Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Last Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

This is pencil sketch from the last portrait of Abraham Lincoln, taken April 9, 1865, one week before his assassination. It is from one of a series of photographs by Alexander Gardner.

That same day, generals Grant and Lee met shortly after noon, at the home of Wilmer McLean in the village of Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant, hastening the end of the Civil War.

Lincoln was smiling, either because of the surrender, or because he was sharpening a pencil for his son Tad.

But, is this the true last picture?


Don't believe everything you read.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Over the River and through the Woods

Who doesn't have childhood memories of going to grandmother and grandfather's house at Christmas time? School is out, it is snowing, and a sense of anticipation is in the air.
Stone arch bridge Butler County, Kansas
Double arch stone bridge over Turkey Creek, Butler County, Kansas

On a Sunday before Christmas in December, the old man took the back roads in Butler County, Kansas. The back roads are the dirt and gravel ones off the highway where not much has changed over the years. In summer, cars kick up storms of dust. In winter, the dust is settled and one only has to worry about a loose patch of gravel. Farmhouses are scattered along the road like lost and lonely stragglers in history's parade. Cattle stand in the pastures, the corn has been harvested and a blanket of snow covers the fields where the turkeys peck for what is left over. The snow and ice make driving hazardous. When the old man came across these two stone arch bridges, his thoughts drift back to childhood.

Today, we go to grandfather's house by car or plane. In 1844, the trip was made by horse and wagon, or if it was snowing, by horse and sleigh. Over the River and Through the Wood, was originally a Thanksgiving poem written by Lydia Maria Child in 1844. At an unknown date the words were set to music and the holiday changed to Christmas.

To Grandfather's House We Go
Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather's house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather's house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for 'tis Christmas [Thanksgiving] Day.

Over the river, and through the wood—
oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose
as over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood—
and straight through the barnyard gate,
We seem to go extremely slow,
it is so hard to wait!

Over the river, and through the wood—
When Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, "O, dear, the children are here,
bring a pie for everyone."

Over the river, and through the wood—
now Grandmother's cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the cherry [pumpkin] pie!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What color is Santa Claus?

Santa Claus is shown as a portly, jolly, white-bearded man wearing a red coat with white fur collar and cuffs, red trousers, and black leather belt and boots, carrying a bag full of gifts for good children everywhere.

But what color is he?

Fox personality Megyn Kelly touched off an uproar last week when she said: “Santa just is white…Santa is what he is.” When the snow hit the fan, and viewers complained, Kelly attempted an apology of sorts, "We know there is no Santa." Bill O'Reilly then weighed in on The O'Reilly Factor, “Miss Kelly is correct. Santa was a white person.” O'Reilly added, “Does it matter? No, it doesn’t matter.”  O'Reilly chalks it up to Fox "baiting", saying, “That’s why Miss Megyn got headlines about a Santa Claus remark that was totally harmless.”

"Bah humbug!" says the old man to naysayers Megyn Kelly and Bill O'Reilly. The old man is reminded of another time and place. It is 1897 and eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon writes the New York Sun, asking is Santa is real.

Dear Editor,
I am eight years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says, "If you see it in the Sun it's so." Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?
Virginia O'Hanlon
115 W. 95th St.

The newpaper's response was quick and printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897.

Does it matter? It mattered then and it matters today, it matters to children everywhere. The old man wants to imagine a nine year old child, let us call her Virginia, and let her ask the question not to Miss Megyn or Mr. Bill but to Francis Pharcellus Church who wrote the newspaper's response to Virgina. Let the child be white or black, brown or yellow, red or green, or a thousand shades and hues in between, the answer should be the same.

VIRGINIA, your Friends at Fox are wrong. They have been affected by the cynicism of a skeptical age. They believe only what they see. And they see only very little. And they have forgotten what it means to be small and impressionable. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little news minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

VIRGINIA, keep in mind, that men and women, and news reporters too, can not even agree on the name Santa Claus - Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, and St. Nick are a few names that have been used. Why in France, he is called Noel; in Germany and Austria, Christkind or Weihnachtsmann; in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas; in Russia, Grandpa Frost. VIRGINIA, this list is but a drop in the bucket of kindness. For the naming goes on throughout the world. In every continent on the globe, good men and women recognize good kindness does and the spirit of giving, and so they have identified this spirit in their own unique cultures.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. And who knows what color he is, for he comes only when we are fast asleep. ... Alas! how dreary the world would be if only one country possessed the true Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. And yet we know that Santa is known everywhere in the world, that the spirit of gift giving and kindness is universally shared by all good boys and girls, and by their parents as well. Without this knowledge, the eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

You might as well not believe in Santa Claus! ... You might get your papa to take you to every store and mall in town to see Santa Claus and you will find that Santa, indeed, comes in all shapes and sizes, and all colors. But even if you see portly jolly Santa Claus in his red coat and hat with a white face, what would that prove? These mall Santas embody only the spirit of Christmas and gift giving. Nobody sees the true Santa Claus, but that is no sign of who and what Santa is. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders ... unseen and unseeable in the world.

Does it matter? VIRGINIA, Of course it matters. No newsman or woman can claim Santa as their own. Santa Claus belongs to all of us and especially to the children of the world.

Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A hundred years, a thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to visit ... children all over the world and make glad the heart of childhood.

Maybe, the old man thinks, it is time to turn off the television and grab a good book. And remember this Christmas and Holiday season, to look for Santa in your heart.

Monday, December 16, 2013

RIP Peter O'Toole

This is live television.
Live, live, what does live mean?
Wait a minute. ...You mean it all goes into the camera lens and just spills out on into people's houses.


This is going to be easy.
Maybe for you, not for me.
I am not an actor, I am a movie star.

Universal explanations

Lake El Dorado, Kansas, today it is 60 degrees

Look at the picture of the trees submerged in El Dorado lake in December and you will notice a gap between the ice at the base of the trees and the water level. If you understand the principal of water freezing, you will know why the ice is above the water level.

Do you understand?

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Time's Runner-up Man of the Year

This is not about Time magazine's Man of the Year, the compassionate and deserving Pope Francis, but rather the runner-up, Edward Snowden, who rocked the National Security Agency and the Obama administration in 2013 with his leak of secret documents about the government's surveillance activities. A trial, if there ever is one, will reveal if Snowden is a traitor for showing our adversaries what our spying capabilities are, or hero for telling us "Big Government" is watching.

In the meantime, let's remember William Allen White's letter To an Anxious Friend Published in The Emporia Gazette July 27, 1922.

You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I reply that you can have no wise laws nor free entertainment of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people - and, alas, their folly with it. But if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the wisdom will survive. ... You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply with the sad truth that only in time of stress is freedom of utterance in danger. No one questions it in calm days, because it is not needed. And the reverse is true also; only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed, it is most vital to justice. ... So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold .... Reason has never failed men. Only force and repression have made the wrecks in the world.
 Full letter.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A prayer on a winter's grey day

The old man is busy, what with Christmas drawing near and guests arriving soon. The weather has turned frightfully cold and the clouds shut out the sun. All the old man can do is write this short haiku.

Lord deliver me
From this winter's grey despair
The sun my soul seeks 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Freddie and Henry Fent

It is already December, in a year that has flown by.

It doesn't take much to remind one of the brevity of life - the thinning calendar, the cold grey weather on a December morning, the kids who are growing up and moving on in life. "Damn it," the old man would love to stop the flow of time for a moment, but that won't happen. It just keeps rolling along like the keys of the computer as I write these words.

A month ago, or a lifetime, I took a trip along Highway 177 to Cottonwood Falls. There was no special reason other than a desire to get away and enjoy some peace and quiet with the dogs, Sammy and Toby. Along the way I stopped at Matfield Green. There I parked the car and got out to stretch my legs and let the dogs wander. We visited the well-maintained Matfield Green cemetery.

Among the many beautiful limestone headstones was this one for Freddie and Henry Fent, children of Elam and Lucinda Fent. Freddie, age just shy of 2 years, and Henry, 3 years and 3 months, died within 2 years of each other in 1882 and 1881.

Freddie and Henry Fent
What story lies behind the brief lives of Freddie and Henry and the tragedy their parents suffered I do not know. We do, however, have a bit of a peak at what life in Kansas was like from this article in the Chase County Leader, Cottonwood Falls, May 26, 1881:

What a wonderful change for the May of 1881 over the same month one year ago? Then dry, and the wind hurled the dust in drifts. The little, pale wheat, oats, rye and corn thirsted for water as an Arab would in the desert, and with hope deferred again and again the heart grew sick. Our clouds were clouds of dust, carried about by the tempest. How often came the husbandman from the field, righted things and made ready apparently for a heavy rain. Although the clouds appeared dark and heavy, the wind and thunder all indicated rain; a light shower, the clouds broke, the wind ceased; still hope deferred. Our season, this month, all that man could wish: wet enough and not too much.

Dust Storms of Kansas, Kansas Historical Quarterly

"Stupendously suffocating" clouds of dust, drought, heat, and the coming of grasshoppers in biblical proportions, this was often the fate of the Kansas farmer. But through it all, the farmer and his family struggled on for another day might bring fair weather and a bountiful crop.

Freddie and Henry, children of Elam and Lucinda Fent

What of the history of the Fents? Grandfather William Fent (1817 – 1884) and his wife, Eliz­a­beth Trim, came to Kansas from Iowa after 1870 and home­steaded land on Lit­tle Cedar Creek, east of Matfield Green in Chase County, Kansas. Father Eleanor  "Elam" T. Fent and his wife Lucinda stayed on the farm after his parents' death.

Found in the Chase County Historical Sketches, Vol. 1, and online history of William Fent.