Learning life on the courthouse bench

 By David Rutter

The Boy was 8 when he first met Earl. The Boy was entirely normal in his appearance. Dark eyes, dark hair,  skinny, fair skin baked from summers outside. Unremarkable.

Earl was 75, African-American, large bib overalls stretched horizontally at his wide midriff. He wore a red sweat-darkened baseball cap and sported a gray beard that had not been shaved regularly to its base for some years. 

Their first encounter came in late June. 

The Boy had embarked on his daily summer tour of the downtown in 1954 when he spied Earl and three companions. They were arrayed on the front benches at the ancient red brick Victorian courthouse in Danville, Kentucky. 

The pathway past the Courthouse cut through the surrounding park to reach Main Street.

Fate and chance had assembled the cast,  and the three old men sat unawares, waiting for the curtain to rise. But mostly, they were basking and sweating the way old men do even when they are happily idle. There were no female relatives in attendance to make them more presentable. They were men in their natural state.

The Boy entered the scene, stopped and plopped down without invitation. He is curious.  He listened because that’s what 8-year-old ignorant boys do if they wish to become smarter. Earl asks The Boy who he is. 

“David.”

“Good morning, Mister David. And welcome. I am Earl.”

And then with hardly a breath he resumed talking, though to no one in particular. It was as if he were talking to the universe at large.

“Do you  know the  best thing in your favorite foods is the exact same thing?” Earl tells his friends and the universe. He turns briefly to include The Boy in the conversation. “You cannot make grits, cornbread, corn on the cob, fried chicken or chocolate cake without it. And what is it, friends? It is big spoonfuls, big shovels of sweet yellow BUTTER!”

“You crazy,” Cletus says. 

“You and the Good Lord know I’m not,” Earl replies with a smile as big as the summer sun.

They eventually all nod in agreement. Even The Boy who is abruptly part of the conversation even without trying.

It would be the first of 300 such days of accidental, but educational friendship on topics you’d hope would be covered in school, or home,  or church but aren’t. The education and comradeship lasted three summers, but The Boy could not track the time with any precision, even if he wanted precision which he didn’t. Time went by too fast to count days or seconds.

But it left an imprint that lasted a lifetime. Every adult with any sense of cultural proportion first learns about fairness, justice and dignity outside of school. And Butter!  And lard, if you’re lucky. This was Mister David’s first summer of that education.

Mister Earl eventually would share the lessons of heartache and hope. The yearnings of fatherhood and the anguish of lost children. But mostly he taught about happiness, because he was a joyful man.

But The Boy taught some lessons, too. One arrived on a day when a hometown cop spied The Boy and his courthouse coterie. The heavy-set man ambled up stiff, erect and menacing. All the while he tapped the night stick holstered to his belt, and talked down both literally and metaphorically to The Boy. “You got somewhere to be, boy?” he said. “You shouldn’t be a wastin’ your time with the likes of these.” He didn’t look at the three men. His sneer made the point about their irrelevance. 

Of course, he didn’t say “these”  to describe them, not when “the word” was so easily available to his custom.  He said the one word The Boy had decided never to repeat. The “N word.” He’d heard various members of his extended family use the word when they spoke in low, hushed tones among themselves, supposedly outside the hearing range of children. But attending children heard them clearly enough to either adopt the word or reject it. The Boy said no in his mind, and would never relent. 

Even without knowing the full texture of its history, he knew the officer’s word was meant to hurt and demean. To put black people in their place, even without black people being present. Most children understand that dynamic well enough without it being explained.

Children would adopt the code word as a way of  sealing themselves to their family’s values. The Boy was not a joiner. He never learned to get along that way or felt the need. He was often a separated soul. 

He also was often more comforted that he was not comfortable with such submissiveness. He picked his own teams. He knew where he stood, even then. He needed no referee on such matters.

Hearing a police officer use the word only hardened The Boy’s resolve. The officer was wielding the word like a club to demean and dismiss The Boy’s friends. It was a casual threat backed up by generations of sullenness.

The Boy was only 9, but he knew the power of words and threats well enough.

“I understand, Sergeant,” The Boy said as he counted the  chevrons on the cop’s uniform sleeves to make sure of the rank. “I just stopped for a spell on my way to meet my uncle down at the men’s store where he works.”

The Boy pointed down the Main Street to a faded overhanging sign at the entrance to the Medaris Men’s Store. The Boy’s story was plausible enough to almost be true, though it was baldly false.

“But I’ll be going soon. Lots to do today. But it’s very nice to meet you, officer,” The Boy added with the big toothy smile he never used when he meant to be honestly jovial.  The Boy hardly ever was jovial.

The Sergeant nodded, turned on his heel and strolled toward the courthouse all the while feeling slightly uneasy that he’d never been in charge of the encounter, though he wasn’t quite sure why.

The Boy allowed himself a brief smile and looked sideways with his eyes at Earl without ever moving his head. Earl and his friends had been listening, but without seeming to pay attention.

“Lord a mercy, Boy,” Earl eventually said as he mopped his wide forehead with a folded red and white handkerchief. “I have never heard anyone talk to the PO-lice that way. Did you know him?”

“Nah,” The Boy said with a deep sigh. “I just have lots of old relatives.”

Some skills needed little explanation. The Boy already had found navigational skills in his young life.  

To his experience,  school often was a tawdry repository of dim and useless rules. Dim inhabitants, too, intent on rules. He vowed not to be one of those dim people if he ever grew up, and sat today on the courthouse bench investing in his deeper education.

He didn’t know that’s what he was doing. But he was. His school experience only sharpened his attraction to the Courthouse gatherings. Some lads would get Harvard. The Boy had Earl, and was glad of the transaction.

 He was a young man of doubts, facts and skepticism. Every day was another step on the path to….where? He did not know. But he was drawn to the road to find better answers than adults gave him. One fact, one conversation, one inspiration at a time. One confirmed doubt to counteract his already darkened view of the universe. One plausible answer  and better questions. Given the right inspiration, he would be The Boy of ideas. Earl gave root to his better instincts.

Earl had answers. He was a prophet of sorts. When the Socrates of Kentucky spoke, The Boy listened as they all sat and sizzled under blue summer skies. The sun rose unblinkingly even higher, and they all sweated even though shaded by massive maples that lined the path to the Courthouse. It was a perfect day at the pinnacle of a perfect summer.

Yes, the old man said, people can be bad on purpose, even if they are not aware that’s what they are doing. They can even hate you for reasons you can’t understand. And the hate hurts. Always. Why do they spread the evilness? Who knows? The Boy knew this revelation to be true, though his life had not been hard or harsh up to now. “Nobody know my burdens ’cept God hisself …” Earl would repeat often. “Only a merciful God makes it OK on some hard days.”

And if you could, you would swear Earl said those precise words. Maybe he did. History must be real, though how does history become real if only your memory validates its accuracy? It was another mystery.  But Earl’s words eventually all ran together in Mister David’s mind years later like drops of rain that swell into a river. The words might fear being swallowed up in time, but memories defy dissection when they join the torrent. The words become your soul if you listen.

Where do the ideas come from when they are constructing who you are? Maybe you know, and maybe only the residue of memories remains. Maybe you are only a puddle left from a rain storm.

But Earl and his similarly aged friends, Cletus and William, always sat together on the benches outside the ancient courthouse of Mister David’s summer hometown and served as magisterial interpreters. Danville, Kentucky, was a mint-julep Southern kind of place, and they all were Southern men. Southern men all know their identity.

That was not an incidental event to The Boy. He cherished the days, just as he dismissed the many dreary days of his official schooling.

They were Mister David’s unofficial life instructors because no one else had stood forth to claim the role. He called Earl by the “Mister Earl” title because Mister Earl had called him Mister, too. It seemed to Mister David that such respectful courtliness was a practice that gentlemen would favor. So he adopted manners.

Mister David did not realize that older black men in the 1950s often lapsed into this gentility automatically out of cultural deference to white children. It was a kind of mannerly, deferential racism though Mister David would have been shocked to know that. Jim Crow was gentle on white children, but a harsh companion if you were black.

Mister Earl would be Mister David’s best friend. He never had many. Or wanted many.

The Boy had no friends then, and would have no peers until he was a teen-ager. Mister Earl was a new, unique relationship. `Every one of their encyclopedic conversations ratified that unannounced bond. How strangely tolerant and gentle. How unanticipated that internship was in that time and that place.

Earl was a gentle man in a hard time.

As for their talks, who can swear to reconstructed perfect dialogue said at the perfect moment? Life would be more tolerable if apocryphal benchmarks all could be true. Symmetry on demand would explain a lot about life, if such perfect balance only existed. 

But there were many such conversations on that courthouse bench although the precise details of each one are jumbled, just as real life is. But you should remember the particulars of your first real kiss with a girl, but you don’t, except that it was real and Carla Neidermeier in Mister David’s life most certainly was real, too.

Mister David recalled how he and Mister Earl’s friends talked about being men in a difficult world; how to deal with skunks both animal and human; how to avoid deep anger when it would do no good except as revenge. Even how and why to do right when no one but God was watching. Was God watching? Mister Earl said so. He was a believer and man sure of his conscience. Only The Boy had doubts about deities.

But The Boy’s memories of the old man were real and specific. His deep, round face was fixed in The Boy’s mind, even as The Boy became The Man.

The Boy might have been real, or perhaps just a character to enliven a story.  Even The Boy did not always believe in his own reality other than as an observer. You cannot always prove that your life is real except as reflected light in a mirror. Decide that for yourself. 

He and the old man sat through many days of three summers. And they talked. Often. Mister Earl and his friends were threads that would run eternally through the lad’s perceptions.

As far as The Boy could tell, Mister Earl was the smartest person he knew, though the roster of smart people in The Boy’s life was limited. Earl seemed a close enough replica of the real Socrates, if The Boy had known who Socrates was. 

For 65 years, Earl had worked Kentucky’s fields of corn and tobacco for other men’s gain. He never succumbed to a noon-time heat stroke in the fields or let a team of plow-pulling mules get the better of him though they tried. He knew every variety of dirt and creature in the ground and pond. He knew everything that took wing. He knew rain that never stopped and fearsome lightning that shredded the sky. He knew the medicinal power of Bourbon. He knew souls. He seemed to have a clear view of himself.

 He and his wife bore six children, though they lost two of them as infants. Mister Earl talked low and sad in rare moments about how he missed the two he could not save from unknown fevers. Mister Earl’s parents had been slaves as children. Earl and his wife were slaves to no man.

In fact, the old man knew rural philosophy, the verities of mamma’s corn bread and how hot the summer would unfold by looking at morning clouds. He knew right and wrong. How much more knowledge does any man need?

He, his friends and The Boy were men together, celebrating being men. They held a righteous place in the world.  No one needs more. Not really.

Manhood is an acquired art; so they spat thick spittle a lot, as The Boy would recall much later, because spitting lubricates education, or so it seemed. The Boy knew his prescribed schoolhouse education as a Catholic son was not of much value because nuns would allow no spit in any of seven parochial schools he would attend. 

Even when he became more ancient than the Old Man was then, he still could spit passably well. He ascribed that enduring skill to those summers when no potential rebuke of adults stood in the way of mastering the long range pah-TOO–ee. 

Real spitters know that pah-Too-ee is a cartoon description that has never been real. Spitting skills involve liquid oral torque and muscle control. But it’s usually quiet if you do it the right way.

 Southern gentlemen spit quietly in apprehension that a woman might be nearby and pass harsh judgment. Women do not customarily spit or understand its value.

And Great Expectorations are  precise. Southern men always pursue precision, in their words as much as their spitting.  Both need be targeted to be effective among Southern friends.  Even if one friend is an 8-year-old white boy and the other is a 75-year-old black man.

Spitting well is a sign of good planning and a manly upbringing. And self control. Eventually Southern men try to chew tobacco, and managing your chaw is complex enough for even expert spitters.

So there they settled contentedly, a gaggle of old Southern men, spitting and whittling. No one told The Boy that he was not one of the old black men, and so he believed he was no less an equal colleague. No evidence suggested otherwise. The union provided a deep sense of comfort and belonging. 

The gaggle allowed The Boy to whittle after a probationary spell because he had seemed well-possessed of his faculties and appeared moderately trustworthy.  They even loaned him a multi-bladed, folding knife to gnaw at the maple twigs. He assaulted the twigs vigorously and had designs in mind, but never came close to an artful result as Mister Earl always did. The Boy’s outcome was always just a chewed-up twig.

  The Boy would always have the ability to appear trustworthy and reliable even when evidence suggested such trust was misplaced. You learn to make people comfortable with your existence in their world, and then they tolerate your existence. It’s a form of rudimentary civilization.  And social navigation.

Lucky is the person who can simply sit and whittle and spit and be among friends. They were equals. They and he took up summer residence on the park benches that lined the walkway lead ing from the street to the old, red courthouse. Summers were long and slow.  And always Southern “2 dollar pistol” hot. 

Southern hot is a special breed of hot, like Sahara hot, but drippy and wetter.  Even the chrysanthemums and hydrangeas dripped from their resplendent flower beds. As for humans, sweat drenches the light hair on your arms and glistens the forehead; so it drips perpetually.

Breezes would lift the gentle bath of briny residue, and cool all your exposed skin if you were lucky.

It was lucky to be a young man of Danville, Kentucky, in June 1954.

The courthouse arose on the spacious corner campus adjacent to the federal building and shortly up the street from the A&P grocery beloved by The Boy. 

The sidewalk-side portal to the A&P nearest the street unleashed a concoction of aromas Mister David would never experience exactly as he did in those summers. The automatic A&P front doors would swoosh open and admit or release a shopper and, in return,  expel a belch of cool, moist, fragrant air. For just a second,  a young visitor could see his breath hover, and would be blessed with coolness. Precious coolness scented with fresh vegetables stacked in open coolers.

The Victorian Renaissance courthouse, the second to sit on the corner of Main and Broadway, arose in 1862 after the first one was engorged by fire. There the citizens of Boyle County administered rudimentary justice behind its four columns.

Mister David was born down the street at the Danville General Hospital though his family quickly set up residence in wild and unkempt Florida. The hospital is still there, too. 

As for human interaction, you must think and rethink about the events of your youngest summers of wonder. Test them. Put them in context. Mister David became comfortable that all he remembered was not the dubious fantasy of doppelganger memory. It was as he remembered because he returned to those streets and porches 50 years later and the streets endured, as did his memories of them.

Those summers caused The Boy to be who he would become, because he learned both subtle and grand insights in those years that he had never known. And not only that, he had been ignorant of his ignorance. That’s the original canvas of a child’s natural state.

So the old men set quietly in his memory, as they often sat on the benches in 1954. And ’55, and ’56  and then, he could not remember after that.

 The men were old because they had to be old. Too old to work the tobacco fields. So circumstance gave them time and inspiration at last to do absolutely nothing as they chose.  The Boy was 8 and then 9 and 10 and everybody looked ancient to him. His parents were old even though they must have been barely 30 or so.

When you are 8, the world is cranky and old.

But the truth is that many white men of a certain age  — which is to say The Boy’s eventual age — grew up in the South that predated the Civil Rights Law and are tempted to believe they had some false enlightenment provided to them early on.  Exposure to elderly black people offered that leavening, and explain why they have lived lives of presumed higher dignity. At least they think so. 

The three elderly black men were the only African-Americans he would know until he was fully grown. People lived permanently apart and did not mix then, even white people of different cultural heritages. The Boy’s family would never have had servants of any race, even had they been moneyed. The McGlones were genteel “lace curtain” Irish, and servitude was an intolerable stain on the world. It was a condition the British would employ. The British were abominations in his family and beneath Irish contempt, but not so isolated from that contempt to express it regularly.

The Boy adopted none of his family’s disdain for people of different backgrounds because he knew his kin to be strong-willed but wrong on most things that mattered.

So that explanation for The Boy’s lifelong view of relationships was closed and settled, and he was glad. People were either good or bad, either worth your time or not. The three old men were his friends.The fact they were black was never a consideration even worth the discussion.

Friends were friends. Enough said.

His family would not have consented to such a relationship had he asked them. So he didn’t ask.

Even at 8,  he was an independent man on the loose in his original hometown, and he knew every block of the downtown from the Southern Railway yards, past Centre College to the prim antebellum main streets. Dispatched free and unmanaged, he prowled solo and unfettered every summer as a visitor to a beloved but otherwise childless great aunt and uncle.

He was not in any sort of official summer school. But wisdom is a tricky, elusive critter. You never know when some stray insight sneaks up on you, as it did for him on that park bench.

As a sort of unannounced mascot to the old black men, he mostly listened as they talked. He did not chat. What of life did he know that was worth sharing? Nothing, he figured. Boys sitting among real men do not chat with their betters, as that would be silly and unmanly. And were you to speak, the men might recognize you had nothing to offer. So he listened , and nodded agreeably when appropriate.

He seldom trusted anyone else in his life because he had already learned to be cagey around dim people who populated much of his life. These men were anything but dim.

As much as he could tell later, The Boy was burdened with no profound thoughts. He was growing up. He was The Boy.

But he did learn by absorbing. The first important lessons of life are usually the most meaningful, even if you don’t know that distinction until much later.

He learned he was just a guy who spent lovely, lazy afternoons with other guys. It was his ambition to be good at doing nothing much. He earned his dignity by returning their respect. It was horse trading. That’s how respect works.

Men together, doing as little as possible under the searing Southern sun

The men once had young families and jobs and troubles that Mister David only vaguely comprehended when they spoke of them. They all were just guys, even less complicated than he seemed. But Mister David knew they did not trust in life’s goodness and fairness as he generally did. The world had done nothing to hurt The Boy as yet. 

Their bond as odd contemporaries was the utter plainness of  them. Noble plainness. 

The Boy understood from the beginning he was more unadorned and unaccomplished than any of them, for they had raised children and earned money to feed them. The Boy had thought that a splendid achievement. They had worked hard. Their sweat had deep meaning. They had sweated in labor made noble for why they did it.

They were feeding their families. 

And their children. Often feeding many kin. They shared their lives and good fortune.

The old men thus became his first real friends. They needed no rules or boundaries. They laughed and often made gentle fun of each other as friends do.

And when the end-of-the-business-day moment arrived for Mister David to connect with Uncle Dewey Huff at his Men’s Store encampment farther down Main, they always took their leave with exaggerated grace and flourishes. Partings between Southern men are to be announced graciously. Courtly manners are to be observed.

Then the daily interlude near the courthouse would end. Mister David’s time with the men ended almost every afternoon about the same time. Four, or so. That gave him time to dawdle in his final leg of travel to the store. “Not a store,” his Great Uncle Dewey had corrected him. “It’s a haberdashery.”

“Difference between chicken salad, and chicken somethin’ else,” Mister Earl noted. Earl and his friends had never stepped inside the haberdashery. They were not welcome there.

And then came the last day and those summers ended forever. 

Life inevitably changed forever, as it always does. Mister David was 11 when he raced to the courthouse for the first day of summer. The group was assembled, though Mister David looked and could not see Earl.

”Where’s Mister Earl? ” he asked   .

 Mister Cletus lowered his face and spoke softly.

“Earl is gone. He passed this winter, just after Christmas. We all went to visit him in the hospital. He seemed peaceful.”

The Boy was overtaken with choking grief, but he did not cry, at least on the outside. On the inside, he sobbed.  A deep forlorn sadness grabbed his breath and soul, and would not let go for minutes. His best friend was gone, and neither had a chance to say goodbye.  That was wrong. It was undignified. Unmanly. Partings demand ritual, else there is only loss and heartache.

He was tempted not to return the next day, or ever again, because Mister Earl was gone. He could punish the universe for its cruelty. But that was not his way, because that was not Mister Earl’s way. “Don’t pout,”  he remembered Mister Earl saying. “Men don’t pout. There is no use in it. Get up and move because that’s all life is. Moving from here to yonder and somewhere’s else.”

So The Boy came back to the benches the next morning only to find a stranger sitting in Earl’s customary spot.

He rose to meet The Boy. “Good morning. Are you Mister David?”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“I am George Smith. Mister Earl was my father. He hoped to say goodbye to you, but time would not allow it. But he wanted me to visit you here, and let you and all his old friends know how important you were to him.”

The Boy was almost speechless. “Yes, Mister Earl was important to me, too. He was my best friend in the entire world.” He did not wish to embarrass himself or Mister Earl’s son with tears. He held them back with all the strength he had.

Earl’s son paused to consider his father’s friend. What a strange white boy he is.  His mind returned to the moment. “Before I leave,” Earl’s son said, “I’d like to give you something. He wanted you to have something to remember him.”

With that he pulled Earl’s folded red and white handkerchief from his pocket. Unwrapping its corners carefully, Earl’s son revealed the handsome, multi-bladed folding knife that had been Mister Earl’s whittling pride. “This is yours now,” Earl’s son said as he placed it in The Boy’s palm.

It was a man’s knife, a man’s implement. It was not for children to own. And to The Boy, it was a treasure.

With that moment, The Boy shook the 60-year old man’s hand earnestly, opened an invisible door and strode metaphysically into manhood. It was as if he stood before the A&P’s magic doorway to another world.

He stepped forever into a different universe. Having gone there, he would never return to childhood, even if he had tried. It was gone.

He would not return to the courthouse sojourn again. Families move; homes shift; life changes and evolves. He saw the green refuge from the street when he drove past it every few years as an adult lured back by Kentucky memories. But he never stopped because what made it special was lost in the wind.

But The Boy knew he would never be alone in that life. Memories are building blocks that rise from your childhood if you are lucky.  Mister Earl and his friends on the courthouse benches would be with him always.

He did not seek out the courthouse again for 50 years. No need. Go and live your life, Earl had once told him. And I did. 

Shoveling coal was all he knew

By David Rutter

If they are ancient enough, dead relatives are mostly just scribbled names on a roster of the “not here.”  They share obscurity.  We don’t know who they were as people, how they passed from existence and don’t much care either.

Sidney Frank Rutter was like that for me. No need to look up his name even if you were interested. HIs history is mostly a blank page unless you scan really intently under the invisible ink. He just backpedaled into the mist and never re-emerged.

But I stumbled over Sidney as I looked through history for something else. Curiosity and serendipity can be addictive, even for history’s character actors. Sidney was a character. There he is at far left in the photo, though it’s only an educated guess.

But for me anyway, Sidney is famous, at least this week. Every one deserves one cousin who remembers who you were on the one day they claimed fame. For me, it’s Sidney.

He died on the predawn hours of April 15, 1912, along with 1,496 other souls aboard RMS Titanic. The grand unsinkable ship sank in less than three hours. The ocean and history swallowed her whole.

Sidney likely never breathed the clean air of a North Atlantic dawn before he perished. He was a “fireman/stoker,” one of 179 members of the “Black Gang” which kept the ship’s 162 furnaces blazing with coal fire and their perpetual misery. 

 Stokers worked in four-hour shifts and five-minute increments because the boiler room was 120 degrees. That condition occasionally drove stable working men to leap suicidally from 19th-century steamships. For this they earned 6 pounds sterling monthly of the king’s coinage. In 1912 that was a good working wage.

But it was about as lousy a job as was possible to envision. Immersed body and soul in Welsh coal dust, staggering heat and ceaseless exertion, the stokers all had burned arms from touching nearby furnaces. They worked in shorts, undershirts and gallons of sweat. There were no flabby stokers.

Sidney was 5-foot-3 3/4 inches, black- haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned  and took no guff. He shoveled coal all his life. It was all he knew.

But as with much history and detective sleuthing, slabs of the Titanic’s truth remain shrouded. That also applied to Sidney Frank Rutter who often concocted slight variations on himself.

He was 15 when he convinced the Royal Navy he was 16 and could enlist. He served for five years and then deserted without explanation. He apparently was enthusiastic with his fists which got him tossed into a naval brig occasionally. 

When be was 25 (or 26 or 27, who knows?) he married Alice Medley Russell Budd, a 48-year-old twice-widowed seamstress with four adult children.

Sidney and Alice had no children, but he was the last of her three husbands. 

Sidney was not supposed to be on Titanic that week. A friend — known only as “S. Graves” — had been berthed in Sidney’s spot, but did not want the job. So Sidney came aboard as “S. Graves”  and started slinging coal. 

Sidney might have been late returning from his duty aboard Oceanic, until Titanic the largest and fastest ocean liner afloat. In 1905 Oceanic earned the dubious honor of becoming the first White Star ship to experience a mutiny. 

It’s not clear if Sidney was serving that month. 

As White Star Britannica history notes, “stokers, upset with their hellish working conditions, put down their shovels and other tools, idling the liner. White Star management, and the UK government, weren’t amused. The industrial action resulted in the conviction and imprisonment 35 “black gang” workers.”

If he were one of the 35, it would be no shock to me.

Though the Titanic’s legend contains 10 million confirmed facts, some are either missing or debated loudly. Just as it was  unclear until months later that Rutter was aboard, who precisely was aboard that week also is debated. At least six competing and slightly different “final manifest lists” exist, each with ardent supporters. The business of Titanic’s competing, conflicting histories and cast members remains hot academia to this day. 

There even are published books based on these competing theories and what they mean. 

As with Sidney, some rich travelers came aboard with unannounced pseudonyms; some posh patrons were supposed to have booked passage but didn’t.

Sidney’s existence is known mostly because White Star lines had to pay a pension to Alice when she presented herself for compensation.  Alice Rutter would receive 12 shillings and 6 pence weekly allowance from the fund as a class G dependent (Case C. 119).

The Sailors’ Magazine (May 1912) offers further evidence on page 138 of “Stokers of the RMS Titanic.”

We can infer that Sidney worked to the end to keep Titanic’s propellers turning before ocean blackness engulfed the 882-foot ship. Titanic’s steam engines never ceased, produced 46,000 horsepower and consumed 600 tons of coal a day.

Plus, the captain announced from the bridge that he would personally shoot any stoker who came up on deck.

Sidney apparently was an outgrowth of the Rutter clan that stayed in England rather than emigrate with other Rutters to the New World in the late 1700s.

As far as I can tell, no one mourns Sidney Frank Rutter, an obscure, pip-squeaked-sized working man who did nothing exemplary except die in historically famous moments.

No monuments or parades. His is a name adorning one long list of similarly indistinct characters. 

The date of his death was not immortalized by history as other dates have been.

Forty seven years to the day before Sidney died and every anniversary in between, that date was claimed  and noted by history elsewhere. That was the date Abraham Lincoln died.

St. Pat and the memory of ‘an gorta mor’

By DAVID RUTTER

On some days, the old Irish blood in my veins races.

The rising anger and hope of the McGlones and McCrystals was powerful, especially when it came to “an Gorta Mor,” a Gaelic term.

If you do not know “an Gorta Mor,” then you paid cheaply to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. If you do remember, the knowledge diminishes any excuse for the drunken bacchanalia that everyone else celebrates.

The McGlone and McCrystal private distaste for all things English was visceral because of “an Gorta Mor.” It was The Great Hunger.

The English would have let the McGlones and McCrystals starve to death. Tried to. But we beat them to the boats and escaped the Potato Famine in the middle 1800s.

Great-grandfather McGlone was luckier than most Irish. He could read. He was a civil servant on an island of 8 million souls, 1.5 million of whom starved to death in six years under British feudal stewardship.

But great-grandpa would not forget a deep affirmation that the English would face justice one of these days because the Irish nurture long memories and longer grudges. We brought both from Ireland with us.

Dropping a small but efficient thermonuclear device on “Downton Abbey” does not seem too stringent an outcome.

The Ireland most Americans recognize now was not an Ireland that ever existed. America’s St. Patrick’s Day is the March 17 celebration of that made-up country.

The true Ireland was a poor, miserable, medieval land that Patrick’s religion did not raise from destitution. In the Ireland of 1880, a quarter of the population could read and write. Life expectancy was 40. Teens married by 16 and produced platoon-sized families. Infant mortality was heartbreaking.

The country was gorgeous, but life was abysmal.

Half the rural families in Ireland lived in single-room, windowless mud cabins without chimneys. A dozen relatives lived inside and slept on hay-covered mud floors.

The Irish learned hard drinking less as a joyous celebration than a reprieve from reality.

The country was owned by English and Anglo-Irish hereditary gentry who held title because British conquerors such as Oliver Cromwell took it. It was a theft. Protestant landowners lived sumptuous, imperious lives far from Catholic peasants.

The Irish wars between Protestants and Catholics reflect an ancient feud over a stolen land and centuries of servitude enforced from the pulpit. There is nothing in that history to make the Irish a happy people.

In truth, they are often happier than they have a right to be. Irish are indefatigable, but not blithe spirits.

As the eldest son of a “McGlone girl,” I still bear faint marks of her grandfather’s flight and her later survival of the Depression.

First, it was all a matter of food.

I still habitually blanch at larger restaurant meals than one person can consume. And when purchased food is left untouched on the plate, it seems a failure of responsibility and conscience.

She had never been hungry that I know, but had grown up with the constant warning that famine was the legacy of wasteful children. Never waste food.

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If you had grown to adulthood with parents like that, they would have constantly embarrassed you in restaurants by forcing you to accept food portions from the plates. They would not eat more than they needed, but would not waste it if a child was at hand, either. Even their adult child.

Real Irish families took hunger seriously.

There is reason to feel Irish on days attached to the joy of heritage.

Nonetheless I might as well say it out loud. I detest St. Patrick’s Day with a specific loathing. It’s a fake, manufactured celebration, at least most of it.

At least 95 percent of Americans who celebrate St. Patrick’s Day are not really Irish, and the remaining 5 percent are usually County Cork Quislings who have forgotten what it means to be authentically Irish.

They celebrate a diluted imitation of Ireland, hyped by public relations with green-painted faces and fake Darby O’Gill accents.

The Irish should bear a deep, glum sadness borne of centuries of mistreatment and poverty. But they don’t.

We celebrate true spirit. So on March 17, I will pour a single shot of rye whiskey and down it in one gulp as I salute Patrick for at least trying to save the McGlones when no one else would.

But I will drink alone. Always. It is the way a true son of Ireland celebrates with his private, somber memories.

David.Rutter@live.com

kSA9 tha-REE 1

What’s that? you ask. Some signal code to the aliens ready to land?

Nope. Far, more meaningful than that. It’s poetic history for late night denizens. We are a dying breed, almost literally. But we have long memories. Before Google, before Twitter, Instagram and selfies, there was a deep comforting voice in the dark intoning KSA931 and signaling us the world had survived another day.

But what in the heck is KSA931, you ask?

If you ever wondered about the power of old habits to defy the years, I offer up KSA931. If you know what that series of cryptic letters and numbers means, you are part of tiny and very ancient fraternity and sorority.

When I am done with any topic – a story, a discussion, or even a domestic transaction – I very often repeat “KSA931” privately to myself to signal that it’s done, finished, adios.

I never remembered why exactly until today when I was in mid-think and those 6 symbols tiptoed into my mind again.

They are the official call letters for the police radio system bought by the Evansville (Ind.) Police Department in 1934 for $4,500. Welcome to the 20th Century. I looked it up from a book.

Some radio calls itself WGN. Evansville dispatchers called out KSA931.\

If you were – as I was – among the handful of newspaper reporters still lollygagging around the old offices at Second and Vine streets at 2 a.m., you often heard the night dispatcher signaling cop cars to head off drunks, late-night low-lives, and suspicious characters through that two-way scanner. I listened for 20 years from the 1970s through the 1980s.

Sitting around listening to the police radio scanner was an occupational necessity. That’s how reporters and editors found out about bar riots.

There were dozens of civilian devotees who listened, too. We were a cadre of unaffiliated nosey neighbors.

The night officer assigned to the radio dispatch eventually adopted a lyrical, poetic style to sign off each radio call – “KAY-S-A, 9-THAREE-1” he would intone in a deep, melodic baritone. It was a brief soaring aria, a signal that all is well and calm in the town. The law is here to guard you. He was a celebrity for that skill.

So those of us who were late-night denizens often adopted the same phrase to signal we had closed up the final edition at 2 a.m. and were heading down the stairs and into the night. Or to announce, for almost any newsroom event, that it was over. Lock it up. Shut it down. We’re done. The daily Miracle at Second and Vine was once again cosmically complete.

Then we held unofficial competitions at the late night Press Club about who could say the phrase most eloquently. It was a ubiquitous catch phrase between swigs of Sterling Beer, which was cheap but toxic.

I do not know if that technology or its linguistic definitions endures now. Seems quaint and ancient. I’m not even sure if anyone still skulks around newsrooms at 2 a.m. We all become relics if we’re not paying attention. KSA931.

The return of the Christmas Ninja.

By David Rutter

This is the tale of my father, the Christmas Ninja and oh  what a merry Ninja he was. Maybe there is a moral lesson to be learned from this story.  Though knowing my family as I do, I would bet there is no educational lesson at all. Just jovial oddness.

You will have to be the judge.

For some reason that could not be explained in hindsight, my father thought it would be a grand gesture to steal a Christmas tree. Not from a store or some commercial lot, for that would seem petty and venal in a low, common way. There was nothing low or venal about him.

No, he seemed more inclined to a grander gesture of protest against the commercialization of the holiday season. Something devilish. Something in a Guy Fawkes motif.

Then, there were several other factors at work. I do not recall if the Rock Island and Frisco Railroad had ever done anything to my father that would provoke retribution.

Though he generally had a jaundiced, disdainful view of large, greedy, commercial institutions, the aligned events might have been essentially random. 

If he had ever planned to steal a Christmas tree, he picked a lousy place for it. He was living on the Southern Plains of Oklahoma where there were few stands of anything that looked like a fir tree, except the ones planted along the right of way of the Rock Island.

Thus, the railroad and its assets became targets of opportunity.

The plot was afoot with its shape gradually forming. From wild, loony idea eventually to wild loony plan contained in an orderly, if not sane, system of execution.

He would wear all black. Naturally. Ninjas afoot do not like bright colors. So he’d go with the black ski mask, black sweater, black pants, black socks, black shoes. Black underwear, as far as I knew. He would drive a black pickup truc . He would be the Christmas Ninja. Striking a blow against The Man. Honoring the Little Lord Jesus in the most appropriate way possible—stealing a Christmas tree.

It was both noble and spiritual as well as felonious.  And, besides, it sure beat spending 40 bucks for a Christmas tree at Kmart.

He would wait until several weeks before Christmas to launch  his protest commando raid. All the while carrying his well-sharpened and trusty “Babe the Blue Ax,” he’d drive down the rural railroad frontage roads with his lights turned off. He would carefully assess the Rock Island trees and, when he found the exact right candidate, he would alight from the borrowed   pickup truck, scamper up the gravel-filled gradient, whack down that tree in two or three powerful swings, haul the deceased conifer trunk-first back to the truck, toss the ax into the back bed and hightail it down the darkened road, all the while cackling in felonious glee. He often cackled like Foghorn Leghorn.

This was the plan.

You would have had to know my father well to understand how this plan would have seemed perfectly natural and workable to him. First, he had always been a meticulous planner back to his Hoosier childhood and at some point in his golden years—“Mine are brass.” he told me — Dad completely had lost his fear of bad outcomes.

He referred to his new-found freedom as “my give-a-shit threshold.”

In this new plateau of life, he liked to measure how much trouble would be levied upon him if something were to go askew.  Like, getting caught. After all, how much effort do you spend on throwing a 65-year-old grandfather war hero in jail, no matter what he’s done?

As far as I know, my father never knowingly did anything wrong before the Night of The Christmas Ninja or thereafter. It was simply that he liked to calculate limits, risks and spiritual benefits. He measured what the boundaries of his imagination could afford.

On this blessed Christmas, he had decided that a free Christmas tree stolen from Profiteering Capitalists was worth the risk. And further, it would be fun.

When all of this was explained to me afterward, none of it, except for one fact, seemed surprising in the slightest.

The singular exception was how he convinced my normally responsible sister to join him, not as a witness but as accomplice. Now there were two Christmas Ninjas. My father’s lunacies could be contagious.

Though  it’s been 30 years, it’s never totally come clear about her inspirational role in this family episode. Maybe she decided that Dad could hurt himself in the dark and that cutting down trees was at the far perimeter of his physical skills.

Plus, if Dad was going to get handcuffed by a deputy sheriff for destroying Rock Island property, she’d just as soon be in the county calaboose with him to offer moral support— and bail.

My family was one of those Southern brigades that always traveled with spare tires and bail money. And to be fair to her temperament, the entire yuletide Black Ops would have seemed like a perfectly swell concept to her, too. She was the Ninja Apple that did not fall far from the Ninja Tree.

Thus the Christmas Ninjas headed out on their raid, bouncing along county roads on their path to criminal destiny and high hilarity.

At this point, my sister informed Dad of several pertinent safety facts that he had failed to incorporate into his planning. It’s dark in rural Central Oklahoma at night. Really dark. There are snakes with big teeth. Walk carefully. And skunks. Don’t forget the skunks. And also, if we get caught, don’t run. Oklahoma deputies shoot first. It’s their way.

The proper howevers and whereases having been dispensed, they went speeding down the county road in the dark. When it’s midnight dark on the plains of Oklahoma, it’s in-the-bottom-of-the-coal-mine dark except for the glorious stars. If you had shined a flashlight into the truck’s cab, all you’d have seen were four luminous eye-whites staring back, big and round.

They drove stealthily without the illumination of headlights.

They ran off the road only twice, and never so far they wouldn’t get back to the proper path. Pavement is a civic amenity having come only recently to Oklahoma and not yet to its county roads.

But eventually they came to a stand of trees, outlined against the stars. This was to be the scene of the crime. And together, like the Lone Ranger and Tonto on a mission of justice, they climbed the little hill near the railroad tracks, spotted a likely tree, and began to whack.

And whack. And whack. And then whack some more.

A half hour later, they were drenched in their sweat-soaked Ninja garb. The tree had swooned against the barrage and then fell with a muffled plop.

Dad had assigned himself the role of lookout. So he stood in the dirt road and watched for approaching phantom vehicles, as she dragged the tree foot by foot down the incline. Every few seconds, he would claim to see a coming vehicle and signal for her to duck behind another bush. So down the hill she came, tip-toeing in tiny steps — and grunting loudly—from one hiding spot to another, like Bugs Bunny sneaking up on Elmer Fudd, except much louder and sweatier.

She dragged the noble tree to the truck, and they heaved it over the side of the truck bed with a loud, joint ha-rumffff! Dad reached into his pocket and withdrew the coup de grace, a large red plastic “SOLD” sign which he wrapped around the end with a cellophane sleeve. He had expertly scissored the sign from a Grippos Potato Chip sack.

And then they headed off. The crime was done. The Ninjas had escaped.

It would have been unkind to be too critical of the tree they acquired that night. After all, the tree was a statement, a matter of protest. The two Ninjas spoke of the tree later in the barest of detail.

Later at home they piled layers of sparkly garland and dozens of glass ornaments, and twinkling lights both large and small and filled every crevasse and thinly foliated branch with decorations. It was a Tammy Fay Bakker tree makeover if ever there was one. (Note to newcomers regarding historical context: She was a televangelist’s wife and sidekick who always wore about three pounds of Max Factor makeup and fake eyelashes that were at least 6 inches long).

But the night had deceived them; It was not a fir tree at all they have pilfered. It was a cedar. Fundamentally different and not in a good way. And when they were done, and Mother got a chance to carefully assess the handiwork, all she could do was look woefully at the tall bush and shake her head in dismay. “That’s not a fir tree,” she declared with thin contempt. “It’s a cedar, for pity sake. It’s a tall bush!”

It was the most forlorn, ugly, bedraggled Charlie Brown Christmas tree she had ever seen. It was barely 5 feet tall. This was a Christmas bush that starving Ethiopians would have pitied.

“Where did you buy THAT thing?” Mother demanded to know   with sudden curiosity. She mumbled something about it being a “hideous bush,” which technically it was…The Two Christmas Ninjas said nothing. They would not allow their eyes to meet. There are times when the truth is simply not a useful choice. And besides, they were too busy scratching their arms. The cedar’s sticky, gooey residue had soaked into their forearms, like a fiberglass body lotion. They were miserable. 

I’m almost sure the two Christmas Ninjas had learned their lesson. Learned it once and for all, as mature people do. They surely would ponder long and hard about their many blessings, and vow never to do anything this stupid again.

 But had they learned the True Meaning of Christmas and repented? Had they promised never to do anything so strangely odd but noble again?

I wish I could say yes. But that would be a lie.

The worst band uniforms ever worn

By David Rutter

The first band uniform I ever wore was black-on-black wool. I think a Salvation Army colonel died in it while bringing musical redemption to the
heathens.

Then it was given to me.

The raiment adorned those several dozen of us who formed the first generation of Rex Mundi’s more-or-less organized musicians under the guidance of clarinetist Dick Bassemier.

We were, as I recall, enthusiastic in our musicianship but indifferent when it came to precision. I played trombone with similar enthusiasm and lack of tonal skill.

Bassemier allowed me to play in his band when I was an 8th grader at Holy Redeemer parish. That made me the longest-tenured bandster in RM history. Hold down the applause. It was an accident because Bassemier needed trombones.

My father invested in my elementary career with a rusting Olds brand trombone that seemed older than William Tecumseh Sherman. It made, I believed, sounds like a cat being run over by the mail truck. The Olds and I were a matched pair.

There’s no use quibbling over the motives that came with the old frocks because they’re all good, but I just want to warn the aspiring bands folk who receive any such gift that charity is not always God’s work.

As I recall, the same generous pitch came to my Rex Mundi high school bandmates. We were a new parochial school and apparently no one thought to budget for a band; so we Band-Aided and Scotch-taped ourselves into a lean, mean music-making machine.

Our parents were proud of the uniforms because their ingenuity had prompted a defunct school to forward them to us gratis. Getting things for free is a good thing for a blue-collar high school, unless the free is, for example, an old band uniform. The way we heard it, there were massive tax write-offs involved for the givers.

Our youthful excitement about the gift lasted until the boxes arrived, and we unsheathed the musical duds.

Kids always know better than to complain in these situations because parents leap into lectures about poverty, and working hard and appreciation about what you have because many, many poor people must do with less.

I got the family’s patent-pending “They’re Starving in China” and the equally stirring “I Lived Through The Depression” speeches
 several dozen times, and eventually could recite them perfectly by heart.

So we donned the uniforms and looked at each other with sullen grimness, trying with all our might not to roll our eyes or sigh with
 deep disappointed exhales.

They came from somewhere in Kansas, we were told. We thought Kansas was just around the bend from Manchuria and people probably were starving there, too.

Most of the uniforms had discolored faux brass buttons on the fading black tunics. The shoulder epaulets and filigree were gold, except
for the ones that had turned a pale green or had fallen off in some unknown band disaster.

Nothing quite fit, especially the military-style hats which either perched on top of your head like Official Carmen Miranda Fruit-Basket Headgear, or slid down your ears and obscured your eyes from any chance of seeing out. The hats came without  plumes to reinforce their decrepit plainness.

My uniform never quite fit at more fundamental junctures, which was a flaw not totally the uniform’s fault. At that stage in my
life, I was 6-foot-1 and about a hundred and nothing bony pounds.

But we all knew that the uniforms had not just been worn by a previous inhabitant. They’d been worn by dozens, maybe hundreds, of others. They had deep wear marks in places that would make a careful person nervous.

The way I looked at it, hundreds of previous trombonists had not only worn my uniform; they had sweated in it; they had loosed gaseous materials into and through its fibers. They had done Lord only knows what while wearing it. And they had done it in KANSAS! for crying out loud.

And what if the Trombonist From Kansas who last wore my uniform was a GIRL? Even worse, what if she played the CLARINET?

Once assembled as a unit, we looked like we should be playing  “Nearer My God To Thee” while accepting Christmas donations at corner kettles.

We wore the grim, black suits for two years, and then in 1962 our fund-raising ardor produced a new, happier ensemble. Tbe new uniforms had French blue highlights on gold, and had real shiny buttons.  And bright white spats, which any real marching band devotee would acknowledge is sporty and necessary foot ware.

The missing hat plumes would have helped.

Nonetheless, freed from the torment of the hand-me-down battle gear, we perked up. We had been emancipated. We marched with a perkier gait. Out of step usually, but still…

As for the old uniforms, we packed them away as if we intended to bury the boxes. But we didn’t. We gave them away.

To another band.

The King of the Taxidermy Cowboys

By David Rutter

As instructed by my mentors, I looked deeply into her dark eyes and whispered to her, seeking some sign of compassion, tenderness and calm. But I could find none of those.

She sat regally and alert. But still.

She occupied the living room divan in the country home where I had come to meet her. The owner formally introduced us. The dog’s name was Ernestine, or Hilda, or Broomhilda or some name I don’t remember now.

But then I experienced one of my flash epiphanies about Ernestine or Whatever Her Name Was.

“That dog is DEAD,” I said to myself, except the words came out of my mouth.

“Well, not really,” said the owner of the rural breeding encampment. “We loved her so much and she was such an integral part of the family that we could not stand to part with her. So my husband stuffed and mounted her. He’s very gifted with taxidermy. So she will remain with us forever and ever as Our Good Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would have wanted.”

She rendered that Tales From The Crypt scriptural reading as if it were a normal thing for a person to say. “He’s good with taxidermy” is not a phrase that comforts me.

I looked around the room to make sure there was no gently smiling but very quiet Grandma permanently rocking in the corner.

There wasn’t.

I had driven some miles from Fort Myers into central Florida that day to see if I was suited to own a dachshund. But I had stumbled into showbiz, which is what taxidermy is. We are a species that needs showbiz in our death rituals.

The nexus between death rituals and showbiz allows us to be fascinated if not enthralled.

We are morbidly entertained by oddness, and nothing is more morbidly delightful than taxidermy. Dead, but alive, but still dead. Not exactly high comedy, but diverting nonetheless. Are we not amused?

“She looks today just as she did the morning we had to put her down,” the woman said. “Distemper. Too bad, too. She gave us five broods, and we expected a few more.”

Maybe it was suicide, I mused.

We crave for dead things to seem still alive. The  rituals comfort us in some narcissistic self-satisfaction, and we often cloak the event in “respect” for the human deceased as if the corpse is sharing in our respectful mood.

But mostly we stage these theatricals for ourselves. That’s why American funeral homes are a $20 billion a year industry. We grab at life, even in death.

That industry, too, is a kind of an ersatz Flo Ziegfeld showbiz.

I remembered my first family open-casket showbiz funeral, featuring barely-tolerated Great Uncle Norbert. We children all were paraded into the room, and encouraged to say kind words as we peered into the casket.

 “He looks so natural and peaceful, just like he’s sleeping,” said a cousin to my right.

“No,” I said to myself. “He looks ….DEAD.”  You can’t fool me.

Being DEAD seemed punishment enough, but now civilization has added the duty to “seem lifelike” while on public display, often for relatives you would not have invited for dinner when you were alive. I was glad Great Uncle Norbert wasn’t actually here to experience this sham episode. Without knowing him well, I suspected he deserved better. 

This was highly organized and ritualized taxidermy.

But this event launched my life of careful wariness around overt taxidermy fans and practitioners. Death never seemed fun to me. 

Without labeling anyone, I have never met any taxidermy practitioners who were not tilted toward the freaky lane of the human thoroughfare. They have no self-awareness of this oddness, which adds to the surreality. 

They seem very enthusiastic about skinning creatures and likely talked to them during the procedure as if they were partners in the experiment. This causes me to doubt their trustworthiness when no one is watching. Even ventriloquists know the dummy is not actually speaking.

Only the existence of 50 state laws against “Mistreatment of Corpses” and mandated mortician licensing keep Aunt Gertrude from being stuffed and mounted for all time on the front porch. Think where we’d be if  “respect for corpses” had not been codified in law.  The mounted cadavers could come equipped with motion-activated electronic sound effects, subtle body movements and “show hands,” thus combining funerals with vaudeville.

Back at the dauschund party, we traded very brief handshakes and thank-yous, and I exited briskly. It was as fast I could walk without it being running.

“To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!,” as poet Clemente Clarke Moore wrote.

I too dashed. Ernestine or Whatever Her Name Was did not bark. But I thought she blinked once. I walked faster.

The drive down the dirt road to the state highway and thence east toward Fort Myers was brisk and reckless. I was escaping.

As I drove at Donner and Blitzen speed, I realized how my reaction to the Mounted and Stuffed Dog was predictable. Horror, revulsion and flight. This is why they don’t put stuffed Cro-Magnon corpses in the display case at the Field Museum. 

And by the way, how charming is the description “stuffed and mounted”  though most taxidermy these days involves stretched, treated original skin over an artificial form.

At least museums try to replicate hominids from other geological ages with rewrapped mannequins rather than grabbing your Weird Second Cousin Cletus from the funeral home and dressing him in a fright wig and rouge.

Stuffed dauschunds are disturbing, but apparently only to me. We as a culture celebrate stuffed animals and those who stuff them.

Proof? This bring us to Leonard Franklin Slye.

My reaction also was partly the fault of Slye who was an actual beloved person but not real in the common application of the term.

He was created out of cultural components.  In professional terms, he was a stage prop who could talk and sing.

Slye became a compulsive stuffer and mounter. If taxidermy is taking something inert and making it seem alive, Len seemed devoted to paying for it.

Slye was the very same yodeling campfire performer who became Roy Rogers, “The King of the Cowboys.”  He also was the “King of Taxidermist Cowboys.”

With Republic Pictures’ corporate energy, Slye more or less crowned himself as a B-movie icon, which was something of a neat trick. Not only was Slye not a noted cowboy, he wasn’t any kind of cowboy.

Slye started as a shoe factory worker in Cincinnati, drove gravel trucks in California and picked peaches.

He was a totally prefabricated product of Republic, though widely hailed as a swell fellow, charitable philanthropist and friend to animals before he had them stuffed. 

He was not stuffed and mounted, but he could have been. If acting is the art of pretending you are something you are not, Leonard Slye pretended to be a cowboy and mastered the stagecraft. 

 Rex Allen, Johnny Mack Brown, Sunset Carson, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, Tim Holt, and Ken Maynard were real cowboys who starred in the early cowboy movies. Roy Rogers and main competition Gene Autry were singers who learned how not to fall off a horse. 

Even John Wayne started his movie life as a singing cowboy (Singin’ Sandy Saunders in 1933’s “Riders of Destiny”) but he had a terrible, croaky, off-key voice and Republic Pictures over-dubbed his voice every time he sang. He was offended and decided he’d try acting.

After Republic ditched John Wayne, Roy was the most plausible movie fake available, and Hollywood used him to concoct the Old West.

He made 90 singing cowboy movies in the 1930s and ’40s all starring himself as himself which made acting easier because he didn’t have to act. And 150 more TV shows in the 1950s which mostly starred his palomino horse Trigger and NellyBelle, a 1946 Willys Jeep gene-spliced to his concoction of the Old West.

Yes,  Roy Rogers actually sold the idea of a silver WWII-era Jeep riding the range and driven by comic sidekick Pat Brady.  NellyBelle got fan mail. Brady got an occasional postcard.

In some months, Trigger received more fan mail than Roy, and Republic took note by often giving Trigger top billing on movie marquees.

Trigger wasn’t Trigger’s original name, either. It  was Golden Cloud. Even Roy’s trusty German Shepherd dog Bullet was originally “Bullet Von Berge.”

Trusty female sidekick, third wife and “Queen of the West” Dale Evans was born Frances Octavia Smith. In 1954, however, when she requested a copy of her birth certificate for a passport, she discovered her given name was Lucille Wood Smith.  Republic renamed her again as its future cowgirl star again before discovering she could not ride a horse and, in fact, had never been on a horse.

Movies, his “Sons of the Pioneers” music group, merchandising, Trigger and NellyBelle the Jeep (of “Woah, Nelly” fame)  made Roy rich —$100 million or so. 

Showbiz is innately illusion, of course, but Roy’s later kingdom of taxidermy created a totally false reality for who he was. He, too,  was a beloved stuffed showbiz dauschund sitting on the divan. 

That was his choice.

Leonard Slye was real but “Roy Rogers” named by Republic after Will Rogers was less real. Sort of like Ernestine or Whatever Her Name Was.

Plus, he essentially scripted a fictitious Old West for public consumption complete with action figures, tin school lunch boxes and table lamps with his head aglow. He and Dale appeared everywhere tickets could be sold. He proposed to her at a Chicago rodeo.

He was the nation’s rootin’, tootin’ cowboy. 

Dale was a big band singer of the Edgar Bergen radio show, had been married three times before encountering Roy Rogers. Eloped into her first marriage when she was 14. Had a son which she contended was her brother for another 20 years.

When Dale visited her female movie neighbors on screen for coffee, she always wore a holster and six shooter as the Old West custom required.

Though beloved by fans, no one seemed to know Roy and Dale were playing a role. It was just showbiz. It was business, and they were good at pretending.

Slye rewarded Trigger — theoretically his best showbiz friend – by having him stuffed and mounted in 1965. Trigger died of old age (we are told). It was a package “respect” deal. Bullet was stuffed, too, though no one asked him in advance.

Then Roy had Buttermilk stuffed and mounted. Buttermilk, who was really named Taffy, was Dale’s movie horse.

Yes, even as a teenager, I was starting to see some disturbing trend with Roy. He had a hard time ending old relationships by simply saying, “So long and farewell.”

As freaked as I was about Trigger, Bullet and Buttermilk’s fate, no one else seemed to be.

Twelve years after Leonard Slye’s death in 1998, artifacts from his personal museum went up for auction at Christie’s in New York. The prevailing wisdom was that NellyBelle would be the hot item.

  So a rural TV station in Omaha bought the rearing, mounted, skinned Trigger for an astounding $266,500, while his saddle fetched $386,500 from a private buyer. 

Bullet went for $35,000, also to RFD-TV, and  Dale’s hand-drawn music and lyrics to theme song “Happy Trails” sold for $27,500, compared with the pre-auction estimate of $500.

At the time of their auction, none of the stuffed  animals still had their original organs.  A TV executive paid $300,000 for a horse and dog’s skin. Nice skins, though.

Chalk up this episode to the overwhelming power of sentimentalized death rituals. Stuffing a pet dauschund does not seem stranger by comparison.

According to news stories at the tune, “Auctioneer Cathy Elkies said Rogers’ silver Nellybelle was the most anticipated item up for auction …  The Jeep was sold at auction for a reported $116,000 by Christie’s in New York on 14 July 2010 to a private collection.”

The total sale realized a staggering $2.98 million, according to Christie’s. None of the 1,000 items went unsold.  Christie’s auctioneers seemed as amazed as they were appalled.

Roy died at age 86 in 1998. Just to be careful,  Dale lasted three more years and died at 88. She beat the trend by being buried in the normal way. 

I had no evidence she deliberately hung on until Roy departed. But if your husband is King of the Taxidermist Cowboys, you can never be too careful.

After all, wives may come and wives may go, but stuffed horses and dauschunds last forever.

Kaddish answers question you fear no one hears

By David Rutter

Things I know about Judaism and learned at funerals. I know Kaddish.

You must understand humility to know Kaddish. You must understand trust.

Having dabbled without lasting effect in many religions, I know that Christianity is an operator’s manual for a machine you’d just as soon ignore.

Judaism is poetry, and no example more profound than the Kaddish. It is a yearning call from deep in the soul for God’s comfort after catastrophe.  Judaism knows how souls must manage death with elegance. It is spoken in Aramaic, the oldest of Jewish languages employed because the prayer was first spoken in that language.

Jews figure with some authority that God understood those words clearly 2,500 years ago and understands them now.

The Kaddish answers questions with hope and courage. And humility. It answers the first fear of all faith. What if I pray, and no one hears? What if I am truly alone?

Before the Kaddish — a prayer celebrating the Almighty’s glory — the congregation stands to say this meditation in unison.

 It is a statement of hope and principle delivered at funerals. Sons are required to say Kaddish for 11 months after the death of a parent.

 I do not pray because I doubt anyone is listening. 

But if I did pray, this is the God I would seek to touch …

When I die

Give what’s left of me away

To children

And old men that wait to die.

And if you need to cry,

Cry for your brother

Walking the street beside you.

And when you need me,

Put your arms

Around anyone

And give them

What you need to give to me.

I want to leave you something,

Something better

Than words

Or sounds.

Look for me

In the people I’ve known

Or loved,

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live on in your eyes

And not your mind.

You can love me most

By letting

Hands touch hands,

By letting bodies touch bodies,

And by letting go

Of children

That need to be free.

Love doesn’t die,

People do.

So, when all that’s left of me

Is love,

Give me away.

The lesson of Gettysburg: the good guys won

By David Rutter

A chill swept up the soft incline at Cemetery Ridge this month, as it did 158 years ago. It was July, but death always brings a shiver of recognition.

Life is prelude for that warning chill. Words linger in the air.

Three months later, after the horrors of Gettysburg, the assembled crowd was dressed in solemn, respectful black back then, for they had come to consecrate a soldiers’ national cemetery.

From the base of that rise on Gettysburg’s now-serene hills, a visitor can look up past the rows of small stones that mark the graves of Union soldiers and see where Abraham Lincoln rose to speak 158 years ago.

You can stand where he stood, and repeat the Address to yourself.  Many visitors these days take a paper from their pocket and read the Address as he did. It is a rite.

If you are an American, the place belongs to you,  just as do Lincoln and his words. 

The winds will chill you this November as they did him in 1863. The midday sky was bright azure.

As he prepared to deliver the two-and-a-half-minute address that has come to symbolize hope of a nation’s survival, the crowd settled into a hush. In the intervening years, pundits have interpreted the reaction that day as indifference or inattentiveness, but that was never true.

The crowd grew quiet, and then deeply still. It was a cemetery of heroes.

We fittingly celebrate the Gettysburg Address’ anniversary in November as does most of the nation though some now view the speech as a brief intermission in a war that has never ended. We are still fighting the same war for many of same issues.

 But the July 1-through-3 battle we remember this weekend remains hallowed because the nation as it now exists was saved that first July week in 1863.

Lincoln’s speech shaped American understanding of that battle because he was constructed for a larger stage than the states where he grew to manhood. He is a monument, as is Gettysburg.

 Gettysburg, wrote author Bruce Catton, “was, and is, preeminently the great American symbol, and it is not to be touched lightly. It has overtones.”

Only four and a half months before his Address, 90,000 Americans from both North and South were wounded or died on that land to prove whether a nation conceived in liberty could, indeed, stand. 

On one day – July 3, 1863 – one massed Rebel charge by three divisions across a horrendous, deadly open field at midday failed. That crucible ended forever the possibility that the Confederacy could win the war. The day was a ghastly agony for Gen. George Pickett’s Division as it was for the nation as a whole.

Whatever miscalculations the Confederacy held of its ambitions died in that charge. 

As novelist William Faulkner wrote in
“Intruder in the Dust,”

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances  … yet it’s going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago.”

Faulkner only amplified  the basic Southern error and misunderstanding that still endures.  Dixie did not lose the war. The bravery of the Union won it,

Generals Longstreet and Pickett did not only lose that weekend because that gives their failures more blame than they deserve. Gettysburg was Robert E. Lee’s idea. It was the deadliest, most arrogant error of the war.

Union Gen. George Gordon Meade was the uncelebrated star of that weekend. Nicknamed “Old Snapping Turtle” for  treating other officers rudely,  he won Gettysburg with the Army of the Potomac just as he had done with his own brigades at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg. 

He had been given Potomac command only three days before Gettysburg.

When Confederacy advocates relate Gettysburg now,  the translation reflects tragic loss of romantic dreams, and noble crusades thwarted. But war is seldom so nuanced. 

The truth was that Union had a better army led by better generals that weekend. The South did not lose the Civil War through a quirky misstep of fate. The Union had a better army. 

The Union and its army also had right on its side. That is seldom the focus of Civil War arguments now.

Researchers have estimated there are 18,000 books and doctoral dissertations written on Gettysburg since the end of  the war. That’s one every three days. Most are focused on strategy and blaming who failed at Gettysburg.

But democracy won, as did the intense calling to end slavery. From my cheap seat, that means the good guys won. But do we understand that now?

We often seem incapable of understanding the Union bravery and optimism delivered in that haunting battle. Or the gift it gave us and the world.

To the casual claim that service by America’s soldiers has protected the nation’s freedoms, those are the three days they should mean. 

No freedom was saved in Da Nang, Vietnam. 

But freedom and the nation were saved that weekend in 1863.

The nation’s freedom was saved on Cemetery Ridge.  Men died for that idea.

Union soldiers  expended their lives for our future. On those days now when we seem trapped in venal bickering and civic misbehavior, you can regret our deep national amnesia.

We should remember, but seem too distracted now to turn our gaze to the hills of Gettysburg this week. 

We have forgotten why and who we are.

Nothing strange is unexpected in Florida

By David Rutter 

For those who have never lived there, Florida remains a sunny, steamy, golden enigma. 

You want Florida, and will abide no evidence that suggests you don’t. We lust for it.

Fabulous foreign wealth and consumption teeter-totter there on the other end of dire poverty and human frailly, all fueled by conflicts so deep it’s a marvel how humanity can survive itself.

Or maybe, why should we hope humanity survives its depravities and pastel pants? We hope it does, because Florida is your rich playboy cousin you hope invites you to live with him when you’re 20. Florida is simultaneously beautifully steamy and seamy.

Speaking of dire poverty, I was a newsroom guy in Fort Myers which U.S. News & World Report named the best American city in which to retire. Fairly cheap. It’s hot and sunny, even at dawn, dusk and night.

You should never be surprised by Florida’s quirks. That a near-Miami condo fell down and killed dozens is tragic, but surprising only because it hadn’t happened sooner and more frequently. South Florida is always one loose rebar away from architectural catastrophe in the porous limestone they call dirt.

For acquiring such insight, temporary visiting doesn’t count. But because I lived there for 7.334 percent of my life, my insights are at least 7 percent true. We press on to enlightenment.

To those of us who lived in the eternal sunshine as permanent residents and moved north twice — imagine that — nothing bad or odd or weird that happens in Florida is unusual. It’s inevitable genetic disposition. 

Floridians elected a vain, intellectual thug  as governor this time, and seem to like him. Florida always has drawn its full allotment of transplanted murderers and worse, many of which your tax dollars hired and kept in power.

Half of South Florida wants to reanimate the corpse of dead Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and reinstall him in Cuba which he once ran and leased to the Mafia. Batista’s Frankenstinian return would dovetail nicely with Florida culture, sort of Mengele’s Sunny Weekend with Bernie.

Florida is built on two inches of top soil which is barely soil at all. It is a sand pile constantly inching back into the ocean. The Everglades has dirt but it also has 20-foot pythons. You always have choices in Florida.

South Florida’s social hierarchy is populated by all flavor of Hispanic and Latin cultures. They stir a grand, rich sauce  of real culture to which Anglo immigrants offer no competition. Try pico de gallo, a chunky and raw tomato-based salsa. But it’s not clear if Latin cultures blend in south Florida or merely replicate old national disdains. 

 Guatemalans hate the Nicaraguans who hate the Chileans who abhor the Brazilians who loathe the Dominicans who distrust the Colombians who despise the Haitians. They all hate the Haitians who speak Creole and French. Haitians sometimes speak Spanish just to irritate Cubans.

The Cubans hate everyone, except, of course, for Gloria Estefan and Pitbull who are Cuban royal Windsors.. 

With some valid historical reasons, they all hate yanqui imperialists. That’s us.

 As for the condo collapse, theoretically laws order condo builders to inform prospective buyers of any architectural perils. They never do that because it’s bad for business. If you want laws, move to Ohio.

You would have had to experience Florida historically first-hand as a resident to appreciate its manic obsession to build and sell high-rise condos — and golf courses. The state at last count had 48,000 homeowner associations (the most common method of condo buyers’ self-protection)  inhabited by 10 million owners, all wearing pastel blue and pink golf pants.

Of the state’s 20 million residents, the Census says 98 percent live on the coast or near enough to drown after a brief golf cart drive.

In fact, the entire state is predicated on temporary existence that gets more temporary by the hour. Disney World is one bad hurricane season from being a seaside attraction.

Miami someday will be a “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” Disney theme park.

 But, really, who cares? It’s always warm and sunny. Go to Duluth if you insist on freezing.

 However, the state’s pending return to the sea does obscure cultural oddities.

  Example? 

  The ground water table is so close to the surface that Floridians have no basements and no efficient way to bury dead people. It’s either mausoleums, cremation or ship grandma’s corpse back to Ann Arbor by cargo plane. As a result, Floridan culture literally is wide but not every deep, like a parking lot with palm trees.

As American Airlines Cargo advertising advises living customers: “Dry ice is not necessary to pack unembalmed remains. When using dry ice, remember that it will be subject to dangerous goods shipping regulations.” Good to know, though no sentence that includes the word “unembalmed” is a happy sentence.

Cargo shippers also transport leftover body parts north separately, in case grandma had a few good components left for sale.

Florida civilization, using that term loosely, is built a top Putt-Putt golf greens. I once asked a physician acquaintance in Fort Myers to describe Florida’s shared cultural values. “Aren’t any,” he said.  I looked. He was right,

But the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are coming to reclaim their property.  This is not theory but meteorological fact. 

A state with no shared culture is defenseless against such natural forces.

Now the best guess ahead by federal scientists? Miami’s sea level is rising on an average of 1 inch every 3 years. It is 8 inches higher than in 1950. Scientists now think that in the next 15 years, the sea level will rise another 6 inches, at a slightly faster rate.

By 2030, at least 800,000 who live in Miami’s Dade County will have to live somewhere else.

Zillow’s real estate statisticians list 20 urban areas in America that will suffer the most from rising seas, Florida has five: St Petersburg, Tampa, Miami, Miami Beach and Panama City. 

In 2016, Zillow predicted that one out of eight homes in Florida would be underwater by 2100, a loss of $413 billion in property.That was before the pace of polar icecap melting picked up speed.

The Union of Concerned Scientists surveyed the issue and verified that Miami Beach and the Florida Keys will be under water in 30 years.

Under water like Atlantis and your mortgage.

Climate change prevention? We don’t need no stinking climate change prevention. Bring me a margarita. 

But still they come, as they always have. There are 35 billionaires there but 40 percent of Dade residents live below the poverty line. Just like Guatemala and Paraguay.

The rich are very rich there, and the poor are even poorer.

Batista was one of the rich ones. 

In one of his occasional required escapes from Havana, Batista resided in Miami at the  large pink home at 640 NW North River Drive, Miami. The walls were solid concrete. The next owner found an open safe there that contained 1,000 photo portraits of Batista’s dead political rivals — all shot once in the head. Your tax dollars.

In South Florida, your next door neighbor could be a retired death squad organizer from El Salvador or a retired insurance salesman from Hoboken.

We were all jumbled into a gumbo of strangers. But we were warm. At the same time I lived in Delray Beach, Batista lived in the pink home down U.S. 41. 

That was 1952, and I was 5 at the time. 

That also was the year the U.S. State Department organized a coup and gave Cuba back to Batista. So he left the pink house.

Little has changed there.

Even now, no one talks much in South Florida about their good old days. As Miami Times writer Tim Elfrink wrote of South Florida’s allure to former U.S.-paid-and-installed torturers, dictators, and right wing assassins: “We make Casablanca look like a Daffy Duck cartoon.” 

None of this is new to the state. Orville Elias Babcock Sr. was a Union Army general and President Grant’s right hand man until tax corruption forced him to leave Washington.

Grant put him in charge of lighthouses in Florida, and he drowned on the job in 1884.   Hey, it’s Florida. 

They embalmed him and put his body on a train headed north.