Monday, February 29, 2016

Remembering Winter When it Was Serious—Cheyenne 1956

Cheyenne in the notorious Blizzard of '49, admittedly a worse storm than the one the buried us in '56.

Note—Here in norther Illinois’s McHenry County, we are having an El Nino winter.  In other parts of the county that can mean heavy snow or disastrous storms.  But here the storm track is south of us in these years and winters are mild and snow moderate.  Other places get the blizzards.  This year we had a rainy fall and only two fairly significant snows one in late December and one just after New Year’s.  Both featured the kind of water heavy snow usually associated with an Easter time storms.  Together they left the ground encrusted with an icy shell most of January.  Since then a couple of big snow storms slid past us to the South barely whitening the dead grass here. The snow bells, crocus, and hardy pioneer tulips can be found after a couple of days in the 50s.  Some folks dared think that Woodstock Willie, the local groundhog, might have been right about an early spring.  Ah, but the weather man now tells us that a band of snow will assault us this evening with significant accumulating snow overnight.  We will be digging out in the morning not from an epic storm but one likely to cause back aches and curses.  This brings to mind a story of a winter long ago and far away.  I’ve told the story here before, but what the hell, I feel like telling it again.
It was one of those storms that dive down from Canada along the Front Range of the Rockies and run smack into moist air up from the Gulf, howling winds driving horizontal snow, obliterating the world in stinging whiteness before drifting east over the limitless flatness of Nebraska. It was a memorable blizzard, but we were safe and warm, even cozy in the old house on Bent Avenue just blocks away from the Capitol building.
The radio, my mother's constant companion, said the city would be snowed in for two or three days. Of course schools were closed. The state government sent its workers home, downtown was deserted, the grocery stores locked, the weight of the snow tearing their canvas awnings from their walls.  The pass over Sherman Hill to the west was buried and blowing snow on Highway 30 across Nebraska would close in behind the plows for days. The mainline of the Union Pacific, of course, stayed open behind the giant plows harnessed to the most powerful steam locomotives ever built, but little good it did for local deliveries because the switching and humping yards were smothered and the switches frozen.
My mother was most concerned about our food supplies. As a child of rural poverty and the scarred veteran of the Depression, she feared hunger with a consuming dread. She always kept the pantry shelves groaning with canned goods as a hedge against any catastrophe. There were netted bushel bags of potatoes and plenty of sacks of flour, sugar and coffee, huge boxes of powdered milk. We might run out of meat-most of the winter’s side of beef was cut up and wrapped in white paper, our name written neatly in grease pencil, in the city’s central locker. The milkman might fail to make his rounds and mom might not be able to drive out to the little farmstead on Crow Creek for her weekly eggs. Less farsighted neighbors, panicked by the storm, might strip the little neighborhood grocery stores before the snows closed the streets. But we would not starve.
Mom was most concerned with bread. There would be no soft white Rainbo Bread or the dry, scratchy whole wheat that my Dad liked toasted with his breakfast. So out came the big milk white mixing bowl and Mom’s sturdiest wooden spoon and the glass loaf pans greased with butter and floured. She was going to bake us enough bread for the duration. Soon the whole house was filled with the rich and unforgettable  smell of bread baking, an aroma so compelling that  ever after  at the merest  skiff  of snow would  bring  my brother  and I rush  to our mother asking, “Is it time for the bread yet?”
The loaves were not perfect. Mom did not bake often enough to for that.  Perhaps there was too much yeast, but they had risen too quickly with too much air. A large bubble separated the top crust from the rest of the loaves, large enough for a child to stick his hand through. But it did not matter. Dad sliced the first loaf with our sharpest knife as soon as it was cool enough not to simply tear. Still, it was warm enough to give off visible rays of heat and to melt the thick pats of butter we smeared on each slice. We ate the whole loaf in one sitting like animals, as if it was the last food in the world. The rest of the loaves were carefully wrapped in wax paper and would be strictly rationed for the duration of the emergency.
Two days after the incessant north wind stopped driving the snow into heaps and piles, the city streets were open. Dad and the other men on the block shoveled out the garages and cleared the alley to the street. The city slowly came awake.   School reopened.
Mom prepared my brother Tim and I for school as she would on any winter morning. She built us in careful layers. First there was our usual shorts then cotton long handled underwear. Then came the long sleeved, broad striped polo shirt tucked into the first of two layers of corduroy pants. Mom washed the pants every night in the wringer washing machine then mounted them on metal stretchers to dry over the big heating grate in the floor of the dining room. The pants were still warm from the blast of coal fired air when we pulled them on. Then she attached our elastic suspenders.  The suspenders were sources of great embarrassment to my brother and me.  The other kids had given them up for leather belts after kindergarten. My mother claimed that belts would not work for us, as she told all of her friends, because, “These boys don’t have enough butt to keep their pants up.”  We put on a thick pair of socks over a thin one.  These were our indoor clothes.
Layered for the weather.
Next came a thick plaid flannel shirt and we struggled to drag the second pair of corduroys over the first. Mom carefully tied our black Oxfords, then came the battle to get our galoshes on, our pant legs tucked into the tops of the rubber boots, and each of the four metal buckles securely closed. Next were our thick wool coats with quilted linings and big buttons the size of half-dollars. My coat was brown, my brother’s blue. We each had caps. Mine was brown leather with lamb’s wool earflaps, a strap that snapped tightly under the chin and a visor. Tim a had gray cloth cap with a low, flat crown and knitted earflaps that folded down from the outside of the cap. He had a small, shiny badge with skier on the front of the cap. Our mittens were rubberized cloth with flannel linings and a wide elastic band around the wrist. They were stiff and extended far beyond our fingertips rendering our hands totally useless for anything at all.
Thus encased, we were sent on our way to school with strict instructions to stay on the shoveled sidewalks and to take extra care when crossing streets. It was two blocks down Bent and one block over to Churchill Elementary School. We obediently kept to the canyons of the sidewalks for at least half a block.
Other kids emerged from their houses, similarly swaddled. We became a group and then a party. Emboldened, we cast off from the beaten track. We breasted the chest high snow, plunged into drifts over our heads, slogged and struggled through virgin whiteness. We pretended we were pioneers trapped on the plains, our wagons marooned, our horses foundered as we desperately sought shelter. As the weaker children dropped back, we imagined that their frozen bodies would be found come spring contorted in agony.

"We pretended we were pioneers trapped on the plains, our wagons marooned, our horses foundered as we desperately sought shelter."

Then, suddenly, the yellow brick mass of Churchill School loomed ahead of us. We were saved. The schoolyard was surrounded by old cottonwoods and knurled locusts onto which a few black bean-like pods still clung. Snow was over the seats of the swings, covered the merry­go-round, and sat on the low end of the teeter-totters. The high slide towered over the yard, its steep slope disappearing into the whiteness. The sweep of gravel where we played tag or war was knee deep and the snow would remain until it was trampled down by the squealing, laughing hoards and finally melted in the spring.
Walkers like us from the old part of Cheyenne straggled into the schoolyard. A big blue bus from the Air Force base pulled up with its load. But only about half of the yellow school busses made it. The in-town kids made it but those from rural areas were still snowed in and might be for days. Finally the Principal came out to the top of the front stairs and rang her brass hand bell.  We surged past her through the double doors.
Churchill was Cheyenne’s old central school, built in the 1890’s. There were two main floors. Third, fourth, and fifth grade classes we on the first floor.  Up the broad wooden staircase, smooth semi-circles worn in the planks, were the first and second grades. Kindergarten,  with  its tile  floors,  low  acoustic  ceiling  and  florescent  lights,  occupied  a new classroom constructed next to the coal bin in the basement.   My brother and I trudged up to separate first grade classes across the hall from one another.
Once upstairs, we were herded into the cloakroom hidden behind the blackboard at the head of the classroom. The room was narrow and dim, illuminated by, a single bulb dangling from a cord from the ceiling. A narrow shelf ran along each of the long walls and underneath a row of wire hooks. At the end of the cloakroom the end of a steam radiator, which pierced the wall from the classroom, hissed and pumped out waves of tropical heat. After the first moments the stench of wet wool permeated the room.
On regular days, thirty students dealt with their coats and boots in that space. Fewer had made it that day, but our teacher still had to struggle with the layers of wet clothes and boots of more than twenty of us. Most of us could get out of our coats, but some needed long scarves unwound and zippers resisted the best efforts of young hands. Mittens and gloves had to be carefully retrieved from the floor and stuffed into the correct coat pockets. Caps had to be placed on the right hook with right coat.
The worst was the boots. Forty odd black four-buckle overshoes, the snow packed into the buckles so that prying them open split fingernails and ripped flesh. Then each boot must be pulled off in an earnest wrestling match. Inevitably the shoe carne off with the boot and needed to be extracted by force. Meanwhile we stood in our stocking feet in pools of melting snow nearly overcome by the stifling heat of the room. After pulling off our second, soaking corduroys and peeling out of our flannel shirts, we tried to jam our wet feet back into our leather shoes. We tried to remember just how the fox chased the rabbit-over, under, around the loops-but generally failed to tie our shoes. So our teacher, kneeling in puddles tied them for us.
The routine for girls was only marginally simpler. Only a few mothers dared defy convention and send their daughters to school with pants underneath their skirts. Most girls had only knee high wool stockings for leg protection and many would not wear hats that would crush their hair. Those who wore Mary Janes had less trouble getting their shoes out of their boots and back on their feet, but the ones with saddle shoes shared the same struggle as the boys.
As the teacher completed the ritual with each child, she sent us to our desks in the classroom. We knew what we were to do until she finished and at last joined us. We opened the tops of our desks, each desk top attached to the back of the chair ahead, and took out our red Big Chief tablets and our extra thick eraser-less pencils.  We were to copy, in our neatest block letters, the lengthy passages the teacher had put on the blackboard. If we finished, we were to start again and the steadiness of our hand was expected to improve with each repetition. Reliable class snitches, favored girls all, would instantly report any breach of decorum in the teacher’s absence.

We said the Pledge and sang My Country 'tis of Thee.
Once we were all reunited in the classroom, the regular morning routine commenced. First we stood, placed our hands over our hearts and recited the Pledge of Allegiance and sang My Country 'tis of Thee. Not a single student in the class understood the words to either, knowing only that it was required because of the Flag and because most of our fathers had been in The War.
Next, sitting at her desk the teacher read the attendance roll without looking up. We were to answer loudly and clearly “Here” as soon as our name was spoken. Too tardy a response or too soft a one resulted in being marked absent and absent you were whether or not your body was in your seat.
Due to the length of time required to get out of our wet clothes, show and tell was limited to just two eager students. One brought something suitably educational and uplifting, but the second boy brought the frozen (now thawing) body of some unidentifiable small animal.  He was promptly sent to the principal.
The morning progressed through our usual classes. Reading was done from a giant Dick and Jane book on an easel at the front of the classroom. It had a black leatherette cover. The teacher turned the pages of the day’s story and we read in unison. Then we started over again and students were picked to read aloud by themselves. We did not have our own books. We would not have readers to hold in our hands until second grade. We practiced our simple three and four letter spelling words for the test on Friday by copying them ten times each onto our Big Chief tablets. We copied the same words ten times every day until the test, when we were expected to reproduce the list perfectly to earn a star on our paper.
As an act of mercy for our teacher, there was no outdoor morning recess. Instead we were allowed ten minutes to color silently at our desks. One sheet of art paper was provided each student. We each had our eight color box of Crayolas—larger boxes and other brands were both strictly forbidden. We were free to draw what we wished, but if we colored the sky purple or the grass orange, we would be gently corrected.
At noon the teacher needed to get all of the walkers back into our outside gear. We had an hour to walk home, eat lunch and return.  Bussed students ate sack lunches at their desks and bought little glass bottles of milk for a nickel.   After eating they would be loaded into their coats and boots and sent out to the playground until our return.
Tim and I, our clothes still wet from the morning trip, made our way home. By then the sky had cleared. It was a brilliant blue and the sun off of the snow caused our eyes to narrow to slits and water.
We got real hot cocoa from Mom.
At home our mother greeted us and laid out our clothes on the heating grate to dry. She served us hot tomato soup and melted cheese sandwiches browned in the oven and neatly sliced into triangles. As a special treat, in honor of vanquishing the storm, she made real Hershey’s Cocoa, not just warm Ovaltine.  We ate at the kitchen table with the radio on listening to reports of cattle in distress and attempts to feed isolated  herds with  hay dropped by National Guard C-47’s and speculations on the price of beef at the yards in Denver, Omaha, Sioux City, and Chicago.
Before we had time to run upstairs to our room for a single toy, it was time to climb back into our gear and repeat the whole process from the morning.
And so it went that winter in Cheyenne.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

In a Snit Congress Ends Diplomatic Relations with the Vatican Begun by George Washington

Catholic Mary Surratt was shielded from a rain shower by an umbrella as the was prepared to have a rope put around her neck.  Her connection to the Lincoln assassination supposedly linked the Vatican to the foul deed.

Naturally it was blamed on a woman.  A Mary no less.  Mary Surratt was a middle aged Maryland tavern keeper who had just got herself hung as one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and attempts on the lives of the Vice President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of War.  John Wilkes Booth and associates met at her tavern to plot their revenge for the Confederacy.  Surratt’s son John, a Confederate courier and spy was actively engaged with Booth in an earlier attempt to kidnap the President, but was in Elmira, New York when the foul deed was done and may not have had anything to do with the assassination plan.  John fled the country after seeking refuge in a Catholic Church and eventually ended up in Rome enlisted as a Papal Zouave.  Mary was nabbed and stretched.  Because she of her faith longtime Catholic haters stirred up rumors nefarious Papists were behind the plot.
Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Catholics and faithfully and often with notable heroism and distinction in the Union Army including members of the famed Irish Brigade and several regiments of solid, reliable German Catholics, Congress was quick to take the bait.  Congress was dominated by ardent Protestant abolitionists now known as the Radical Republicans.  Among the most influential in their ranks were New England Unitarians who were also rabidly anti-Catholic, a long festering prejudice that had grown deeper as wave after wave of Irish and other Catholic immigrants had washed up on American shores.  There was also a good, solid, political reason to slap the Catholics—they tended, at least in the big cities where they piled into the slums to be Democrats and they were now present in sufficient numbers to begin their rapid rise to political power.
Congress took up a proposal to sever relations, which was opposed by the Grant Administration.  Such decisions of foreign policy were the prerogative of the Executive Branch and relations with the Holy See were approved by Washington himself in 1787.  As debate in Congress went forward, rumor hit Washington that the Pope had suddenly ordered an end to weekly private Protestant services conducted at the American Legation inside the walls of the Vatican.  With that alleged slap in the face, Congress voted to end all funding for diplomatic relations with the Holy See.  They couldn’t order a direct end to recognition, but they could make it impossible.    

Pope VI received the official U.S. diplomat sent to the Vatican by George Washington in 1786

Grant, who had other fish to fry with the Radicals in Congress, was not willing to go to the mat over his envoy to Rome.  Besides, he shared some of the prevalent anti-Catholic bias even if he was not so vitriolic about it and lost no love for Democrats.  On February 28, 1867 he signed the legislation that effectively ended formal relations with the Vatican.  They would not be fully restored until 1984, almost 114 years later.
As his second term was winding down, Washington had very good reason to want to deal with the Vatican.  The Holy See remained influential in European affairs.  It could potentially provide an avenue for secret and secure communications with Spain which controlled territory (Florida) on the U.S.’s southern and western (Louisiana) borders.  West of the Alleghenies frontier settlements were always brewing plots and plans to break away from the U.S. and swear loyalty to the Spanish to gain an outlet to the sea for their crops and livestock at New Orleans.  Also the French Revelation had quickly taken an anti-clerical turn and the Vatican’s hostility to the revolutionary regime was shared by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton who had eclipsed ardent republican Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson as the President’s most trusted adviser.  Washington opened up relations with the Papal States at the consular level.   John Adams continued the relationship.       
In 1848 as the Mexican War was winding down, James Knox Polk elevated relations to accredit an envoy to the Pope himself in his capacity as Head of the Papal States.  Although short of the rank of ambassador, envoys held a rank equivalent to a chargĂ© d’affaires for the next 19 years.
Several Presidents found it inconvenient not to have official representation at the Vatican which could be helpful in issues ranging from immigration to war and peace.  Some relied on back channel contacts through other legations or by using Catholic American tourists or business  men pass information.                                                                                                                                       
Beginning with Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, Chief Executives sent semi-official personal envoys to the Holy See.  The first was Postmaster General James Farley, the highest ranking Catholic in the administration who visited Pope Pius XI and dined with Cardinal Pacelli, who was to succeed to the Papacy in 1939 as Pope Pius XII.   

Franklin Roosevelt's personal envoy Myron C, Taylor confers with Pope Pius XII.
The year that Pius XII assumed the Papal Tiara Roosevelt dispatched another special envoy, multi-millionaire industrialist and inventor Myron Charles Taylor as his “Peace ambassador.”  Despite his unofficial status under U.S. law, when he arrived the Vatican recognized him with the rank of Ambassador.  When they got wind of that even at this late date American Protestants went berserk.  Preachers thundered from pulpits.  Raging editorials clogged the pages of Protestant press.  Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists all registered official protests.  In Congress Republicans foamed at the mouth.
Roosevelt was undeterred.  Taylor had important business to conduct—his first assignment was trying to enlist the Pope to keep Italy from joining Nazi Germany in the recently launched war.  That cause was lost, but Taylor was more successful in keeping fascist Spain out of the conflict.  Taylor stayed through the war and dealt with seeking Vatican help for Jewish refugees and refuge and covert support for American and Allied air crews that had been shot down—after he convinced the Pope the Allies were going to win the war and he no longer could afford to lend tacit support to the Axis.  Later he would help convince the allied high command not to heavily bomb Rome.  When Roosevelt died, Taylor stayed on under Truman concentrating on humanitarian post war relief and recovery.
Still, despite the fruitful relationship when Taylor retired Truman tried to nominate General Mark Clark who had commanded the Italian campaign, to be an official emissary.  Once again Protestants rose up in protest and Democratic Senator Tom Connally of Texas led a ferocious onslaught in Congress largely because Texans blamed Clark for a division made up of Lone Star National Guard units being terribly mauled in Italy.  A humiliated Clark withdrew his name from consideration on in January 1952.  He soon found himself employed as United Nations Commander in Korea.
Other Presidents continued to have need to deal with the Vatican, especially when the Church was seen as the main opposition to Soviet occupation and Communist regimes in Eastern Europe.  Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan all appointed personal envoys to the Pope.
Finally in 1983 the Lugar Act repealed the ban on official establishing official diplomatic relations with the Vatican.  Lugar was the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was able to do what Democrats had failed for years to accomplish.   The next year in 1984 the Senate confirmed William A. Wilson as the first Ambassador to the Holy See.  He had served as Ronald Regan’s personal envoy since 1981.
The Vatican is represented in Washington by an Apostolic Nuncio.

President Barack Obama first meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican set American conservatives teeth on edge.

George W. Bush resented the Vatican’s criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the conservative Republican coalition had become increasingly dependent on the Church’s mobilization of the anti-abortion in the US.  Barack Obama felt the same sting on the continuing war and international human rights violation, but became the first President to meet the Pope in the Vatican when he had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.  In 2014 he had a warmer visit with Pope Francis
Last year the United States and the Holy See concluded their first ever inter-governmental agreement which aims at curtailing offshore tax evasion through automatic exchange of tax information.  The highly technical pact was achieved with little fanfare and without heavy Congressional opposition.
The future of official relationships between the United States and the Vatican may once again be at risk, at least as long as Francis is Pope.  The right wing is no longer shying away from accusing him and the church of being socialists, even Marxists.  Donald Trump and his supporters are in a rage because of Francis’s support of immigrants and comment that “those who build walls instead of bridges cannot call themselves Christian.”  American culture warriors feel that Francis and the church have gone soft on abortion, contraception, same gender marriage, and gay rights in general.  Old, long suppressed anti-Catholic rhetoric is boiling up again in elements of the right.  Should the unthinkable happen and Trump is elect President with strong majorities in both houses of Congress, repeal of diplomat relations is no longer unimaginable.