job. At the time of the move, the family also consisted of Abbie’s invalid mother, an older brother who was usually gone with the fishing boats, and two younger sisters. (Abbie also had other siblings, all older, who no longer lived at home.)

Abbie’s father wanted to earn additional money as a lobster fisherman, so he trained Abbie to help with the lights while he was away.

A lighthouse tender was supposed to bring supplies twice a year, but it wasn’t dependable. By January 1856, the delivery due September 1855 had still not arrived. Desperate for supplies, Abbie’s father sailed to Matinicus Island for food and medicine, leaving seventeen-year-old Abbie in charge of the light. A month-long gale blew in soon after he left, and it was weeks before he could return.

Worried about the dwelling’s low-lying position, Abbie moved her family into one of the towers. She wrote this in a letter to a friend:

            You know the hens were our only companions. Being convinced, as the gale increased, that unless they were brought into the house they would be lost, I said to mother: “I must try to save them.” She advised me not to attempt it. The thought, however, of parting with them without an effort was not to be endured, so seizing a basket, I ran out a few yards after the rollers had passed and the sea fell off a little, with the water knee deep, to the coop, and rescued all but one. It was the work of a moment, and I was back in the house with the door fastened, but none too quick, for at that instant my little sister, standing at a window, exclaimed, “Oh, look! look there! the worst sea is coming!”

Through it all, Abbie kept the lights burning.

The job as lighthouse keeper was a political appointment, and Abbie’s father lost his position to a Republican appointee in 1860. Abbie stayed to help the new keeper and fell in love with his son, Isaac Grant. Isaac and Abbie raised four children and remained on Matinicus Rock until 1875, when they transferred to Whitehead Light near Spruce Head, Maine. Both resigned in 1890 due to Abbie’s poor health. She died two years later at the age of 53.

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For more information on Abbie Burgess Grant and Matinicus Rock Light Station, see pages 21-25 of Mind the Light, Katie and/or check out the following websites:

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The picture is the cover illustration from the May 2, 1882 issue of Harper’s Young People: An Illustrated Weekly. Abbie Burgess may have been the inspiration for the drawing.