Archive for the History Category

“Goodbye God, We Are Going to Bodie.”

Posted in Boyhood, History on June 13, 2011 by Thomas N. Schenden

One way to add depth to your travels is to mix in some history, and the ghost towns of the Old West are ideal destinations for motorists and armchair adventurers.

Bodie, one of California’s best preserved and most authentic ghost towns, sits on the edge of the Nevada border, just an hour north of Mammoth. This abandoned 1880s mining town was declared a California State Historic Park in 1962 and since then has been maintained in what is famously called a state of “arrested decay.” You won’t see any painting or renovating going on in Bodie. In this remote mining town the buildings are kept safe and standing, but that’s about it.

As you walk the dirt streets, it’s easy to imagine the town’s better days. Peer into the wavy glass windows of once well-cared for homes, and you’ll feel as though you are looking back in time. But this time machine does not have rose colored lenses. Wallpaper is stained and peeling. Furniture is covered in a deep, deep coat of dust. Household utensils and clothing are strewn about as though the family went out for an evening walk after dinner and never, ever came back. It’s creepy, because it’s the real deal.

In its heyday, Bodie boasted a population of over 7,000. The boom years of 1877-1880 brought miners from all over the West, and most of them were men. Mile-long Main Street was home to 65 saloons. There were opium dens and numerous brothels. Murders, shootouts, barroom brawls and stagecoach holdups were ordinary occurrences. Local lore has it that when one little girl learned that her family was moving to the mining town, she prayed, “Goodbye God! We are going to Bodie.”

Things have quieted down since. Today, only 170 buildings remain of the 2,000 buildings that once stood. While Bodie is open to visitors year round, the access road is covered in snow through most of the winter. The park is host to over 200,000 visitors every year, so, while you may not see any ghosts, chances are good that you’ll see other visitors. And that’s a good thing, because Bodie is so remote and so lonely, you’ll really appreciate the company.


The Ash Heap of History, Piled Higher

Posted in History, Uncategorized on February 16, 2011 by Thomas N. Schenden

Not to paint with too broad of a brush, but it seems that in most corners of the world the US has favored stability and it’s evil step-cousin, autocracy, over democracy. Not that stability is a higher goal, but that it serves us well immediately. Democracy is inefficient and messy and isn’t very easy to control.

There are no guarantees that there will be stronger US ties with the next government in Syria or Libya or Egypt, but I’d say that in most of these cases, the people on the street look to the US and the West for their inspiration. We may be going through tough times here in the US, but it’s comforting to know that our ideals are spreading out throughout the world and causing illegitimate regimes to fall.

And all this online technology that has brought real free information into Middle Easterners’ lives has come from free nations. Eventually the people of the those nations will have to look around and say, WTF? Why do we supply the world its oil and live in poverty while our kings live in palaces? We want to be like those people who buy our gas and make phones!

The US has a real balancing act to perform, again. It does remind one of the ’90s. . . I Recall that Bush 41 was very careful not to crow about the falling of the Eastern European and Soviet regimes, even though it would have done him very well politically. . . Obama may be treading the same path. Tricky stuff.

You know the people of the Middle East don’t want a big religious war with the West, they just want to live quiet, dignified lives. All the Al Qaeda crap that has dominated the news over the last decade is ready to take its place on the top of the historic ash heap.

A Giant Tangent, Chapter 1: Bakersfield

Posted in Boyhood, History, Uncategorized on August 27, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

“I tell ’em like I write ’em, in one long continuous paper streaming across the sky, man, that’s my map, that’s what I’m doing, that’s where I’m going. You coming too?” — Jack

Jack’s not my friend, he’s an acquaintance. At least, that’s the published version. But Jack is a pretty engaging guy, and a good guy too. That’s who this story is about.

Have you ever met someone who only felt comfortable when he was hearing the sound of his own voice? I’m talking about stream-of-consciousness talking. I’m talking about all day, one-way monologues. If you were to hear Jack, you’d notice a certain rhythm to his voice, something you can’t quite put your finger on, but recognize. I’d call it nerve-wracking and downright annoying, if it wasn’t for the fact that Jack is just so dang fascinating.

One foggy evening, as we were walking, and Jack was talking, we fell onto the subject of travel. Jack boasted that he knew California like no one else. “I’m not talkin’ maps, man. . . I’m talking real knowledge – stuff that takes feet-on-the-ground research, not like what you’d see in a dusty old encyclopedia, but brought to life and speaking to you, propelling you, shining on you like the sun, man.”

I rolled my eyes. Jack was on another bender, ‘getting tangential,’ as he called it.

“Yeah, really man, I can show ya, I can show you how to be a giant in California, bigger than the redwoods. You’ll be so big, you can take one step and be standing in the parched bean fields of Bakersfield and take another step and be cool in Salinas. After you wipe that rich dark earth off your shoe, you’re in Mendocino, man, stepping over the old logging chutes that pitched that redwood booty out into the waiting ships way back when. What do you say, man, you in, you wanna be a giant?”

“What are you talking about? Gimme a clue, Jack,” I half pleaded.

What I’m talking about is an emancipation proclamation, man, I’m talking walking papers, carte blanche, an e-ticket that you can’t buy, because you’ll be a giant!”

Oh, brother!

“Oh Brother yeah! If you’re up for it we’re giants tomorrow, swear! But we have to shake on the deal first.”

Jack extended his fist and began his elaborate knuckle bumping, thumb hooking, pinky wiggle with the elbow extension and the wink. Yeah, the wink. Jack had a special wink that was his way of saying that this was an important deal, more important than anything else. So we performed the ceremony that told Jack that, in essence, I had placed myself in his custody.

“Meet me at this crossing tomorrow morning. Bring a coat and a change of clothes and a toothbrush and maybe a sliver of soap, but that’s it because that’s giant gear and if you bring anything else it won’t work. Swear?”
“Swear.” I said, with a little quiver in my voice. “What time?”

“Four-thirty, Amplitude Modulation, my friend. Oh-dark-thirty. Be there with your giant gear and I’ll show you. . .”
“Show me. . .?”

As Jack walked away, he seemed to blend into the fog and the dark, and vanish.

The next morning, as I approached our meeting place, Jack reappeared out of the fog, but now sitting on his backpack, sipping on a cup of coffee in the dark. It was one of those short plastic cups that unscrews off the red plaid thermos, which was sitting in front of him. He held his filterless cigarette with typical Jack-like affectation, between his thumb and forefinger.

“We gotta go,” he said, as he took one last drag, flicked his smoke, gulped his coffee and screwed the cup back on the thermos, all in one smooth motion. “If we’re gonna be giants today, we’d better move like it.”

Now I knew that there was only one thing happening on this corner at 4:30 in the morning, and it was just beginning to dawn on me what Jack was up to when he stopped me and turned his head sideways slightly. Jack heard something, and in the next moment he was running up the gravel covered hill, toward the railroad right of way. I had to run hard to keep up with him.

“That’s it! C’mon, lets move!”

Jack disappeared behind a pepper tree that had grown over the edge of the gravel rail bed.
“In here!” Jack whispered as he ducked down into the foliage. “Now if you do this right, and follow my every move, this is where you’ll take your last step as a little man! Got it?”

That sound that Jack had heard, it was getting louder and closer. It was the 4:47, northbound out of the Santa Fe depot, and just now slowly moving our way. I felt a pit in my stomach as I realized what was next.

Jack was wound up like a top, and unwound his explanation: “OK, brother, this is how it goes. First, you jog along beside her, just like you’ve always known her, but making sure that she’s not moving faster than you. When she’s not looking and you’re sure she’s sweet on you and you’re moving together, you grab her –

“And that next giant step puts you in the bean fields of Bakersfield, California!”

From Danang to Pho 99

Posted in History on November 12, 2009 by Thomas N. Schenden

It was 1975, the war was coming to its awful conclusion, and I was in my junior year of high school. We’d been watching newscasts from Viet Nam for as long as I could remember. There were daily body counts, stories of skirmishes and battles and peace talks and protests and war crimes. It went on and on and on, year in and year out. Finally there were those awful television images of helicopters making their last departures from Saigon, desperate refugees hanging from the runners. There were scenes of Navy men pushing helicopters over the sides of their aircraft carriers. The mission had changed; we needed room for our new passengers.

Three years later, in college, I met my first Vietnamese refugee. He was Hmong, actually, and couldn’t speak a lick of English. Not one word. My friend and I did our best to communicate with him, but we didn’t have even the smallest fragment of common language to share. Nonetheless, we managed to get across to him that he was welcome at our school and that we were glad to have him.

As the years went by and our new Americans came into Southern California in increasing numbers, they began to fill the colleges and start businesses. Today Vietnamese Americans are moving out of their little Saigons into the suburbs just like any other Americans on their way up. They are an impressive people, having achieved more in a half of a generation than many native born Americans will achieve in their entire lives.

Today, I make it a point to stop in to Pho 99 from time to time. Pho 99 is a Vietnamese restaurant chain in Southern California, and my particular haunt is not much different than any other Vietnamese restaurant. After eating there ten or twelve dozen times, the food no longer seems exotic or foreign. I look into their faces and can’t imagine the warriors of a generation ago.

A couple of days after September 11, 2001, I was at Pho 99 having lunch, reading a Newsweek recount of the mayhem in New York. The manager came over to me, and seeing what I was reading, looked into my eyes and said in a quiet voice, “It’s so sad, isn’t it?” Her accent faded away.

Die Mauer, Zwanzig Jahre Weg

Posted in History on November 9, 2009 by Thomas N. Schenden

The Wall, Twenty Years Gone

I’ve always been fascinated by the whole Berlin division thing. Yesterday my friend had a conversation with a woman who grew up in East Berlin. She described for him what it was like to drive back into her neighborhood after being gone for 15 years, seeing avenues where there had been only dead ends.

In contemplating this anniversary, I found myself musing on a similar thing morning. I wondered how many Ossis had a sense of vertigo and agoraphobia on their first visits to the West. After living in a society with so many understood and expected privations, and then to wander headlong into a place where anything goes, everything is available, and it is all out of reach financially would be really disturbing. You live this compact lifestyle, totally connected to the state, and then suddenly, it’s just not good enough — and in fact, in no time at all, it’s not even there.

I think a lot of people must have struggled with coming to terms with materialism and consumerism. I’ve lived in a consumer society my whole life and am becoming more irritated by it every day. Imagine the culture shock of being plunged into it in one fell swoop.

You grow up thinking that the Wall is the end of the world. Like the ocean. . . something that defines the edges, something you can’t enter. . . and then that barrier is lifted. Dead-ends become avenues and all the new avenues lead AWAY from your home.

My guess is that a lot of quiet contemplation happened as East Berliners reprocessed their places in the world. . .