One Brick at a Time: The Greatest Book on Earth

I don’t usually post on Tuesdays. But today is a special day, because five years ago, on May 9, 2012, I posted for the first time in this space as the Practical Historian. I didn’t really know what the blog would be about back then. I mean, I had a vague notion that since I write historical fiction, I should probably blog about history, but that was all I knew.

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Five years of blogging means I deserve a cupcake, right?

I was also a little scared, because I never liked history all that much. That is, until I started to research it as a storyteller. When I did that, I began to discover all of these weird and wonderful moments that make up the story of this world full of weird and wonderful people.

But right away I had a problem. You see, I’m not a historian. And I certainly never wanted to claim to be one, so I decided to take a very lighthearted approach to the subject, and to do my best along the way not to claim any authority I had no right to claim. I started to slowly build up the blog one brick at a time until it took on a distinctive, if somewhat unusual, shape.

What I ended up with was a blog that was a little bit history and a little bit me, one that was kind of funny, and sort of smart, and occasionally silly. And then all you readers started to show up, and you turned out to be funny and smart and occasionally silly, too.

Week after week, I found myself laying down bricks, and more and more of you followed along to see what I was up to, winding through history with me, with really no rhyme or reason at all to the path, and usually ending up somewhere surprising.

It’s like what the fine citizens of New York found themselves doing one sunny afternoon when a few of them noticed a poorly dressed gentleman laying bricks. When I say he was laying bricks, I don’t mean he was a mason busy with a construction project. Instead, this man was laying a brick here and then moving down the walkway to lay another one there, lined up just so. Whatever he was doing, he did it with precision, and in complete silence. The crowd that soon gathered found him fascinating, and as the man walked on, placing his bricks, they followed.

They followed him around the block and straight into Barnum’s American Museum where many of them purchased a ticket and continued their pursuit through the unusual displays they found there. As the crowd became distracted by the wonders and oddities in P.T. Barnum’s museum, the curious man and his bricks slipped out the back to continue on the path, where he picked up and replaced each precisely set brick as he came to it.

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P. T. Barnum, the publicist I would hire, if only I could. By unattributed – Harvard Library, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Earlier in the day, the man had asked Barnum for a handout and what the great showman and even greater salesman offered instead was a job. Directed by Barnum, the man’s nonsensical bricklaying drew a crowd so large that after a few days, the police forced him to stop because traffic couldn’t get through. And many of the people who flocked to observe the brick man, paid to follow him into the museum. That’s some clever marketing by a man who called his own circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and got us all to go along with it.

Now, if you’ve been reading this blog for the last month or so, you may have seen that as I approached this big blogiversary, the way I decided to celebrate was to publish a collection of some of my favorite posts from the past five years. If you’ve enjoyed the blog, I think you’ll enjoy the book (which features much better editing and a lovely cover). And if not, then maybe you know someone who would.

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Available today from Amazon and anyone else who sells books. I think there are still a few others.

So, I want to ask you for a favor. If you have appreciated the blog at any point over the last five years, would you be willing to share this post, or tell someone about the book, or mention it on Facebook, or give it a shout out on your blog, or send out a Tweet, or pin it, or Snapchat it to your grandma, or whatever the cool kids are doing these days?

Because as much as I love to write and as proud as I am of the blog and the book, I’m no P.T. Barnum and promotion scares me silly. I’ll do my best, but I’m pretty sure I will never be bold enough to call this the Greatest Book on Earth (if you feel so compelled, please feel free). And I sure would be grateful if you could lay down a few bricks along your path.

Thank you so much for five years. You are, without doubt, the Greatest Blog Readers on Earth.

 

If you’re into Twitter, here are a couple of ready-to-place bricks you can use:

Tweet: A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+A quirky collection about history and family life and all the funny bits. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/7WXaq+

Tweet: History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+History meets modern day family life in this funny and heartwarming collection. #LaunchingSheep https://ctt.ec/UjzVD+

The Ultimate Grilled Bagel Sandwich. Trust Me.

On September 12, 1683, after two long months of siege by the Ottoman Empire, the city of Vienna, Austria was rescued by the largest cavalry charge in history. Led by King Jan Sobieski III of Poland, the large combined force freed the city, a victory that became a turning point in the Ottoman-Habsburg Wars, a conflict already spanning nearly 300 years.

To say the people of Vienna were grateful would perhaps be an understatement. And legend has it that at least one Viennese baker took it upon himself to thank the king with a unique gift. The baker rolled a special bread into the shape of a horseshoe, boiled it, then baked it, so it would form a nice crust, and offered it King Jan, calling it a beugel, the German word for stirrup. King Jan took the gift, smeared it with cream cheese and lox and declared it gishmak.

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King Jan Sobieski of Poland placing his bagel order after the Battle of Vienna. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Well, that’s the persistent legend anyway. Actually the bagel, which does seem to have come from that general region of the world, predates the Battle of Vienna. Bagels are first mentioned in a list of “Community Regulations” in Krakow, Poland, dated 1610, where they are a suggested gift for mothers in childbirth, which, as far as I’m concerned, would have been way better than ice chips.

Some bagel historians (a highly competitive field, obviously) suggest the bagel may be a direct descendent of the soft, doughy pretzel produced in German monasteries from the twelfth century or so.

But however the wonderful chewy, crusty, traditionally Jewish, round bread came to be, it became a staple of the Polish diet and eventually found its way into New York (where they take their bagels very seriously), Chicago, and in 1983 to Carbondale, Illinois.

It’s true that Carbondale, home of Southern Illinois University, probably had bagels before 1983, but that was the year the Winston Bagel cart opened for business and introduced the world, one college student at a time, to the ultimate grilled bagel sandwich.

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Salukis go crazy for bagels. photo credit: gott.maurer Kehailan Laura Baggins via photopin (license)

As an alumna of this esteemed institute of higher learning and a former frequenter of Winston Mezo’s weekend bagel stand, I was a little saddened to hear of Winston’s retirement this past weekend. It’s the end of an era at the old alma mater.

After a stint in the military, Winston arrived in Carbondale, in his words, “to sober up.” A recovering alcoholic, sober for 35 years, Winston served bagels, wisdom, and really bad jokes to the student population throughout all of that time.

His bagels became legend in the little college town and far beyond as students he encountered spread across the world. Before I left for school as a fresh-eyed 18-year-old, I was given this sage advice by another student: “Order a Winston bagel with everything, except the ingredients you absolutely cannot tolerate. Trust me.”

And it does take some trust, because fully loaded, Winston’s bagels (grilled over charcoal while you listen to some bad jokes), include: butter, cream cheese, cucumber, apple slices, garlic powder, cinnamon, raisins, chopped onions, sunflower seeds, and bacon bits.  I always ordered mine without onions and raisins. And it’s one of the most delicious combinations on the planet. Trust me.

winstonbagel
Trust me.

I had a full schedule this past weekend or I might have made the trip to Carbondale to have one last bagel grilled by the man himself. Instead, I joined SIU alumni around the world and fired up the grill to make my own.

Though it lacked the charm of the bad jokes, the bagel was every bit as delicious as I remember. It tasted like college and memories. And it tasted like the kind of food you might make for a king who just delivered your city from a long siege, and for whom you are especially grateful.

There’s a nice article about Winston and his bagels in a recent edition of the university paper, the Daily Egyptian. I wish the bagel man well in his retirement. SIU will miss him.

A Paper Book Smack Dab in the Middle of Nowhere

The intersection of State Route 206 and Morton Hill Road in Sullivan County, New York, could legitimately be considered the middle of nowhere. It’s a few miles north of Roscoe, New York, which sports a population of around 550 people, excellent fly fishing opportunities, and an allegedly haunted castle. But it’s Roscoe’s northerly neighbor, at that intersection in the middle of nowhere that might be the most interesting thing about the area.

Because that’s where, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the town of Agloe, New York was imagined into existence by Otto G. Lindberg and Ernest Alpers of the General Drafting Company. On their map of New York State, Lindberg and Alpers chose to set a trap for potential copyright infringers; and so right there in the middle of nowhere, where no one would ever have a reason to go, the mapmakers placed a dot they decided to label Agloe.

Agloe
Agloe is an anagram of the initials of Lindberg and Alpers, a good name, I think, for a dot in the middle of nowhere. By OpenStreetMap contributors (OpenStreetMap) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Copyright infringement was a big problem in the mapmaking industry at the time (before GPS and the worldwide fleet of mapmaking Google cameras mounted on cars, boats, snowmobiles, and camels), and “paper towns” (because they exist only on paper) weren’t uncommon. And you can bet Lindberg and Alpers were glad they’d included Agloe when Rand McNally produced a New York State map a few years later that included the name of their made up town.

The problem was that Rand McNally’s lawyers had a pretty tight defense, because at some point along the way, a New York State couple saw the name Agloe on a map and decided to honor the little vanished town by naming their business in that approximate location the Agloe General Store.  Rand McNally claimed that their cartographers had visited the site, discovered the business, and concluded that this was one tiny New York hamlet that most certainly existed.

Still, the “town” and the business were in the middle of nowhere at the intersection of lightly traveled roads and, not surprisingly, the Agloe General Store didn’t last too long. Today, you can still visit Agloe, though you’ll have to plan your route to the intersection rather than the town since Google Maps removed the name in 2014. Once there you’ll find a nice sign welcoming visitors to the former site of the Agloe General Store and the made-up town it legitimized. You won’t find much else.

Paper towns
Author John Green thought the concept of paper towns was pretty cool, too, and Agloe features prominently in his novel.

I find the concept of paper towns fascinating, and as a writer, I particularly love the story of Agloe, which is an example of something invented on paper and imagined into actual existence.

That’s what writers do, or at least that’s what we try to do. We think and imagine and plan (and copyright), and eventually we produce a book, our imagination on paper, and we hope that someone will read it and will find that it has meaning in the real world.

In some ways, I’ve found blogging to be that way, too. Every week (and much more often than that for some), we write our posts and float our dots out there into the blogosphere, a place that can sometimes feel like the middle of nowhere. But then, if we keep at it, along come readers, many of whom are floating their own dots out into the virtual world and we begin to find meaning in one another’s work.

But writing in the middle of nowhere in the blogosphere doesn’t always feel tangible. I’ve been at this for a while now, and have been fortunate to have interacted with many gifted writers and amazing people in this space. On May 9 I will have been blogging as the Practical Historian for five years, and I continue to love doing it. To celebrate this milestone, I am releasing a tangible collection, (on paper, but also in e-formats) of some of my favorite posts and essays on history, life, and nonsense.

bookbox
A whole box full of highly meaningful paper books that really do exist.

If you’re interested, the book is available to preorder pretty much wherever you like to order books (and yes, on Amazon, too) and I promise that even though you can’t actually hold this paper (or electronic) book in your hands quite yet, I just received a shipment of honest to goodness copies. I’m not convinced you’ll find any great meaning in it, but it’s a fun book that really does exist. And it’s waiting for you just up ahead at that intersection in the middle of nowhere, not far from the haunted castle.

Popcorn for One

This past Saturday night, I did something new and wonderful. My husband spent the day with an old buddy of his and my children both attended an event Saturday night, so I found myself with some time on my hands at the end of a long, stressful week.

I thought about using the time to get some more long, stressful work done, but then I remembered that Beauty and the Beast was showing at the movie theater nearby and that I kind of wanted to see it, and no one else in my family did.

So, I bought a ticket and went to the movies by myself for the first time ever. Maybe it’s strange that a nearly forty-year-old American 21st century woman had never had that experience, and maybe you go to the movies by yourself all the time, but this was a first for me.

I bought some popcorn that I didn’t share with anyone. And when the person sitting beside me had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the movie, it wasn’t my problem.  In fact, once the lights went down and the movie started, I didn’t even notice the people next to me, because not one of them whispered to me, spilled his drink on me, or buried his eyes in my shoulder at the scary bits.

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Just one, please. With the perfect amount of butter.

I never entertained the fleeting thought that I should have chosen a different film because my movie-going neighbor clearly wasn’t enjoying this one. I just watched as the story of Belle and her Beast overwhelmed my senses and the stress of the week melted away in the dark auditorium.

And maybe that’s how it should be. After all, movie watching hasn’t always been the group activity it is today when movie-goers tend to grab their families, their sweethearts, or their rowdy group of friends, split a giant tub of popcorn, and sit back to enjoy the show.

When, on May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison first unveiled a working prototype of his laboratory’s Kinetocope, about 150 women gathered round to enjoy the experience, one at a time. The women were attending a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, and among them was Mina Edison, wife to the famous inventor.

Kinetoscope
Edison Laboratory’s Kinetoscope, what a movie theater looked like in 1891. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The device these ladies got to see was a large box with a small peephole in the top so that one person could peer inside and see a picture that moved. Edison (and more so his assistants, William Dickson and team) wasn’t the only one making progress toward moving pictures at the time, but when the ladies got a chance to look into the box and see William Dickson waving his hat at them, it was certainly a wholly new experience for them.

And it happened to the right group. Because the National Federation of Women’s Clubs had been developed to support women’s organizations engaged in improving lives through volunteerism. These were some hard working ladies, tackling some of the biggest civic issues of the day including women’s suffrage and child welfare. They had likely come to the conference exhausted, in need of encouragement and empowerment, and also rest and refreshment.

Though the moving picture they saw lasted only a few seconds, I have to assume they enjoyed their moment of solitude and focused entertainment, when in the midst of all these many people, each lady got a turn to see Dickson’s picture greet only her.

The experience caught on. Edison’s team also patented the Kinetographic Camera and by autumn of 1892, the movie viewing system had been fitted with a nickel slot and was headed into production. The first public Kinetoscope viewing parlor opened in New York in April of 1894, and soon the machines were in several major cities and in traveling exhibits throughout the United States. Folks lined up with their nickels, often paying a whole quarter to spend a few minutes jumping down a line of movie boxes to view a series of very short films.

Personally I’d find that a little frustrating and I’m glad that film soon moved into a bigger venue that could accommodate a larger audience. If not for that, we’d never have come to enjoy the hilarity of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or gotten to listen to rustle of hundreds of newspapers unfolding at the boring part of Rocky Horror Picture Show, or squirm in discomfort when an infected someone sneezes in the crowded movie theater during Outbreak. And we’d never miss a pivotal scene in order to accompany a kid to the bathroom.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still enjoy going to the movies with my family and friends. I think I even prefer it most of the time, but this is definitely an experience I will repeat when I get the chance. The movie was good. It’s a familiar story (my friend Pat recently wrote this fascinating post showing the Beast through the years), but it was well done with talented actors, strong voices, and plenty of Disney magic performed just for me. Most importantly, I did not leave in the middle to go walk with anyone to the bathroom. And my popcorn was just the way I like it.

A Highfalutin Riot: Fighting for the Right to Party at the Ballet

On the evening of May 29, 1913, many upstanding ladies and gentlemen of Paris, those with an appreciation for high culture and fine art, headed to the recently opened Théatre des Champs-Elysées for a night on the town. What they’d come to witness was  Rite of Spring, a highly anticipated performance by Les Ballet Russes, choreographed by the often controversial Vaslav Nijinsky with music composed by the unconventional Igor Stravinsky.

It’s unlikely any of those in attendance could have anticipated engaging in a shouting match with fellow ballet goers, being beaten with their neighbors’ canes, or having the peculiar rhythm of the music tapped out on top of their heads by the normally well mannered folks sitting behind them. But those are just the types of things that happened during what became perhaps the most notorious performance in ballet history.

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Riot-worthy ballet costumes. I guess. Rite of Spring Dancers. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
From almost the moment the first note sounded, the audience appeared uncomfortable and soon discussions broke out about the discordant music and the aggressive movements of the dancers in wild costumes, portraying disturbing pagan scenes. It seems some in the audience appreciated such a fresh performance while others found it to be an assault on the tasteful traditions of ballet and music composition.

Soon the disagreements turned to shouting and cane whacking, allegedly requiring police interference by Intermission and settling into a full on riot before the end of the performance.

At a ballet.

As I’m sure you know if you’ve visited this blog before,  I’m super  kind of occasionally thorough in my research, so I did listen to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring as I composed this post, and I have to say, I’m not sure I really get it. Bear with me here, because I am not qualified at all to be a music critic, but I do know what I like and don’t like. The Rite of Spring, while discordant and strange in places, strikes me as really beautiful at other times. And probably not riot-worthy.

But much more qualified music critics, some of whom consider this Stravinsky’s greatest work as well as one of the most influential compositions of the 20th century, often point out that it was a huge departure from the musical expectations of its time.

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Does this look like a man who would inadvertently cause a riot? Igor Stravinsky. Photographer: Robert Regassi. Publisher: J. & W. Chester, publisher, no author listed (Miniature essays: Igor Stravinsky) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So maybe I do get it, at least a little bit. Music does after all have the potential to elicit strong emotional response. That’s the reason I tend to skip around on my iPod a lot looking for the song I’m in the right mood for, even if I don’t know what that is until I hear it. And it’s also the reason that in the family iTunes account, we have set up a bunch of different lists for cleaning, family dance-offs (not an infrequent occurrence at our house), and settling down before bed.

Each of us has our own individual list, too, and sometimes we do get into arguments about which one we should listen to while prepping dinner. There’s a lot of overlap in our musical tastes, so it isn’t always a big problem, but each of us (except for me, obviously) has our little quirks. My oldest son favors classical movie scores and great guitar riffs (tolerable), but also has an unfortunate taste for electronica. My youngest is often happy with Metallica, but still enjoys a “good” bagpipe tune. And my husband, a man I admire for so many reasons, has a regrettable and inexcusable love for the Beastie Boys.

But despite any disagreements, we still turn on the tunes. And I imagine the highfalutin folks at that first performance of Rite of Spring eventually returned for more of the ballet. And actually, there’s a little mystery surrounding this high society riot anyway.

For such an unusual event, there’re not a lot of good reliable details. What we do know rests on the eyewitness accounts of some of the performers and a few of those in attendance; and given that eyewitnesses are generally not all that reliable, it’s possible that some exaggeration may have occurred over the years.

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This man, however, might tempt me to embrace my crazy. Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz By bakameh (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
And while both Stravinsky and Nijinsky were upset by the event, Sergei Diaghilev, wealthy entrepreneur and founder of Les Ballet Russes, reportedly said of the scandal that it was “just what [he] wanted.” Because controversy sells, and a ballet rumored to have started a riot, will likely sell out. There were no reports of further violence erupting at any of the remaining performances.

So it’s possible Rite of Spring didn’t really make people embrace their crazy as much as we’ve been led to believe. Still, I gotta say, when my husband occasionally decides to fight for his right to party and cranks up the Beasties, I think I could probably find myself willing to whack someone over the head with a cane.

And speaking of things totally worth getting overly worked up about, tomorrow I will be sharing some exciting news with the folks who are signed up on my e-mail list. If that isn’t you, and you’d like it to be, you can sign up here: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

Recipe for Spring: Start with 1.4 %Egg Yolk. Add Brain Freeze.

When he took on the office of the President of the United States in 1801, Thomas Jefferson brought with him his love for ice cream. Having most likely gotten his favorite ice cream recipe from his time serving as Minister to France, Jefferson often had the dessert served in what would, after a few years and a fire, come to be called the White House.

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Just a hint of a smile in this portrait…I bet he’s thinking about ice cream. Thomas Jefferson, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Jefferson accomplished a lot in his political career, but contrary to rumors that suggest otherwise, he did not introduce ice cream to the United States. He did, however, probably contribute to the spread of its popularity, and his handwritten recipe is the oldest of its kind known in the US.

It calls for cream, of course, and sugar, vanilla, and plenty of egg yolks. I’m sure it was good, and if you want to try Jefferson’s recipe, you can allegedly do so while visiting Mount Rushmore where the National Park Service will be happy to sell you a cone.

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When we visited Mount Rushmore a few year ago, we had no idea we could have eaten Thomas Jefferson’s way back ice cream. Guess we’ll have to visit again. Mount Rushmore, National Park Service, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

But according to the FDA, what you’ll be eating won’t technically be ice cream, which is defined as a frozen dessert containing at least 10% milkfat, a maximum of 100% overrun (the amount of mixed in air), and less than 1.4% egg product. You’ll have to call it French ice cream, or frozen custard instead.

It’s the eggs that make the difference, as most American ice cream recipes now forgo eggs all together in order to make production cheaper and handing easier. Custard is generally served fresh, and is stored at a slightly warmer temperature than ice cream. And custard has a much lower overrun, making it denser (upside down frozen custard has been holding onto spoons since long before Dairy Queen’s Blizzards) and creamier and, often, much more delicious.

You can trust me on this because we St. Louisans know a thing or two about frozen custard, which outside of the return of baseball(and yes, I’m going to go out on a limb here and speak for all of us) is our favorite sign of spring.

Finally this week, spring has sprung here in Missouri. It happened officially this past Monday, but all the unofficial signs have begun arriving, too. The temperature reached into the 80s (it didn’t stay there, because Missouri), tornadoes have touched down, the dog is shedding EVERYWHERE, and the seasonal frozen custard stands are finally open.

This last one matters most to our family, and especially to my nine-year-old son. We pass one of his favorites every day on the way home from his school, and every day I have to decided whether I will stop to get an after school treat or whether I will explain to him why it’s not a custard day.

Obviously we stop much less often than we don’t, but he never fails to ask. Fortunately this stand, like many in the area, closes in late November and doesn’t open again until early to mid-March, so I get a few months off from this tedious conversation.

But now it’s open, and my son is relentless. What can I do? He’s a St. Louis kid. And he loves his frozen custard.

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Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. “It really is good, guys..and gals.” By The original uploader was Indrian at English Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The Midwest fell in love with this creamiest of frozen dairy desserts in the 1930s. The first machine designed for producing frozen custard was about ten or twelve years old at that point and had already taken the Jersey shore by storm, but no one loves the stuff as much as Midwesterners (the true cultural center of the nation).

The city that grabbed hold the most enthusiastically is Milwaukee. Since Wisconsin is made of dairy cows and ice, it was a natural fit. Today that city calls itself (unofficially) the frozen custard capital of the world and boasts that it contains more frozen custard stands per capita than any other city. Good for them.

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Our favorite local treat is Fritz’s Frozen Custard, a St. Louis tradition since 1983.

I mean no disrespect to my Milwaukee friends when I say this, but we have an arch, and a better baseball team, and Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, named by celebrity chef Bobby Flay as the best dessert he’s ever eaten. Ted Drewes has been a part of St. Louis since 1931, and as they say in their extremely clever catchphrase, “It really is good guys…and gals.”

My son and I don’t drive past a Ted Drewes every day on our way home from school, but just because our stand is less famous, doesn’t mean it’s any less beloved. And most importantly, it’s now open for the season.

We’ve already made our first stop for rich, creamy, frozen dairy deliciousness complete with more than 1.4% egg yolk, consumed so enthusiastically that my son gave himself his first brain freeze of the spring. I think Thomas Jefferson (coincidentally my favorite historical president, only partially because of his love for frozen custard) would be proud.

 

The Ear-splitting Crack of My Broken Backyard Dreams

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus first set foot in the Bahamas. He hoped he would find gold, spices and silks, and a faster trade route to China. What he found instead was fertile land, an easygoing and hospitable people, and hammocks.

When he returned to Spain from that first voyage in March of 1493, Columbus brought with him a few of the people, a little gold, some tobacco plants, and, most importantly, some hammocks. Because, as everyone knows, hammocks are one of the greatest things in the world.

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Surely the highlight of any Caribbean voyage. Or possibly a view of my backyard. photo credit: shizham Tenggol Island via photopin (license)

By then, Natives of Central America had been using hammocks constructed of bark and plant fibers for around 500 years already, and though Columbus never did discover his direct water passage to the east, hammocks were certainly not a bad find. Europeans took to them right away, particularly finding them useful aboard ships.

And today, they are widely used for swinging in the light breeze suspended from two trees beside a white sand beach while sipping a piña colada. Or, possibly, in that great imaginary beach that exists in my suburban backyard.

When my husband and I bought our first little house, a few years into our marriage, it came with two posts in the backyard, perfectly spaced for a hammock. Obviously, we had to install one. We each spent many happy naps swaying in the backyard, often while cradling our oldest son who was a baby at the time. Because as perhaps the not-so-surprising research of skilled hammock scientists now tells us, human brains go to sleep faster while rocking. Apparently that’s even true of grownup human brains.

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Now that’s livin’ photo credit: crowdive Audrey and the hammock via photopin (license)

Unfortunately the next house didn’t have a convenient place to install the hammock, and when we thought about hanging it in the house after that, we discovered that while we’d been neglecting to use it, a colony of ants had discovered that they, too, enjoyed spending time in a hammock, though I don’t know that any skilled hammock scientists have studied that.

It took us an embarrassingly long time to get around to replacing it, but when we moved to Missouri a few years ago, we decided it was time. Last fall, my husband dug holes, poured concrete, and secured the strong posts. Then we hung the hammock and made a discovery that may have escaped the notice of the highly skilled hammock scientists: children in the middle grade to pre-teen range don’t seem to be soothed by the rocking motion in quite the same way. In fact, they may have the exact opposite response.

Because to my children, the hammock quickly became something to jump on and try to shove one another off. I get it. As much as I enjoy a nice nap, their way sounds fun, too. But, it turns out that may not be the best approach to maintaining strong, stable posts.

The first post snapped within two weeks. My husband was pretty cool about it. He shrugged and said he’d thought there was a troublesome knot in the post and wasn’t particularly surprised. He replaced it and all was well. Then winter came.

It’s been a mild one, with lots of spring-like breaks, so we haven’t put the hammock away, though it’s obviously not seen a lot of use. But this week the boys decided to give it a swing.

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An actual view of my backyard and the sad state of my hammock.

I wasn’t outside when it happened, but I heard the spectacular ear-splitting crack as the second post broke, followed by the cries of a very upset (though thankfully unharmed) boy. My sons tell me they weren’t jumping or wrestling on the hammock at the time. And I believe them, though I’m sure there was jumping and wrestling involved prior to the moment one of them laid back only to find himself landing on the ground.

This time my husband wasn’t quite as cool about the whole thing. He didn’t yell, but there was a sad look in his eye when he sighed and said he didn’t think it was worth replacing. Actually, what he said was, “They’re why we can’t have nice things.”

So I suppose, at least for now, you won’t find a hammock in our backyard. Or an imaginary white sand beach. You also won’t find gold, silk, or spices, or a direct water passage to Asia. But you can still find easygoing and hospitable people. And maybe even the occasional piña colada.