Your memories may vary.

I once wrote a story about a reunion of children who had lived in a particular institution in Fort Wayne. Can’t recall the name of the place — Something House — and it had been closed for decades; the children were all of grandparenting age themselves when they decided to get together.

Something House was a place the likes of which we no longer have in our society. It wasn’t an orphanage, but for children whose parents could no longer afford to keep them. There was no welfare then, no AFDC, but we weren’t barbarians — we cared for children who needed care.

Kids stayed for weeks or years. Most had lost one parent, usually a mother, and the surviving one was simply overwhelmed with the responsibility. Others were from families who were just poor, or had suffered reversals that required the children be farmed out while parents relocated and reestablished themselves in another city or state. There was a procedure in place for parents to visit their kids, but not take them home. It sounded like visiting hours at any institution — everyone dressed up, small gifts, a nervous tousle of the hair and a quick goodbye.

It sounds perfectly awful, but the former residents described a merry Disney movie of bunk beds, raucous mealtimes and a pervasive feeling of love and camaraderie, “The Cider House Rules” with Michael Caine bidding them goodnight. The reunion was all fun and stories and laughter; the most uncomfortable memory anyone shared was of the weekly dose of castor oil.

Several of these adults expressed the opinion that our society needed to bring these places back, that giving money to poor people to care for their own children only invited waste of public money, that kids “need structure,” which Something House had in spades. It was a fashionable opinion at the time that had the added advantage of never having a chance in the world of happening, so purveyors of the “bring back the orphanage” movement only had to talk the talk; no walking necessary.

Some weeks after the story ran, I received an angry, nearly illegible letter from a woman from out of state, who said she wished she’d known about the reunion so she could have come and told the story about a delivery man who paid a weekly call and was given unsupervised access to the girls’ dormitory rooms, where he — well, you know. Fumbling and secrets and shhh don’t tell anyone. She cursed the place every day she lived there, and had spent her life trying to put the memories behind her. I tried to find her, but she didn’t respond to my letter. The more I thought about her story, the more I believed she was telling the truth. That didn’t mean the other residents’ stories weren’t true, only that not everyone had the same rosy memories, that child molestation is nothing new, and that predators will take advantage of the powerless. That’s all.

Around that time, my best friend was working for a publisher that specialized in the good ol’ days, and she supervised the production of a book of reader memories of the Great Depression. All these people had been children then, and their stories were like the reunion memories of Something House, of adults who kept up a brave front while standing in food lines, who made milk toast suppers seem like haute cuisine, who slept five to a bed with their siblings and remembered it as a nest of puppies, not a tangle of sharp elbows. A few weeks ago, “This American Life” ran a show featuring the oral histories collected by Studs Terkel, covering the same period. Many of these people were kids then, too, but were from the illegible-letter school — they remembered hunger, evictions, parents who came home and took their frustrations out on their kids, things common sense should tell us go along with a 25 percent unemployment rate, but things we’ve tried to forget. To talk to some, the Current Unpleasantness will fade some day, and we’ll be left with Busby Berkeley movies and a lot of new ways to stretch a food dollar.

Well, perhaps.

All of this is, perhaps, a ridiculously long-winded setup for two stories I read in the Sunday paper, which I’m offering as a conversation-starter today:

One is about how worldwide unemployment is opening the door on a host of other issues, many of which could have an impact on the world’s political landscape. Idle hands aren’t only the devil’s workshop, they also tend to rewrite national economic policies in ways we might not be comfortable with, change or reverse immigration patterns and, um, smash windows. Recommended.

The second was the NYT Book Review, a look at “Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World,” about not the ones of our period, but of the late 1920s and ’30s, whose mismanagement of world economies led to, among other things, the rise of Adolf Hitler. Just in case you didn’t think the stakes were high enough, you know.

I guess my point is this: We don’t know what’s going to happen at the other end of this, but common sense suggests we should consider all the stories about the past, not only the ones that confirm our prejudices. Just a thought.

Happy Monday to you all, the start of another week.

Posted at 1:15 am in Current events |

46 responses to “Your memories may vary.”

  1. Dexter said on February 16, 2009 at 1:43 am

    Time Warner finally got around to giving us On Demand the other day, and today I watched ‘Strummer’ , a documentary on Joe Strummer, the late member of The Clash.
    Joe was the son of a British diplomat who was shuffled all around the world; Joe was born in Turkey and was reared in too many places to mention, including Mexico City, Berlin, and somewhere in Africa.
    Joe was then placed in a home in England very similar to Something House, I am guessing.
    Joe’s friends were interviewed and they said Joe quickly realized he had to be in control of his immediate surroundings to survive the place. This wasn’t totally explained, but Joe had the charisma and authority-air about him, enough to command respect , and not be beaten up, or who knows what else could have happened. He thrived at the place. The rest of the story of his life is just as interesting as the first part…what a life he had!
    I grew up about twenty miles from Ft. Wayne, and I heard cruel childhood jokes about the Fort Wayne State School. I assumed it was a state institution but maybe it was named simply because it was on State Boulevard..please don’t “DUH!!” me!
    Ou neighbors had a daughter everybody called “slow”, and she was committed to the State School when she was in her late teens.
    The State School was always sort of a mystery to me. As a teen we were told it was a home for “retards”.
    For a long time, that word was almost banned … now I hear it a lot on the radio…it just seems very non-p.c.
    Anyway,I know the Ft. Wayne State School been closed for decades.

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  2. moe99 said on February 16, 2009 at 3:54 am

    Memories are funny things particularly paired with the Depression or WW2.

    My ex husband’s mother was the daughter of a German Reformed minister in Archbold,OH. They were driving one day and the car got stuck on the railroad tracks and her parents and a brother were killed. Her father actually lingered for a period of time, and it is very likely that he was tended to by the Drs. Murbach in Archbold who were my great-great uncles on my father’s side. They were members of the German Reformed Church where my ex’s grandfather had his ministry. My former mother in law and her surviving brother were split up after her father died because it was the Depression and no one in the family had money to take them both in. Her brother went to Chicago, and she was sent to live with an uncle, his wife, and their daughter in Cleveland, another German Reformed minister, but very different from her father. The uncle and his wife lobotomized their daughter when she reached teenage years because she was too artistic and wild for them. My former mother in law eventually found refuge with another uncle, also a minister, but she never spoke much about her experiences. We discovered the connections and the sad stories a number of years after we married.

    My maternal grandfather was a doctor in Little Falls, MN. My mother remembers patients paying him in eggs, chickens, or her father just writing the bill off. And food being given out the back door to transients just moving through the neighborhood looking for work. Despite this, for her, FDR, was a dirty word because he was a Democrat.

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  3. Mindy said on February 16, 2009 at 8:38 am

    My aunt fell over dead the day after Easter in 1977 leaving my uncle with four boys ages 13, 12, 11, and 9. She was 36. They had moved to Fort Wayne from California two years earlier after my uncle suffered a nervous breakdown. His psychiatrist recommended that he return home to surround himself with familiar territory. It didn’t help. He was and still is a train wreck of a man trying to cope with the sudden loss of his wife. The horrible existence he inflicted on his sons in the years following his wife’s death is difficult to believe. There were times he was able to deal with raising them, but not many. The boys would have had a better life at Something House.

    My own upbringing was very unpleasant as well, but I lived in a small town. I now know that there were people who knew my situation and kept an eye on me rather than contact the authorities. I even know who to thank but can’t since she died many years ago.

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  4. Jen said on February 16, 2009 at 8:55 am

    I asked my grandmother (mom’s mom) about growing up during the Depression when I was younger, and she said they never had much trouble. They lived in a very small town and my great-grandfather always had work. Grandma said she remembers her mother giving food to the hobos that came to their back door for food, but my great-grandmother had a special set of dishes for them. Grandma also remembers how much her staunchly Republican parents disliked FDR. That always stuck with me, for some reason. I guess it was because we learned about how wonderful FDR was in history class, and it was funny to me that some people didn’t like him.

    I’m hoping my husband and I inherited some of my great-grandparents’ luck and skill to get through this economic crisis.

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  5. coozledad said on February 16, 2009 at 9:02 am

    I hope this recession doesn’t become militarized. Resurgent booger nationalist sentiment in Russia and the US, and an incipient trend toward cultural isolationism in Japan are troubling. WWII was partly driven by the scarcity of industrial raw materials-pretty soon the big countries will be swinging elbows over water resources and cultivable land. No one’s got enough money for world war, but a bunch of ugly brush wars are already in the making.

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  6. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 16, 2009 at 9:53 am

    My official office is in the Licking County Children’s Home, which was in use from its construction in 1886 to 1974, at which point it became the “County Annex” even though everyone in town calls it “the old children’s home” unless they call it “the haunted castle.”

    Anyhow, we still get visitors dropping by the Juvenile Court diversion offices who were residents, now running 50 years old and up. They fall into two almost overly neat categories — those for whom the place was hell on earth and a daily torment (they’re often here at the guidance of a counselor/therapist, looking for a chair to kick or wall to pound on and weep over), and those for whom their years in this building were an oasis of stability and comfort, with clean sheets, three meals, and friendly if firm guidance from rational adults.

    I suspect both groups are accurately and honestly reflecting the experiences they knew, and we welcome them all. When new staff come on board, i have a dvd copy of “Cider House Rules” we give them, because this building outside and inside and from the stories we hear is neatly echoed by St. Cloud’s in the movie.

    (Yes, if you click on the second photo to enlarge . . . that’s a mounting block on the lawn in the foreground, and it has a wrought iron ring embedded into it for tying off your horse as you come to drop off or visit kids, back before the horseless carriage caught on.)

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  7. Julie Robinson said on February 16, 2009 at 10:10 am

    My parents, who were born in 1932, both grew up on farms so they never went hungry, but reading between the lines I know life was pretty tough for my Dad’s family. I don’t think my Grandma made every stitch they wore, often from feedsacks, just because she was a frustrated Martha Stewart. They had two children out of six with disabilities and spent most of their money tracking down treatments.

    The DH grew up near where the State School used to be and has some vivid memories of a day when some of the residents were enjoying the fresh air and sunshine sans clothes. The school moved and was only closed a couple of years ago; now most of the buildings have been torn down and two local colleges are expanding there.

    Most of us can’t do big things to help out, but we can all do small things. Our church is one of several who support a local neighborhood social service agency, and we all take turns helping. So I’m off to make sandwiches and snacks for the after-school program today. Light one candle. There, now it’s not so dark.

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  8. jeff borden said on February 16, 2009 at 10:13 am

    Time seems to sand off the rough edges of our memories. There was a wonderful episode of the original “Twilight Zone” series, where a fairly wealthy man in his 60s or 70s was offered a chance to return to the past, but with the memories he already had accrued intact.

    Well, the big, fluffy featherbed he recalled from his youth was now lumpy and hard to sleep on. The delicious breakfasts he recalled were in reality a bowl of gruel, etc. etc. He realized to his dismay that the past wasn’t better. It was just the past.

    I agree with the previous poster that both good and bad likely were part and parcel of Something House. It may be somewhat akin to the Catholic Church. My memories of being taught by nuns and advised by priests are wholly positive. Not once did one ever act badly toward me or my sister. Rather, we recall small acts of kindness and generosity from them. For thousands of other kids, however, those days evoke the most horrific of nightmares, of being hurt and abused by those they trusted most.

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  9. Colleen said on February 16, 2009 at 10:28 am

    ” the past wasn’t better. It was just the past.”

    Now THERE is a motto for my city that I could get behind….

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  10. alex said on February 16, 2009 at 10:37 am

    I still laugh out loud when I think of Nance’s spot-on motto for Fort Wayne: “We like it like it used to be.”

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  11. whitebeard said on February 16, 2009 at 10:43 am

    Jeff TMMO, a huge thank you for the link to knapsack, I have just spent a delightful half hour of reading about faith and about wind turbines. I now plan on making it a regular stop on my surfing journey

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  12. jeff borden said on February 16, 2009 at 11:25 am


    As someone who truly, deeply loves the works of William Faulkner, I’m betraying one of his most famous statements: “The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”

    Even the man from Oxford, Mississippi, likely would agree, however, that in many, if not most cases, our remembrances of things past are susceptible to soft focus editing over the years.

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  13. adrianne said on February 16, 2009 at 11:58 am

    The wildly differing memories of the past are par for the course. My grandmother spent the first five years of her life in a Catholic orphanage because her father was killed in an industrial accident and her mother couldn’t afford to keep all eight kids in the house (my grandmother was still in utero). She doesn’t recall a hellish experience, but she still felt abandoned. The family finally had enough employed members that she and two siblings came back to the family fold.

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  14. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 16, 2009 at 1:21 pm

    You mean like the fact that “the man from Oxford, Mississippi” now means “John Grisham”?

    Thanks, whitebeard; you must have wandered all the way into the Nerk Advocate blog pages. I found out in church Sunday that more people read the newspaper blogs than i thought, since the wind turbine veto came from some wanna be horse farms that have delusions of Lexington, whose owners aren’t locally too popular. Each compliment i tried to graciously answer with “remember that when i say something that ticks *you* off!”

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  15. Jolene said on February 16, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    Interesting issue, the question of what to do w/ spare children. My Irish great-grandfather was orphaned in NYC and, some way or another, got connected w/ a family that was going west. Eventually, the family settled in Wisconsin, and, after the Civil War he homesteaded in North Dakota. In these adventures, he naturally fell in among the Germans and Norwegians that were the primary groups of European settlers in the Upper Midwest. Hence, we became Midwestern Protestants rather than the urban Irish Catholics we might have been if he’d stayed in NY (not that we would have been the same people in that case)

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  16. ROgirl said on February 16, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    My father and his older sister, the youngest of 9 children, were placed in an orphanage in Detroit in the 1920’s after both parents died, in the same year, from infections in the hospital after operations. He was 5, she was 11, they were in the orphanage for 5 or 6 years, after which they went to live with older siblings.

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  17. LA Mary said on February 16, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    My father graduated from high school in 1928 with a business major. At the time that meant he took shorthand, typing and bookeeping. He went directly to work as a private secretary to Wall Street hot shot, which made my father the only member of his family who not only graduated from hight school, but got a job outside the silk mills in Paterson, NJ. A year later my father was unemployed, and although he found a job at a local lumberyard, first unloading freight cars and eventually running the office, he had no fond memories of the Depression. He talked about it nearly every day. In his alcoholic memory, it was the driving force behind everything he did. I remember asking him “where did all the money go?” many times and never getting an answer.

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  18. jeff borden said on February 16, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Jeff TMMO,

    Who is John Grisham?

    Just kidding. I’ve yet to read anything written by Mr. Grisham, which has more to do with my general dislike of legal thrillers than his talents. I might change my stance, however, if he names one of the characters in one of his books Flem Snopes.

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  19. John said on February 16, 2009 at 2:38 pm


    not that we would have been the same people in that case

    I love your great-grandfather’s great story how an Irish name got mixed in with all the usual suspects in North Dakota. Had he not trekked to North Dakota via Wisconsin, you may never have existed at all and we would all be less for that. Goes to show our actions have far reaching consequences.

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  20. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 16, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    I’ve only seen two of the movies, (three if you count the Christmas thing i walked in and out of the room during with Jamie Lee Curtis) not because i can’t stand him — no data to confirm or deny — but it just hasn’t been a priority. Haven’t read any Scott Turow since OneL, either.

    Now Faulkner . . . i’ve read three or four, and they feel like they all blur together, keeping me from feeling much impetus to read more, plus i’d have to figure out which ones i’d read. Can’t beat “A Rose For Emily,” though, even if it is the one the literati like to disdain.

    But i read something about the Snopes clan bashing about the woods and their backyard and sprawling across the porch with the dogs. Couldn’t tell you which one it was.

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  21. jeff borden said on February 16, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Jeff TMMO,

    I am way too far removed from my collegiate studies of the man, but most of his books referenced the Snopes clan. Faulkner’s work was deeply informed by slavery and the secession and he saw the rise of what we’d call “white trash” today as the comeuppance the crumbling Southern aristocracy deserved. At least, this is what echoes in my addled memory and we’ve seen quite a bit of discussion today on how unreliable that is.

    What struck me even in the days of my callow youth was Faulkner’s ability to take something that should have produced a horse laugh in a 20-year-old smart aleck –such as the love Eck Snopes feels for a neighbor’s cow, a passion so strong he continually is stealing the animal– and instead produce a catch in the throat. He’s out of favor these days, I’m told, but likely will return. The residents of Yoknapatawpha County demand it.

    All this talk is leading me to hunt down his Snopes trilogy: “The Hamlet,” “The Town” and “The Mansion.” They must be around here someplace.

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  22. Deborah said on February 16, 2009 at 5:14 pm

    Faulkner was one of my favorites years ago when I was in college. We had to read “As I Lay Dying” for a modern novel class and that got me hooked. The one I like the best was the stream of consciousness one (the name escapes me) that they made into a movie with Joanne Wooward. I almost couldn’t remember her name either and was going to refer to her as Paul Newman’s widow. Akkkk, give me a day off of work and my mind goes completely blank.
    Regarding children without parents back in the day: my mother’s father came over from Germany with his family when he was 2 years old. They settled in Northwestern Missouri. There were 3 children, my grandfather and his 2 sisters. A third sister was born in the new country. Unfortunately, my great grandmother died giving birth to this 4th child. So my great grandfather went back to Germany to find a replacement wife. Leaving the oldest daughter, aged 10, to take care of the other 3 children, including the baby, while he was gone. He came back with a new wife a few months later. That story shocked me when I first heard it.
    Just remembered the name of the Faulkner novel – The Sound and the Fury.

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  23. Sue said on February 16, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    My husband’s sister is into genealogy and found out that some ancestor came over as a child on the Mayflower, as some kind of indentured servant. The only thing I had to say about that is that if my husband’s family came over on the Mayflower, there had better be a lot more money around somewhere that nobody’s telling me about.

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  24. Julie Robinson said on February 16, 2009 at 5:39 pm

    My maternal grandfather also had a sad childhood. When he was a toddler his father had appendicitis, and being stupid Iowa farmers with no access to healthcare, they put him on the train to Chicago. By the time he arrived two days later it had burst and he died from the subsequent infection. My grandpa never forgot the povery of his early life, even after his mother remarried, and he was a very. hard. worker. Even after he had “retired”.

    Couldn’t happen today, right? I’m not so sure. New patients at the local free clinic cannot be seen until April.

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  25. Jolene said on February 16, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    Julie: Re what can happen today. The Washington Post reported that, among those seeking help at local homeless shelters, the percentage of two-parent families is increasing. In other words, people who “had it together” to at least some degree are falling apart.

    What to watch: Tomorrow evening, Frontline is showing Inside the Meltdown, which describes the origins of the Current Unpleasantness. CNBC also has a “how it all happened” show called House of Cards;. It’s pretty good and appropriately horrifying. Still find it very hard to get my head around what those complex securities really are. On again tonight and in a couple of weeks. Check here for listings and info re the show.

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  26. Deborah said on February 16, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    Sue, I have an ancestor who came over on the Mayflower too. On my father’s side. One or two of my ancestors fought in the revolutionary war. I have an aunt who was into genealogy and traced this. She was a proud member of the DAR, and tried to persuade other women in our family to join as well. I said no thanks.

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  27. moe99 said on February 16, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    My paternal forbears, the Fausters, hailed from Schaffhausen Switzerland, and tatted lace to make the extra money they used to emigrate to America in the late 1800’s. Another part of the paternal lineage, the Murbachs may have come from there as well. I have a Murbach history that was online for awhile but I think is taken down now, talked about a line of Murbachs that settled in Brazil rather than the US and disappeared. It was suggested that they had been indentured servants and were badly treated by those who assisted them in coming over to Brazil.

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  28. coozledad said on February 16, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    Deborah: The Sound and The Fury always rang a little truer for me than most of Faulkner’s stuff. That’s not a criticism, it’s just that he was a little more of a fabulist than he was willing to let people make him out to be.
    Benjy Compson is real for me because of some distant family history. An uncle of mine, drunk, told us about his “retarded” elder stepbrother, who was bitten by a rabid dog in 1909. My uncle hadn’t been born, but he heard about it constantly from older siblings. His brother had been very gentle, but huge, and strong. The kind of kid you’d put out to plow all day and he wouldn’t make a fuss about it.
    Several neighborhood men set up a watch. He’d been tied down to a bed, and they were drinking at a table they’d set up just outside his room when he broke free from the bed and burst through the door.
    They left.

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  29. LA Mary said on February 16, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    My kids’ dad has two Mayflower ancestors. He shares the ancestors of Roosevelt, Churchill and George Bush. Francis Cook is one, and the other is named Maheiu or Mahyew or something. I’m the mixed 19th century immigrant mutt, and that’s ok.

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  30. velvet goldmine said on February 16, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    One Grisham book many of you might like is The Last Juror, which is from the point of you of an editor of a fairly penny-ante weekly paper. As someone who worked at one of those, I found it pretty fascinating, because the Grisham editor is doing right all the things my own paper was doing wrong. (This would all fall all under the umbrella of remembering what a community paper is supposed to be.)

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  31. Jolene said on February 16, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    Have you folks seen the replica of The Mayflower in Plymouth, MA? It’s real small; there were only 102 people on board, including both passengers and crew.

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  32. Dexter said on February 16, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    Yep, Jolene, just a few years ago…a very nice trip, we spend time in Pilgrim Country for a few days every five years or so. Being the alcoholic I am, I was amazed at the large ration of beer each passenger had on the Mayflower:

    “Indeed, beer was the staple drink on board the Mayflower. Unlike water, which quickly spoiled when stored in the hold of ships, beer contained no bacteria, and the then-recent introduction of hops made it keep longer. It was also a terrific source of carbohydrates. Men, women and children drank beer daily, and sailors aboard the Mayflower received a daily ration of a gallon.”
    Oh…my Pomeranian, in 1972, squeezed through the fence and pissed on Plymouth Rock. It was a memorable experience…I suppose there were 20 witnesses, some were horrified, but some kids laughed…and no, no Park Rangers there to arrest me! That dog was a communist subversive!

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  33. coozledad said on February 16, 2009 at 8:25 pm

    Dexter: Graffiti from a student ghetto bar for Virginia Commonwealth University:

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  34. Catherine said on February 16, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    In the spirit of examining the past for clues to the future, a WSJ finance columnist recently dug into which industries had the best stock returns post-1929. There were some interesting things like timber (all the CCC work?), but the bottom line was: cheap vices.

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  35. Dexter said on February 16, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    My maternal ancestors were from Bern, Switzerland, name of Saltzman. One of them travelled to Ireland, West Cork, County Cork, town of Dúnmaonmhuí, and married a woman from a family of linen manufacturing workers in the late 1840s during The Great Famine. I never knew how bad it was over there on The Auld Sod until I read accounts online, I never figured out what a Swiss person would travel to Ireland for in the late 1840’s for…never will know. I have heard the last name of the woman was Shenneman, and I have seen it spelled all kinds of different ways, my spelling is just a phonetic composite of what I have heard.
    Anyway, she escaped The Great Famine and my ancestor crossed the Atlantic as an indentured servant, and at some point paid off his debt in Alfred, New York. Never heard of it? Why, it’s near Tip Top and Tinkerton!
    At some point the family moved to Indiana…one of the sons was named Alfred.
    On my father’s side, we have three conflicting trace lines…nobody can give us a definitive answer…one goes backwards to Germany, one to England, and one to Goteborg, Sweden…the genome (DNA sample) traces us only “to the Ukraine” from “what is now Iran” , but hundreds and hundreds of years ago! THAT was a big fucking waste!

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  36. MarkH said on February 16, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    “Of Late, I Think Of Cliffordville”, Jeff Borden; Albert Salmi in the lead role. Not one of my favorite ‘Zones, but effective nontheless, for the reasons you state.

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  37. Dexter said on February 16, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    Yeah coozledad…that’s great, a great hope for a young person who has an epiphany regarding he has just discovered that for him, the sun is beer.
    I just hope that sun doesn’t catch him cryin’ somewhere down the line.
    It’s just a fact that wonderful gifts to the human race like tobacco and beer and opiates can just plumb kick some peoples’ asses.
    More power to those who can enjoy them!

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  38. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 16, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    This brewing addled crowd would surely enjoy Tim Powers’ “The Drawing of the Dark,” which takes place in Vienna (with an extended prologue in Venice) around 1529. There’s a bit of magic and fantasy, but not so much that the un-fantastic reader can’t enjoy the history and scene setting.

    And the closing words: “Thank God for the beer.”

    (Oh, and i should add these words from Martin Luther: on what to do if you have no water to baptize —
    “… Besides, the Word is the principal part of baptism. If in an emergency there’s no water at hand, it doesn’t matter whether water or beer is used.”)

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  39. velvet goldmine said on February 16, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    Jolene, Yes, we’ve been there, and it’s true that nothing brings home the hardship of what that voyage (and others like it) must have been like than to see how dark and tiny it was. That and the good ol’ hardtack that was lying around the upper deck, crawling with flies.

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  40. Dexter said on February 17, 2009 at 1:26 am

    снег прибывает ( to Detroit)

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  41. Gasman said on February 17, 2009 at 1:44 am

    The history of beer prior to the 20th Century provides a good lesson in how precarious it can be to project modern attitudes backwards in time. Up until the 19th Century beer was one of the most common drinks. Why? Because the brewing process killed off nasty pathogens. Europeans that drank water had a nasty habit of dying. Though they had no idea why, people realized that drinking beer was not subject to that particular woe.

    The beer that the Puritans consumed was probably very low in alcohol by today’s standards. I’m guessing in the 2% a.b.v. range. If they were consuming it daily, it would need to be produced quickly, thus have the shortest fermentation possible. They also would have used as little possible in the way of fermentables as it would add to the expense.

    This kind of consumption would be very much in line with the “daily” beers consumed by brewing Trappist Monks. They sell beers in the 5-12% a.b.v. range, but the beer for their daily consumption is around 2% a.b.v., quite difficult to get a buzz with.

    Beer has a long and noble history. Some historians have speculated that the reason for agrarian society in the Fertile Crescent was a natural supply of wild barley for beer. The laborers on the pyramids were paid in bread and beer. As has been noted, it was a staple of the Puritans who quickly built breweries in America.

    Beer was not considered “drinking” until probably the 20th Century. Prior to that, when people referred to “drink” they meant hard alcohol such as whiskey, gin, brandy, etc. Lincoln was said to be a teetotaler, but he did consume beer. No contradiction there, just a different attitude on what was and wasn’t a problem alcoholic beverage.

    For those interested in the subject, the book “Beer in America: The Early Years – 1587 -1840,” by Gregg Smith is a worthwhile read. Since barley was not native to North America, it took quite awhile before enough was grown to satisfy the beer brewer’s needs. Thus gave rise to such variants as root beer, ginger beer, pumpkin beer, and adjuncts such as corn, rice, and cane sugar which are still used today. The latter explains the lingering American taste for thin watery beer as these adjuncts are cheap and up the alcohol, but diminish the taste and body of the beer.

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  42. Dexter said on February 17, 2009 at 2:01 am

    It may have been an episode of Michael Jackson’s “The Beer Hunter”, about twenty years ago, that showed the workings of a monk-operated brewery. A monk was interviewed and he said he was free to drink all he wanted, but he only drank a little because he said too much made his head feel like it was going to explode.
    In this episode there was no mention of any daily brew made for drinking as a carefree beverage.
    Also, beer was surely considered “drinking” by the ancient Egyptians.
    “Since beer, and to a lesser extent, wine, were a common part of the diet of ancient Egyptians, they were of course familiar with the aftereffects of these beverages. Losing control through excessive drinking was discouraged, though this disapproval was aimed more at the loss of control rather than the state of intoxication itself. An excessive level of intoxication, leading to a loss of control, was looked upon with varying degrees of mild disapproval. The drunken person was viewed mostly with amused contempt or slight alarm, while efforts were made to warn the young against getting drunk too much or too often.”

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  43. Gasman said on February 17, 2009 at 3:17 am

    The type of beer varies by each particular monastery. They are each unique. There are only 6 true Trappist Monasteries that still brew their own beers. The two monasteries that brew house beers for their monks are Abbey St. Sixtus and Westmalle. The house beer from Abbey St. Sixtus is a bit stronger than I said earlier, at 4% a.b.v., still lower in alcohol than most consumer brews. Westmalle brews three beers; two for public sale (Tripel and Dubbel) and a third weaker beer (Extra) for the monks and brothers. At 5% a.b.v., this too, is stronger than I had thought. Either my memory is off, or I might be mistakenly assigning the lower alcohol content to beers that are no longer brewed. Brewing is nearly a thing of the past for the monasteries themselves; most contract out the brewing.

    Hey, I am not making up the notion that beer was not considered “drink” by the Puritans and even temperance types in 19th Century America. It is a matter of historical record. Attitudes change. It has also always been possible to abuse any beverage containing alcohol. There are many biblical passages admonishing against drunkenness. However, that did not lead to prohibition of any kind in the Old or New Testaments. There are many other passages in the bible that are either pro or neutral toward alcohol consumption.

    The beer of the Egyptians was very different than modern beer. For one, it would not have been carbonated. That is a relatively recent change in beer and cannot be done in the type of open vessel fermentation that they would have used. It would have probably been a wheat beer, maybe even made with local cherries. Archaeologists found a recipe for such a beer when unearthing what appeared to be a pharaoh’s royal brewery.

    Drunkenness has never been generally approved of even in societies where consumption is common. In many societies past, it would have been virtually impossible to avoid drinking alcohol. Beer and wine were simply part of everyone’s diet in many cultures throughout history. It was also often demonstrably safer to drink wine or beer than water. With no notion of bacteria and other pathogens, large municipal water supplies simply became efficient ways to deliver cholera and other diseases. Temperance is a very recent historical phenomenon for very good reasons.

    I was merely trying to illustrate the problems one faces when we project our current attitudes backwards in time. It is facile and ultimately pointless.

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  44. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on February 17, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Or when we project our current attitudes into the translation of ancient languages — when the eldest Duggar boy was married, the father of the bride faced a camera and merrily tried to sustain the claim beloved of conservative Baptists that the word for what Jesus turned water into at at wedding in Cana of Galilee actually means “grape juice.” Oinos and gleukos (not to mention kalos oinos) are some of the easier words to translate out of Koine Greek into modern English, but when we try to project our current attitudes backwards in time, you can end up worse than a little tipsy.

    A gallon of beer a day for monks would have the benefit of making you forget all about the village girls who carry the laundry down the hill from the monastery.

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  45. beb said on February 17, 2009 at 7:58 am

    A gallon of beer a day for monks would have the benefit of making you forget all about the village girls who carry the laundry down the hill from the monastery.

    Wouldn’t it be the other way around, that a gallon of beer a day would tend to make the monks forget their vows of chastity?

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  46. Gasman said on February 17, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Jeff (tmmo),
    Without refrigeration or pasteurization, there could not be “grape juice” at the wedding in Cana. Indeed, grape juice would be something that could have existed only for a few hours in that culture. Fermentation begins essentially the moment the juice is exposed to airborne yeasts, especially with extremely lowered standards of cleanliness. Fruit juice would have been either used as wine or vinegar. There was no way to store fruit juice without becoming one or the other.

    I once heard a Free Methodist minister make the argument that all of the biblical citations concerning wine weren’t really like the modern version at all. He contended that it was more like grape jelly. This is a bit of fanciful nonsense. There have been found intact Roman wine vessels and it was not appreciably different from modern wine. Fermentation was unavoidable and yes it happened. Jesus undoubtedly drank wine nearly everyday of his adult life, whether or not our modern sensibilities approve of alcohol. If there is one thing that humans have been doing for thousands of years without appreciable change in the basics, it is the fermentation of fruit juices into wine.

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