Christmas and the Fourth of July were my father’s favorite times of the year. He would start “practicing up” for each commemoration about December first for Christmas and right after Memorial Day for the Fourth of July. Christmas is a ways off but our country’s birthday is rapidly approaching with Memorial Day having been this past weekend.
Memorial Day is an officially recognized federal holiday enacted to honor those members of our armed forces who gave their lives so the rest of us could enjoy the blessings of liberty. It is altogether fitting and proper that Memorial Day and the day we declared our freedom from Great Britain are linked in our minds and hearts.
It brings forth sadness and gratitude to see American flags adorning the graves of those who suffered an early death for us while we have the opportunity and the obligation to say thank you to their memory. The same feelings arise when we remember the courage and sacrifice of those fifty-six men who together pledged their “lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” on July 04, 1776.
So, how do we go about “practicing up” to celebrate our collective birthday? Benjamin Franklin, the oldest of the signers, enthusiastically directed us to honor our Day of Independence with explosions (fireworks), the mass consumption of flame cooked meats (barbecue) and patriotic music. My father, and I am confident most of yours, Gentle Readers, took Ben’s advice to heart. Whereas, Memorial Day we usually note with solemn services followed by family dinners, most of us approach the Fourth differently, more as if we are trying to bring forth those great spirits from 1776.
From the President of the United States to governors, mayors and the leaders of civic organizations throughout our country speeches will be made. From individual families to communities at all levels, parades, barbecues, games and fireworks will be enjoyed from the morning of July 4th until the smoke finally clears late at night.
I am already practicing up.
Last week Peg and I drove down I-44 from the eastern edge of Missouri to the eastern edge of Oklahoma. We observed the remains of a few deer, several opossums, one or two raccoons and over one hundred dead armadillos on the roadside. The normal final position of an armadillo was on its scaled back with its clawed paws stuck straight up. Occasionally a beer can would be nestled among the claws. Frequently the carcasses were totally flat. This phenomenon occurred so often it became obvious people went out of their way to squash the critters. Such a violent reaction to the mere existence of the armadillos becomes understandable if one should have to deal with the creatures on a daily basis.
Gentle Reader, you probably grew up as I did encountering an armadillo only when you wandered through northern Mexico or, perhaps, southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas or California. I recall being amused by the resemblance to something akin to a roly-poly dinosaur. And the sightings were so rare I was excited to come across one of the adorable little oddities of nature.
It was not until the beginning of the 21st century that I began to notice the evermore prevalent incursions of armadillos as they have migrated north, east and west. Peg, who was born in New York and reared in Indiana by way of Massachusetts, used to be amazed at the “little armored ones” as named by Spanish speaking peoples in South America. In fact, as we arrived last week to our cabin in North-East Oklahoma we almost ran over an armadillo waddling along the lane to our door.
“Oh, Jim, look, we have our very own armadillo!” I kept my thoughts to myself but they involved a shotgun.
The day after we arrived Peg was all excited to go to Lowe’s and purchase about $300.00 worth of plants such as herbs, vegetables and flowers. She worked all of one day planting, watering and protecting them from rabbits and deer with special fencing. Actually, Peg instructed me in this regard. Regardless, when we checked on the plants the next day every one had been clawed up by a “cute” armadillo looking for grubs, ants and worms.
Peg’s response was about like one might expect when asking Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi how much she planned to contribute to President Donald Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. As this article will appear in several family-oriented newspapers I shall not quote Peg’s actual words other than the part where she asked, “Where’s your shotgun?”
Folk singer Phil Ochs (1940-1976) wrote a ballad about old people, mainly politicians, giving young people orders on how they should behave and believe. The closing verse is:
“So keep right on a talking
And tell us what to do.
If nobody listens,
My apologies to you.
And I know that you were younger once
‘Cause you sure are older now,
So when I got something to say, Sir,
I’m going to say it now.”
Ochs applied his sarcastic insight to the United States as well. In a song he wrote about American incursions from South America to Southeast Asia he criticized our government for interfering militarily when a country elected a leader we did not like and could not control:
“We’ll find you a leader
You can elect.”
Just based on media reports of our current actions in Venezuela and Iran, among others, Ochs’ message has had little resonance for our contemporary leaders. And hearing people on all sides of the military intervention issue from President Trump to each of the twenty-one 2020 presidential hopefuls and everyday folks from Maine to Monterey, perhaps Ochs might agree with Yogi Berra (1925-2015): “It’s deja vu all over again.”
That is not to say either Ochs or Berra or anyone else should encourage America to cease vigilantly preparing for danger. As our son, Jim Redwine, learned from personal experience while fighting on the front lines of the 1990-1991 Gulf War and in 2006-2007 in the Iraq War, we must not allow ourselves to fall behind the curve of military technology. Iraq’s military technology simply could not compare to ours. America must not allow itself to be on the weak side of the military equation.
What that concern does not require though is our penchant as the world’s preeminent military power to “Keep right on telling others what to do and whom they should elect.” Our power should remain potentially dominant but our desire to dominate other countries should remain in check. Our Constitution calls for “national defense”, not aggression.
With our current yearly national debt standing at 104.1% of our total gross national product it might behoove us to look to the source of this imbalance between production and debt. It began when we decided to drive the old Soviet Union into financial collapse via its military spending. Unfortunately our own spending rapidly increased from 30.9% of debt to GNP in 1981 mainly through our own massive military spending to where we are today. That is spending a lot of money we do not have. And it is always a good idea to learn from the mistakes of others. We do not want to become a broke and crumbling version of the old Soviet Union due to our own overspending on unnecessary world-wide military incursions.
Perhaps we should do what Russia should have done fifty years ago and concentrate on our domestic needs such as infrastructure, health care, global warming and our environment while continuing to keep pace, but not be profligate, with our national defense. A reasonable first step might be a policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries as long as they return the favor.
I know we often get legitimately upset with the behaviors and cultures of other countries. But countries are made up of people and we may want to step back from the dangerous and expensive practice of telling others how to behave and believe. It is analogous to how many of us view Freedom of Speech. We will allow others to say whatever they want and behave as they see fit as long as they say and do what we agree with. As that wise Hoosier war correspondent Ernest T. Pyle (1900-1945) observed during WWII:
“When you have lived with the unnatural mass cruelty that mankind is capable of inflicting on itself, you find yourself dispossessed
of the faculty for blaming one poor man for the triviality of his faults.”
We might want to consider a similar thought for other countries and other peoples.
America consists of four countries: (1) everything east of the Mississippi River excluding Florida; (2) Florida, (3) everything west of the Mississippi River excluding California; and, (4) California. Rodeos are the province of people in country (3) although some folks in Florida and California do know there is no accent on the term rodéo except for a certain drive in Beverly Hills frequented by the frou-frou set.
Yankees, that is almost all of those people in countries (1) (2) and (4) snub their noses at those of us from country (3). Yankees tend to talk funny while casting aspersions on the pleasing western drawls of those of us from country (3), and Yankees dress odd while failing to appreciate western wear. In sum, some Yankees want to ignore country (3) even to the point of eliminating the Electoral College and bribing their way into colleges most of those in country (3) would not wish to attend. After all, could real Americans root for colleges whose colors are pastels?
It was important issues such as these that coursed through my brain as Peg, who was born in New York, and I attended a rodeo in Osage County, Oklahoma last week. I was left with the conclusion that Yankee girls and rodeos may not be the best fit. Perhaps you will agree once I relate Peg’s take on the Roy Clark Memorial Championship Rodeo held April 26 and 27, 2019 in Pawhuska, Osage County, Oklahoma.
Peg was fine with and impressed by the opening ceremonies that started with a cowgirl mounted on a horse and carrying the United States flag. That cowgirl was followed by another mounted cowgirl carrying the state flag of Oklahoma then by five more cowgirls riding around the arena with flags of the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard. As the flags were displayed “The Star Spangled Banner” was sung, the Pledge of Allegiance was recited and a long prayer was given. Then the rodeo events began. That’s also when Peg began to inquire about such things as calves, steers, horses and bulls feeling put upon by such things as cowboys, cowgirls, ropes and stock handlers.
“Jim, that cowboy roped that calf around the neck while it was running full speed and abruptly jerked it to a stop by reigning in his horse. Doesn’t that hurt and isn’t that cruel and inhumane?”
“I suppose so, but not ever having been roped, I don’t know. I note the calf jumped up and trotted off looking fine.”
“Well I beg to differ, you chased me until I roped you in, although sometimes I wonder why I did. Anyway, Jim, the announcer said the cowboy tied up three of the calf’s legs with a ‘piggin string’ he carried in his teeth. Where are the pigs?”
“There are no pigs in rodeos unless you are on a farm back east. It’s just a term of art.”
“It seems like almost all the cowboys who try to ride the bucking horses and bulls get thrown off. Doesn’t that hurt? And, where’s the art in that?”
“Yes, it hurts about like getting hit by a 300 pound football player. However, if they hang on for 8 seconds they can win prize money. It’s all part of the rodeo experience, Peg.”
“Jim, I don’t think it’s fair they penalize the cowgirl barrel racers for knocking over a barrel. Why don’t they set the barrels up so they won’t fall over?”
“Because then the cowgirls would go flying over the saddle horns when the horse hits a barrel.”
“Jim, in that team roping thingy why don’t they just set a large circle of rope down on the arena floor and shoo the steer’s hind legs into it?”
“Because that is not what happens on a ranch when cattle are being worked. Rodeos are based on actual ranch work and steers have to be rounded up on a ranch.”
“Jim, do you think we’ll see Sam Elliott here tonight?”
“Are you ready to leave? Maybe we’ll go see a movie. Perhaps you’ll see Sam there.”
Peg and I bought a cabin on the prairie in Osage County, Oklahoma. It came furnished with bovines who appear to have formed a four legged resistance to a destiny as Big Macs. When we visited recently we drove across the cattle guard and were met by the steely gaze of the Leader of the Pack. He was mainly black but had a white Mark of Cain on his left jaw and sharp hooves which he pawed into the dirt as he snorted fire through his flaring nostrils.
Having grown up in cow country I was able to recognize that neither the Lead Steer nor any of the others retained the necessary accoutrements for bulls. Therefore, I advised Peg to relax as I directed her to get out of the pickup and wade through the herd to open the gate. Peg’s response will not be published! I eased open my door and took an aggressive stance as I met the Leader’s glare while I opened the iron gate.
Hurrying back to the truck I jumped in and sped through the herd while blaring the horn. Apparently, our friend and Peg’s favorite cowboy, The Honorable Johnny Kelley, Mayor of the fine metropolis of Barnsdall, Oklahoma who owns the cattle, uses the horn and siren of his feed truck to announce it’s dinner time. Instead of driving the cows off our truck horn enticed the Leader to menacingly advance toward us along with thirty of his gang.
We managed to negotiate our way up to our cabin and slip inside as the hungry cattle voiced their displeasure with our behavior. Peg and I barricaded ourselves inside the cabin as the Leader circled his troops around it. We waited for nightfall hoping the cattle were on an eight hour workday and that when darkness came the cows would bed down.
Just after the moon appeared and bathed the prairie with silver light I cautiously opened the cabin door and was chagrined to see the Leader fixated on my position. His backup troops were edging their way up to the four newly set cedar posts that hold up the overhang attached to our new barn. As the cattle began to scratch their seven hundred plus pound bodies against the obviously challenged posts I knew something had to be done. I hollered for Peg.
Peg loudly yelled something that sounded like a word describing a cow byproduct as she shoved me outside with a blanket to shoo away the bold bovines. I noticed the blanket was red as Peg slammed the cabin door behind me.
Gingerly making my way toward Leader Steer I yelled and flapped the blanket. Whether the Leader would bolt or charge was highly in doubt until I remembered an old McDonald’s television commercial that I began to sing as loudly as my scared vocal chords would allow:
“You deserve a break today!
So get out and get away
Then I shouted, “Two all beef patties or get away from my barn”. Upon reflection, Leader must have decided I wasn’t worth the effort as he unceremoniously turned his backside toward me and sauntered away with his subjects in tow. Of course, he may have just found my singing not to his liking; everyone’s a critic. Now, Gentle Reader, if someone will just come rescue us, Peg and I can leave the cabin and head back to Indiana where most cattle know their place.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was an English poet who in 1807 wrote the poem The World Is Too Much With Us. “Getting and spending we lay waste our powers. Little we see in Nature that is ours.” Wordsworth was inundated with a world in chaos: The American Revolution (1776-1783); the French Revolution (1789-1794); and most significantly the Industrial Revolution (1760-1840). Wordsworth was twenty-eight years old when his British contemporary, Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who was a scholar and cleric, wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population.
Malthus looked at the earth’s burgeoning population, about one billion humans as 1800 neared, and wrote:
“The power of population is definitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. That population does invariably increase when the means of subsistence increase.”
Malthus theorized that as we humans found ways to increase the food supply (and other assets) instead of concentrating on the quality of life we increase our numbers. Then eventually the poorer classes, that is, almost everyone, encounter famine and disease. This Malthusian Catastrophe is of our own making.
The American neuroscientist and psychologist Joseph V. Brady (1922-2011) while doing research for our space program did a study known as the Executive Monkey Experiment. Brady put two monkeys in cages that each had a lever. If the “right” lever was pulled neither monkey received an electric shock. However, if the “Executive” monkey failed to properly pull the lever both monkeys received a shock.
After conditioning the two monkeys to this procedure Brady then shocked both monkeys even if the previously right lever was pulled. This led to numerous ill effects on the monkey responsible for avoiding the electric charge. Eventually the Executive Monkey just gave up and was catatonic as it made no difference what decision the monkey made.
There have been several studies done on overpopulation using mice and lemmings. What the research has consistently determined is as the number of animals was increased into the same original area eventually the animals will turn violent and sometimes resort to cannibalism even though ample food is kept available. The psyches of the mice and lemmings cannot deal with the inability to get some individual space/control.
This is what Wordsworth and Malthus were opining about due to the unnatural changes in our human environment brought on by the Industrial Revolution. Cartoonist Walt Kelly (1913-1973) in his comic strip Pogo published a strip in 1971 that addressed similar issues of overpopulation and pollution when he portrayed his cartoon characters observing their once pristine natural environment filled with trash, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. The humorist Walt Kelly was not being humorous.
If Wordsworth and Malthus feared the results we humans had wrought by the 19th Century when we had one billion people and mechanical devices, what about our politicians (our Executive Monkeys) today who face a world with eight billion people and the Internet? What can they expect and what can we, the governed (the Proletariat Monkeys), expect from our leaders? Has it become such a complex and daunting world our only decisions are to not make decisions, that is catatonia, or to cannibalize one another in public and through the media? Does it always have to be, “All right, circle up and fire?”
There are no simple solutions to complicated problems such as infrastructure, war, disease, overpopulation, global warming, pollution and disparate distribution of our earth’s resources. But invective and ad hominem attacks are no solution at all. As with most seemingly insurmountable problems the first step is to take a first step forward instead of sideways or to the rear.
Incremental steps and positive attitudes may not save us from ourselves, but lighting a candle instead of torching our fellow sufferers will produce at least a little light and a lot less heat.