Monday, July 22, 2019

Cheyenne’s Daddy of ‘em All—Frontier Days

Bronc riding at the first Frontier Day cowboy competition in 1897.  Spectators watched from carriages and horse back or perched on the rail fences.  A few hundred attended, but word spread fast and an annual event became a popular tourist spectacle.
Back in my old home town of Cheyenne, Wyoming the annual rodeo completion cum bacchanal known as Cheyenne Frontier Days which has been held annually for 122 years is in full swing.  This year over the ten days around the last full week in July it will attract more than 200,000 visitors virtually swamping the Wyoming capital city’s 64,000 residents.
Known as the Daddy of ‘em All, it is both the longest continuously held cowboy competition in the world and by far the largest outdoor competition of its kind.  Although there has been a National Finals Rodeo since 1956 to crown individual champions in each main professional rodeo event, that indoor competition, currently held in Las Vegas, lacks the pageantry and history that makes Frontier Days unique.  
The first Cheyenne Frontier Day was a one day contest for local cowboys working the big ranches in the area on September 27, 1897.  The event included a raucous informal cowboy parade through downtown with the boys whooping it up and riding wildly much as they had done when they brought their herds to the rail head after round-up every year.  
The distinguished gentlemen of the firs Frontier Committee donned their formal top hats best suits in their finest carriages.  Local cattle barons, bankers, railroad executives, and politicians.  Having their fine wheels drawn by oxen and a jack ass was a nice touch.
Cheyenne was then a bustling and modern small city, not only the Wyoming state capital, but home to major Union Pacific Railroad facilities.  Its streets had been the first in the nation to be illuminated by electric arc lamps back in 1883.   Fueled by the wealth of cattle barons on Millionaire’s Row, the city considered itself up-to-date and cosmopolitan.  Even in 1896, however, just six years after statehood and four years since the bloody events of the Johnson County War, residents were becoming nostalgic for their wild west heritage.  
The first event was so successful that Frontier Day became an annual event.  The competition was soon promoted nationally by the Union Pacific to boost tourist traffic on its trains, and the local business community loved the sound of cash registers ringing in local hotels, restaurants, bars, and brothels.  
In the early years cowgirls competed separately in most of the same events as the men.  Despite the popularity of their competitions, by the 1930s they were confined to "powderpuff" events like barrel racing.
By the turn of the 20th Century elements of the wild west shows popularized by Buffalo Bill Cody and others, including mock hold-ups of the Cheyenne to Deadwood stage coach, Indian battles, and in particularly bad taste given recent the state’s recent history, a re-enacted lynching of rustlers were incorporated into pageantry surrounding the rodeo.  Other events like street dances, amateur theatrics, menageries, and carnivals were added to the ever growing event over the years as more days of competition were added to the rodeo. Cowgirl competitions were an early favorite. The cowgirls rode the same stock and took the same risks as the men but were judged separately
From his special box erected on the arena floor former President Theodore Roosevelt shook hands with a cowgirl at the 1910 Frontier Days.
In 1910 former President Theodore Roosevelt was delighted to be on hand to congratulate the winning riders.  In 1903 as sitting president he had visited and a special one day rodeo was staged in his honor and he participated in a ride over Sherman Hill from Cheyenne to Laramie with Senator Francis E. Warren and big-wigs of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.   
By the 1930’s stars of Hollywood’s popular westerns, including the state’s own favorite son Col. Tim McCoy, were regularly making personal appearances and sometimes incorporating the rodeo itself into their films.  Concerts by popular Hillbilly and Cowboy singers—and later the masters of Western Swing—were added to the mix.  
Miss Frontier of 1936, Mary Helen Warren, granddaughter of Wyoming's first Governor and former Senator Francis E. Warren designed the fringed white buckskin culottes still worn by the rodeo queens. 
Since 1931 reigning over the event has been Miss Frontier and her Lady in Waiting.  The first was Jean Nimmo Dubois, a descendent of Esther Hobart Morris who was America’s first female Justice of the Peace in South Pass in 1869 and a heroine of the Wyoming suffrage movement. For the first three years the winner was selected on the basis of who could sell the most tickets to a dance.  Starting in 1934 the Frontier Committee has privately picked Miss Frontier and her Lady in Waiting, traditionally drawing on the daughters and granddaughters of local cattle barons or Cheyenne business leaders.  One requirement was that she had to be an expert horsewoman.  
Miss Frontier of 1936 was Mary Helen Warren Wolborn, granddaughter of the state’s founding patriarch Francis E. Warren.  She designed the distinctive white buckskin culottes worn to this day.  Her inspiration was a costume worn by celebrated fan dancer Sally Rand who had titillated audiences the year before.  

For a boy in Cheyenne in the 1950's rodeo champions like Casey Tibbs were bigger stars than baseball heroes like Mickey Mantel, Stan Musial, or Willie Mays.
The 1950’s were the Golden Age of Rodeo.  The most storied figures of the sport were active—Casey Tibbs, Big Jim Shoulders, the Bell Brothers, and the legendary rodeo clown and bulldogger Wilbur Plaugher—and shined in Cheyenne.  Monte Blue, known for playing the sheriff in countless B westerns, was the arena announcer famous for his signature call at the beginning of each rodeo, “Let’s go, let’s show, let’s rodeo!”  
Chief Charley Red Cloud and Princess Blue Water of the Oglala Sioux brought their band to Frontier Days for many years shown here with Miss Frontier and her Lady in Waiting in 1956.
Chief Charley Red Cloud and Princes Blue Water, who had appeared with Buffalo Bill, brought their band of Oglala Sioux each year to perform traditional dancing and live in a teepee village on the grounds of Frontier Park.  Top movie and TV stars from Roy Rogers to Hugh O’Brian made personal appearances and country music stars like Ernest Tubbs, Red Foley, and the Sons of the Pioneers performed nightly at the Frontier Pavilion. 
During that era the famous saloons and bars downtown were a nightly explosions of cowboy contestants, tourists, and pretty young local girls—many of the really, really young—carousing and drinking with intermittent brawls all of which spilled into the streets until the wee-small hours.  I am told that in the interest of family entertainment local authorities have heavily clamped down on that and the evenings are pale and tame now.  Some old timers say downright boring.
My father W. M. Murfin in his first year as Secretary of the Frontier Committee in 1954.

From 1954 through 1956 my father, W. M. Murfin as Secretary of the Frontier Committee, played a leading role in coordinating the rodeo and all of the other activities.  My brother Tim and I reveled in riding in the parades and meeting the cowboys and celebrities that often came through our house.  
Today the whole Frontier Days extravaganza stretches over ten days and includes 9 rodeos sanctioned by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA).  Day Money is awarded to the winners in each event for each rodeo.  At the end of the schedule Cheyenne Frontier Days champions are named in each event and an All Around Cowboy, who has to compete in two or more events, are determined by the total amount of Day Money earned. There are also nights of separate Championship Bull Riding (CBR) competitions
Frontier Days features three grand parades down town with colorful floats, miniature trains, marching bands, equestrian units, and one of the world largest collections of functional carriages, coaches, buggies, hearses, and wagons.
More than 2,500 local volunteers work on events that include the rodeo, 3 Grand Parades, pancake breakfasts, concerts, chili and chuck wagon cook-offs, the carnival, exhibits, Indian Village, military open houses.  A traditional performance by the United States Air Force Thunderbirds is back with their aerial acrobatics
This year top country music acts like Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flats, Josh Turner, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, and Tim McGraw will headline Frontier Nights in the main arena.  Side venues will feature other acts, making Frontier Days a major music festival. 
I know many readers of this blog are animal lovers and abhor rodeo and the people who love it.  No question about it, rodeo can be brutal to both animals and human competitors—bull riding is hands down the most dangerous competitive sport in the world.  It remains so even though significant reforms have been made in how rodeo stock is handled.   Particularly dangerous events for animals like the Chuck Wagon Races—think horse drawn NASCAR with often horrific pile-ups—and Steer bustingroping a steer around the horns then pulling past the animal catching its feet and throwing it to the ground, a maneuver that often resulted in broken necks or legs—have been eliminated.  Nothing short of abolition by law of all rodeo competition will satisfy many animal rights folks.  I understand that.  But I also love a good rodeo.  I guess you will have to lump me with the heartless brutes. 


Sunday, July 21, 2019

The Last of the Firsts—Pumpsie Green and the Boston Red Sox

Pumpsie Green batting, running, and fielding for the Boston Rec Sox.

Sixty years ago today the Boston Red Sox did it at far from home at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 21, 1959 in a losing game against the red hot White Sox, the eventual American League Champions that year.  The BoSox, languishing below .500 and way back in the pack, sent Pumpsie Green into the game as a pinch runner.  He had no effect on the 2-1 loss to the Pale Hose.  But that brief appearance made Boston the last of the pre-expansion Major League Baseball teams to field a Black ballplayer.  That was more than 12 years after Jackie Robinson took his famous bow with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
You would have to be a very hard core baseball nerd indeed to have ever heard of Pumpsie Green.  Although by all accounts a very nice and rather shy man who returned to his California home town to become a high school coach and beloved figure, Green was barely a journeyman ball player with a short 5 year Big League career with generous time back down in the Minors who never became a regular in the lineup and was used mainly a utility infielder and pinch runner.  
Pumpsie Green 1960 baseball card.
Contrast that record with those who broke the color barrier at other teams.  Owners generally followed the Dodger’s Branch Rickey in introducing top flight players from the Negro Leagues in hopes that real star talent that could boost their teams in the pennant races would eventually win over all but the most hard core racists among their fans.  In addition to the legendary Robinson other team firsts included standouts and some future Hall of Famers like Cleveland’s Larry Dolby (1947), Hank Thompson for the St. Louis Browns (1947) and the New York Giants (1949), Monte Irvins also with the Giants on the same day as Thompson, Minnie Miñoso for the White Sox (1951), Ernie Banks with the Chicago Cubs (1953), and Elston Howard in New York Yankee pinstripes (1955).
Long time Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey.
This was not an accident.  The Red Sox organization never wanted to integrate and resisted all pressure to do so for as long as possible.  Whether this was due to the personal racism of owner Tom Yawkey and the team’s long time manager and Yawkey’s drinking buddy, Texas born and raised Mike “Pinky” Higgins is the subject of much debate.  Higgins often gets more of the blame and after his death some of his former players recalled racist comments.  Baseball writer Al Hirshberg reported in his 1973 history of the team that in the ‘50’s Higgins had bluntly told him “There’ll be no niggers on this ball club as long as I have anything to say about it.”
But even before Higgins’s ascent, Yawkey had proven reluctant to hire Blacks.  Not that he did not have the chance.  In fact the Red Sox had first crack at Robinson and other future greats.  Robinson’s first Major League try out was at Fenway Park on April 16, 1945.  As he was finishing up someone yelled from the stands “Get that Nigger off the field!”  It was a humiliating moment for Robinson who remembered it with bitterness.  Some have attributed the shout to Yawkey himself.  Others have scoffed at the idea that the elegant Yale educated owner would have said anything that crude even if he agreed with it.  But he clearly oversaw an organization where it was possible and perhaps encouraged.  The team also passed up first rights to Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
Under Yawkey and Higgins the Red Sox did develop a number of Black prospects in their minor leagues system, but consistently traded them away for less promising white player or released them outright before they could hit the majors.  The team pointedly kept its spring training home in Tempe, Arizona which had no hotels that would accommodate Blacks who would have to stay in Phoenix 15 miles away while they were being evaluated for the big team.
Was Manager Mike Higgins really behind Boston's long hold out against Black players?
Management apologists—and they are legion in Boston—claim that it was not the animus of Yawkey and Higgins, but the Red Sox fan base that was to blame.  
Boston always had a reputation as a liberal city in regard to race.  Famously it was a hot bed of resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law and a cradle of Abolitionism.  Rev. Theodore Parker and a cabal of wealthy abolitionists had secretly bankrolled John Brown.  Senator Charles Sumner was a lion of abolitionism and a Radical Republican bane to Abraham Lincoln and his hopes of re-integrating the South back into the Union.   In the post-war Reconstruction Era most of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation firmly supported Black citizenship and voting rights in the south and the generous 40 acres and a mule policy of the Freedman’s Bureau.  Years in the future, in 1967 the state would elect Edward Brooke the first Black in the Senate since Reconstruction.
But often forgotten were the anti-abolitionist riots that the righteous minority in the city had to face.  Also forgotten is the strength and appeal of the anti-immigrant and anti-Black Know Nothings in the 1850’s.  The liberal, Republican and largely Unitarian elite began to leave the city for the leafy suburbs in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries leaving the city itself a Democratic power house and populated largely by Irish, Italian, and other immigrants and their dependents.  It had, compared to other Northern cities, a small Black population which was bitterly resentenced in the teaming white working class neighborhoods.  Just how deep the animus ran would be shown years later when Southie and other white working class neighborhoods erupted into years of sometimes violent opposition to bussing to desegregate the school system.
Liberal whites in the suburbs might have watched the Red Sox on TV, but the seats at old Fenway were filled by those working class whites who, we are told, would stage a revolt if they saw Black players on the field.  Perhaps.  But other cities had similar resistance and managed to integrate after overcoming initial resistance.
The boost that talented Black players provided to teams was one big reason.  Boston suffered from its long holdout.  Under Higgins’s managership after early marginal successes the team went from a perennial powerhouse and pennant contender to a consistent bottom dweller in the standings.  Sports writers were beginning to blame that on Higgins’s stodgy management style and on his refusal to bring on talented Black players.
Perhaps that is why with the team languishing again in the cellar, and days after the usually fawning Boston newspapers began singing the song about missing great Black players that Yawkey finally canned Higgins as manager and replaced him with Billy Jurges.  But he kept his good drinking buddy close to him in senior management as a special advisor.  The move allowed Higgins to never be personally responsible for introducing a Black player on the team.  
Later that summer pitcher Earl Wilson was also called up.  Neither player set the league afire—perhaps an “I told you so” moment for Higgins.  The Red Sox finished the season a dismal 100 games under .500 and staring up at the White Sox and the hated Yankee dynasty that would go on to dominate Baseball through much of the ‘60’s.
Fenway Park circa 1960 on a post card.  The ball wasn't the only thing white....
Early the next season Higgins talked himself back into the dugout where he managed his Black players without ever personally insulting them but lavishing them with scant affection.  After retiring as a manager in 1962 with a career record only two games over .500, Higgins was promoted to officially become General Manager.  As Yawkey’s confidant he had effectively been acting in that capacity without portfolio for years.
The Red Sox went on to field Black Players, including some stars.  But they always tended to have fewer on the field than most teams.  And they generally preferred dark skinned Latinos to African Americans.  Sometimes it seemed that they were back sliding.  As late as 2009 they began the season with not a single Black player in the season starting lineup.  
Meanwhile demographics in Boston have changed.  Over the last 30 years Yuppies and their descendents Hipsters have returned to the city and recolonized neighborhood after neighborhood squeezing the old ethnic enclaves and Black neighborhoods alike.  Many Blacks have been pushed into surrounding towns and suburbs.  The Yuppies and hipsters became noisy and loyal members of the Red Sox Nation.  Indeed when I was last in Boston in 2007 it seemed like by law no male in his 20’s or early 30’s could be seen on the street without a Red Sox cap beat up just enough to indicate that it sat on the head of a non-tourist.  They buy out the increasingly expensive seats in Fenway Park displacing the working class fans that kept the team afloat in its leaner years.
The Yuppies and Hipsters tend to be more tolerant, or polite, about race than the denizens of Southie.  Yet attendance at Fenway remains overwhelmingly white, rivaling the bleached look of fans in Atlanta and Houston where Astros management once hired Black vendors to sit in vacant seats in the boxes behind home plate to give the illusion inclusiveness on national TV during a playoff series.
As for Pumpsie himself, he was uncomfortable even talking about his experiences.
Elijah Green was born on October 27, 1931 in Boley, Oklahoma.  He got his unusual nickname from his mother.  His family relocated to Richmond, California largely to give their athletic sons the best possible opportunity. Two brothers were drafted into the National Football League and Cornell Green was a long-time safety on the Green Bay Packers.  Pumpsie also showed promise as a three letter man at El Cerrito High School.
Green considered basketball to be his best sport, but baseball seemed like the best ticket to a professional career. He attended the two year Conta Costa College to which his high school coach had moved.  In his second year there he tried out for and was signed into the system of the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. 
In 1954, Green batted .297 in his second season with Oaks affiliate the Wenatchee Chiefs, and was promoted the next year to Stockton Ports. Green’s contract was purchased by the Red Sox organization during the 1955 season but he was allowed to finish out the season in Stockton.  He worked his way up the Reds organization as a short stop and second baseman over the next three years.  All the while he saw more talented Black prospects traded away from the organization.  
After spending the 1958 campaign with the Minneapolis Millers, Green was called up to Red Sox spring training the next year.  As one of the few remaining Black prospects in the system, he drew a lot of attention and some largely unmerited press hype.  But he was sent back to Minnesota where for the first half of the season he played some of the best ball of his career, hitting .320 in 98 games.

Green was especially grateful for the support and friendship of slugger Ted Williams, the team's acknowledged leader.  That helped the whole team embrace him even in the face of manager Mike Higgins' hostility and fan dissatisfaction.
He never got enough playing time with the Red Sox to get into much of a groove with his bat or glove, although he was valued for his speed on the base paths.  He only played 50 games for the rest of the season and hit an anemic .233.  All of his starts were at second base, not his natural position as a short stop.
In 1960 he settled into a role as a utility man giving regular starters a rest or, because he was a switch hitter for use against left-handed pitchers.  He appeared in 133 games, some of them as a pinch runner and divided his time between second and short.  
Green was off to a relatively hot start in 1961 and looked for a while like he might break into the status of a regular starter.  But in May he was hospitalized with appendicitis and put on the disabled list for a month.  He was still in physically weakened condition when he came back to the club.  Still he put up his best numbers in the Majors--six home runs, 27 RBIs, 12 doubles, and four stolen bases
Despite the promise the 1962 season was a humiliation.  Famously after a weekend sweep  by  the hated Yankees in New York City Green and his buddy pitcher Gene Conley jumped off a team bus that was stuck in Bronx traffic and disappeared. The pair was found two days later at Idlewild International Airport trying to board a plane for Israel, with no passports or luggage.  The famously bizarre episode became the butt of comedian’s jokes but was never explained.
The next year Green was traded to the New York Mets for the 1962 season.  The Mets kept him on their Buffalo Bison affiliate roster most of the year.  He made only 17 spot appearances with the big league club and swung a bat for the last time as a major leaguer on September 26, 1962.
Before returning permanently to the Minors for the final two years of his career, Green racked up a .246 batting average with 13 home runs and 74 Runs Batted In (RBI) in 344 games. 
After retiring from organized Baseball Green became the baseball coach and a summer school math teacher, and councilor at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California.  He settled back in El Cerrito with his longtime wife, Marie.  He was a respected, even beloved, citizen of his adopted hometown which honored him in 2012 with a proclamation for his “Distinguished status in the history of Baseball.”
Throwing out the first pitch at Fenway 50 years later.
The Red Sox organization was getting some flak for never recognizing his contribution in integrating the team.  Back in 1959 the often loquacious Yawkey had not one word to say in the press about the event and management had done damn little to highlight it ever since.  Finally on April 17, 2009 at the beginning of the season 50 years after of his debut, Green was invited to throw out a first ball. He was invited back to do the same before Jackie Robinson Day in 2012 and was among the old timers in attendance for Fenway’s 100th anniversary celebrations later that month.
But there has never been a Pumpsie Green Day.  And don’t hold your breath for the Bobble Head promotion.
Just five days ago on July 17 Green died at the age of 85 in California earning brief obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post and a longer notice in the Boston Globe.


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Man oh Man on the Moon

The world was transfixed by the grainy video from a camera attached to the Lunar Module as Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon.
As Americans and countless others around the world stayed glued to their televisions, Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the face of the Moon on July 20, 1969, 50 years ago today Armstrong, the commander of the Apollo 11 mission climbed down a ladder from the Lunar Module Eagle to the surface in the Sea of Tranquility at 10:56 P.M. Eastern Day Light Time.  
As he climbed down he repeated a carefully constructed statement on what he knew would be a historic occasion.  Viewers at home heard him say, “That’s one small step for man, one giant step for mankind.”  Armstrong would later insist he said “one small step for a man” and that the article had simply not been picked up by the microphone.  It is indicative of Armstrong’s notoriously detailed mind and insistence on precision that this misquote bothered him for years.  
The mission famously made good on President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 pledge, made at the height of the Space Race with the Soviet Union that the country would go to the Moon within a decade. 
The crew of Apollo 11--Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin in their NASA publicity photo.
 Like Armstrong, the other two members of the Apollo 11 crew were already veteran astronauts.  Pilot Michael Collins stayed in the main Command Module, Columbia still in orbit while Armstrong and Lunar Module pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin descended to the surface, a tense trip marked by an alarming shortage of fuel for the rockets that adjusted the attitude of the craft and brought it to a landing.  Less than 11 seconds of fuel were left on touchdown.  
The business-like Armstrong had been calling off markers on the way down to Mission Control in Houston.  Finally he radioed, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.  It took two hours to prepare to depart the lunar module.  Armstrong was soon joined on the surface by Aldrin. The men were on the surface for a little over two and a half hours.  
They shot still photographs, made a panoramic video of the surroundings then set up the camera on a tripod to observe their activities.  They tested various means of moving about on the surface and settled on kind of a lope. The two planted an American Flag stiffened with wire to stay unfurled in the Moon’s windless zero gravity.  They collected rock and soil samples, but everything was taking longer than expected and Aldrin tried to speed up the pace of his assignments before being warned that his pulse rate was climbing.  The pair was given a 15 minute extension of planed EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) to complete their tasks.  
On the Moon with the Eagle Lunar Module and the American flag of conquest.
Aldrin re-boarded Eagle first and had some difficulty getting a bulky box of mineral samples up the ladder.  After a night’s sleep, the Eagle lifted off to return to Columbia.  Aldrin and Armstrong had been on the Moon for just over 21 hours.  They left behind the flag, the landing craft stairs with a special plaque commemorating the event, and discarded items from their EVA including their backpacks, lunar overshoes, and a Hasselblad camera.  There was also a small bag of mementos carried by Aldrin in a suit pocket.  
After Columbia splashed down in the Pacific near Wake Island the capsule and astronauts were carried by helicopter to the deck of the USS Hornet, a famous aircraft carrier from World War II, where they were personally greeted by President Richard Nixon.  
President Richard Nixon with the Apollo 11 crew in isolation on the USS Hornet.
With the war in Vietnam still raging, dissent rife at home, and urban riots exploding in Black communities, Nixon—and the nation—craved some good news.  
The occasion of the landing has become beyond iconic.  Many historians now regard it as the pinnacle of the American Century.  Unsuspected by most people at the time, the county was on the verge of a long, slow slide.  
Today in on-going economic insecurity marked by the rapid shrinkage of the middle class, with old wars refusing to fade away and new ones looming, the public polarized to the edge of civil war, and the United States no longer able to send astronauts into space via American rockets or the retired Space Shuttle fleet, the image of Armstrong on the Moon is a melancholy reminder that once we were a nation that could do things, big things.
President Trump aiming to cast himself in the image of JFK has ordered NASA to return men to the Moon within five years but has given the gutted agency scant resources to complete the mission.  In celebration of capitalism and scorn for government accomplishments, hope is pinned on two competing privately owned corporations to build re-usable rocket systems to first transport astronauts and equipment to the International Space Station from which a new mission to the Moon might be launched.
Although old rival Russia, a partner in the Space Station, is not publicly planning their own Moon mission, many believe Vladimir Putin might have one up his sleeve to assert a new dominance in the world.  The Chinese have openly been pursuing their own plans.
Not only does an American mission lack focus and the kind of unified national resources that made it possible to fulfill JFK’s challenge.  But Trump’s wholesale rejection of science that does not confirm his various hunches and prejudices has sapped the intellectual capacity  to do Big Things.  American industry and technology no longer dominates the world and Trump’s trade wars with China and Europe threatens access to vital modern know-how, components, and equipment.
Ryan Goslling, center, as Neil Armstrong in First Man.
Despite, or perhaps because of all this, Americans are commemorating the golden anniversary of the nation’s crowning achievement with enthusiasm tempered by nostalgia.  Last year the film First Man focused on Neil Armstrong played by Ryan Gosling.  Currently the documentary Apollo 11 is enjoying a well-reviewed theatrical release.  PBS is airing multiple documentaries and less prestigious cable outlets like The History Channel and The Sci-Fi Channel have offerings of their own.  Network TV networks are all airing special programing.  Apollo Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston has been meticulously restored and opened to the public.
Buzz Aldrin's, (second from the right) skeptical, shocked mugging during Donald Trump's unintelligible blathering about space became a social media sensation.
Neil Armstrong died in 2012 but octogenarians Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin are still with us.  Aldrin enjoys his celebrity status and makes frequent public appearances including a memorable stint on Dancing With the Stars.  He is a strong proponent of the space program and an advocate for manned space exploration and a return to the Moon.  In 2017 he accepted an invitation from Donald Trump to attend a White House speech on the space program.  He became a viral social media sensation for the contorted faces he made as the Cheeto-in-Charge spouted literal gibberish.  Way to go, Buzz!


Friday, July 19, 2019

1995 Chicago Heat Wave—Late Casualties of the ’68 Democratic Convention Riots?

1995 headlines tell the shocking story of the heat wave disaster that hit Chicago in July.
My Columbia College writing teacher John Schulz penned one of the earliest and best accounts of the demonstrations and street confrontations around the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.  He called it No One Was Killed.  Perhaps he was premature in that judgement by 37 years.
We are in the grips of long, dangerous hot spell and the Chicago media have taken to recalling July of 1995 when more than 700 people died as the city baked in temperatures that hovered around 100° complete with grainy but graphic archival footage of Chicagoans sweltering and the inconvenient bodies piled up in refrigerator trailers at the overwhelmed Cook County Medical Examiner’s offices and buried unceremoniously in slit trenches.
There had been other notable heatwaves in the city, especially in the mid-1930’s when the city was struck with the same blasting heat that created the Dust Bowl.  But none produced anything like the same mortality rates.  While several factors including humidity levels, a heat inversion that trapped polluted air over the city, and frequent spot power outages and brownouts contributed to the toll, some of the deaths were a direct result of Mayor Richard J. Dailey’s decision to close the parks, especially the lakefront parks to overnight sleeping to prevent them from being used by Yippies and other demonstrator from using them during the Convention protests.
Chicagoans had been seeking relief from the heat at night on the shores of Lake Michigan as far back as the 19th Century.  On October 8, 1877 a rare hot, dry blanket covered the city and much of the Midwest on both sides of the Lake. Despite the fact that railroad tracks, lumber yards, tanneries and other industrial buildings, warehouses, and busy wharves and piers blocked easy access to the lakefront in many areas, hundreds, maybe thousands, were sleeping where they could including the cemetery that is now Lincoln Park when the Great Chicago Fire broke out.  They would soon be joined by tens of thousands more fleeing the rapidly spreading conflagration
Chicagoans sleeping in the park on a hot night in the 1950's
After Daniel Burnham’s great plan led to the creation of a string of lakefront parks and public beaches and Chicago’s extensive street car systems made them easily accessible to residents far from the shores, the custom of whole families camping out on blankets under the stars was well established.  In the major heatwaves from the ‘30’s through the ‘60’s the press reported the custom.
That ended after Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin announced plans for a Yippie! Festival of Life during the 1968 Democratic National Convention to protest the War in Vietnam.  The call to the Festival invited the youth of America come to the city and camp in the lakefront parks.  Hysterical press coverage imagined thousands of drug and sex crazed radicals descending of the city and creating “anarchy in the streets.  For their part the Yippies relished the free publicity.
Alarmed, Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered the Chicago Park District to enact an ordinance closing all parks at 11 pm and prohibiting any sleeping or camping.   First to feel the effects of the ordinance were surprised troops of Boy Scouts and veteran’s organizations who had regularly used the parks for camping.  During a relatively mild heat snap in July families seeking to sleep out were first turned away.
Chicago Police mass in Lincoln Park before violently pushing Yippies and other protestors out of the park after the new curfew.
The battles to clear Lincoln Park of Yippies and other demonstrators during the Conventions were bloody affairs with Chicago Police Department baton charges and heavy use of tear gas that spilled into nearby Old Town Streets.
Almost everyone expected that things would go back to normal after it was all over, that either the ordinance would simply be unenforced in future years against ordinary Chicagoans or that it would be explicitly repealed. But Dailey was terrified the parks could once again be used by radicals and by rumors that the city restive and angry West and Southside Black residents would swarm the parks and threaten Loop businesses and swanky Gold Coast.  His lawyers also advised him that if the camping bans were lifted, the Courts might rule that they had been imposed strictly to limit the rights of assembly and free speech and not, as had been claimed, for general public safety and protection of park land and facilities from damage.
Year after year, the sleeping ban stayed and was vigorously enforced, mostly against the homeless who still sought secluded spots to comfortably rest.  By the 1990’s the old custom of seeking relief at night Lake was a more than half forgotten quaint memory.
By 1995 many Chicagoans enjoyed air conditioning.  But not so much in the city’s poorest wards and neighborhoods.  Massive high-rise public housing developments like Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side and Cabrini Green on the Near North Side as well as Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) mid-rise senior buildings were un-air-conditioned. And unlike the city’s traditional housing stock of two and three flats, court yard apartments, brick bungalows and other single-family homes, those buildings did not have good cross ventilation to cool them at nights.  Instead they were virtual brick ovens that retained the day’s suffocating heat.
Paramedics load a heat stroke victim from a CHA senior housing building.

Even when public housing residents or other poor folks installed window air-conditioning units, many could not afford to run them due to the high cost of electricity.  Some were even reluctant to use fans.  Moreover and aggressive campaign to disconnect power to those with outstanding electric bills who they were barred by law from stopping service to during freezing winter months, left many poor folks in the stifling dark.  In addition, during the heart of the five day heat wave that year record electrical usage sparked wide-spread spot power outages and brown-outs.
Many residents in high crime areas were afraid to leave their windows open at night.
As the oppressive heat and high humidity settled over the city, trapped smog became a further health hazard for the elderly and those with respiratory ailments. 

The city government was slow to respond to the growing emergency even as bodies began piling up at the morgue. . The city did not declare a heat emergency and open cooling centers until the fourth day of the crisis.   There was as yet no system for the emergency distribution of fans or to provide bottled water to the most adversely affected residents.
Eric Klinenberg, author of the 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, has noted that the map of heat-related deaths in Chicago mirrored the map of poverty.  Most adversely affected were the elderly and isolated—those without family or community support.  Old men with chronic illnesses fared far worse than elderly women, who tended to have more social connections to look after them.
The exact number of deaths in Cook County may never be known for sure.  Mortality tables show that 739 additional people died in that week above the usual average.  Blacks suffered significantly higher death rates than whites or Hispanics.
A priest reads prayers over the caskets of 41 unclaimed victims of the 1995 heat wave before they were covered by a bulldozer.
Seven refrigerator trailers had to be used to handle the bodies.  Many of the elderly victims lived and died alone.  When it was all over, 41 of the victims were either not identified or had no family to claims the bodies.  They were buried in plywood caskets in a slit trench in a suburban Homewood cemetery.
How many of these victims might have survived if they still had access to the air conditioner by the Lake?  No one can say for sure, but probably dozens or scores.
They were the late casualties of the Democratic Convention.