Blue Collar Mickey

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Last weekend I visited a friend on the East Coast. She has two young children. One of the adventures for the weekend was to visit an amusement park called Diggerland.

I’d never heard of it. I did a little research and it appears to be the only one in the US. There are a number (ie 4) in the UK.

It’s an amusement park where children can play with construction equipment. Obviously, in most cases, the equipment is stationary and/or greatly simplified.

There are excavators that are bolted to the ground. You can then use the excavator arm to try to dig out bars from a dirt pile. There is another excavator that you can ride to try to hook duck decoys floating in water. There is yet another excavator where you use the arm to try to knock down bowling pins.

There are a couple of vehicles that you can ride around an obstacle course. You can ride a Skidsteer loader. There’s another course where you can ride a small steamroller. All of these vehicles are real construction equipment. I’m sure that they are greatly simplified, all sorts of governors are placed on them, and most of them require an adult to ride with the child. However, the children do get a sense of operating a fairly large piece of construction machinery, which, if the two children that I was with provided any indication, was a pretty cool thing for them.

They also have a multi-story climbing wall and a multi-story rope course. I sacrificed myself and became the adult for the child that wanted to do the rope course. It wasn’t a huge problem. I’m not in love with heights but I don’t have a phobia of them either. They do harness you in, so there’s essentially no danger at all. Having said that, being several stories high and walking on a shaky balance beam was actually a pretty exhilarating experience. It didn’t help that it was windy as well. There was one part of it where you crossed a pretty loose tight rope. My brain knew that it was safe, but I just couldn’t convince my body.

They also had converted a very large high torque excavator and converted it to a ride. You climbed into what was essentially the bucket and the excavator spun around at high speeds, switching directions. Motion sickness is my Kryptonite, so I passed.

The children had a lot of fun. Me being me, I picked up on a deeper message behind the park.

If you think about theme amusement parks, usually the theme is one of fantasy. You ride a rocket ship to the moon. You pretend to be Indiana Jones. You go through a haunted mansion. You ride with dinosaurs.

All that is great and is wonderful for children’s imaginations. Here though, the theme is work. Look at these big yellow machines that do things. Aren’t they fun to use? Do you know that you could grow up and run one of these?

It’s a different message than conventional theme parks. I find it interesting that the only place in the US that it’s located is in New Jersey. First of all, when I think New Jersey, I picture blue collar hard hat Americans (thanks for that Bruce Springsteen). I’m from the West Coast and don’t know much about the state, but at least as a cultural touchstone, that’s what I think. It’s located in pretty rural New Jersey (and again, West Coast kid here, I had no idea that New Jersey even had a rural area, I just think of industry, refineries, and gambling when I think of New Jersey).

Would this park be as popular if it was located in Anaheim? Or even Seattle? Well, with Seattle, in its multi-year building boom where the skyline is dotted with cranes, maybe.

Considering the emphasis, basically starting from preschool, that parents place on their children to attend college, it might be a nice message to let them that maybe not everyone has to go to college. There are careers out there for people who are more comfortable outside of a classroom than inside one. Giving children that exposure at an amusement park seems to be a pretty great way to communicate that.

Well, at least until Google perfects driverless vehicles (a very high probability that that will happen during these children’s adult lives), at which point probably all of those jobs go away.

Museum For The Second Oldest Profession

Continuing my adventures in D.C., I went to the International Spy Museum. I had very low expectations. Like the wax museum, I thought it would be this very cheesy thing primarily directed towards children. When I saw that their special exhibit was 50 years of Bond villains, my hopes were not exactly raised.

It did not start out well. There had some kind of scavenger hunt game that they handed out to the children, so they were running around trying to find all of the items. It starts off where you’re supposed to memorize your cover identity so that you can pass through customs.

Luckily, that kind of stuff immediately faded away and it then became much more of a traditional museum.

They did have some interesting spy relics. They had a bunch of miniature cameras that could be concealed. There was a camera that was disguised as a cigarette case. There was a camera that was disguised as a suit button. There was even a camera that was disguised as a camera case.

Similarly, they had interesting concealed weapons. There was a weapon in an umbrella. There was a gun disguised as a cigarette case (again! spies must really do smoke a lot). There was a collar that was actually a knife. Note that these aren’t toys. These are actually real items that were donated to the museum that were at least theoretically for field use.

There were other items as well of interest. There was a tool kit that could be collapsed into a tube, which was then inserted into your rectum. There was a pair of glasses that had a cyanide pill embedded in one of its arms. As you were interrogated, you could remove your glasses and innocently chew on your glasses as if you were thinking and give yourself a fatal dose.

They also had a special section on Bletchley Park, which included an actual enigma machine.

As I’ve discovered in my tour of the museums, the things that mean the most to me are the objects that have a personal touch to them.

For example, the biggest mole in CIA history is Aldrich Ames. His story is somewhat absurd. A known alcoholic who suddenly can buy houses with cash, drive Jaguars, and wear tailored suits was still able to spy for years. Whenever he had information that he wanted to pass on to his Soviet handler, he’d mark a post office mailbox with a piece of chalk. Well, that mailbox is at the museum.

They have a letter written and signed by Mata Hari.

They have a letter signed by Felix Dzerzhinsky. That name might not mean much to you, but he was the person that formed the Cheka special police force. This was the original Soviet secret police that led to the NKVD, which led to the KGB, which in turn led to the current FSB. When you think of the diabolical reputation of the Soviet/Russian secret police, a big debt of thanks can be laid at his doorstep.

Finally, the coolest thing of all. I’ve written about him several times before. He is almost without question the greatest / most famous double agent of the twentieth century. Of course I’m talking about Kim Philby. I’ve nominated him for person of the century (you can read about my reasons here). The museum has Philby’s hat, shaving kit, pipe, and flask. Considering the fact that, like apparently most spies, Philby was a raging alcoholic, I’m guessing that the flask got a good workout.

The Philby paraphernalia alone was worth the price of admission (and yes, it’s not a Smithsonian, so there is a price to be paid).

Taking A Selfie With Millard Fillmore

After all of the heavy historical lifting that I’ve been doing over the past several days in D.C. (going to museums, going to monuments, going to memorials), I decided to try some lighter fare.

The lightest that I could find was Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. Yep, a wax museum. I hadn’t been to one in over ten years at least. It’s fair to say that I came in with pretty low expectations.

And yes, it was pretty cheesy, but it was also a lot of fun. You have to keep in mind that I’m a president geek, and it starts off with a series of vignettes with each president, in succession order. This fact alone made the museum pretty wonderful to me and I ended up barely paying any attention at all to its other parts. Why would I want to spend any time with George Clooney or Taylor Swift when I can cosy up to Rutherford Hayes??

The fact that you can cosy up is one the charms of this particular museum. There are no velvet ropes here. There are no glass cases. There are no museum guards tsk-tsking you if you get too close. In most cases, the figure is just standing there. You can walk up to them and get as close as you want.

I’m thinking that they tried fairly hard to match the wax figures to the size and shape of the actual historical personage. Sure enough, I towered over the wee little fellow, James Madison. Historically, most presidents actually average somewhere around six feet and yes, most of them were taller than me.

Probably for obvious reasons, the presidents that we know only from paintings or from photographs are the ones that look most lifelike. Once you get to Nixon and after, the resemblance between the actual figure and the wax figure begins to fade because you have witnessed how they move in real life and the wax figures look just a bit off.

Although interestingly enough, they do have a wax figure of Nancy Reagan, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t look exactly like her. I’m guessing that this probably says something about the basic artificiality of her appearance in real life. On the other hand, the Hillary Clinton figure was laughably bad to an almost unrecognizable extent.

Some of the presidents were sitting down. I think the idea is that you could sit next to them and have your picture taken in a seemingly more informal setting. Fair enough. However, they had Abraham Lincoln sitting in what appeared to be a playhouse box. The box was covered in presidential bunting and the seats were old-fashioned red upholstered. I’d just been to Ford’s Theater (it’s just around the corner) and in fact, it looked startlingly like the booth at Ford’s. Was it really the intention that you were supposed to take a picture of yourself with Lincoln at the setting in which he was assassinated? I didn’t see a derringer that you could use as a prop to really make your photo pop. If you came with a friend, one of you could play Henry Rathbone (I told you I was a geek, look him up, it ends well for him!).

I was amused by the fact that Franklin Pierce’s haircut almost looks like Tim Burton’s. Eisenhower and Grant were both in their military uniforms (I can’t remember now, but I think Washington was as well). Interestingly enough, Zachary Taylor, who was also swept into office due to his military prowess in the Mexican American War (Old Rough and Ready!) was not. Clearly an oversight of epic proportions.

I particularly liked standing next to the little known presidents, the Franklin Pierce’s, the Rutherford Hayes’, the Chester Arthur’s. You see the famous presidents regularly; I liked that even the nonentity presidents got to have their own little moment in the sun.

And oh yeah, there were also some celebrities, but who the fuck cares?

Aside From That, How Was The Play?

I went to Ford’s Theater last time that I was in DC. This was somewhere between fifteen to twenty years ago. When I went last time, it was pretty low tech. They had a very simple (just a couple of display cases, IIRC) in the basement and then you pretty much could wander around the theater. It was really eerie to me to stand near the front of the theater and look up at the box where Lincoln was assassinated. In my mind, it seems like such a huge event that the actual modest setting of the play house seemed incongruent. I was able to take the actual path that Booth took to get behind the box. I was literally able to stand in the exact spot that Booth stood when he shot Lincoln. It sent chills down my spine to imagine myself living in that moment. It was one of the highlights of that trip to DC.

Now, many years have passed. Since then, clearly Ford’s has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation and it definitely shows. The somewhat simple basement museum is now a state of the art examination of Lincoln’s election and term in office. It is definitely a professional quality exhibit, and the increased attendance shows it. Last time, I was able to wander around somewhat freely with very little interference from other patrons. Now, there are scheduled viewings with a couple of hundred people admitted at a time.  The basement is thronged, with a crush of people struggling to get a selfie with Booth’s derringer.

The playhouse itself is now much more roped off. You can still view Lincoln’s box from the front part of the theater, but you are now no longer able to get as close to the box as I once did.

Last time I visited, I also went to the Petersen House. This is where they took Lincoln after he was shot and where ultimately he was declared dead. Again, it was eerie to stand and look into the room, imagining the scene with Lincoln’s prostrate body, Mary Lincoln inconsolable, and Edwin Stanton frantically trying to keep the Union together, catch Lincoln’s killer, and deal with his own grief.

This time, when I left Ford’s Theater, I looked over at the Petersen House and there was already fifty people standing in line waiting to enter. I didn’t bother.

The problem for me is that I already know about the Lincoln presidency. The basement exhibits, although professionally done, added nothing to my knowledge. The magic of Ford’s Theater isn’t the Lincoln presidency but the tragedy of the assassination and the echoes that it stirs in people when they come into close proximity to such a historically significant event.

I’m sure that this has resulted in much more revenue for Ford’s, and they are welcome to it. For me personally, the updates were a pretty serious disappointment.

Scraps of Paper

Like yesterday’s post, this is going to be another list of things. I’m sorry about that. It just blows my mind how much history is on display at your fingertips in Washington D.C.

Today I went to the National Archives. Most people go there to see the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They’re all there, and I was suitably awed to be in their presence. I was last in D.C. over fifteen years ago, and it appears to me that the Declaration of Independence has deteriorated even more since I last saw it. Virtually none of the letters or signatures are readable on it anymore. Granted, it’s kept in such low light that it’s hard to read anyway, but still, it’s kind of sad that such a historically vital document will inevitably weather away.

I do have a comment regarding the fact that, for a big chunk of the other documents, they display facsimiles instead of the original document. I totally get why this has to be done. Over time, light does bad thing to ink on paper. Still, it does take away from the magic, that no matter how realistic it is, in most cases you’re looking at a copy. Now you can console yourself with the knowledge that somewhere in the building is the original, but still some of the power is lost knowing that it is a facsimile.

But still, the unimaginable array of documents that they have is absolutely mind blowing. I wrote yesterday about how objects inspire in me a sense of historical connectedness. Viewing the original source documents, especially those written, read, or signed by historically significant people, sends chills down my spine.

OK, here’s some of the things that I saw:

  • Rosa Parks arrest report
  • The Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision ending segregation (with that well meaning but horribly abused phrase) “with all deliberate speed”
  • The handwritten petition that Clarence Gideon wrote to the Supreme Court that ultimately resulted in the right to counsel
  • A note that the 14 year old Fidel Castro wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt asking him for $10 (WTF??!! Seriously?)
  • Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
  • A 1777 draft notice from the Revolutionary War
  • A letter from Reagan to Gorbachev
  • JFK’s notes during the Cuban Missile Crisis
  • Al Capone’s guilty jury verdict

This is the kind of stuff that blows my mind.

Way back in 1800, the Democratic-Republican party ticket of Thomas Jefferson / Aaron Burr had pretty clearly beaten the Federalist ticket headed by John Adams. In those days, each elector had two votes and the top two vote recipients became President and Vice President.

Well in a cluster fuck of epic proportions, the Democratic-Republican electors did not throw away one of their votes so that Jefferson could win the tally. Instead they all voted both for Jefferson and Burr. They both ended up with 73 votes. No winner. A tie.

With no winner, that sends the vote to the House of Representatives to decide. Two problems crop up.

One problem is Aaron Burr. Everyone knew that the plan was for Jefferson to be President and Burr to be Vice President. However, Burr is, to put it mildly, one of the more interesting politicians that no one really talks about anymore. He later allegedly tried to procure a major chunk of South-Eastern territory from Spain to set up an independent state led by himself. Here, he sees the chance to steal the presidency from Jefferson, so he quietly sits back and sees how it will all play out.

The other problem is that even though the Democratic-Republicans have won decisively in the House elections, it’s actually the sitting House that conducts the vote. The sitting House is not only majority Federalist, but as a party they pretty much hate Jefferson, so this might be a good time to give a big fuck you to him by denying him the presidency (not to mention the fact that some of them legitimately feared that a Jefferson presidency could turn into some kind of Jacobin revolution).

The house casts many ballots over several days. Jefferson gets close but keeps falling just short. Here the plot thickens. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr are both aggressive, ambitious politicians from New York and they detest each other. So, even though Hamilton is a Federalist and himself has had many clashes with Jefferson, his hatred of Burr is stronger than his fear of a Jefferson presidency. Behind the scenes he does just enough political magic that finally allows Jefferson to squeak through and gain the presidency.

From that cluster fuck, there was general recognition that perhaps the electoral college voting process has not yet been optimized. In fact, before the next presidential election, an amendment is proposed, voted on by Congress, and approved by the requisite number of states to have the electors separately vote for President and Vice President.

As can be imagined, this did not do great things for the already battered relationship between Burr and Hamilton. It would deteriorate even further when Hamilton thwarted Burr’s bid to become governor of New York. Ultimately, their fates would be forever intertwined in the interview at Weehawken.

Why did I go into all of this detail? Well, at the National Archives, on display, is the original hand-scrawled electoral college count of 1800, showing both Jefferson and Burr at 73 votes.

Just seeing that scrap of paper filled my brain with all that I just wrote about. Having such thoughts flood my brain is the reason why I planned a vacation to D.C. and it has exceeded all of my expectations.

Relics From a Secular Religion

Being a history geek, while I was in Washington D.C., probably my number one priority was to go to the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

There is just something about having an artifact that is associated with a historical figure that moves something in me. I’m not sure, maybe it’s the equivalent motivation that leads medieval Catholic churches to showcase their, what to a modern, areligious point of view, seems to be silly, relics. You know what I mean. It’s the right knuckle of St Stephen, the big toe of St Christopher, one of many slivers of the cross that Jesus was crucified on.

Somehow, beholding something that you know that this distant historical figure once owned or used gives that object special feeling, as if you can somehow reach across the centuries and commune with that person through the object.

I remember, many years ago, I was in Rome. I was wandering around the Roman Forum, somewhat lost, not really appreciating what I was experiencing. Out of nowhere, a young man walked up to me and said that he was doing a free tour (he was starting up some kind of new business and was just trying to generate word of mouth business and hopefully generate some tips in so doing). Well, he brought the Forum alive to me. Where before I was just wandering around in a desultory manner, he pointed to objects and explained them. It was amazing and ended up being one of the highlights of my trip to Rome. The main point that he made was that the stones that we were walking upon were literally the original stones. That is to say, that we were walking on the very stones that once upon a time, Julius Caesar also once walked upon. For whatever reason, that blew my mind and somehow made the past and the present collide in some way that made my mind reel.

The Smithsonian American History museum is chock full of such artifacts. Inside its walls are a nearly endless bounty of relics that allow you to commune with the history of our relatively young country.

Relics that I came to worship include:

  • Muhammad Ali’s gloves
  • Benjamin Franklin’s walking stick
  • Pikes used during John Brown’s raid
  • The actual fucking penicillin mold that Alexander Fleming grew and gave to America (seriously, WTF!?)
  • Clothing that Harriet Tubman wore
  • Uniform and swords for both George Washington and Andrew Jackson
  • George Washington’s mess kit (including his camp stool)
  • Sam Houston’s rifle
  • Grant’s official promotion from Major General to Lieutenant General, signed by Edwin Stanton AND Abraham Lincoln
  • The top hat that Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre
  • The chaps that Theodore Roosevelt wore when he was a cowboy out west
  • William Tecumseh Sherman’s much abused hat that he wore on his march to Atlanta
  • Bill Clinton’s nuclear football
  • Tongs made by Paul Revere
  • Light bulb made by Edison laboratories
  • One of Alexander Graham Bell’s original telephones
  •  The desk where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence
  • The compass William Clark used on the Lewis and Clark expedition

You get the point, right? This is pretty amazing stuff that, if you’re a history geek, just automatically transports you back through time.

There are two things that transported me, but in a negative kind of way.

First of all, they have FDR’s original order (at least the first page is original, apparently the other two pages are copies) to intern American citizens of Japanese descent. This is one of the darkest, most paranoid periods of American history. Especially for FDR, with all of his New Deal politics of lifting the everyman out of hopelessness, this is darkness. To automatically assume that an American citizen, because he has a different color skin, must be considered suspect is disgusting. And then to hear about all of the Japanese young men volunteering to fight, even knowing that they will face racism and knowing that their families have been imprisoned by their government makes it all the more horrifying. Seeing the original order signed by FDR brought me back to this dark part of American history.

Another artifact had meaning to me because it is more historically tangible to me. I was a pretty young man when Ronald Reagan was elected. Sometime, I think it was in the middle of his second term, I read David Stockman’s book, The Triumph of Politics.

For those that don’t know, Ronald Reagan was the first president that really believed in supply side economics. This was the trickle down economics that he was so famous for.  David Stockman was one of the original believers in the theory.

The way that the theory goes is that if you tax a very wealthy person at a 100% effective tax rate, then that person would no longer work because he’d have no incentive to work. Therefore, his potential earning would be worthless because he’d choose not to earn them. Fair enough. Similarly, if you taxed a wealthy person at 90%, then he’d work some, but not a lot because, again, it’s not really in his benefit to do so.

So, the theory goes, if you tax a wealthy person lightly, then that person would work more and would put his wealth to full use, which in turn would employ more people, who in turn would get taxed and ultimately there would be a net increase in taxes.

Therefore, paradoxically, by taxing wealthy people relatively lightly, the government would end up with more tax revenue.

It’s a great theory. Unfortunately, it’s absolute bullshit. Reagan tried it but deficits exploded. George H.W. Bush (and later Clinton) made a deal to raise taxes, (for which Bush probably paid for it with his presidency) and by the end of Clinton’s term, the government was running a surplus. George W. Bush tried it again and deficits went out of control again. Obama came in, raised some taxes (on the rich!) and by the end of his eight years had cut the deficit in half.

Empirically speaking, it simply does not work.

And how did this madness even start? Well, there’s an economist named Arthur Laffer. In a meeting with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld (yes, those guys) in 1974, he described the theory to them and on a napkin, he drew what came to be called the Laffer curve (even though he admittedly did not invent it). It shows the relationship between levels of taxation and levels of tax revenue (which, to remind you, has empirically been determined to be bullshit).

This napkin served as the underpinnings for so-called Reaganomics and for the later George W Bush tax cuts.

At one time, believe it or not, the Republican party was known as the party of fiscal conservatism. The Democrats were the tax and spenders. A Republican president would need to be brought in to bring things back into control.

Now, as a result of this napkin, the Republicans are the party of the borrow and spenders. Dick Cheney has said that deficits don’t matter.

It can be argued that this napkin is one of the things that has left the American economy in a state of serious peril. It might be the thing that, 100 years from now, people might look back on and say that marked the beginning of the end of the Pax Americana.

And yes, believe it or not, that fucking napkin is in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Walking Through History

I spent my first day walking around Washington D.C. I spent pretty much all of my time around the National Mall area. I saw the following monuments / memorials:

  • Lincoln Memorial
  • Washington Monument
  • White House
  • Vietnam Memorial
  • Jefferson Memorial
  • Martin Luther King Jr Memorial
  • Franklin Roosevelt Memorial
  • Korean War Memorial
  • WWI Memorial
  • WWII Memorial

That’s a lot! However, they are all pretty close together and they are memorials, not museums, so you don’t have to spend hours looking at exhibits or something like that.

A couple of things that I noticed:

WWI is sadly ignored. It’s basically just a little pavilion set up in a corner. Technically, it’s in commemoration from the city of D.C (not even a national memorial). I know that it was a long time ago, but over 100,000 Americans died in it (11 million total). I might have written about it a while ago, but WWI is the dividing point between the 19th century and the 20th century. France is physically, emotionally, and psychologically destroyed (as will soon be evident when the Nazis invade it). The Russian empire ceases to exist. The Ottoman empire ceases to exist. The Austria-Hungarian empire ceases to exist. The German empire ceases to exist. If the 20th century is the century of America (and really, who else?), then you’d think that the war that really set the stage for this emergence would get a better billing.

On the other hand, the WWII memorial is prominent and huge. It’s very impressive, if slightly imperial if not actually Speer-like fascist (which, given how the US came out of WWII, might be appropriate). It’s actually a fairly recent memorial. It was dedicated in 2004. I remember when it was first proposed sometime in the late 1980’s. The fact that there was no WWII memorial on the Mall struck some as scandalous. How could it be that we hadn’t recognized our Greatest Generation and their sacrifices before then?

I remember at the time thinking, really? I’ve read my share of history and I certainly understand the huge role that the US played in WWII and the cost in lives (somewhere around 400,000 but let’s not forget the ten million lives lost of the Soviet Union), but is anyone really going to forget our role in WWII? Is history on the verge of forgetting Hitler and our role in fighting back fascism?

With the possible exception of the Revolutionary War itself, WWII might really be the only unambiguously ‘good’ war that the US has ever fought. Especially when you consider the military interventions of the last 70 years: Korean War, Vietnam War, First Gulf War, Second Gulf War, Afghanistan, Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Balkans, and probably others that I’ve forgotten. Notice that in all cases, either the bad guy wasn’t that bad, or the US didn’t get a clear military victory (no unconditional surrenders here), or it’s just small potatoes. Maybe that’s why it’s front and center. It fits our country’s personal narrative that we are the force of good and the beacon of democracy. Perhaps WWII is the high mark in our history, at least according to how we think of ourselves. Therefore, this prominent grandiose is a perfect monument for the event.

On the frieze of the Lincoln Memorial is a list of states. I find it quite humorous that the state that is closest to being in the center of the front entrance is South Carolina. Keep in mind that South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States immediately after Lincoln’s election. They were the hotheads of the secession movement (known as the Fire-Eaters), advocating for secession way back in the 1850’s. In fact, after Sherman completed his march to the sea, he turned and headed up North and ravaged South Carolina for her part in the secession movement. Given the still occasionally not so latent hatred of the Yankee down South, how much does it gall a proud citizen of the state (whose capital until July of fucking 2015 still flew the confederate flag) to see its name prominently emblazoned on the memorial of someone who did more than anyone else to remove them of their ‘peculiar institution’?

The Martin Luther King Jr memorial was new to me. I found it (maybe because it is so relatively historically close to me) to be particularly inspiring. Along the wall behind his statue is enshrined a number of his quotes. His messages of peace and love are truly inspiring. His statue, left unfinished, seems to show him struggling to emerge out of unformed rock.

I also found it interesting that his memorial is directly across from Thomas Jefferson’s. I have no idea if it’s intentional, but King’s arms are crossed and he seems to be looking away from Jefferson’s memorial. At some level, is this some judgment of King upon Jefferson? After all, although he was a great defender of liberty and understood that slavery was a fundamental wrong, the fact remains that Jefferson was a slave owner. He owned over a hundred slaves. He had a slave mistress and fathered several children with her, all of whom were treated as slaves. Upon his death he freed them, but the rest of his slaves were sold off and dispersed to pay off his debts. As was typical at slave auctions, families were broken up, possibly never to see each again. Given the fact that Jefferson knew it was wrong makes this all the worse. King could very well be looking away in disappointment.

More to come, but those are just some preliminary thoughts as I wandered around and was soaked in my nation’s history.

 

War Is Madness

london-branch-home

Title: Imperial War Museums (London)

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sometimes military museums are all about uniforms and guns.

The IWM is a little bit different. First of all, the London museum focuses on wars that the UK fought in from WWI and on, so there were no display cases of medieval armor or swords.

The advantage of doing this is that the museum becomes one that you can spend an hour or two in without getting overwhelmed. Contrast that with the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has everything from Roman arches to women’s dresses from the 1960’s. Sure, if you live in London and have the time to make multiple trips to a museum, you can focus on one section at a time. For a visitor, it becomes nearly overwhelming. You can just arbitrarily focus on one section, or blow through all sections, spending about two minutes per room, or choose from some kind of top twenty-five item list and head off on a scavenger hunt.

For the IWM, I focused on WWI and WWII.  I know that there are other sections (smaller in size), but just from a larger historical sense, this was an area of personal interest, and clearly the UK had a big role to play in both. I was able to make it through both sections in a couple of hours.

I was not disappointed in either. Although both exhibits had lots of uniforms and weaponry, they also had other areas of interest. For instance, they had Rommel’s desert map for his North Africa campaign. They had Montgomery’s hand written one page plan for D-Day. I’d mentioned before how seeing artifacts that someone historically significant wrote or used always makes me feel closer to the event. I was also fascinated by being able to see an Enigma encryption machine up close and personal. They also focus on the home front side of the war as well. The most poignant was the Mickey Mouse gas masks designed for children. Speaking of the home front, they had examples of both the V-1 and the V-2 rockets that rained down upon London.

The heart of the library is its WWI exhibit, and it is quite impressive. They had so many artifacts that it ended up being overwhelming and I’m sure that I missed many interesting things. Of the weapons, I was most impressed with Big Bertha, the gun that Germany used to batter the Belgium forts.

Instead of trying (and inevitably failing) to put some narrative order to the things that I found cool, here’s a list:

  • Posters designed to recruit across the British Empire (eg exhortations for Indians / Bahamanians to enlist)
  • Hand painted trench signs (some practical (eg Hospital), some ironic (eg Picadilly))
  • A set of wooden clubs with nails sticking out, looking pretty much exactly like a medieval mace, that was used by soldiers when they would periodically leap out of their trench to savagely attack their nearby enemies in fierce hand-to-hand combat; such attacks were scheduled by officers as a means to keep their men’s morale up (?!)
  • A life ring from the ill fated Lusitania
  • An actual letter with a white feather accusing a man on the home front of cowardice (such men were given white feathers)
  • Similarly, a hand written post card was mailed to a man on the home front suggesting that he should enlist with the Girl Scouts
  • The actual signed surrender document by the rebels ending the Irish Easter Rising of 1916
  • Examples of the ersatz bread (composed of sawdust) made by Germans while they were being starved during the last stages of the war
  • David Lloyd George’s copy of the Armistice
  • A 1918 film showing the severe ‘shell shock’ (ie PTSD) that so many English soldiers were suffering from

There was oh so much more. However, hopefully I showed that this wasn’t just a jingoistic description of war in all of its glory. The museum really did try to take an evenhanded look and try to describe the impact that such a major calamity of WWI had on soldiers, the home front, on the people you were fighting, and the aftermath.

The London IWM was started right after WWI, so the events were fresh in everyone’s mind, which I’m guessing was probably helpful in avoiding a hagiographic approach to war.

In 1936, it moved to its permanent headquarters (where it still is today), which was the old Bethlem Royal Hospital. It is more famously known as Bedlam. It was one of Europe’s oldest mental institutions and gained a reputation as being one of the most notorious insane asylums with some truly horrible practices and abuses of the mentally ill.

The irony of hosting a war museum in a location that was formally an insane asylum is probably not lost on anyone. After leaving the WWI exhibit, that connection is even more obvious and stronger.

WTF Did I Just See?

Title: Viktor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities

One of my primary goals for my London trip, since I’m going by myself, is to see things that most people would have no desire to see. Everyone wants to go to the British Museum or to ride the London Eye.

I was looking for odd. Well, I found it when I went to Viktor Wynd’s Museum of Curiosities.

The purpose of this museum is part educational and part artistic. The exhibits are spread out over two low-roofed relatively small rooms in the basement of a bar. There really is no order at all to it. In each exhibit case is pretty much a random assortment of objects.

And what a random assortment of objects!

Are you looking for celebrity memorabilia? How about a jar containing Russell Crowe’s urine? Or how about a jar of used condoms and a Viagra package from the Rolling Stones? Both complete with a signed affidavit explaining its provenance.

There was a significant number of sexual related artifacts. There were a number of pulp paperbacks with sexually suggestive titles (eg The Naughty Nun). There was a box of condoms for those with a small penis. There were African / Asian fertility dolls, a number of stone phallus’ and vaginas and a wide variety of pornographic drawings dating back a couple of hundred years.

Wynd has a weakness for books with obscure / esoteric titles, which I found hilarious. There was a relationship book titled “If You Want Closure, Start With Your Legs”. There was another book titled “Old Tractors and the Men Who Love Them”. How about the “Toddlers Guide to the Rubber Industry”. Who would want to read “The Art of Faking Exhibition Poultry”? As a history geek, I seemed to have missed out on “The History and Social Influence of the Potato”. And finally, one I should probably read, “What to Say When You Talk to Yourself”.

Wynd is also a taxidermist (he teaches classes), so there are numerous examples, both stuffed and skeletal. There is a two-headed sheep. There is a full skeleton of a tiger. There are a number of bones and skulls spread across all of the exhibition cases. The skeleton of three mice, I’m guessing they were blind, are together in a special case of their own. My personal favorite was a stuffed, odd-looking hairy pig. According to the caption, the farmer, a religious man, was convinced that this revolting pig was some kind of punishment from God. When it died, he stuffed it and displayed it to remind his family of their sinful nature.

The piece de resistance was the skull of a Hippopotamus head. Not just any hippo’s head, but the head of a hippo that was bought by Pablo Escobar. Yes, the billionaire drug lord. Apparently he was building his own personal zoo in Colombia. He ordered four hippos. One died in route, and in truly world class drug lord behavior, had the hippo’s skull encased in gold. So, in the basement of a dingy storefront that also serves as a bar in a semi-remote part of London lies the gold plated head of a hippopotamus that was once owned by the most infamous drug lord of the twentieth century. I can only imagine the path taken to have the head end up there.

Now, of course, the question is, how much of this is bullshit? For instance, it’s a known fact that Escobar did import hippos into Colombia. In fact (I just did a quick research), they’ve run wild, are breeding, and are becoming a problem. But there’s no evidence of one of the hippos skulls ever being gold-plated. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s false; does the truth really matter as you experience and enjoy it?

Near Venice Beach, there is The Museum of Jurassic Technology. Like the Wynd, it is also a throwback to the 16th century cabinet of curiosities, which were basically unsystematic encyclopedic collections. They both jumble everything together. Some things might be real. Many things might be false. The point isn’t to worry so much about the literal truth of the item as to enjoy the feelings and thoughts as you experience them.

I believe that, for both museums, this melding of truth / falseness and how you feel about it is the artistic statement that each is trying to make and is more important than the actual specimens in the museum.

I found both to the entertaining, amusing, and though provoking.

Drinking with Dickens

yeoldcheshirecheese

One of my goals while I was in London was to have a pint at the oldest pub in London. This turned out to be a nontrivial activity, first of all because records weren’t really kept all that long ago and then the London fire of 1666 pretty much wiped out a good chunk of the potential contenders.

With no clear winner, I went with the consensus pick, which is Ye Old Chesire Cheese, located on Fleet Street, which is itself a historically notable landmark. It dates back to 1538. The was built on top of a Carmelite monastery which dates back to the 13th century. The pub did burn down in 1666, but it was re-built in the same spot.

Allegedly Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain, and P.G. Wodehouse all were regulars here. A couple of them even mention / refer to the pub in some of their writings. In fact, in trying to find it, I stumbled upon Samuel Johnson’s house which is located barely a block away.

It is accessible from a small, dark, narrow alley. Next to the entrance is the list of monarchs that have ruled England since it’s been open.

You go in and immediately it looks extremely small. There is a tiny bar off to the right as you enter and the dining room is on the left. However, if you continue moving forward, you’ll eventually come to a stairway, which leads to a veritable warren of room.

The staircase is basically designed for a hobbit. There are signs warning you to duck your head, but they are scarcely necessary since an average sized person would probably hit his chin going down the stairs if not careful.

In the lower levels, there are no windows, so by necessity the rooms are all pretty dark. Rooms are framed by archways that in theory date back to the 13th century monastery. Looking at the arches, that seems very feasible. The rooms aren’t heated; apparently in the winter each room will be lit and heated by fire.  I was there in the summer, so there was no need.

With my pint in my hand, surveying the wooden tables, the low ceilings, the narrow stairway, and the ancient arches, I can certainly believe that I’d just been transported back to the 17th century.