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Everyone who uses the Internet, a good search engine, and is at least a little distractible (or much too curious) has had the experience of starting in one perfectly sensible place, and ending up finding themselves reading or seeing something seemingly quite unrelated and often bizarre or unbelievable. This isn't really the result of a random walk, which obviously can lead one badly astray, rather it is the result just stepping slightly off-course, just a little bit, at every junction of the search. I suppose it is a bit like the old party game of telephone, where the initial message slips slightly awry with each transmission.

In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War I have been reading a lot of things about the War that somehow I never got around to before. At the moment I am being guided around Chattanooga, Tennessee in the Fall of 1863, by Shelby Foote. The Union Army of the Cumberland was, for all intents and purposes, besieged. The commander who had gotten them into that fix had been relieved, and General George Thomas put in his place, while over-all command of the whole region had been settled on Ulysses S. Grant. Grant sent Thomas an urgent message, saying that it was necessary for him to hold on there, and Thomas replied that he and his troops would stay until they starved. When, not too long after this, Grant managed to get to Chattanooga to assess the situation in person, he discovered that Thomas was not using rhetorical hyperbole: the troops actually were beginning to starve. So Grant's first priority was to open a new way to get food to the soldiers, which he did within a week. The soldiers referred to this new route into the city as "The Cracker Line" and were glad to finally get enough to eat, especially considering it was late November and the place was getting pretty damn cold.

The troops had been subsisting on rations consisting of three pieces of hard tack and a quarter pound of salt pork, to last for three days. Sometimes they got a little beef, which was driven in over a sixty mile trail with no forage, the soldiers called this meat "beef dried on the hoof." Thinking about their rations, good and bad, led me to wonder just what ordinary Americans usually ate in the middle of the 19th century.  

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Mon Jul 01, 2013 at 02:20 PM PDT

Two Long Lifetimes Ago

by pimutant

Today is the 150th Anniversary of the first day of fighting at Gettysburg. To those of you under about 50 that must seem a very long time ago. But to me, not so much. I'll turn 70 this year, and it occurred to me that 150 years is only two reasonably long lifetimes ago. Indeed, I thought of a photo I have of myself as a baby, taken during the Second World War, and being held by my Dad's Grandmother. He was fighting in Italy at the time. His Grandmother had been born during the American Civil War.

RosaMeyer
The picture was taken in the Fall of 1943. The woman holding me was born in the Spring of 1864, her parents generation were the ones doing the fighting, suffering, and the dying in the Civil War.

There were two monumentally important events going on in July of 1863, together they determined the final outcome of that war. The first had started at the beginning of the year, as Grant began trying different means to take Vicksburg, and thus give the Union the entirety of the Mississippi River. By July he had had Vicksburg under siege for about a month and half. On July 3rd the Confederate commander asked Grant for terms, and the formal surrender was signed on July 4th. Lincoln is quoted as saying, "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea." The great transportation system of the middle of the country belonged exclusively to the Union. The Confederacy was split in two.

But in the East Robert E. Lee still had a powerful Confederate army, and had decided to use it to invade the North, rather than simply defend Richmond, repulsing attacks by the Army of the Potomac as it ran thru one commander after another, until maybe the North would get tired of the whole business and let the Southern states go.

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Wed May 29, 2013 at 09:00 PM PDT

May 30th: Tradition and Commemoration

by pimutant

Memorial Day did not become a moveable picnic until June 28, 1968. By then I was grown and had already left home. But I remember the traditional date because of my father. He was a World War II veteran, his birthday was May 30th, and his avocation was race cars, so we always listened to the Indy 500 on the radio--May 30th was a big deal around our house. While my dad didn't make any kind of fuss about his military service, I always knew it was important. We had an old Springfield training rifle, and I was taught the Manual of Arms using it, even though when I started my "studies" that old training rifle was pretty near as tall as I was. And I can remember my dad's mother referring to May 30th as Decoration Day, although I wasn't really sure why. So I still remember the traditional date, and I'll be flying my flag again this week, in honor of tradition, and as a memorial to my father.

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I first became acquainted with Ellis Peters' medieval detective Brother Cadfael through the good offices of the PBS Mystery series, where Cadfael was played by the wonderful Derek Jacobi, who was also responsible for the indelible portrait of the emperor Claudius in the earlier PBS presentation of the BBC series "I, Claudius" (can you believe that was in 1976? I can't!).

After that if my local used book store didn't have any new SF, I would wander over to the mystery section and look for Dexter Colin's "Inspector Morse" books (also discovered thru PBS--anyone see a pattern here?), or Dick Francis, or Tony Hillerman, or Ellis Peters. It is always nice to have a fair number of things to look for, it increases one's chance of a successful hunt. I can't stand the idea of leaving a book store empty handed. So I collected a number of the Cadfael mysteries over the years.

book cover
The First Cadfael Mystery
One day two or three years ago, when I was looking for something pleasant to read I picked up one of the Cadfael mysteries I had on hand, but hadn't read in awhile, and curled up contentedly to immerse myself in Ellis Peters' world. At some point I realized I was wallowing in pure enjoyment: of the words, the world, the characters, the scenery, the story. I realized I needed more, indeed, I needed ALL the Cadfael books! There are 20 Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, plus the ancillary "A Rare Benedictine" all written between 1977 and 1994. Since the books were popular, as the TV series attests, I thought it would be rather easy to acquire them all. I went to my favorite used book store and discovered there was an empty space on the shelf where the books should be--someone had beaten me by a day or two. I went to every bookstore new and used in my area and discovered the same thing was true. Oh dear! Last year, when I got my iPad, I found out they aren't available as ebooks either. Hummphff! I've been checking them out of my three local libraries, although that isn't quite as satisfying. And surprisingly often the one I'm looking for is already checked out, so I have to wait. But I suppose I'm glad folks are still loving Cadfael, just as I do, and I hope that this little essay will bring even more converts to the cause.

The trauma of discovering the bookstores in my area had been cleaned out shortly before I got there, combined with my realization of just how much I enjoyed the books, caused me to start wondering exactly what it was about Cadfael, his world, and Ellis Peters' writing that gave me such enjoyment. This diary is the result of my pondering the question.

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I noticed Veterans' Day is marked for Monday on my Calendar, and there is no note at all for Sunday, November 11. I'll be flying my flag on both days. I just can't let Armistice Day pass with no notice of its significance.

I thought I would post a brief diary here, as well as flying my flag, to remember the end of the killing of World War I.

There are three events that shaped what we are, and that have the strange property, for me, that the more I learn about them the less sense they make. The first is the revolution in human thinking created by Classical Greek civilization, the second is the astonishing burst of creativity that was the Renaissance, and the third was the First World War. I own more books on the First World War than any other single topic, and every few years I acquire and read some more of them. Some are straight history, some are sociological/cultural studies, some are art books, some are memoirs, some are fiction written by survivors. And some are poetry. I thought I would remember the day with a few poems by one of the British War Poets that I suspect many of you have never heard of: Charles Hamilton Sorley.

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Thu Oct 18, 2012 at 12:37 PM PDT

The October Nadir

by pimutant

The other day, just after the second debate, but before any more cheerful polls appeared, I decided to take a look at what I called "The Mid-October Nadir" for the Electoral College, and thus the likely outcome, right then, of the election. Things were at their darkest: could we actually have to suffer four years of President Romney? I shuddered at the prospect and made my little Electoral College List to see what was what. For those of you who don't do things like this, here's my list, for your edification. And, I hope, that you will derive at least a little comfort from it. I did.

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"I would not have the anniversaries of our victories celebrated, nor those of our defeats made fast days and spent in humiliation and prayer; but I would like to see truthful history written."--U. S. Grant

On April 6-7, 1862 a battle was fought in Tennessee that prefigured just how bloody and terrible the American Civil War would be, and how, and by whom, it would be won.

The war had been going on for nearly a year, and there had been a number of battles already. However, even the notorious rout at the First Battle of Bull Run had not been as ghastly as Shiloh proved to be. The Union had 28,450 troops at Bull Run, and suffered 2,650 casualties (this includes the total of killed, wounded, captured or missing). The South had 32,230 troops, and 1,981 casualties. Fewer than one in ten of those at Bull Run were casualties, and of those about 850 were killed. Contrast this with Shiloh, where the combined troop numbers were about 110,000, and casualities were just under 24,000, or roughly 1 in 4--and just under three thousand were killed. In one battle. For a bit of perspective the total number of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan is just under two thousand.

Initially the war had seemed to be going the way the South expected, but in January 1862 that started to change. The first major victory for the Union forces came at Mill Springs, Kentucky, where General George H. Thomas defeated Confederate troops under Crittenden and Zollicoffer. Casualties were realtively few, especially by later standards, although among them was Zollicoffer, who was killed, and Crittenden's career (he was accused of being drunk when he had to assume command). The next Southern disasters were in February, when Grant's troops took Fort Henry, and then Fort Donelson. The latter pretty certainly fell quickly due to the incompetent leadership of a pair of "political" generals, who fled to safety leaving the capitulation to a poor regular army general, an old friend of Grant's. All of this meant that the Union had an excellent chance of destroying the hold of the Confederacy on the state of Tennessee and had driven them out of the territory of Kentucky (which had not seceeded, but had been invaded). The Confederate general in charge of the troops in the area, Albert Sidney Johnston, recognized his bad position and had withdrawn from Nashville and had forces concentrated at Corinth, Misssissippi to the South, and Murfreesboro, in eastern Tennessee. Grant intended to go after Johnston's forces in Corinth, and headed down the Tennessee River from Forts Henry and Donelson. They had reached Pittsburg Landing and camped there to await General D. C. Buell's forces before proceeding down to Corinth, about 20 miles away. Grant was so intent on attack that it never crossed his mind the Confederates might come after him instead of the other way 'round. On April 6th Johnston launched his surprise attack, and during the course of a hard fought day the Confederates had a good deal of success, but did not succeed in routing the Union. By the end of the day they had captured the bivouac area, and tents, formerly occupied by Sherman, and had also captured General Prentiss and over 2000 of his men. The fighting stopped at sunset, and the Confederate commanders moved into Sherman's quarters.

There were a mass of disorganized Union "stragglers" milling around at Pittsburg Landing, which looked pretty bad. However, also arriving at the Landing that afternoon and evening were the first of Buell's troops. Furthermore, Lew Wallace's division had gotten lost the preceeding day, but finally showed up, ready to fight after that day's fight was over. So Grant would have fresh troops the following day. He was confident that they would defeat the Confederates. Furthermore, the Confederate commander General Johnston had been killed in mid-afternoon, leaving Beauregard in charge--although Beauregard probably thought he should have been in charge to start with, the death of the commander throws everything off. Also, the Confederate cavalry genius Nathan Bedford Forrest had done a bit of reconnoitering in the evening of the sixth and realized that Buell's men had started arriving, but he was unable to find anyone to report this to.

It turned out that Grant's seemingly irrational confidence was justified: the next day, April 7th, the Union troops did indeed defeat the Confederates. Due to exhaustion they were unable to mount an effective pursuit, but they had won a victory, one that was celebrated in the North, before it began to sink in just how high the cost had been. And the South began to realize that the North would fight, and fight very hard indeed. Their conviction that the Southern fighting man was worth 3 or more of those money-grubbing Yankees had finally met reality, it was a bitter pill to swallow.


Here in 1862 were some fields and a house or two; now there are a national cemetery and other improvements.--Ambrose Bierce, an infantryman at Shiloh

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Editor's note:  pimutant lives on the West Coast, and will be along around noon ET to respond to comments.

My contribution should really be titled "Books Changed My Life"--without any of the implications of a definite article. Because it wasn't some particular book or group of books or author that profoundly changed my life, but books and reading in general. Today I am still an addicted reader, and my house contains at least a baker's dozen of bookcases stuffed with books. There are big bookcases and little bookcase and mid-sized bookcases, and they are in every room of the house, except the bathrooms and kitchen (and there used to be cooking books piled on top of the refrigerator). I love books. I've always loved books: seeing them, holding them, browsing thru bookstores and libraries and other people's collections, reading them, owning them.

My husband and I once did a favor for one of his relatives and house sat for them for a few days. The first night I went to find something to read, and couldn't. There seemed to be no books, no magazines, no newspapers in the whole house. I was astounded! I finally found a couple of children's school books that belonged to their littlest kid, but that was it. How could anyone live without books? While I can now accept that some people do live like that, I can't claim to really understand it.
bookcase
Above, a large bookcase and my smallest bookcase flanking the front door.

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"Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."--Mother Jones

Born in Cork, Ireland, Mary Harris Jones claimed to be a bit older than she was. In her autobiography she said she was born in 1830, however later researchers think she was most likely born in 1837. She died on November 30, 1930, in Maryland, and is buried at the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive, Macoupin County, Illinois.

Just in case you didn't know, the "Mother Jones" magazine was named for Mary Harris Jones, who, among her many claims to fame as a Progressive, was a labor organizer, especially of miners, and a co-founder of the International Workers of the World, AKA the Wobblies.

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Fri Mar 09, 2012 at 09:00 AM PST

The Inferno: What's in it for Me?

by pimutant

Everyone's favorite section of the Divine Comedy is the Inferno. It has appealed to the human imagination since it first appeared 700 years ago. There's something in it for everyone, from the scholarly to the visually creative to those who just like a good story. Scholars today are still doing research on it, and visual artists are still making images based upon it, witness the extensive footnotes in Hollander's recent translation that I am using, and a 2009 video game, called simply Dante's Inferno. As a reader, when I went to quickly revisit it to refresh my memory for this diary, I got caught up in it all over again and reread the whole thing.

And then there's just the general idea of people being punished in appropriate ways for their misdeeds in life, which fuels a lot private revenge fantasies. Personally I have had many wretched vacuum cleaners, which prompt me to imagine the designer/engineer of each such machine I've had being forced to use it to clean the Gates of Hell, sucking up infernal soot for a very very long time. It helps a little when the damned things clog up to think of them as being truly damned.

So I hope this little piece of mine will also have something in it for everyone, or at least for lots of people with many different areas of interest and levels of knowledge.

game

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Sat Mar 03, 2012 at 04:47 PM PST

Santorum and the Saint

by pimutant

I was rather taken aback when Rick Santorum called the President a snob for supporting higher education. After all, Santorum was a Catholic, he was not from some peculiar little sect of Know-Nothing Christians, and whatever faults the Catholic Church has, a failure to support education is not one of them. Indeed, when all of Europe had lost interest in educating anyone, rich or poor, the Church was still maintaining schools.

I remembered a Jewish comic on Johnny Carson one night claiming the best school around where he grew up was the local Catholic school, and therefor his parents, along with a lot of other Jewish parents, sent their kids to that school. The punch line was that all the kids ended up calling the school "Our Lady of Perpetual Guilt."

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Tue Feb 21, 2012 at 07:00 AM PST

My Dante Summer

by pimutant

A couple of years ago several things happened at about the same time, which changed my reading habits, perhaps even my life.

The first was the realization that it was likely I didn't have all that many years remaining, and if I was going read the great works of human thought which I hadn't gotten around to yet, I better get started.

The second and third discoveries were that new and very hightly recommended translations of Homer and Dante had been done relatively recently. So I made a little list and started reading, and in due course I got to Robert and Jean Hollander's translation of Dante's Inferno. I figured if I liked it I would continue on to Purgatory and from thence to Paradise. It turned out I loved their translation, and I wound up reading all three volumes, devoting an entire summer to the project.

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