Archive for November, 2009

Racers’ Mecca – for a Day

November 29, 2009 Leave a comment

Some of the elite runners start the race.

Traditions are sometimes hard to come by in our relatively young and forward-looking nation, but some of the most lasting seem to revolve around sports. In Connecticut,  New Haven was recently awash in hoopla over “The Game,” and Manchester has its Thanksgiving Day Road Race. I was at the race this year, watching several family members walk or run the 4.75 mile course.

This was the 73rd running of the race, which now attracts about 14,000 runner, walkers, and “wheelers” (just over 12,000 actually finished the course), including internationally known distance runners. The day was as much about revelry as competition, with some entrants dressed in a variety of costumes – some seasonal, others not. An estimated 20,000-30,000 people lined the streets to cheer on the athletes, with more than a dozen bands playing along the route. This year’s race featured overcast skies but not-too-chilly temperatures, and I was glad to be there.

Dino Man joined several superheroes, life-sized food products (including turkeys), and various guys in drag.

So what’s this have to do about history?

Not a lot. I had planned to work backward, 2009 minus 73, to give a feel of what was going on when the race was first run. Like now, 1936 saw the country enduring tough economic times, with a president who faced charges of his “socialist” policies threatening to ruin the country. Instead, of course, the president, then and now, was using the power of the government to try to stave off total economic (and perhaps political) collapse, not destroy capitalism.

Yeah, that was my idea; then I learned the race was actually first run in 1927. OK, slight shift of gears. “Silent Cal” Coolidge held sway, the ’20s were roaring – for a while still, at least – and following the Babe, Red Grange, and Jack Dempsey was a sports fan’s concern, not running or watching a road race.

What else was going on in 1927, before and while a few Manchester guys decided to hold the first race? Lindbergh made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Nature struck hard, with a massive flooding of the Mississippi and a killer tornado hitting St. Louis. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, Lizzie “40 Whacks” Borden joined her dismembered parents in the afterlife, and Mae West was busted on an obscenity rap. In the arts. The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie,” lit up movie screens; Hermann Hesse published Steppenwolf and Virginia Woolf released To the Lighthouse; “Ol’ Man River” was one of the hit tunes. Other notable moments: the 15 millionth Model T rolled off Ford’s assembly lines, the Holland Tunnel linked New York and New Jersey, and the iron lung was developed.

The home stretch

Coming down the home stretch

And in the midst of all those great events and creations, 12 guys plod along the streets of Manchester, while maybe the same size group cheers them on. But within  a few years, 10,000 people filled the streets to watch, so you just never know what a simple idea is going turn into.

The race was suspended mid-Depression and remained shelved until after World War II. The revived race drew about 20 runners in 1945, and by 1954 had 104. Slow growth continued, until the running boom of the 1970s sent the number over 1,000, with thousands more entering within the next ten years. Today, the small city of Manchester, some 56,000 strong, is home to one of the top-25 races in the country.

The best view on Main Street

Since 1945, the Manchester Road Race has survived several major wars and now the Great Recession. With the festivities and ever-strengthening tradition, it’s a safe bet the race will be around for a long time, bringing together friends and family, offering an excuse for pre-noon drinking, and working up appetites for that Tofurkey cooking in the oven.


Energy – Past, Present, and Future

November 25, 2009 Leave a comment

The next Spindletop or Prudhoe Bay is not filled with black gold. Instead, the next great domestic energy source (of the fossil-fuel variety, anyway) is probably the natural gas trapped inside shale beneath large parts of the United States. Compared to its oil reserves, the country is awash in natural gas, and T. Boone Pickens wants us to tap it, the sooner the better, to end our dependence on foreign oil.

The oilman and the Congressman

Pickens was in East Hartford yesterday, speaking at a forum sponsored by Congressman John Larson (D-Connecticut). Larson is a co-sponsor of HR 1835, which offers tax credits for alternative energy sources. The focus of the forum was on using natural gas to power vehicles, especially large trucks that now run on diesel. Switch 7 million trucks to natural gas, Boone said, and we could cut OPEC imports by 50 percent.

Friend T. Boone! And you can follow him on Twitter too!

Pickens had lots of numbers and facts, which he rolled out without notes or slides or a PowerPoint presentation. The man has made this effort his main focus since 2008. Then, he made a big splash by calling for a crash course in wind-power development. Now, he is gung-ho for natural gas. He claims he’s spent $62 million of his own money to spread the word about the need for energy independence, using the fuels we already have and technologies we can develop. (He has more on his “Pickens Plan” at his website.) Of course, he stands to profit from investments he’s made in wind and natural gas. But his concern for the country seems genuine. Pickens never served in the military, and he sees this effort as his “national service.” He, like many Americans, is galled by the idea of our sending billions of dollars each year to countries that don’t like us and in some cases are our enemies. He asserts: “We’re paying for both sides of this war,” though he didn’t clarify exactly which war. Iraq? Afghanistan? The general war on terror? But his point was, some of the money we pay for foreign oil trickles down to people trying to kill US troops.

Pickens had a comment on our friend in Venezuela, too. Hugo Chavez might not be arming terrorists (though he seems to be aiding Colombian rebels), but he’s certainly made it plain he wants to thwart the United States whenever he can. Pickens called Chavez a “cluck” as he lamented our buying oil from him.

But don’t let the folksy putdown and his oil-patch drawl fool you – Pickens is one sharp cookie. Trained as a geologist and successful in his field, he lays out the technical nuts and bolts as easily as he (“this old Republican”) tells stories about his new buddy, Al Gore. The former veep is pushing batteries as the next great power source for cars. Pickens prefers compressed natural gas (CNG ), but concedes the point to Al on smaller vehicles – for now. Getting the trucks to convert is Pickens’s first goal.

So, why natural gas? It’s cleaner than gasoline. We now have the largest reserves in the world. Building the infrastructure to run our vehicles on CNG will create jobs. But most importantly, as he and Larson stressed over and over again, it reduces the amount of money we send to OPEC.

Several times during the talk, Boone made reference to “40 years ago,” when we should have first come up with an energy policy that went beyond reliance on petroleum. I’m not sure why he chose that number, since the first major oil embargo came four years later. That’s when OPEC flexed its muscles and Americans realized the precarious position they were in: We did not control our own fate, when it came to this precious commodity around which we structured so much of our lives. (An earlier embargo, in 1967, had nowhere near the same impact. Perhaps that explains Boone’s “40 years”?) Of course, Boone’s point is we could have controlled our own fate since then, if we had developed a systematic policy, one that pushed forward on finding alternatives, whether oil soared to $147 a barrel or plunged down to $10.

We knew, as the years went on, that domestic oil sources would not solve the problem. Even now, the idea that offshore and Arctic drilling are panaceas is whistling in the dark, Pickens says. If we opened up all of it, maybe we could produce 2 million barrels a day. One expert he talked to laughed at that figure, and said the reality is more like 30,000 barrels. Currently, we import about 10 million barrels of oil per day, which is about 60 percent of our needs.

After 9/11, some people talked of a “Manhattan Project” for developing energy alternatives, to stanch the flow of U.S. dollars overseas. Eight years later, do we have a plan in place that will create energy independence? Pickens says no. To be fair, both Bush and Obama did call for spending more on research and providing tax credits, but the amounts are pretty small, compared to what’s needed to make a huge dent in our oil imports. (And Pickens recounted meeting Bush in 2008 and telling him that his legacy as the “ethanol president” would not exactly be one for the ages….)

Pickens and Larson admitted that natural gas is not the total solution either. The representative sees it as a transitional energy source until we have hydrogen cars. And both men admitted that money for mass transit would help. Left unsaid was the potential environmental risks of extracting the huge reserves of shale gas that seem to offer so much promise. Getting the gas to the surface requires piping in large quantities of water treated with chemicals. The problem: Some of the water returns to the surface, picking up harmful minerals that blend with the chemicals, creating quite a toxic stew. The government calls this “produced water,” and the brew from the gas production is more dangerous than what comes from oil production. Produced water from natural gas operations has led to contaminated wells and polluted streams in Pennsylvania. A few scientists also fear the produced water could kill the helpful microbes used at water treatment plants.

Honda Civic, powered with CNG and on the road today.

The hope natural gas seems to provide brings up the issue we face with all our sources of power – nothing is perfect. Even such “green” technologies as wind and ocean power raise concerns about dangers to wildlife or humans. The solution seems to be, find the least-worst alternatives. So, maybe it makes sense to push for more CNG and propane (LPG) vehicles and filling stations. The cars are already out there, though the number in the U.S. is paltry (just 130,000, out of 10 million worldwide). Work for better electric cars, though we still have to generate the electricity to recharge the batteries, yes? And that means burning coal and natural gas…unless we ramp up with nuclear, which has its own issues, mostly political/psychological. (Remember Three Mile Island and the China Syndrome.) Keep working on fuel cells and that transition to hydrogen. But the key seems to be, as Pickens says, have a policy dedicated to reducing our reliance on foreign oil. I would add, and one that calls for lessening our dependency on all fossil fuel. One day, folks, it will all be gone; no more Spindletops or shale deposits to feed our growing needs.

Carry a Big Racket

November 20, 2009 Leave a comment

A true American hero

“I spent 33 years…being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism…I might have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate a racket in three cities…”

Who is this dastardly criminal confessing sins that his corporate patrons would have preferred stayed hidden? Let’s finish up the quote:

“…The Marines operated on three continents.”

The Marines, often led into far-flung ventures in the name of big business by Major General Smedley Darlington Butler. Never heard of him? Two-time winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, decorated veteran of the Spanish-American War, the Philippines – what do we call it? Occupation? Insurrection? Incursion? That little military operation that left perhaps 200,000 Filipinos dead and introduced the world to American imperialism – the Boxer Rebellion, World War I…well, the list continues. An officer called “a natural born warrior” and a soldier’s commander, because he would never ask his troops to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself. The Smedley Butler who was a great American hero and is mostly unknown today.

The general asked to lead a plot against FDR.

The incident, like the man, doesn’t get much play in history books. I had come across him 30 years ago, doing research on Fascist groups in American during the 1930s, and was reminded of him as I recently read a Gore Vidal essay from the ‘90s. As hard as it may be to believe, monied elements in the United States were considering recruiting a 500,000-man army of military veterans to help with their plot to “ease” Roosevelt out of office. FDR, of course, was a crazy liberal, a socialist even, and the bankers and corporate giants feared what he might do to the country as the Great Depression went on.

All that was left of one Bonus Army camp after the real Army moved in

The corporate forces knew Butler was respected among the former troops. Retired as of 1931, he spoke up the next year when the Bonus Army of World War I vets marched on Washington, demanding money they were owed. Butler, unlike the military brass, supported them. He also began to speak out about his time as a “racketeer,” and he inveighed against U.S. military actions that weren’t necessary to defend the country or the Bill of Rights from direct assault. Oh, and he campaigned for Roosevelt, too, in 1932. Somehow, the big-business brains missed signs that maybe Butler really wasn’t there guy.

Still, he was popular and morally unimpeachable, so in the summer of 1933, they approached him. The contact man, Gerald MacGuire, assured Butler they had the money, millions of it (some from the heir of the Singer Sewing Company). They wanted to introduce a new position in government, “secretary of general welfare,” who would of course reflect corporate views. FDR would be pushed aside, perhaps even pressured to retire. For a time, Butler played along as if he were interested, then went  public, exposing the plot against the president.

Was MacGuire a fraud or conman, some have wondered? Even Butler had his doubts at first. But then MacGuire told him about a new organization about to be launched, the American Liberty League. Its sole purpose: derail the New Deal. Its backers included wealthy industrialists, and one of MacGuire’s bosses would become its treasurer. When Butler saw MacGuire’s words become reality – the League was launched in 1934 – he took the plans for usurping constitutional rule at face value.

Both Butler and MacGuire appeared before the poetically named Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities. Butler spoke in detail about his meetings with MacGuire, who denied the general’s charges. The committee, though, only called the general to testify after he gave details of the plot to a Philadelphia reporter – and even though it had heard about the plot from other sources. So if Butler doesn’t go public, the Special Committee would have hushed it up. In the end, the committee gave some credence to Butler’s charges, but did not take any action. Butler lambasted them for not naming the “the big shots” he had claimed were involved in or knew about the plot (including Governor Al Smith and General Douglas MacArthur).

A few years ago, the BBC did a radio story on Butler and the plot and quoted U.S. journalist John Buchanan, who said no one was ever investigated for a simple reason: FDR and the plotters made a deal. Corporate America would mostly back off from attacking the New Deal, and the feds would not question anyone allegedly tied to the plot. I have not found anything to corroborate this, and some of the articles about the whole episode have a whiff on conspiracy theory. But Butler had nothing to gain by making his claim, and Time reported, while mostly denigrating Butler and the story, that the head of the VFW claimed he had also been approached to lead a 500,000-man “blackshirt” force.

So, if not for Butler, was there a real threat to the Constitution and democracy? I don’t know. But certainly corporations – if not the Republic – have done all right for themselves even without a putsch. For all the talk of our “socialist” president in some circles (umm, not full circles; I’d say they’re missing a few arcs, if you know what I mean), American politics is still pretty much a big racket. Big Business doesn’t need an army to have government leaders bestow huge military contracts, bailouts, corporate welfare. It’s all much smoother now. I doubt Butler would be any less pissed. We shouldn’t be either.

Postscript: Researching this, I came across some interesting historical nuggets. Like the American Legion was originally created by business interests tied to the House of Morgan to “offset  radicalism.” This was, of course after the Russian Revolution and at dawn of the Red Scare. At times, the Legionnaires took part in strike breaking, with some clubbing striking workers.

And this: Yet again, lest we forget, the cozy relations between American corporations and Nazi Germany – sometimes even after  we entered the war. And the role a certain political family played in that quest for profits. The BBC report cited above notes how, during the 1930s, the Hamburg America steamship line gave free passage to American journalists wanting to visit Nazi Germany and write glowing articles about the 1,000-year Reich. The U.S. manager of the line at the time: Prescott Bush, granddaddy of our last president. Of course, the connections between the Nazis and the Bush/Walker clan have been well documented.

The Technology of War

November 16, 2009 2 comments

The remains of the I-14For more than 60 years, they sat deep in the waters off Hawaii. Their existence wasn’t a mystery – just their exact location. Now, research submersibles from the University of Hawaii have found the last resting place of two of Japan’s most advanced submarines from World War II.

At the end of the war, at Pearl Harbor, the United States studied five sample vessels from three classes of Japanese subs. Then, after whatever technological secrets they held were revealed, the Americans torpedoed them. Partly because the vessels were not seaworthy, but perhaps mostly to make sure the Russkies didn’t get a hold of the technology. After all, with one war over, another was already under way: the Cold War, which shaped American politics and culture for more than 40 years.

[A parenthetical query, from someone who has written many books about the Cold War for kids: Do students today really get the tensions, fears, of that era? Can the threat of random terrorist acts match the concerns over a military miscalculation or plain, dumb human error leading to global annihilation? Just wondering…]

A Japanese illustration of part of the I-400

A Japanese illustration showing part of the I-400 and one of its planes

The Japanese subs were ahead of their time. The I-201 was faster than any US sub of the era and had rubber covering its outer shell, to hide it from enemy sonar and radar. The I-14, its companion under the Hawaiian waters, was an undersea aircraft carrier; it held two small, foldable bomber planes that could be launched on the surface. The I-401, discovered four years earlier not too far away, was the largest sub of the day. The two members of the 1-400 class carried three planes and enough fuel to circle the world 1.5 times without refueling. The subs arrived too late in the war to help Japan. And U.S. intelligence was so precise, experts say, it’s doubtful the subs could have gotten close to U.S. mainland targets, as the Japanese hoped.

Thomas Paine, who rode on the I-401’s sister ship on its postwar trip to Hawaii, later wrote, “To anyone who would listen I argued the case for refitting the I-400 for submerged operation and evaluation. I was convinced that we should find out how such a huge submarine handled submerged, how her automatic trim system worked, what lessons her Japanese naval constructors had incorporated into her design from their long experience with big submarines, and all of the other things I felt she could teach us.” (Read more of Paine’s account here.)

Despite Paine’s pleas, the ships were scuttled, and the articles I’ve seen on the discovery didn’t mention what, if anything, the Americans learned from the Japanese subs. But the reports of the find off Hawaii did get me thinking about a very useful poaching of an enemy’s advanced technology: Operation Paperclip.

Built in America, designed in Germany

As World War II in Europe drew to a close, the Americans (and British) and the Russians raced through Germany from opposite ends. The Russians were interested in securing factories and other material goods that would serve as reparations; they and the Americans also wanted to scoop up German technology and the scientists who created it. In Operation Paperclip, U.S. intelligence officials covered up the Nazi past of several key scientists – most notably, Wernher Von Braun – and whisked them to America. Once again, the goal was twofold: use their knowledge for ourselves and keep it out of the hand of our new enemies. Nazi German know-how led to the first U.S. rockets and the space program. It also helped us build stealth planes. Other German military projects under way as the war drew to close: hardened armor, guided missiles, and nerve gas.

(Some fringe folks also claim the Nazi technology was at the bottom of the “flying saucer” sightings of the 1940s and 1950s, as the Americans developed designs of experimental German aircraft. No real evidence of this, but it keeps the UFO websites buzzing, especially after Nick Cook’s 2002 book on the subject.)

The Russians, in their technology grab, nabbed the Germans’ atomic research labs. Of course, they scored an even bigger coup when they received info from  spies in the labs of Los Alamos, where the first atomic bombs were built. Klaus Fuchs and Theodore Hall were two of the most helpful spies, though today the Rosenbergs receive the most attention. The espionage let the Soviet Union develop its atomic weapons sooner than it otherwise would have. But make no mistake, spies or no spies, it would have. The science was known, the process was unstoppable. Perhaps like the development of nuclear weapons in “rogue” nations today, unless somebody wants to start a major war to stop them.

Science and technology have always been part of war, from better arrowheads and swords to the efficacy of today’s remote-controlled drones in the Middle East and Central Asia. Learning from the enemy is always crucial too. The Japanese subs may seem like relics, but they are reminders that knowledge is a powerful and sometimes deadly weapon in human conflict.

Blasts from the Past

November 12, 2009 Leave a comment

“A successful intervention in Iraq would revolutionize the strategic situation in the Middle East…and all to the benefit of American interests.”



If you’re looking for stock tips or advice on where to place your money in the sixth race down at the track, Robert Kagan is obviously the man to see. He penned the words above back in 1998, and don’t you feel we have benefitted so much? Of course, Kagan doesn’t say what “successful” means; was it just the overthrow of Saddam? If so, then “mission accomplished.” We just might have to wait a bit longer for all the dividends.

I came across the Kagan quote in Andrew J. Bacevich’s The New American Militarism, a not-so-recent book (previously mentioned here) that I finally read, in preparation for writing a bio on the president who helped revolutionize the strategic situation in the Middle East. It struck me, as Bacevich traced the role of the neocons (especially Kagan and some select others) in providing the ideological rationale for much of the Bush-era foreign policy, how wrong these guys have been. Over and over again. As a group, the neocons disdain foreign policy realists. But when your world view is driven by an ideology — an arrogant one at that, built on the shaky base of American exceptionalism — you tend to lose sight of some things. Facts, say. Oppposing views that might have some credence. Any grasp of human (or at least American) failures and frailties.

Here’s another of the wonderful predictions from Neocon World, cited by Bacevich:

“A friendly, free, and oil-producing Iraq would leave Iran isolated and Syria cowed.” William Kristol  offered this in February 2002, as he began the drumbeat for war in Iraq. Iran isolated? I guess, if you mean, does anyone want to take it to the dance. Yet it still manages to stir up a bit of concern here, hmm, and maybe has some lingering influence in the region? And Syria cowed? Maybe. I haven’t read much about Syria lately. But the US military in Iraq (a sure sign that the country is friendly, since they’ve let us stay so long) says Syria still allows insurgents to operate there. Doesn’t sound real cowed to me. Of course, maybe the problem is Iraq is not free, elections to the contrary. Or not oil-produc — no, wait, there’s about 2 million barrels a day flowing now, with more to come. Not what it could be, but still oil producing. So, again, why not more isolation and cowering in the region?

iraq road

Is it this road, Bill?

Kristol and Kagan tag-teamed for this one: “The road that leads to real security and peace [was] the road that runs through Baghdad.” I hear Kabul has a road like that. Maybe Islamabad too. And one day, can you see it, wending its way through Tehran…

The neocon penchant for dazzling predictions has deep roots, back to one of the movement’s first lights, Norman Podhoretz. Of course, in his day communism and the Cold War consumed the neocons, leading Podhoretz to say in 1980: “Surrender or war are the only remaining choices.” Of course. And six years later, as Gorbachev and Reagan were already becoming buddies, and the economic collapse of the Soviet Union was becoming clear, if not foreordained: “‘The present danger’ of 1980 is still present today.”

The bum insight and advice we’ve gotten from the neocons wouldn’t be so bad if it just meant blowing this month’s rent on the ponies. But we’re talking hundreds of billions here, and still counting. Death tolls in the thousands (not including the locals), and still rising. And the lingering notion that we have a duty, a God-given right, to wage war so we can remake the world in our image.

I know, I know, it’s easy to cherry pick predictions and arguments from the past and show how wrong they were. But the consistency of the neocons’ mental meltdowns is what’s striking. Especially as I did some more Bush research and came across a February 2000 article in Harper’s by Kevin Phillips. The one-time Republican operative who popularized the notion of the party’s “Southern strategy,” now a prolific documenter of what is wrong with American politics (primarily, too much influence by the rich). He’s been called a “populist crank,” and sometimes I wonder about his depth of historical knowledge. But Phillips seems to have good insights on politics. And g0od predictions.


They don’t make ’em like they used to; dynasties, that is

In the Harper’s article, he foreshadowed his 2004 book on the House of Bush, American Dynasty. His point/prediction in 2000 was, Dubya represented the restoration of a failed ruling line, and in the past, the sons of deposed leaders did not do so well. Phillips said Bush II, like past dynastic restorers, would likely “ride into office on an arrogant, memory-driven [He tried to kill my daddy] dynamic that quickly leads to mistakes and failure.” More specifically, Bush fils “would find himself bound to replay some version of his father’s endless pleading for capital gains tax reductions.” And Phillips suggested the possibility of a “Bush restoration implod[ing] on its own whir of cocky inadequacy,” leading to disaster for both the family dynasty and the Republican Party.

We don’t know if Bush’s presidency has assured dynastic destruction and Republican irrelevance. But I’d be more likely to take Phillips’s tip down at the track than the neocons. Give me clear vision over rosy glasses any day.

People Come, People Go

November 10, 2009 Leave a comment

When I was a kid, my father pulled out an old arrowhead that came from somewhere around our house. I don’t know if he had found it;  maybe the workmen who built our house had. Sadly, I also don’t know where it ended up, that little piece of Connecticut history.

If I still had that arrowhead, I could bring it to Nick Bellantoni. He, of course, would have seen its value as an artifact. He might have been able to date it and tell me more about who made it. And if he’d been around when it had been discovered, maybe he would have called off the house building and called in his team. Bellantoni is the state archaeologist.


Bellantoni holds a net sinker, used by CT Indians, well, to sink their fishing nets

Most states, by law, have a state archaeologist. Connecticut’s is supposed to “identify, manage, and preserve Connecticut’s archaeological resources.” In his job, Bellantoni works with Indian tribes to preserve skeletal remains; reviews privately funded development projects to watch for any impact on culturally important sites; and assists local officials in preserving history (among other duties). Last weekend, Bellantoni was in West Haven to speak about Connecticut’s Indian heritage, as he and other archaeologists understand it.

The talk was kind of an Archaeology 101, since the audience was mostly curious laymen attending a Native American arts and crafts festival. Bellantoni discussed the basic chronological periods archaeologists use to classify the different Indian cultures in North America: paleo (roughly 13,000 to 7,000 years ago), archaic (7,000 to 3,000 years ago), woodland (3,000 to 600 years ago), and contact (time of the first European explorations).

He also talked about the last great Ice Age, when the ice was a mile thick over Connecticut. The gigantic glacier, and later its melting waters, shaped southern New England. Pointing to Long Island Sound just a literal stone’s throw from the lecture hall, Bellantoni explained that it was once a fresh-water lake. The rising seas linked the lake to the Atlantic, and covered up some Indian villages in the region, meaning some archaeological treasures are almost impossible to find. The Mashantucket Pequots and scientist/deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard are teaming up to search for submerged sites off the New England shore.

Bellantoni described the hunter/gatherer lifestyle of Connecticut’s first settlers, noting that mastodons once plodded across the region. Archaeologists have located the huge mammals’ remains at six CT sites. Then he discussed the transition to a farming-based, more sedentary lifestyle, centered around the three main Indian crops across the Americas: beans, corn, and squash. But even as agriculture rose in importance, Connecticut’s Indians moved between seasonal sites. And the Sound, with abundant sea life, remained important to their culture.


Connecticut has about 5,000 known archaeological sites.

With no written records, archaeologists study the artifacts the Indians left behind, and the signs of their impact on the environment. High-powered microscopes let the history detectives decipher the “scars” on arrowheads and other stone tools. The distinct markings help the archaeologists determine which were used to cut meat, which were for leather or plants. Some tools contain microscopic blood residue from slaughtered game, letting the scientists pinpoint which animals a long-ago hunter killed.

Along with going over the nuts and bolts of his trade, Bellantoni made three observations that struck me. We modern folk, out of the Western/Near Eastern tradition, are a people of technology. We have made great changes in lifestyle based on technological advances, and we judge other cultures by their technology, or lack thereof. From Columbus on, the Indians were judged inferior because their technology was inferior—no guns, no mills, no metal tools. Never mind that they had adapted well to their environment and had developed a spiritual worldview that some would argue surpassed the West’s.

The second point was environmental. As much as some moderns praise the Indians for their rich, respectful relationship with nature, sometimes they had a negative impact on their surroundings. The archaeological evidence along the Sound shows signs of the overfishing of oysters. At one point, the Indians were hauling in oysters as big as a man’s shoe. Over time, the catch featured oysters more like the size of the modern mollusk. (And a recent NYT article showed a native people’s negative impact in South America: Deforestation of the ecologically vital huarango tree in Peru started several thousand years ago, as the Nazca cleared the trees to plant cotton and corn. The decimation continues today.)

So, maybe romantic notions of the pure aborigines and indigenous people of the world have to be put in perspective. The ancient Indians were people, people trying to survive. They did some things very smartly. They did some things that affected their environment in harmful ways. Of course, you can’t overlook the fact that an invading people basically destroyed their lifestyle and introduced their own ills.

And that leads to the third point. Several times, Bellantoni wondered what some far-future archaeologists will think of the remains they find from Homo sapiens Americanus. The long-abandoned refrigerators filled with plastic containers. The silicone breast implants near decayed bones  (my example, not his). The radioactive waste dumps. I wondered if the audience had ever pondered this point, one I have: We Americans will not be around forever. For all the talk of a city on a hill and the indispensable nation, our empire will fall, as all the ones before it have. Americans will not endure, just as America will not endure, not over the epochs. We will be merely the  studied; no longer the studiers or makers of history (assuming, as Bellantoni did say in a less-than-cheery moment, 21st-century humans don’t annihilate the world first with nuclear weapons).

Bellantoni’s work helps us learn more about the Indian world of long ago. Archaeology in general helps us see the links between our culture and distant ones, and hopefully remind us that any given people and their artifacts are just a blip in the grand historic scheme.

Different American Dreams

November 8, 2009 5 comments

My recent post about Ralph Nader prompted a short debate with a stranger on a friend’s Faecbook page. No fan of Nader, my opponent didn’t buy my definition of the American Dream, as personified by Nader: Immigrants come to America, start a small business, raise a family, instill in their kids a sense of civic duty and responsibility. One of the kids – our boy Ralph – goes on to a great academic career and become the leader of the consumer-rights movement. Sure, he alienates some people along the way (especially in 2000…), but he rises from humble roots to make a difference. The American Dream – or at least a version I can relate to, despite my own modest accomplishments.

Hogwash, the unknown debater said. The American Dream is about getting wealthy. End of story.


I thought again about all this after reading an article in my hometown paper, the Citizen. A local historian looked at the Italians of Matson Hill, a region in South Glastonbury, Connecticut. The Italians, from several northern provinces, turned a hilly, rocky, mostly ignored part of town into a productive region of orchards. And my grandparents were part of the immigrant wave that helped make the apples and peaches and berries grow.

snowy backyard view

Part of my grandparents' farm, years after they sold it.

Their American Dream was: Leave the village of Fubine, Piedmont, Italy, for the States when they were teens, work different jobs, save enough to buy an orchard among the Italian pioneers who had come to Matson Hill a few years before them. Over the years, my grandparents’  children did well enough in school; one went into business for herself, another worked in a legal office. The third child – my mother – stayed on Matson Hill and raised a family, eventually sending her kids off to college. None of us achieved Nader-like stature or the wealth my opponent covets for his Dream. But to come from a tiny Italian village with little money or schooling and set in motion what they did – my grandparents did all right.

I want to go beyond the personal, though, and say a little more about the Italians of Matson Hill. Their achievements caught the eye of the U.S. Immigration Commission and were featured in the commission’s 1911 report. Before telling their story, a little background on the commission.

italians ellis

Those scary Italians at Ellis Island

Launched in 1907, the U.S. Immigration Commission included members from both houses of Congress. It was led by Senator William Dillingham of Vermont and included Henry Cabot Lodge, two members of the old-time WASP elite increasingly fearful of the “new” immigrants inundating America during the early 1900s. Who were the new immigrants? Slavs, Greeks, Jews, and Italians, non-Protestants, mostly poor and uneducated, sometimes swarthy. You know, not like the good “old” immigrants from the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Germany (Catholics excepted, of course).

Dillingham, among others, wanted to restrict immigration, especially from Southern and Eastern Europe. His commission members spent four years studying the homelands of the immigrants and their lifestyles here. (And stirred up some snarls from their Congressional cohorts. A 1910 NYT article reported that some lawmakers accused the commission members of taking wasteful junkets. “We have spent more than half a million dollars,” one rep said, “and all we have got is a ten-page report.” Dillingham and company showed him: their final report filled 41 volumes.)

And what of the Matson Hill Italians? The report noted how “the Italians have taken the rough uncultivated land abandoned by the Americans, made it productive, and established a community that is well known throughout Connecticut. “ These Italians were part of a ‘”good type of foreign colony” as opposed to the bad kind created by the Southern Italians, often stereotyped as shiftless, shifty, and prone to crime. No, Americans would approve of the Matson Hill settlers, who “are spoken of as being honest, hard working, and industrious. One merchant remarked that they were the best people to deal with. They pay their taxes before they are due and often meet the bank’s demands with the same promptness.”

But the report notes that even the “good” Italians faced a hard time at first, as they had “to make their way through a thick wall of prejudice. Every year they tried to have the district vote enough money to buy land and erect a new [school] building, but the Americans controlled a majority of the votes and each time voted down this proposition. Finally one of the Italians donated the land on Matson Hill, where the present schoolhouse now stands, others contributed money to buy the necessary lumber, a few contributed their labor, and in this way a new schoolhouse was obtained.”

Even as the Commission praised the immigrants, a little bit of condescension crept it. I love this observation about the good women of the “colony”: “[ They] know very little about housework, and seem to think that the house can care for itself. Cooking, washing, and giving a little care to their children include the total of their household responsibilities.”


Members of the Matson Hill Community Club (still standing) in 1935.

My grandparents had not reached Matson Hill in 1911, but I think they embodied the values the commission extolled (and my grandmother certainly did know something about household responsibilities as well as how to pick fruit right along side the men). But they did arrive before Dillingham finally got what he wanted – the first large-scale limits on immigration, which led to a quota system that favored the good immigrants, reduced the “new” Europeans, and almost totally shut down immigration from Japan (the Chinese already faced tough restrictions that dated back to 1882).

What does all this mean about immigration today and the American Dream? I’m not sure. I know that today’s immigrants still face prejudice and efforts to keep them out. Those who do make it overcome a lot to start businesses, send their kids to school, maybe even produce the next consumer crusader. Or history blogger. And while money’s nice, I think most are ok with just knowing they have the chance to better their lives, and their children’s. Just like the Italians of Matson Hill.