No Shoes Required: My Life as Well-Traveled Sock Monkey

Just over thirteen years ago, a young newlywed couple moved into their first home together in the small city of Rockford, Illinois. You could say that it was the beginning of a wonderful journey on which they would earn a couple of degrees, begin careers, change jobs a few times, travel the world a little bit, have a couple of amazing kids, and own homes at various times in three different states. But theirs wasn’t the only journey to have begun in Rockford, Illinois.

The Swedish-born inventor John Nelson immigrated to the US in 1852 and settled in Rockford where he worked as a carpenter and cabinet maker before establishing several manufacturing businesses of his own. But it turns out what captured Nelson’s attention the most was the quest for a comfy pair of socks (and who could blame him?). He sold his other manufacturing plants and invested all of his energy into producing a machine that could manufacture everyday work socks for the everyday working man.

The Symbol, a large piece of modern art sculpt...
“The Symbol.” at Rockford’s Riverfront Park. It’s nice, but I think a giant sock monkey would have been even better. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After partnering with fellow inventor W. W. Burson, Nelson patented his first knitting machine in 1870 and by 1873, the two had created the world’s first seamless sock produced by an automated process. The partnership between Burson and Nelson dissolved, Nelson founded the Nelson Knitting Company, and then he died in 1883.

But the quest of sock perfection continued with his three sons. The Nelson boys started Forest City Knitting Company, eventually merging with Nelson Knitting to become the world’s dominant sock producer.

Business was humming along, but over the years the industry had attracted a number of competitors, all of them producing brown work socks with a tan toe, top, and heel. To distinguish the original and best out there, Nelson Knitting decided to get a little wild. In 1932 it introduced to the world what it called the “De-Tec-Tip” sock, which was a brown work sock with (and I’m sorry if this sounds a little shocking to more delicate readers) a RED heel.

It was certainly a risky move, but the world was ready for it. Within an hour of the first red-heeled socks hitting the pages of Sears & Roebuck, craft bloggers had begun sewing the first sock monkeys, photographing each step to include with painfully detailed instructions. History has forgotten who was first to pin it to their Pinterest page, but Nelson Knitting was rewarded the patent for everyone’s favorite stuffed animal in 1955.

All buckled up and ready for takeoff!
All buckled up and ready for takeoff!

No worries, however, for the craft bloggers out there because the patent expired in 1970 and since then sock monkeys have been popping up everywhere. And that’s where our two stories come together.

A few Christmases ago, when our sons were very small, my husband received a sock monkey (alas I am not a craft blogger so this one was not homemade). The boys named him “Steve” and he became a permanent fixture in our family culture, taking on quite a mischievous personality (because he is, after all, a monkey).

So fast forward a few months. The not quite as young and not quite as newlywed couple got the opportunity to leave their two young children with Grandma and Grandpa and take off for a week together in Hawaii.

We had gone away for a weekend a few times, but this was the longest I had ever planned to spend away from my little guys. So I was trying to figure out a way to help them know they were on our minds and feel like they were in some way part of our trip. It was my wonderful mother-in-law (and yes, I do mean that sincerely) who suggested that we photograph a favorite stuffed animal along the way and post the pictures so the boys could follow our adventure. We stuffed Steve in a suitcase and we were off.

Steve kicks back at a luau and sips some "pineapple juice."
Steve kicks back at a luau and sips some “pineapple juice.”

Steve has been our family’s travel mascot ever since. When either “Mom” or “Dad” heads out for a conference, Steve travels with us. He always shows up on family vacations. He kept family and friends posted during our cross-country move this past year.

Most recently Steve and I attended the Ozark Creative Writers Conference in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. If you’ve never been there, just trust me when I tell you that a lady walking around taking pictures of her sock monkey doesn’t really garner much attention. At one point I posted a picture of Steve sitting behind a friend’s book table at the conference and captioned it: “Steve is hoping to sell some copies of his self-published memoir entitled No Shoes Required: My Life as a Well-Traveled Sock Monkey.”

The crazy thing is that I’ve had several people tell me they would be happy to buy the book. Now, I’m fond of Steve. And I am delighted to know that his journey and ours began in the same place long before our paths crossed and we started to travel together. But I don’t want to get pigeonholed into the sock monkey genre (Worldcat lists 33 new sock monkey entries for 2013-2014) and I do NOT have time to ghostwrite for a stuffed animal.

I do apologize to Steve’s many fans out there. A blog post will just have to do.

The ladies sure do love him.
The ladies sure do love him.

The Trouble with Wallabies

A week or two ago, a suspiciously happy circle cropped up on a hillside near my home. This constitutes my only first-hand experience with a crop circle so I was delighted to discover that in the great state of Oregon where I live, this is not a terribly uncommon occurrence.

Though the vast majority of crop circles in the 20th century have been located in southern England there are examples from 26 nations throughout the world. Circles have been reported in forty-seven out of the fifty US states. And yes in 1991, Puerto Rico even got into the action when a group of concentric rings turned up on a rocky plateau near the city of Ajuntas.

Oregon ranks 11th among the fifty states with 19 reported circles by 2008 (Not quite as impressive as the 23 boasted by my native home state of Illinois, but not too shabby). Ohio claims the title for most reported crop circles in a single US state with a whopping 42, confirming what researchers have long suspected: there really is very little to do in Ohio.

This data comes from the Independent Crop Circle Researchers’ Association (ICCRA) which describes itself as a cooperative of researchers with a wide variety of interests in crop circles dedicated to objective data collection, independent of individual theories about crop circle formation. And it’s a good thing it exists because it’s a heated debate, contributed to (according to Wikipedia) by paranormal enthusiasts, ufologists (I can’t help but wonder if this field of study requires post graduate work), and anomalistic investigators. For some reason practical historians didn’t make the list.

Many of these enthusiasts, investigators, and ‘ologists have come to different conclusions as to the cause of crop circles. Which makes me wonder how exactly the large happy face appeared because there are a number of possibilities to consider.

The first good picture we have of crop circles comes from a 17th-century English woodcut pamphlet entitled Mowing-Devil on which appears the story of a farmer who said he’d rather have the devil himself mow his field than to pay the high price demanded by a laborer. Apparently no one ever told him to be careful what he wished for because that night, his field appeared to catch fire and the next day it was perfectly cut (at a rather higher price I assume). The accompanying picture includes the image of the devil cutting a circle into the field with a scythe. Of course, since he went on to cut the entire field, and because I don’t usually think of the devil as a particularly happy chap, I don’t think this explains my mystery circle.

1678 pamphlet on the "Mowing-Devil".

The more modern crop circle phenomenon took off a few years after a curious event near the city of Tully in Queensland, Australia. In 1966, a farmer by the name of George Pedley reported hearing a strange hissing noise. Looking toward the sound, he saw a saucer ascend from the nearby swamp. When he investigated the area, he found a circular depression in the vegetation, about 30 feet in diameter. Officials determined the cause to be vaguely related to a dust devil. The saucer sighting was “officially” overlooked.

Then in the 1970’s, circles began popping up all over the English countryside. Most of these would turn out to be the handiwork of pranksters Doug Bower and Dave Chorley who patterned their initial circles on the Tully “saucer nest.” The two later claimed over 200 circles, many of which sparked at least a little bit of serious scientific study.

In 1980, a meteorologist and physicist by the name of Terence Meaden weighed in with a complicated theory that the circles were caused whirlwinds bouncing around the unique topography of the southern English countryside. The theory gained some momentum, even garnering a tentative endorsement from Physicist Stephen Hawking who said that it was a plausible explanation if  the circles weren’t just part of some elaborate hoax. When Bower and Chorley finally came clean, I imagine Meaden’s response was something like: “Or it could all just be part of some elaborate hoax.” It is, however, worth noting that a lot of cereologists (one who has a post graduate degree in the study of crop circles, or maybe Cheerios) claim that crop circles which can be attributed to hoaxes are in fact promoted by governments as a way to discredit the true origin of others.

My favorite explanation for the appearance of crop circles, though, comes from Lara Giddings, then Deputy Premier of Tasmania, whose theory appears in a June 2009 article from the BBC. To give a little background here, Australia produces about 50% of the world’s legally grown poppies for use in the pharmaceutical industry. Australia also has wallabies. Giddings apparently said the following: “We have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting high as a kite and going around in circles. Then they crash. We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high.”

So I guess that explains it.

Except as far as I know, there are no wild (high as a kite) wallabies in Oregon. And while I can’t completely discount alien visitation, this particular hill is highly visible from a pretty busy road and I haven’t heard any reports of UFO sightings in the area. So maybe, just maybe, there’s a mystery artist or two out there having a little fun and spreading a little joy. But I should probably report it to the ICCRA just to be safe.

Red necked wallaby (picture taken in Australia)

Note: I know that some of you are probably still thinking about the Mowing-Devil and just can’t let it go because technically a crop circle is created by bending crops and not mowing them. I understand your concern, but the way I see it, if visitors from another planet decide to use lawn mowing equipment to communicate with us then who are we to cry foul? Just to be clear, though, I don’t think it’s a good idea for gorked wallabies to be operating heavy machinery.

FACT: This blog post is about vampires.

Abraham Lincoln wielding his ax at Lincoln’s New Salem State Park

In March of 2010, author Seth Grahame-Smith revealed to the world disturbing truths about the 16th president of the United States. By now you have probably heard of his book, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. It has spawned a movie by the same name that will be released to theaters this Friday.

Personally I am fascinated by the concept of it for a couple of reasons. First of all, I am originally from Illinois, proudly nicknamed the “Land of Lincoln.” I grew up in a small town barely thirty miles from the capitol city of Illinois (NOT Chicago!) in which you can find: the Lincoln Presidential Museum, the Lincoln Depot, Lincoln’s tomb, Lincoln’s law office, Lincoln’s home, Lincoln Memorial Gardens, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. If you swing by Springfield’s First Presbyterian Church (and why wouldn’t you?), you will even be treated to a glimpse of the very pew purchased by the Lincoln family. A quick 25 minute drive takes you to Petersburg, IL where you can walk through Abraham Lincoln’s New Salem State Park, a replica of the village where Lincoln spent several years as a not-so-successful small businessman. Amazingly, I’m pretty sure this list is not exhaustive.

As an elementary school student and Girl Scout, I pretty much toured them all, with the exception of the Presidential Museum, which only opened in 2005. I have, however, been to the museum multiple times as an adult and can unapologetically state that it is worth a visit. Make sure you don’t miss the “Ghosts of the Library” show. Tell them the practical historian sent you. They won’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ll appreciate the plug anyway.

The point is, like all kids from Illinois (except for maybe those from Chicago), I know a thing or two about Abraham Lincoln. I did not, however, know he was a successful vampire hunter.

The other reason that I find Grahame-Smith’s book so fascinating is that I also write historical fiction and so what he has done here presents a really interesting look at what writers can (or should) and cannot (or should not) do with (or to) history. The book begins with three “Facts”:

  1. For over 250 years, between 1607 and 1865, vampires thrived in the shadows of America. Few humans believed in them.
  2. Abraham Lincoln was one of the gifted vampire hunters of his day, and kept a secret journal about his lifelong war against them.
  3. Rumors of the journal’s existence have long been a favorite topic among historians and Lincoln biographers. Most dismiss it as myth.

I’d like to take a closer look at these three statements.

1. In 1607, the British merchant ship Cormorant set sail from Portsmouth, England under the direction of Captain Horatio Wheeler. Aboard the ship was a sailor by the name of Andrew Oglethorpe who’d had an unfortunate run-in with a vampire just prior the journey. Vampirism spread like wildfire through this “ship of the dead.” Its newly undead crew, furious with Wheeler for allowing a vampire to join the crew in the first place, immediately mutinied and elected a much more capable (and seemingly curse-resistant) captain by the name of Jack Sparrow whose obsession with treasure led them eventually toward the islands of the Caribbean. So that date checks out.

Where Grahame-Smith makes his mistake, however, is with his end date of 1865. In actuality (assuming we can trust the information trudged up in a random Google search, and I think we all agree that we can), Abraham Lincoln was far from the last US president who dealt with the American vampire problem.

According to my sources, it was President Ulysses S. Grant who established the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency in 1869, which functioned as a branch of the US military. McKinley later added a department of scientific research to the agency and the search for a vampirism cure began. Increased public support for vampire rights (a grassroots movement begun by some guy from Louisiana by the name of Lestat) caused FDR to restructure the FVZA as a secret, underground program. It wasn’t until 1963 that President Kennedy finally, in a Rose Garden ceremony declared the war on American vampires officially won and in 1974 Gerald Ford pulled the plug on FVZA (Or did he?)

2. Grahame-Smith also claims that Abraham Lincoln was “one of the gifted vampire hunters of his day.”  According to the FVZA website (surprisingly informative for a website representing a completely legitimate, entirely secret government agency), the most famous American vampire hunter was a man by the name of John “Red Jack” Averill, a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, credited with over 4000 vampire kills. If we assume that Grahame-Smith’s book is a more or less accurate representation of Lincoln’s hunting activities, I estimate the president killed no more than a few dozen vampires during his lifetime, making him somewhat less than mediocre as far as vampire hunters of the mid-19th century go.

3. And now for this rumored secret journal.  A quick Internet search (frankly, all the time I’m willing to commit to such a project) has revealed to me no credible references to the supposed journal. Though I guess since I am not privy to the dinner conversations of many historians or Lincoln biographers, I cannot say for certain that the journal is not a favorite topic among them. I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Still, the facts don’t entirely hold up. And this one question remains: Was Abraham Lincoln a vampire hunter? I don’t know. What I can say with relative certainty is that living most of my life in the heart of the Land of Lincoln, I never once encountered a vampire so either there really are no vampires (highly unlikely, I know) or the name of Lincoln still inspires fear among the vampire population. Of course, I also haven’t run into one in the nearly two years I have been living in Oregon, sandwiched between the heartthrob vampires of Forks, WA in the north, and the Lost Boys of Santa Carla, CA in the south.

What does Seth Grahame-Smith have to say for himself in regard to his use of history to tell a story that seems suspiciously less than entirely true? “You have to have reverence for the real history,” he told an audience at the screening of the Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter movie trailer, presented onsite at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. “The man was a real man who is still extraordinarily revered…That, to me personally, was the line: Never make this guy look like an idiot.”

Well said, Mr. Grahame-Smith. And well done. The book is a fun read.

The movie promises to be full of graphically violent scenes with (I’m guessing) lots of comically exaggerated blood spatter. Too gory for me, but I’m sure it will be thoroughly enjoyed by any true fan of vampires, or probably also by a true fan of Abraham Lincoln, because, let’s face it: even a widely beloved historical figure only becomes more awesome when he is hunting vampires.