Monthly Archives: November 2013

Reflections ~ Holiday Haunts

I am always conflicted when it comes to holidays.  It may be in part due to the historian in me.  I’m always poking into closets and behind the curtains to see what there is to know about origins and metamorphosis.  Consequently, I often find the unpleasant aspects of things we have learned to cherish.  A few examples might be appropriate.


Courtesy of WANA Commons & Patti O’Shea

Christmas is not about the birth of Christ.  The celebrations that the human species have established during the winter solstice are varied and have changed and morphed throughout the millennia.  These celebrations usually centered on the return of longer days, the change in seasons.  December 25th (or so) is the date that the sun has returned a full degree into the sky and all the priests knew it was “coming back,” although a long winter may still be in the offing.  Christians used a time of celebrations and gift giving to allow the open celebration of the coming of Christ.  Jesus, you see, was actually born in the spring.

Easter.  I think my awakening on this account came the year I realized I was celebrating a risen Savior nearly a full month before the Passover.  Ummm, wait a minute.  Isn’t it supposed to be, Last Supper, Night of Passing the Buck, Crucifixion, burial, missing body.  How could the calendar get so jumbled up this was all in reverse mode?  That would be because Easter, as it is celebrated in the Western World, has little to do with Passover.  It is celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox. It is the ancient fertility festival of planting, new life and the hearts of young men and women. Oh, and ham would have been the LAST thing on the mind of a cook for a Passover meal.

I try to ignore Columbus Day as much as I can, usually referring to it as Yellow-Fever Day.  Sorry, but Columbus did not discover America (lots of people were here already and Europeans and Asians had been making the trip for centuries).  His arrival was, however, the spark that led to centuries of slavery and systematic eradication of native culture and history.  And natives.

So, full circle and here we are at Thanksgiving.  Pilgrims and “Indians,” lots of food and wonderful harvest and all that.  Except that it wasn’t.  The very first Thanksgiving was the celebration of a massacre sparked by the death of one individual.  It’s not terribly clear what he died of.  In many ways the holiday is quite offensive to Native Americans.  By some twist of strange psychology I know this and accept this but still see great value in the focus of the holiday.  Perhaps it’s because for me the origins provide an even deeper reason to stop, contemplate and share.

The holidays are a very stressful season and usually open wide familial wounds and conflicts.  It is evidently not true that suicides and depression increase during this time of year, (NYU Langone Medical) If there are any issues it is with the “Winter Blues.” But there is still stress. I have, in years past, found my own way of seeking peace on this day of reflection. Perhaps, in part, because I know that good fortune is sometimes at the cost of another’s loss.

Some years ago I was one of the founders and operators of a private retreat property in Montana.  It was our practice to open our doors on major holidays to anyone and everyone that would come.  It was not necessary to bring anything, just come.  I would cook for 2, sometimes 3 days to prepare for the event and we would end up borrowing dishes and utensils from all over the place. I remember one Thanksgiving when we managed to convince a Viet Nam veteran to visit.  He braved the encounter and by the end of the day he was the favorite uncle of all the younger children.  A substitute family, but one that brought him joy.  You see, that is what Thanksgiving means to me.

Visit a neighbor, a friend, a family member.  Avoid the stores at all costs.  If you eat out think of some way to thank those who gave up their holiday to serve you.  Find a way to support those in America with far less.  Maybe add to a local food bank as millions of Americans see a cut in their food stamp support.  Smile, hug, hold a door open.  Stop, for just one day and appreciate what you have and seek ways to share it. There is always someone else with less, someone who paid for your bounty.


Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, Personal Journeys

Reflections ~ If you were “there,” it never really goes away.

This week, here in America, many of us are recognizing a moment in history when the course of our history changed.  I know there are many such moments; times when the myriad possibilities that stretch before us solidify into the future path.  However, if you were alive and well in the early 60s; the assassination of President Kennedy was more than a defining moment.  It was a moment when the darker side of American existence pushed and shoved its way into the public eye.  For better or worse, on that day, America did indeed “lose her innocence.”

ST-C420-51-63At the urging of a friend I picked up a copy of Stephen King’s, 11/22/63.   She opened a chat line on Facebook so that we could discuss our interpretations and feelings on the novel and that moment in history.  My answer will be to post a link to this blog.  For me, it was an all-consuming (whenever possible) read.  You see, I was around and old enough to be cognizant all those many years ago.

King’s story is an exquisite adventure into time travel.  I was completely drawn into his mental exercise of what the implications of time travel might be.  How no matter how fervently we wish to change the past that change can cause repercussions we are even less happy with.  No matter how hard we try to make sense of the horror or randomness of life’s pathways; there can be even more horrible consequences should we meddle.

Reading the story sent me on my own nostalgic trip. Using faithful and ever present Google I looked up the home that I lived in with my parents in 1963.  It was in Colorado Springs, Colorado.  Interesting, the house is still green and the retaining wall we built is still there – at least it was when the street-level Google photo was taken.  It took a bit more research but I finally found the elementary school I was attending and as soon as I saw the name I had a “George” moment: Whittier Elementary.  A fairly sizable school within suitable walking distance of our home.  No, I only walked uphill one way, but the winds of my youth were very, very cold (dress code demanded that girls wear skirts) and the snow could get rather deep in that part of the country.  I also saw that my “short cut” was still there.

It was during our lunch time recess that there was an announcement on the PA system; we were having an emergency assembly.  I remember filing into the auditorium with everyone else on that day and seeing our principal and most of the teaching staff on stage.  Nearly all of them were in tears.   With a breaking voice our principal informed us that our president had been assassinated.  School was being closed, everyone was being sent home.  If you did not have acceptable arrangements at home, please speak with your teacher.  Thanks, but no thanks.  I’ll be fine.  And I walked home.

I don’t remember when my parents got home, or what their specific responses were.  I think my mother was deeply affected, I’m not really sure about my father. For me the world was suddenly something I heard down some tunnel we like to think of as reality.  My home life was not a pleasant thing.  Better than some, worse than others, but behind our walls some of that “innocence” of the day was most definitely cracked and pealed.

In the 60s child abuse was something that happened most often in the comfort of your own home (or educational institution) with hot chocolate and marshmallows.   It wasn’t talked about.  Any more than the performance of a drunken actress singing happy birthday to her own, very special president was talked about.   America had won the war.  We were healthy economically, on top of the world politically and our borders were secure.  Our president had avoided nuclear war with an intense game of chess (or poker) and we were all breathing easier for the victory.  Suddenly, that all shattered.  For me it was truly personal because I had held a belief that “once I left home” I would be in control of my own life.  The assassination of a controversial, but beloved president blew that vision into a million shards of star dust.  Nowhere was safe.  Absolutely nowhere.

I will, of course, never know what my journey might have been if I could have retained my belief in a safe America.  An America where people somehow believed that rhetoric does not create real events, real impact.  I say this because I firmly believe that at least part of the community guilt that Dallas suffered was due to the hot bed of racial and religious intolerance that was evident not too far below the surface if not quite frankly out in the open.  King does an excellent job of describing our country in that age.  The segregation, treatment of women, the slums, the real hatred that some held for our internationally renowned “leading couple.”  There was a bubbling current of talk about how the man should be shot; he was nothing but a commie and he would surely lead us all into perdition; most assuredly if he made us live side by side with “those others.”  I am sure there are many that thought good riddance; but there were others who felt just as guilty as if they had fired the shot themselves.  The underbelly of America.  Prejudice, poverty, fear for the future in a nuclear world.  It was no longer possible to ignore it.

King, after researching the matter with the zeal of a writer, does not think there was a conspiracy.  What feelings of “conspiracy” I have are limited to the opportunistic use of the event rather than any forethought or planning.  Although I’m sure there was plenty of that going on.  Of all of the work I have read myself on the subject, the best and most believable is Mortal Error: The Shot that Killed Kennedy by Bonar Mennings.  It is the story of 25 years of research by a man named Howard Donahue.  Donahue is a ballistics and gun expert and was involved in one of the many investigations that followed the event.   It is a completely different take on the events of that day.   Anything I say about the book will be a true spoiler.  It was, for me, a bit of closure.

After 50 years, where does this story leave me?  I have to say that it may have influenced my life more than I have previously acknowledged.  I am an avid student of history.  Not just the dates, events, names, and chronologies; I love to sort out the pieces and see if the trail of consequences leads me to some conclusion not obvious in the written record.  What were the pivotal moments in history that caused kingdoms to rise or fall or individuals to become heroes or villains? Do the same circumstances in another place and time change the label of hero or villain; do they change the outcome?

The other part of that repercussion is my intense interest in philosophy and religion.  Is life really random?  Is there anything concrete we can depend on, or is it all a blind act of faith?  Is there some hope that we can navigate our lives in such a way that our journey, and that of others that we touch, is somehow better and not destroyed in some small or great way?

That brings, me then, to my current work in progress.  I think in my exploration of the life of Job and in the various interpretations of his story and his response I am going back to these fundamental questions.  Why do such horrible things happen?  Is there a plan, or only a vague path through the “lesser horror” and a hope for mitigation?  What is the impact of “change,” when and if it is even possible?  Perhaps you’d like to make the journey with me.


Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Bookshelf ~ Fiction, Personal Journeys

Book Review ~ When Kings were Gods that Bled

I, the Sun, by Janet Morris Available on Amazon for around $26.00 in paperback and $10.00 in Kindle.

the suneSince history is one of my first and most cherished loves I am rather picky when seeking the “historical fiction” story.  It’s not because I don’t enjoy a great story, it’s because I want to read the work of authors that cared enough to really do their homework when it comes to describing people, places and events somewhere in our past.  Janet Morris took me on a journey that I have rarely experienced.  Be prepared to stay up late at night and grab moments in the day until you help The Sun mount his chariot for his final ride.

Throughout the reading of this fascinating and meticulously written history I had to constantly resist the urge to return to my own history texts to see what would happen next.  Morris laces the book with the words of Suppilulima I himself (although in a slightly modernized version of the ancient record).  Her story is peopled with documented participants from the court of the king of Hattie (save for one very unfortunate slave girl).

Suppiluliam I was the throne name of the king of the Hittites ca 1344-1322 BCE.  Taking the throne by force in his late teens he immediately proceeded to rebuild the reputation of the ancient Hittite Empire through statescraft and war.  Through his early connections with mercenaries, and one of his father-in-laws, he built one of the most extensive and responsive intelligence networks in the ancient world.  He was nearly killed in a war against Mitanni, but regained his strength and eventually reduced that country to a vassal state.   His most unfortunate error in timing and strategic planning was the offer of his son, Zannanza to the widow of Tutankhamun.  On the way to Egypt, Zannanza’s party was attacked by the forces of Horemheb and all were murdered.  The elderly Ay then took the throne of Egypt at the side of the young widow.

The assault against Zannanza ignited a firestorm in the Hittite Empire and The Sun set out to do battle against any and all of Egypt’s protectorates just as the country was beginning to awaken from the daze imposed by Akhenaten and the worship of his one god – Aten.  Successful in battle, the armies were not able to combat the plague introduced by the Egyptian prisoners.  The plague killed both Suppiluliuma I and his successor and eldest son, Arnuwanda II.

It is not an easy task to bring these ancient courts to life.  Often a writer comes across stilted or sounds like a monument builder more than a recorder of human activities including their joys and pain.  Many of these stories have no life, no everyday struggles that make up the recorded history.  What manner of men and women built these great empires and suffered these epic defeats?  Morris brings these people alive and does so in brilliant prose.  Painting the picture of a man who struck terror in the hearts of many a king; she also shows the warrior taken and held by the touch of a woman that could match him as a king.  Most obvious in the story is the love Suppiluliam I had for his queen Khinti.  A woman left to rule in his place while he sought control of the ancient Middle East; and who in her loneliness could not resist the temptation of those left at home.  As beloved as she was, Morris paints the pain of a sovereign granted the status of a god when he is forced to exile his wife for adultery rather than have her killed as demanded by the law.   It is many years before a son of his first queen reunites the two.

The history of the Hittite kingdom is not a great mystery since a large amount of information has survived that tells us about the events, people and life style of the kingdom in the form of clay tablets and stone monuments.  If, however, you prefer to take your history in the form of a story told by those who lived it, I highly recommend this wonderful and engrossing read.


Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Bookshelf ~ Before Current Era, My Bookshelf ~ Fiction

Finding the History in the Legend

History.  A call I can never seem to ignore, a need to see the wisdom and the folly of the past to better understand the shape of the present.  One of the things I most respect in the telling of a piece of history, wherever in the world the stage may form, is the care of the storyteller to see the participants as real people.  People with real needs, real trials, and real accomplishments.  My friend Edward Frank is such a person.

As he will tell you, Edward is a passionate caver.  He spends much of his time working toward a more balanced and sustainable treatment of the globe on which we live.  From his work as a geologist to his work with the Native Tree Society, he is focused on issues and on the human impact of our decisions now and in the future.  It was with great pleasure that I saw him take on this new task.  I sincerely believe he can bring the stories of these past men to life.  This is the story of men who suffered the ignominy of being “property,” and yet excelled in the tasks set before them.   These men were explorers and conquerors in their own right and their story should be told.

Please welcome my guest this week, Edward Frank.


headerThe Black Guides of Mammoth Cave:  A Documentary

My name is Edward Frank and I am developing a documentary video about the Black Guides of Mammoth Cave.  My partners in the effort are filmmaker Phoebe Frear and award winning, bestselling author and screen writer Steven Barnes.   I am a geologist by training and have been a caver for over thirty years (with numerous publications), a web designer, and filmmaker.  Phoebe Frear is a talented young filmmaker who has produced short documentary and theatrical videos with her production company Elephant Trunk Films.  Steven Barnes is an award winning science fiction writer, a NY Times bestselling author, and a screen writer with his work appearing on numerous television series.

The genesis of this project really took place several years ago.  On a visit to the park I took the short walk down the Heritage Trail to the “Old Guide’s Cemetery” to visit the grave of Stephen Bishop.   Stephen Bishop was a slave who was taken to Mammoth Cave in 1838, along with fellow slaves Materson Bransford and Nick Bransford.  They were to serve as guides for tourists who wanted to visit the cave.  In addition to his service as a guide Stephen began exploring the cave.  He was the first to cross the Bottomless Pit and to see the miles of cave beyond.  He was the first to see Gorin’s Dome, the first to see the Echo River, and first to discover the blind, white, troglobitic cave fish dwelling there.  His exploits are legendary.  As the first great American cave explorer, he is an iconic and almost mythological figure within the present day caver community.

After a short walk I arrived at the “Old Guide’s Cemetery.”    There were two signs flanking the viewing area.   On the left side of one sign was an image of Stephen Bishop, Dr. Croghan, the Mammoth Cave Hotel, and a hut from the ill-fated tuberculosis hospital briefly located within the cave. The right side of this sign showed an image of Stephen Bishop’s tombstone.

The second sign was devoted to African American Heritage at the park.  It showed a large photo of Ed Bishop who is Stephen Bishop’s great-nephew.   I had never really thought about Stephen Bishop’s family and had not known he had a brother, let alone a great nephew.  Three photos flanked the right side of the sign.  The first showed guide William Garvin and his wife Hannah at a small farmstead they owned.  The second showed students at the segregated Mammoth Cave School, circa 1910.  The third photo showed a mixed group of both black and white cave guides who worked at the cave in the 1930’s, prior to the cave property becoming a National Park.

Who were these men?  What were their stories?  What of their families?  It bothered me that while I recognized the name Stephen Bishop and could recount some of his exploits, I knew virtually nothing about the other guides who worked in the cave.  In actuality I knew very little about Stephen Bishop himself beyond the popular caricature presented to the general public.

My resolve to learn more about these men was crystallized only a few minutes later inside the park’s Visitor’s Center.  I was examining some of the early photographs from the cave posted as part of a display when I met a guide working there.  His name was Jerry Bransford.

photosmJerry Bransford is the great-great-grandson of Mat Bransford, one of the original slave guides at the cave.  He was the fifth generation of Bransfords to have been a guide at the cave, and the first to lead tours in 66 years.  His uncle Louis Bransford left the guide service when the National Park was established.  His story brought home to me how little I knew about these men.

This is a piece of history that deserved to be told and had to be told. This was the genesis of this documentary project.   I will strive to create a balanced presentation that both deals with the men’s tribulations first as slaves and later free men in the face of segregation and discrimination, and their accomplishments as cave explorers.  I want to put a human face on these men as individuals and acknowledge the roles they, their descendants, and other African Americans have had in the history of the cave and the surrounding communities.

The website at outlines the basic structure.  The documentary would be approximately 50 minutes in length and done in the style of the History Channel’s “History’s Mysteries” and “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC.  On January 10, 2014 an Indiegogo crowd funding effort will begin.  If you are interested in the project please donate at that time.  I have also created a Facebook Page: and a Twitter Account: @blackcaveguides for the project.

Thank you Edward.  I am looking forward to watching the progress of the project and to see the finished product!



Filed under Humanties for the Unbound Mind, My Bookshelf ~ Current Era