Young Love, Teenage Angst, and One Very Angry Goat

On October 6, 1945, a Chicago tavern owner named William Sianis went to Wrigley Field to watch his beloved Cubs play in game 4 of the World Series against the Detroit Tigers. Sianis opened his tavern in 1934, naming it The Billy Goat Tavern after a goat that had presumably fallen off the back of a passing truck and wandered into the place. “Murphy” the goat became the tavern’s mascot and “Billy Goat” Sianis’s good luck charm.

This is also where fans of Saturday Night Live can order a "Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, NO PEPSI, and a Coke." photo credit: jpellgen via photopin cc

This is also where fans of Saturday Night Live can order a “Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, NO PEPSI, and a Coke.” photo credit: jpellgen via photopin cc

So like all good baseball fans (who are known for their quirky superstitions), Sianis wanted to share some of his good luck with the team. He bought two tickets, one for himself, and one for Murphy the Goat. Trouble was, Wrigley Field had a strict “no goats” policy. Sianis went so far as to appeal to Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley who also denied Murphy’s entrance, saying simply, “The goat stinks.”

Murphy was offended. Right then and there Sianis raised his hands and declared: “The Cubs ain’t gonna win no more.” The Cubs lost Game 4 to Detroit and went on to lose the series, after which Sianis sent a telegram to P.K. Wrigley that read, “Who stinks now?”

As a St. Louisan and devoted Cardinals fan, I find this kind of hilarious, but I don’t know that I buy into the whole idea of curses. Still, there’s no denying that the Chicago Cubs started out as a solid ball club that more often than not was a force to be reckoned with. And that since that 1945 loss, have had the most rotten luck in baseball, having gone to the postseason only a few times since and with their mathematical elimination from contention this past weekend, have now experienced a 107 year stretch without a world series title.

Isn't this a great cover?

Isn’t this a great cover?

But even though this season panned out, well, kind of like most of them, I recently found some hope for the Cubbies in the form of a charming little book called Caught Between Two Curses by Margo L. Dill.

In this YA romance with a touch of magic, Chicago girl Julie is a typical teenager facing the beginning of senior year, torn between a sex-obsessed jerk of a boyfriend and a hot best guy friend who it turns out is a lot less of a jerk. But Julie’s situation is even more complicated than that. She’s been raised by her aunt and uncle since the tragic death of her parents. And now her uncle has become mysteriously ill as well, leading her aunt to reveal the secret of the curse upon the men involved in Julie’s family, a curse that is intricately intertwined with the famous curse of the billy goat inflicted on the Cubs by William Sianis and Murphy.

Much like the people (who I think can honestly lay claim to the title “most dedicated fans in baseball”) who have made several attempts to break the curse, from bringing Murphy’s descendants into Wrigley Field, to organizing an international “Reverse the Curse” aid program that provides goats to impoverished families in underdeveloped nations, and even to hanging a severed goat’s head from a statue in front of the ballpark, Julie sets out on a mission to break the curse.

Rumor has it the curse will only lift when Cubs fans come to truly appreciate goats and welcome them in their midst. photo credit: Tc Morgan via photopin cc

Rumor has it the curse will only lift when Cubs fans come to truly appreciate goats and welcome them in their midst. photo credit: Tc Morgan via photopin cc

The stakes are high, with her uncle’s life hanging in the balance and the future health of either her jerky boyfriend or the not-so-jerky love of her life endangered, but Julie is determined. She sets aside her own teenage angst (which rings embarrassingly true to life) and her indifference to baseball to cheer the Cubs to victory, the likes of which they haven’t seen in 107 years.

So, fear not, Cubs fans. 2014 wasn’t your year, but if Dill  can convince us that a teenage girl has within her the power to reverse the curse, then I believe there’s still hope. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you should read the book. I think you’ll enjoy it. If you happen to be a Cubs fan then maybe you should read it to a goat. In Wrigley Field. Because there’s always next year.

The Sleepless Binge: from Shakespeare to Netflix

On a clear summer night in August of 1863, a young presidential aid named John Hays fought the sleep that threatened to overtake him and accompanied President Abraham Lincoln on a late night stroll through Washington DC. Lincoln was a good strategist, a big picture thinker, and a convicted leader. But he wasn’t a very good sleeper.

He's leaning on that column because he's so tired.

He’s leaning on that column because he’s so tired.

Throughout his presidency many nights found him pacing his office or walking through the streets while the rest of the city slept, sometimes keeping his aids up late with him, regaling them with funny stories or reading to them from his favorite literary works.

This August night, the president led Hays to the Naval Observatory where the two looked up at the moon and the star Arcturus. Then, we know from the aid’s journal, Lincoln next led him back to the Soldier’s Home where the Lincolns lived for most of the Civil War and there began to read to him from Shakespeare’s Henry VI and Richard III “until [Hays’s] heavy eye-lids caught [Lincoln’s] considerable notice, and he sent [Hays] to bed.”

Now I like Shakespeare and all, but I value my sleep, so that sounds a little cruel to me. Still I certainly can’t blame the president for his insomnia. History suggests that for a time he was treating tummy troubles with mercury-containing pills that would surely have made him edgy and robbed him of a good night’s sleep. And of course he did have a stressful job, during one of the most stressful times in his nation’s history.

He couldn’t exactly wake up Mrs. Lincoln for company either because (according to a Duke University study conducted not so long ago) women are at much greater risk of heart disease, depression, stroke, and probably just plain crabbiness when they don’t get enough sleep.

So this brings me to my last two weeks or so. I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I tend to fall asleep okay, but then wake up a few hours later, my mind alive with all kinds of jumbled thoughts about all the things I need to get done, how that’s going to be hard to do if I can’t get some more sleep, and now (thanks to the folks at Duke University) how I’m going to develop heart disease, depression, and probably have a stroke.

photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller via photopin cc

photo credit: Alyssa L. Miller via photopin cc

I shouldn’t complain. I’m really not affected by insomnia very often, and usually only for a few days when I am, but I always just kind of have to wait it out because it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why it strikes. I haven’t been ingesting any mercury as far as I know and I’m not facing any looming deadlines or major life changes. I’m just not sleeping well.

I could lay some of the blame on the appearance of the third season of Once Upon a Time on Netflix (because in theory I could go to bed at a decent hour and not binge watch this guilty pleasure, but of course that’s not what I’ve been doing). I could even attribute my troubles to watching the news as formerly primarily regional problems become increasingly threatening to the stability of the entire world.

And it could just be the dog’s fault. He tends to wake up in the middle of the night, too, and stretch and pace for a while, jingling the tags on his collar before settling back into his bed, leaving me wide awake with a million thoughts. Perhaps I should get up and take him for a midnight stroll.

Or maybe I just need to read him more Shakespeare.

Oh sure. It’s no big deal to get up in the middle of the night if all you do is nap all day.

Why Sometimes Football is Worth Watching

Today marks the beginning of a special season in my household. It’s the day that the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers battle it out in the opener of the NFL season. As such, it’s the start of the five months of the year when my husband and I suddenly seem to have less in common.

Century Link Field, very long football season will get its start. By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Century Link Field, very long football season will get its start.
By Visitor7 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Actually, it really started this past Saturday with the beginning of college football. I don’t begrudge him this interest of his. With the exception of feeling some understandable loyalty toward our various alma maters, he’s not a big fan of any particular team on either the college or pro level. But he loves the sport. He loves the strategy of the game and he enjoys learning the strengths of individual players and coaches, watching their successes and failures throughout the long season.

And I wish I could catch his enthusiasm, because I genuinely would like to be able to share in it with him. But as much as I try to watch the games and pay attention to his tutelage, I usually just wind up getting lost in the details.

Still, I decided to give it another shot, and so I sat down last Saturday to watch the Croke Park Classic broadcast from Dublin, Ireland, partly because I was intrigued. As far as I know, American football isn’t really one of the things Ireland is most known for. And it wasn’t even the first time Dublin had hosted American college football. In 1996, The Midshipman of the US Naval Academy were defeated in Croke Park by, of course, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

Now eighteen years later, indicating that the threshold of the Irish people for the sport is similar to my own, Croke Park once again hosted an American football game. This time it was a match-up between Penn State and the University of Central Florida. Because neither team has an Irish mascot, it was a close game, with Penn State winding up on top of a 26-24 score.

Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland, host to Gaelic football, hurling, rugby, and occasionally American football.

Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland, host to Gaelic football, hurling, rugby, and occasionally American football.

I enjoyed watching it, too, because in addition to the football, which I found as bewildering as ever, ESPN-2, which aired the game, also featured informative clips about fascinating Irish sports that are lesser known in the United States.

My favorite of those featured is called Irish Road Bowling. It dates back to at least 1728 when it gets a mention in the poetry of Jonathan Swift, but likely to many years before that. The sport is played most often in the Irish Counties of Cork and Armagh. Similar sports are played in the Netherlands and parts of Germany. Even some areas of the United States are starting to get into the action, just sadly, not here in Missouri. Yet.

canon ballWhat intrigues me about this sport is its simplicity. Basically, you get a bunch of players together, find yourself a 28 ounce cannon ball (because I’m sure you have one in your garage somewhere) and see who can launch it down the road to an agreed upon finish line in the fewest throws.

Of course, like American football, road bowling is a sport of some rules, records, and heroes. And since 1954, the Bol-Chummann na hEirman (roughly translated as the Irish Association in Charge of Throwing Stuff Down the Road), has been in the business of making the sport complicated enough to support championship play, both locally and internationally, successfully taking the sport of Road Bowling all the way from terrible road nuisance despised by local authorities to ESPN-2 featured international sport of awesomeness.

Frankly, if the broadcasters of American football made more of an effort to introduce me to fun sports I’d never heard of from around the world, I’d probably watch more football. As it is, I can promise to watch at least once every eighteen years.

 

The Guy You’re Gonna Call

In 1933, renowned spiritual medium Eileen Garrett entered the parapsychology laboratory at Duke University where she met with botanist turned clinical parapsychologist J.B. Rhine to participate in his quantitative study of extrasensory perception (ESP).

Rhine brought out a deck of cards, specifically designed with his partner Karl Zener for the experiments. Each of the Zener cards contained one of five simple shapes. Ms. Garrett simply had to identify, without seeing the shape on the card, which one Rhine presented her with. The assumption was that an accuracy rate more than 20% would indicate ESP.

Zener Cards [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Zener Cards, used to test for ESP [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A few years prior, Rhine had gleefully exposed medium Mina Crandon as a fraud, so no one was more surprised than he when Garratt did identify the correct shapes more than 20% of the time. The medium herself, however, was not pleased with the results, claiming that she would have performed better had the cards not lacked a certain psychic energy.

She would have been better off graciously accepting her results because later testing by other researchers failed to find any ability to correctly identify the cards above that of normal chance. Actually Rhine’s methods attracted a lot of criticism, particularly claims that he inadvertently cued his subjects to the proper shapes on the cards. His results were never verifiable in subsequent tests.

But still, Rhine is credited with coining the term “parapsychology” and with being the first to honestly attempt to study it quantitatively. He continued his research at Duke until the university discontinued its support in the early 1960s and he founded the Journal of Parapsychology, the Institute of Parapsychology, and the Parapsychological Association. There’s no question he made himself into the foremost expert in his field, the guy you would call with all of your parapsychological concerns.

And in 1984, his dedication to his field of study brought him a great honor. In one of the opening scenes of Ghostbusters, Dr. Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray, uses Rhine’s Zener card methodology to test two students for ESP, torturing a young male student who fares at least as well as Garratt did, and hitting on a pretty young lady who always seems to guess correctly even though she doesn’t.

Hook and Ladder Company No. 8. NO FIRES! and NO GHOSTS! "Ghostbusters Firehouse 2 (2007)" by Daniel SCHNERF - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg

Hook and Ladder Company No. 8. NO FIRES! and NO GHOSTS! “Ghostbusters Firehouse 2 (2007)” by Daniel SCHNERF – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg

Like Rhine, Venkman faces the end of his university funding with grace and increased dedication to his chosen field of study. Rather than wallow in his misfortune, he and his associates move into an old firehouse and establish themselves as the guys you’re gonna call with all of your parapsychological concerns.

Perhaps you think it is a stretch to call this small nod to Rhine a great honor, and, well, of course you’re right. Because it would admittedly be a stretch to call Ghostbusters one of the great cinematic achievements of all time. Or of the 1980s. Or of 1984.

But even if it doesn’t hold up all that well, I was a child in the 1980s and Ghostbusters was surely the closest thing to a scary movie my parents ever let me watch. Because of that, it has formed an important part of my childhood. And maybe of yours, too. If so, you’re in luck.

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the original theatrical release of Ghostbusters with (and if you have ESP then you can probably know this already) a theatrical release.

Stay Puft: The monster in your closet since 1984 photo credit: Great Beyond via photopin cc

Stay Puft: The monster in your closet since 1984
photo credit: Great Beyond via photopin cc

That’s right. Starting today and going through this next week, you can celebrate this momentous anniversary by donning your eighties garb and heading to a theater near you to experience the Stay Puft marshmallow attack on New York City in its full big-screen glory.

I think you’re going to do it. I see parachute pants, teased bangs, and a whole mess of ectoplasm in your future. And there’s a fifty percent chance I’m right.

 

I Just Thought You Should Know

On January 13, in the year AD 532 Byzantine Emperor Justinian attended a tense chariot race in Constantinople’s Hippodrome. The competing chariot teams were known simply as the Blues and the Greens, the colors they wore. But these were more than sports teams. They had become important political factions with which the people of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire identified. They had become the face which the people wore to interact with their leaders.

And on this particular January day, the people were angry. Three days earlier, some of the leaders of both the Blues and the Greens organizations were arrested and sentenced to death by Justinian for hooliganism gone too far. When two of the hangings were botched and a surviving representative from each of the Blues and the Greens was carried off to a church to seek asylum, the supporters of both groups united to petition for a pardon for the two men.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian with a model of the Hagia Sophia which he had rebuilt after it burned in the Nika Riots. By Byzantine mosaicist, ca. 1000 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian with a model of the Hagia Sophia which he had rebuilt after it burned in the Nika Riots. By Byzantine mosaicist, ca. 1000 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The pardon was denied, but Justinian did graciously plan a new chariot race for everyone to enjoy three days later. That may have been a mistake. From the start of the first race to the end of the twenty-second (of twenty-four), the crowd chanted quests for mercy for their leaders. And then, according to contemporary accounts, the chant shifted to “Long live the merciful Blues and Greens.”

Anyone who has ever been swept up in a sports rivalry will understand that when rival fans find common ground in a sports stadium, it’s time to get nervous. Evidently Justinian knew that. He took off, barricading himself in his palace.

That very night, to the cry of “Nika!” (victory or conquer), the rioting began. Large parts of the city burned and five days later the exhausted Justinian called on his loyal military leaders who successfully herded the rioting mob into the Hippodrome and slaughtered them. The Nika riots were over. Nothing positive had been accomplished. And 30,000 people were dead.

This is not a lighthearted story from history. And I apologize that this is not my typical lighthearted post, but I’ve had riots and the devastation they can cause on my mind lately. You see, I live in the greater St. Louis area. I don’t live in the suburb of Ferguson, but like its citizens, St. Louis is the city I call home and the residents of Ferguson are my neighbors. And I think I can safely speak for a lot of us who live in the area when I say that these past almost two weeks now, have been a terrible emotional strain.

My heart breaks for the family and friends of Michael Brown, who in their eyes was a gentle giant whose possible actions on the day of his death were very out of character. My heart also breaks for the family, friends, and coworkers of Officer Darren Wilson who are struggling to cope with the repercussions of what they see as an atypical action of a good cop. And my prayers are with the investigators charged with figuring out how this all went down to begin with.

But above all, my heart cries out for the people of Ferguson, the Greater St. Louis community, and this multi-colored nation of equals where there is still enough pain and mistrust bubbling beneath the surface that one tragic event can cause us to lash out at each other.

Because the Nika riots weren’t about chariot racing. They weren’t really even about seeking pardon for political leaders. They were about a people who felt they were being unfairly burdened by a government that wouldn’t hear them. They were scared for their futures and spurred on by an opportunistic movement to depose the sitting emperor.

I don’t think the Ferguson riots are entirely about the shooting of Michael Brown. If they were, then the media could move on while the very careful investigation stretches out and the crowds could return home (for many, many of them that’s not Ferguson, or St. Louis, or even Missouri) and await the findings. They could stop tearing apart the streets and keeping the children who should have started school last week, at home and scared.

The riots in Ferguson continue not because a white police officer shot a young black man, but because no matter what the investigation shows were the causes of that incident, and no matter where the blame lands, we live in a nation in which it still isn’t so hard to believe that our racial differences divide us to the point of senseless violence.

I’m choosing to write about this not just because it’s difficult to focus on much else in my corner of the world right now and certainly not because I have answers. But I write because I have been disturbed by the way the media has portrayed the Ferguson situation. In most instances the news has been negative and misleading.

Members of the media have been guilty of rushing to draw erroneous conclusions that have served to inflame passions. Coverage has focused on the unforgivable actions of a militarized police force that in reality has gone out of its way to minimize injuries to protestors even while sustaining injuries itself, often backing down when it seemed safe to do so, clearing streets and business areas where violence appears likely to spread, and, yes, occasionally asking members of the media to (gasp) comply with its instructions.

St. Louis Gateway Arch on a calm summer evening. By Blueberoo1987 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

St. Louis Gateway Arch on a calm summer evening. By Blueberoo1987 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

What we haven’t seen much of, and I think, because I live in the area, I hear more of it than the national and international media lets out to the world, is the number of area clergy walking through the crowds to be a calming presence encouraging peaceful protest and discouraging violence.  The media hasn’t focused much on the African American business professionals who mingle with the crowd to spread calm and sense in the midst of anger and fear.

What you may not have seen is the groups of peaceful protestors coming together with police to identify violent and criminal opportunists among the crowd, nor have you been shown the members of MIZZOU’s Phi Alpha Phi black fraternity cleaning up the streets and going door to door in Ferguson to register voters so that its citizens can bring about the change in leadership that will give them a louder voice in their community.

I write because I want you to know that I am proud of this community and of the people in it who understand that further violent or criminal actions only cause more harm. I have hope for Ferguson. It’s going to be a long road, but I believe that when the dust settles and the outside protestors, media, and opportunists go home, it will pull itself up again and stand together as a stronger community with citizens who understand each other a little better. Because I think the people of Ferguson see the damage this continuous rioting is doing and I think bit by bit, they are beginning take their town back from the riots. And bit by bit, they will find more effective ways to heal their wounds.

And I just thought you should know.

Absolute Leisure and Peace

In May of 1906 the Atlantic Monthly published a piece by American nature essayist John Burroughs who wrote of his experience camping in Yellowstone National Park with President Theodore Roosevelt. The trip itself occurred three years earlier in the spring of 1903, but Burroughs begins his essay by explaining that in the time since, he’s not had a moment to sit down and write about it what with all the “stress and strain of [his] life at [home]—administering to the affairs of so many of the wild creatures about [him].”

I can relate to that. I try to post to this blog every Thursday with some new snippet of history and nonsense, but sometimes I don’t make it. And now it has been three weeks since my last post. Summer is especially tough because my sons (7 and 9) are out of school and, well, what with the stress and strain of administering to the affairs of the wild creatures about me, I just hadn’t gotten around to it until now.

But my family just recently returned from a trip through the Western United States, including Yellowstone and since school started this week, I thought I’d finally take a moment to write about it.

We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We entered the Yellowstone through the North Gate, called the Roosevelt Arch and dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt on his 1903 visit. By Acroterion (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, though my husband has been to the oldest national park in the world several times, the boys and I had never been. Just judging by the variety of license plates we saw and the number of languages we heard, I’m guessing most of you have been. If you haven’t, and you ever have the opportunity, you should go.

Because it’s weird.

Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.

Even our travel companion Steve was a little apprehensive.

At least that’s all most people told me about it before I went. And they weren’t wrong. It is weird. It bubbles and boils beneath you and vents its acrid steam and then belches great plumes of water before a crowd that can’t help but gasp and cheer even while realizing that the earth here could actually explode and kill us all.

And then there’s the wildlife. Our first night in the park we camped because we wanted our boys to have that experience. We got our tent all set up and attended an evening ranger program where we proceeded to learn all the ways bears, elk, and bison can and will kill you. Then we slept in our tent pitched alongside trees that had been marked by bears, elk, and bison. We spent our remaining nights in a lodge.

We didn't point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.

We didn’t point out the bear markings to the boys until we were packing up the tent the next morning.

But Roosevelt and his companions largely didn’t. On a brief respite from a westward speaking tour, the president mostly camped in the backcountry. Of course there were no terribly endangered bison to speak of in the park at that time, and as this was early spring, most of the bears were still hibernating, but there were lots of elk and still a fair number of mountain lions and other predators.

It was the animal life that chiefly interested Roosevelt. According to Burroughs, the president, much to the chagrin of those companions charged with his safety, set off by himself as often as he could to enjoy a quiet picnic lunch alongside a wandering herd. Once while coatless and half lathered in the middle of a shave, Roosevelt rushed to the canyon’s edge to watch the treacherous descent of a group of goats headed for a drink from the river below.

Despite the grueling travel over still deep snow in many parts of the park, the sixteen day detour through Yellowstone apparently left Roosevelt refreshed and more determined than ever to advocate for the nation’s natural spaces.

When we were about to leave the park, I admitted to my husband, who had largely planned this trip on his own, that I’d had my doubts about this vacation. It’s not that I don’t like to animal watch and hike. I do, but I wondered if it would hold the attention of our boys or if we would all be tired and cranky and wishing we’d spent a week at the beach instead.

I was pleasantly surprised. They loved it, almost every minute of it. They delighted in the walking past the smelly, gurgling acid pools of a giant super volcano and they loved craning their necks to spot distant elk herds and bird species they’d never seen or bothered to identify.

At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.

At times the wildlife was a little closer than we would have liked.

We came home refreshed. And I’m delighted to finally take a moment to reflect on the journey. I’m also glad that it didn’t take me the three years it took Burroughs, who defended his slow pace by reminding his readers that he didn’t have the “absolute leisure and peace of the white house” that allowed Roosevelt to write his own reflections shortly after the trip.

Yep. I bet that’s it. If only I were president, I’d have all the time in the world to post. And maybe even to improve my golf swing.

By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By White House (Pete Souza) / Maison Blanche (Pete Souza) (The Official White House Photostream [1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Follow the Arrows

As the summer wears on, and my children increasingly have trouble entertaining themselves, I find myself struck at the genius of my mother. It was well-known in my house growing up in Smalltown, Illinois, that it was a very bad idea to utter the words, “I’m bored” in front of Mom. Her response would, without fail, be, “Great! The toilets need to be scrubbed.”

photo credit: Mykl Roventine via photopin cc</a

photo credit: Mykl Roventine via photopin cc

But every so often, if one of us had a friend or two over to play and we found ourselves in a lull, she would take pity on us and come up with these amazingly creative ideas, from fun little games to large scale projects of awesomeness. One of my favorites was a game she resurrected from her own childhood in Even Smallertown, Illinois called an arrow hunt.

The idea was that one person (or one team) would take a piece of chalk and go somewhere in our Smalltown neighborhood to hide. Along the route, the hiders marked a chalk arrow every time they changed directions. The arrow had to be clearly visible, though it could be in an unexpected place, and the final arrow pointed to the spot where the hider(s) would be found.

The game was a hit. It killed a lot of otherwise boring summertime hours, no toilets were scrubbed, and my friends and I discovered all the nooks and crannies of the nearby park and neighborhood landscaping. And I got really good at spotting a trail.

So did pilot Jack Knight on one dark night in 1921 when he completed a successful flight from Chicago to North Platte, Nebraska. This was important for two reasons. First, it was the first (and possibly only) time anyone ended up in North Platte on purpose. Second, Knight’s flight had been a test for the US Postal Service.

A relatively new technology, airplanes offered the promise of efficient coast to coast mail delivery. But navigation was still in its infancy with pilots relying on landmarks to guide them. This meant that night flying was pretty much out.

It's possible this man has no idea where he's going.

It’s possible this man has no idea where he’s going.

That is until someone had the brilliant idea to use postal workers and citizen volunteers to man a series of bonfires along Jack Knight’s dark route. His success led to the (slightly) more sophisticated plan to dot the Transcontinental Air Mail Route from New York to San Francisco with 50-foot steel, gas-lit beacons mounted into giant yellow concrete arrows on the ground.

Each arrow pointed toward the next beacon, around ten miles or so away depending on topography. Congress thought it was a great idea and by 1924 there were giant arrows pointing the way from Cleveland, Ohio all the way to Rock Springs, Wyoming. And because the Postal Service realized there weren’t a lot of reasons to stop in Rock Springs, Wyoming, the route was extended over the next few years, eventually reaching from New York to San Francisco.

air mail route

Transcontinental Airmail Route

Of course it wasn’t long before fancier navigation systems developed and pilots began to feel that radio frequencies were somewhat more reliable than the old fly-real-low-and-follow-the-arrows system. During WWII, the steel beacon towers were dismantled and repurposed, putting a practical end to the dotted Transcontinental Air Mail Route.

But the arrows are still there. Their paint is faded and they may have a few cracks here and there, but many of them that haven’t become the victims of development are still there to be found by the odd eagle-eyed traveler.

So we’re almost to the countdown to the start of school. I am not as creative as my mother and my boys are spending their childhood in Not-So-Small-Suburb, Missouri so even in our very safe neighborhood, I’m not terribly comfortable with the idea of them chasing arrows through the streets. My solution for summer boredom is to plan the big family vacation for the end of the summer, as a reward of sorts, for making it this far. And now I know as we pack up for our trip west, we’ll be following the arrows after all.

Arrows go left. Arrows go right. Follow in the morning, or follow them at night.

Arrows go left. Arrows go right. Follow in the morning, or follow them at night.