“Jefferson Survives”

As we approach the Fourth of July, I want to tell you a true story of American history – one that is so remarkable, if some Hollywood scriptwriter came up with it, he or she would be laughed out of the room, for inventing such nonsense. Except that in this case, it’s really true. It’s a story that revolves around two of our nation’s Founding Fathers.

Over their lifetimes, Thomas Jefferson (left) and John Adams were co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, the best of friends, and the worst of enemies. They would eventually rebuild their relationship through a series of personal letters, before dying on the same day – July 4, 1826.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were about as different as two people could be in the 1700s. Jefferson was tall and lanky; Adams was short and stocky. Jefferson was a slave-holding Virginian and a farmer; Adams was a Massachusetts abolitionist and successful lawyer and author. Jefferson believed in the supremacy of state’s rights and feared a strong central government; Adams thought that a strong central national government was essential, especially regarding the economy, trade, and foreign relations.

Yet despite these differences, the two men became fast friends and each of them held a deep and mutual respect for the other. They were co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1776. In fact, some historians believe it was Adams who insisted that Jefferson be the primary author of the final draft of the Declaration. Adams served as George Washington’s Vice President, while Jefferson became the young nation’s first Secretary of State. That was when the relationship began to fracture.

Divided over opposing views of the French Revolution and the future of American government, the two became bitter political enemies. Their feud was so bitter, so angry, that when Jefferson defeated Adams in 1800 – involving what some said was a corrupt vote in the House of Representatives. Adams left town and would not attend Jefferson’s inauguration. They would not speak for twelve years.

Finally, another of the nation’s founders, Benjamin Rush (also a signer of the Declaration), came up with a scheme to reunite the old friends. He wrote to each of them, claiming that he had been in touch with the other, and saying that the other man was wanting to rekindle the friendship. On January 1, 1812, Adams wrote a short note to Jefferson at Monticello. Over the next 14 years, the two would exchange 158 letters.

Adams tended to write longer letters and used a LOT more words (perhaps true to his background as an attorney and a writer). Those who have studied the correspondence note that Adams was more confrontational and aggressive, while Jefferson maintained the cool composure for which he was so well known.

They talked about their views on religion and philosophy, and they discussed the long-term effects of the French Revolution, which had been one of the main causes of their initial dispute. Jefferson acknowledged the unfairness of the name-calling done against Adams by some of Jefferson’s followers. Eventually, each had regained the trust of the other. In July 1813, Adams wrote, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

Their later letters continued to cover a wide range of topics and subjects – even anticipating the growing sectional differences that would eventually lead to the American Civil War. But what really comes through their notes to one other is the tender affection and abiding respect each had for the other. Even as the two elderly statesmen grew older and more infirm, they continued to correspond. In 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious. But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of every thing.”

Jefferson, 83, was suffering from an intestinal disorder on July 3, 1826. He lapsed into a coma that afternoon and lingered in a semi-conscious state before dying just after noon the next day. Five hundred miles away, John Adams, now 90, was dying from typhoid – the same disease that had claimed his beloved wife Abigail, in 1818. Historians note that his final words were, “Jefferson survives”– not knowing that his beloved friend, foe, correspondent, and fellow patriot, had in fact, died only hours earlier.

It was July 4, 1826 – exactly fifty years to the day since the Declaration of Independence.

The USS Haskell – A Little-Known Story of World War II

It has been said that there are numerous acts of heroism, bravery, and service during a war that are seldom remembered or celebrated as they should be. In my opinion, one such story is that of the USS Haskell, and the Haskell County sailor who served on her.

USS Haskell, APA 117, was the lead ship of a class of vessels known as “attack transports,” one of 119 ships of that designation, built and launched in 1944 and 45. Designed to carry troops into battle, most of these ships were named for counties across the U.S.

The Haskell was named for counties in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. She was 455 feet long and 62 feet wide, with a maximum speed of 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour). Her crew consisted of 56 officers and 480 enlisted men. Besides being able to carry over 1500 combat troops and their equipment, the ship had 29 landing craft for deploying them on the beach. She was also armed with numerous anti-aircraft weapons and had a complete hospital on board.

The USS Haskell, APA 117, docked at San Francisco Bay, 1945.

The Haskell was launched June 13, 1944, and commissioned September 11. She arrived in San Francisco on October 18 and began loading troops and supplies. She crossed the equator and the International Date Line before participating in the New Guinea offensive.

Throughout 1945, she repeatedly carried troops and supplies to assault enemy-held beaches. She was attacked three times by enemy submarines and survived their torpedo attacks, and came under fire in numerous air attacks. She shot down her first enemy aircraft on January 11. She participated in two hostile landings in the Philippines and another at Okinawa, where she also served as a hospital ship. During her combat, the Haskell suffered one fatality and 28 wounded.

The Haskell was in friendly waters in Seattle on August 12, when “V-J Day” was announced, but her service was not over. The ship began ferrying replacement personnel and occupation forces across the Pacific and bringing home demobilized troops. During one of these missions, the Haskell had to ride out a violent typhoon, with winds of 185 mph. She also brought over 1,400 released Allied POWs to Manila for further medical care before returning to the U.S. The ship made two more trips across the Pacific as part of “Operation Magic Carpet” before being ordered to sail for Norfolk, Virginia, via the Panama Canal. She arrived in Virginia and was decommissioned on May 22, 1946. She became part of the Reserve Fleet but was eventually scrapped on July 30, 1973. During her service, the Haskell sailed over 120,000 miles, crossed the equator four times and the International Date Line ten times. She visited more than 15 foreign countries and transported and/or landed over 14,000 allied military personnel on enemy beaches.

Serving on the Haskell during her entire tenure was a young man from Rochester, Leroy Wreyford, the son of Lawrence and Hattie Mae (Hester) Wreyford. The Wreyfords had a laundry just east of town on the Weinert Highway and were the parents of three sons and a daughter – Alton, Leroy, Donald, and Georgia – and all of the boys served in the war. Lee was born May 7, 1926.

He graduated from Rochester High in 1943 and joined the Navy. Of his service he would later say, “I boarded the USS Haskell, 10 September 1944, as a member of the landing craft crews. I was assigned as one of six to the Beach Control Boat Crew, always landing in the first wave. I remained on the Haskell the entire time she was a commissioned Naval vessel. She covered a lot of miles and did a magnificent job in her short service to her country.”

Seaman 1c Leroy Wreyford, USNR, of Rochester.

For his service on the ship, Seaman First Class Wreyford earned the World War II Victory Medal and the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon with Bronze Star, given for “outstanding heroism in action against the enemy.” He also earned the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, and the Philippines Liberation Medal with Bronze Star. He died on December 26, 2020.

So that’s the story of the USS Haskell, her service to our country, and the Rochester man who served aboard her. Many thanks to all those who helped me research and bring it to you, including Johnny & Teresa Scoggins, Billy Wayne Hester, Linda Short, Jane Short, Susan Turner, John & Mary Rike, and of course, the wonderful ladies at the Haskell County Library.

“…Lest we forget.”

Mr. Spafford’s Testimony

H.G. Spafford was a force in Chicago in the early 1870s. He was a wealthy, senior partner in a major law firm, a real estate developer, and a devout elder in his Presbyterian Church. He and his wife Anna loved to entertain guests in their comfortable home, and they became friends and supporters of the world-famous Chicago minister Dwight L. Moody. They were the parents of a son and four daughters.

Chicago lawyer and businessman Horatio G. Spafford. Spafford was a devout elder in the Presbyterian Church. In the 1870s, he and his wife Anna were the parents of five children.

In 1870, their four-year-old son, Horatio, Junior, died suddenly of scarlet fever. Then in October of 1871, a massive fire swept through downtown Chicago and the city’s north side, where Mr. Spafford was heavily invested in a real estate development. The immense blaze cost over 300 lives and left more than 100,000 Chicagoans homeless. Even though their entire investment was gone, and being close to ruin financially themselves, the Spaffords nevertheless continued to demonstrate Christian hospitality, showing the love of Jesus in the face of tragedy.

Two years later, in 1873, Horatio and his wife decided they would take their four daughters and go to Europe for a lengthy visit. Even though his business interests had been hit hard in the national Financial Panic of 1873, Horatio and Anna intended to help their friend, Evangelist D.L. Moody, who was then planning an extended evangelistic crusade in England. The family booked space on the steamship SS Ville du Havre, but last-minute business complications forced Horatio to remain in Chicago. The plan then was for Anna and the four daughters – 11-year-old Anna, 9-year-old Margaret Lee, 5-year-old Elizabeth, and 2-year-old Tanetta – to go on, and Mr. Spafford would join them as soon as he could.

On November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship, the freighter Loch Earn. The passenger ship sank in only 12 minutes, and 226 people died in the disaster – including all four of the Spafford daughters. Only 61 passengers and 26 crew members survived, but miraculously, one of those rescued was Anna Spafford. She was found unconscious, floating on a piece of timber. She would later tell a fellow survivor, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.” When the rescued passengers reached Cardiff, Wales, Anna sent a telegram back to her husband that read, “Saved alone.”

Horatio booked passage to rejoin his devasted wife. A few days later, as they were on their way across the Atlantic, the captain of the vessel summoned Mr. Spafford to the bridge and told him, “We are now passing over the spot where the Ville du Havre went down.” Mr. Spafford went back to his cabin and began to think of his four young daughters, dying in those cold waters, three miles deep. And then he began to write,

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
   When sorrows, like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
   It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well (it is well) with my soul (with my soul),
   It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Later, when American hymnist Philip P. Bliss wrote a melody for Mr. Spafford’s words, he named the tune after the ill-fated liner, calling it “Ville du Havre.” It was first published in 1876. Personally, I particularly appreciate the verse that says –

My sin - oh the bliss of this glorious thought! -
   My sin - not in part, but the whole -
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more:
   Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

The hymn, of course, is still sung to this day, and we continue to hear Mr. Spafford’s testimony through its message, so let me respectfully suggest something. The next time you sing this song, take a moment and reflect on Horatio and Anna Spafford. Remember the tragedy they suffered, then give thanks to God who has used their incredible faith in such a beautiful way over the years, to create a hymn that gives us such a powerful testimony. May we be encouraged, and may our faith be strengthened, so that we can join in and affirm with them, from our hearts: It is well with my soul.

Skull Rock and the Garden Tomb

When I was a kid, a name like “Skull Rock” sounded spooky, a little creepy, very adventurous. It was the sort of place where Peter Pan and the boys from Never, Never Land would hang out. It was a fun place to visit at Six Flags over Texas when I was younger, with its slightly scary green lighting and its fun, twisty slide to play on.

This foreboding cliff looks like a skull when the sunlight hits it just right.
It is part of the area known as “Gordon’s Calvary,” near the Garden Tomb.

It never occurred to me that there might have been a real Skull Rock. And that it would be anything but fun to visit. At least, it never occurred to me, until I actually went there.

I have written before about my 2009 visit to Israel. During that trip, I learned that there are actually two different sites identified as the possible location where Jesus was crucified. Although they are both within the main environs of Jerusalem now, both would have been outside the city walls back in Jesus’ day. Both have elements to recommend them as the “real” location, and both have shallow caves nearby, where Jesus could have been buried, in keeping with the story as told in the Gospels.

One, of course, is the site contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the historically accepted spot, with visitors going back at least to the 300s. It’s there we find the oldest traditions about the rocky hill on which Jesus was crucified and the nearby, borrowed, tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where He was buried. The final few stations along the famous “Via Dolorosa” – the Way of Suffering – are located there.

But over the years, the old location has been gilded over and gold plated. It’s had shrines erected over and beside it, so much so that only with the greatest stretch of imagination can you picture in your mind what it must have been like 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was actually there. Metal shields have actually been installed in some parts, to prevent souvenir hunters from chipping off a chunk of rock to take home with them. The candles, the incense, the fabric draperies – it all seems more fake, more “Hollywood,” and less like a location where public executions took place.

At least, that’s the reaction that a lot of American visitors, especially Protestants, have. And so, while that location definitely has the better historical claim to being the actual site of the crucifixion, there is another spot that is more preferred by a lot of Christians who want to see the spot where Jesus died, was buried, and three days later, rose again.

Gordon’s Calvary is about a third of mile away. Charles Gordon was a British General and amateur archeologist who helped popularized the location, and so his name is associated with it. One of the things that is so special about it is a limestone cliff, jutting up from the ground. Two deep depressions in the side of the cliff remind visitors of a skull’s empty eye sockets – and so the cliff is known, unofficially, as “Skull Rock.” (Both “Golgotha” and “Calvary” refer to a skull in their original languages.) If this was the execution spot, it would have been an appropriate name – both for its appearance, and for the painful events that took place there.

So imagine, if you will, that you are a visitor to Jerusalem in those days, coming in from Jericho. As you enter the city, near the main gates, you see a large cliff, and there, in front of that cliff (and not on top of it), you see a number of crosses there, with the prisoners being executed. And a few dozen yards away, a number of shallow caves in the side of the cliff have been hollowed out to serve as graves.

This is the Garden Tomb. And those caves are empty.

Was this where Jesus was crucified? Honestly, we don’t know. As I said, both the traditional Golgotha and Gordon’s Calvary have their advocates. But wherever it was, I invite you to join with me this weekend as we remember those events. Let us give thanks that wherever the tomb of Jesus was, it is empty!

Anticipating the Bluebonnets

One of my favorite parts of living in Texas will soon be with us again. It’s almost time for the bluebonnets, our state flower, to make their annual visit.

When I was growing up in East Texas, bluebonnets were not as common as they are now. The state had not yet started the practice of seeding wildflowers along Texas highways, and the beautiful blue flowers were not as widespread as they have since become. We had plenty of the pink primrose wildflowers – my brothers and I used to call them “buttercups” because of their yellow center – along with a type of daisy, crimson clover, and lots of other types of “pretty weeds,” but bluebonnets – well, not so much.

I was in high school the first time I saw a giant field of “Lupinus Texensis,” as the most common variety is known. We were on a school trip, going to Brenham, and I spied what I thought was a beautiful blue lake beside the road. It was a pasture completely covered in bluebonnets; to me, it looked like looked like there were two skies, one above the other. Fifty years later, I still remember how beautiful they were.

My mom tried for years to get some bluebonnets to grow at their home in Orange County, but without much luck. Even under the best of conditions, they are hard flowers to get started, and it’s just too wet in that part of the state for them to do well (that’s hard for folks in West Texas to imagine!). But bless her heart, my mom kept trying. And then one spring after she passed, my dad sent me a picture he had snapped of mom’s bluebonnets blooming there on their place. He was so proud. She would have loved it.

Bluebonnets were designated as the “official” state flower in 1901, and contrary to popular belief, it is NOT illegal to pick them. It is not recommended, though, because like any wildflower, they will wilt almost immediately after you pick them. And it’s a right of passage for Texas families to take pictures of the kids, posing in the middle of a bluebonnet patch. Just be careful doing that: in some parts of the state especially, you’ll need to watch out for rattlesnakes in the middle of the flowers.

There are believed to be six different versions of the bluebonnets, from the common ones that are best known, to the giant “Big Bend” variety that can be found in that part of Southwest Texas. Some versions that are totally white, and the research plant specialists at Texas A&M even created a maroon variety! But the familiar blue and white kind are the best known. And whether you call them buffalo clover, wolf flower, or even by their Spanish name of “el conejo” (“the rabbit”), they are close to the heart of most Texans. And I’m thankful for the work of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Texas Highway Department for their efforts at expanding the flower’s coverage.

Besides bluebonnets, of course, be sure to look for the many other gorgeous Texas wildflowers, including Indian Paintbrush, the red-and-yellow Indian Blanket (also known as Firewheel), the pink or purple Coneflower, Giant Spiderwort, various colors of Phlox, and many more. By the way, Coneflower is a type of echinacea, which has long been used in natural medicine and which can be found in different types of cough drops.

Central Texas around Austin, and the Hill Country, are great places to see big fields of bluebonnets. Ennis, Texas, is also a popular location, along with Burnet, but the best places in the state will vary somewhat from year to year. If you’re interested in taking your own road trip, you can check with the Texas Highway Department and their magazine, Texas Highways. I also highly recommend printing out your own free guide to Texas wildflowers, downloadable at ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/trv/wildflowers/wildflowers_brochure.pdf.

However you choose to enjoy the bluebonnets, have a safe trip as you spend time with your family and enjoy the awesome Texas scenery and perfect spring weather. And God bless Texas.

Lessons from Saint Patrick

One of my favorite days of the year, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – is almost here. It’s one of my favorites not because I especially love wearing green, but because there really was a man named Patrick who deserves to be remembered.

Patrick was not Irish by birth but was actually born in England or Wales in the late 300s. By his own account, he was NOT a Christian as a young man. At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he stayed for six years. He spent much of that time tending sheep, and he also became a believer. Eventually he managed to escape his captors and return to Britain, but after studying for the priesthood, he had a vision of the people of Ireland begging him to return to their island and bring them the gospel.

Ireland at the time was a coarse, pagan land – tribal chieftains competing for power, constant battles, the people worshiping various pagan gods and goddesses, widespread kidnapping and slavery. Patrick brought his faith, and in one generation, Ireland was at peace and slavery had been abolished.

How he brought about such a great social change is too long a story to relate here, but part of it involved Patrick selecting a group of young disciples and pouring himself into them. He would spend about three years, teaching them and showing them how to walk out their faith – then he would send them on their way to put their Christianity into practice. Some of them would become farmers, some shepherds, some craftsmen – and some would become pastors and begin gathering followers of their own. Meanwhile, he would gather up another group of a dozen or so, and start over.

Their influence spread, and it changed the entire culture. For Patrick and his students, Christianity was not a set of doctrines to be studied – it was a way of life to be followed. The message of the gospel wasn’t just about saving people’s souls – it was about making a real difference, improving people’s lives in the here and now. Celtic Christianity wasn’t about going to church to find God – it was about recognizing that God shows Himself in every sunrise and sunset, every blade of grass and mountain stream, and we can see Him through His creation, if we will just look.

This style of cross is known as a “Celtic Cross,” pronounced with a hard “k” sound at the beginning – “KEL-tic.” The circle represents eternity, and the beautifully engraved knotwork symbolizes a bond that cannot be broken. The three steps remind us of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that God is always with us – past, present, and future.

There are many legends about Patrick; one says that he used the three-leafed shamrock (already a sacred plant in Irish life) to teach the people the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If that’s true, it certainly fits with what we know of Patrick’s teaching that we should never worship creation, but that the creation points us to the Creator, and it is the Creator we must worship.

One of my favorite things about Saint Patrick is a prayer attributed to him, known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” and also as “The Cry of the Deer.” It expresses a prayer that is very close to my heart, and says in part –

God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me
.

And another part says,

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye of everyone who sees me,
Christ in the ear of everyone who hears me.

If you want to learn more about Patrick, I suggest How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I think it’s one of the most entertaining history books ever written.

So Happy St. Patrick’s Day. And Erin Go Bragh!

Pieces of the Past

People sometimes ask me how I became so interested in trains. No, I never worked for a railroad, nor my dad nor his father before him. (I did have a distant uncle and some cousins who worked for the railroad in East Texas – more about that in a minute.) But trains have been in my blood since I was a kid, watching them go by my grandparent’s home in Grayburg, Texas – near Beaumont on the Missouri Pacific main line between New Orleans and Houston.

I’ve known several men who worked for various railroads, and many of them don’t understand the attraction for railfans. To them, it’s a job – period. But to me, and other lovers of all things rail-related, it’s a passion.

One part of the hobby I enjoy is collecting railroad memorabilia, or as it is sometimes called, railroadiana. Like any form of collecting, there are different ways to enjoy this hobby. Some collectors get all they can of certain items, from whatever railroad – dining car china, for example, or timetables. Others collect items from certain railroads, and that’s where I fall into this obsession. My chosen lines are the Texas & Pacific and its corporate big brother, the Missouri Pacific. I mean, if I can’t own the railroad, I can at least own a few pieces of it, right?

Every railroad used to publish timetables of their scheduled trains. There were public timetables, showing times for passenger trains, and there were employee timetables, which also showed scheduled freight service. These timetables are a fairly common collectible. They’re not large or bulky, and relatively easy to store. And, they were produced in such large quantities, that even decades later, there are still lots of them to collect, trade and sell.

This Texas & Pacific timetable from 1943 features one of that line’s powerful 900-class passenger engines. The letter “V” and the Morse code for “V” – three dots & a dash – was a patriotic reminder for the nation to pull together for Victory in World War II.

Some of the most popular railroad items to collect come from the dining and lounge cars. Collecting dining car China and silverware is a fascinating and common part of the hobby, but can also be quite expensive. Linen napkins with the railroad’s name are also highly prized.

Do you remember when milk came in a small glass bottle instead of the waxed cardboard cartons they use now? When you were having breakfast on a dining car, your milk would be served in a little half-pint bottle with the railroad’s name, as well as the name of the dairy that produced it. I have one for the Missouri Pacific RR from Sunnymede Farm of Bismarck, Missouri.

“Dinner in the diner – nothing could be finer – than to have your ham & eggs in Carolina.” If you had milk with breakfast, it would have been served in a half-pint bottle like this.

Of course, if you were traveling first class in the Pullman car, you might want something a little stronger than milk, especially to help you sleep in the evening. If so, the porter might bring you one a little bottle of bourbon. It held 1/10th of a pint of 100 proof whiskey – roughly equivalent to the 50mL “shooter” bottles you get nowadays. I have a little brown bottle that once held Old Forester bourbon. The bottle is about 2 ½ inches wide and 3 ½ inches tall, and has the Old Forester label on one side, and the Pullman Sleeping Car logo on the other. You can still buy Old Forester bourbon today, but I bet it was never finer than when enjoyed while “rocking of gentle beat” of your private Pullman compartment.

Many railroads offered shooter-sized bottles of liquor, and a lot of them came with the railroad’s logo on the bottle. The one I have came from the Pullman Company, operators of many RR sleeping cars.

One other piece I want to tell you about is a cuspidor – AKA a spittoon. It has been in my family for many years, and my grandmother Sallie McMillan gave it to me. How did she get it? Well, the story, as she told it, went like this: Her uncle – so that’s my great-GREAT-uncle – was a railroad brakeman in East Texas, near Palestine. One of his sons was also a brakeman, back in the days when those guys had to walk on top of moving cars to set the brakes. The son was killed one day when he was thrown off the roof of a moving car that stopped violently.

Anyway, when my grandmother’s uncle retired in the 1920s, as he was leaving the caboose for the last time, he announced, “This railroad has taken a lot from me over the years; now I’m going to take a piece of it!” He reached down and picked up the cuspidor and headed home.

This cuspidor has been in my family for nearly a hundred years. My grandmother told the story that it was taken from a Missouri Pacific caboose by her uncle when he retired in the 1920s.

It doesn’t have any markings on it to prove that it came from the RR, or out of a caboose, but that was the story, and I’m sticking to it.

Celebrating Lincoln

It’s interesting to me that Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, has not been the subject of more well-made movies. But with his birthday coming up this weekend (February 12), I wanted to mention a couple that are worth your time, if you’re a fan of good movies.

The first is Young Mr. Lincoln, a 1939 movie directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda. The two of them would work together on a number of other films going forward, including 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, but this was their first movie together. Fonda does a great job playing Lincoln as a gangly twenty-something young man, trying to make his way as a lawyer in Springfield, Illinois – short on formal education but long on common sense and simple decency. Among his first clients are two brothers accused of murdering a man. The trial in which he defends the brothers gives Fonda the opportunity to show Lincoln as a great storyteller and observer of the human condition, which he, in fact, was. The story is loosely based on an actual case of Mr. Lincoln’s.

Henry Fonda as “Young Mr. Liincoln,” in John Ford’s 1939 movie of the same name.

According to IMDB.com, Henry Fonda did not want to portray Lincoln and originally turned down the role, saying that he was not worthy to play the great man. John Ford convinced him to do a screen test in full make-up and costume, and it was only after he saw the performance on the screen that Fonda relented and accepted the part.

In addition to Henry Fonda, the film also features a young Ward Bond as one of the eyewitnesses. He became one of Hollywood’s busiest and most versatile character actors, and went on to work with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Jimmie Stewart, and many others. In addition, in the 1950s, he starred in Wagon Train and other TV productions.

A second and more recent Lincoln movie that I would recommend is 2012’s Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and directed by Steven Spielberg. But be advised – this is NOT a movie for people who watch a movie for the special effects or like to see stuff blown up. There’s an actual story here. Also, if you don’t like movies where you have to pay attention to dialogue, then this is probably not a film you will enjoy. But if you enjoy history, if you like movies where words matter, if you enjoy seeing incredible actors at the top of their craft, then you owe it to yourself to see this, or maybe watch it again.

Here’s the story: It is January 1865. The American Civil War is in its fourth year, and Lincoln has just been reelected. Two years earlier, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but now he is seeking to abolish slavery once and for all through the proposed 13th Amendment. The amendment has passed the Senate but does not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the evenly divided House.

When his advisers are whining because they’re still two votes down, Lincoln thunders, “The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured. I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes.”

Daniel Day-Lewis in his Oscar-winning performance as “Lincoln,”
Steven Spielberg’s salute to the sixteeenth president.

Daniel Day-Lewis is simply phenomenal to watch in this Oscar-winning role, and he is surrounded by tremendous talent, including Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommie Lee Jones, and the late Hal Holbrook, just to name a few. The private, screaming fight between the President and Mrs. Lincoln is one of the most amazing scenes ever filmed and shows two truly great actors holding nothing back. I also love the way Spielberg structures the storytelling here. The movie opens with remembrances of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and closes with his Second Inaugural.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I’m telling you, words matter, and they absolutely shine in the hands of this director, this script, and these actors. “Lincoln” is a gem.

A Loving Look at the Lone Star State

Texas Country Reporter is a TV news magazine show built on an unusual format. Every week the host and crew travel around the state and present a half-hour program of good news and positive stories that celebrate Texas people and Texas culture. (There are several such programs now, but TCR was the first.) The long-time host has been Bob Phillips; in recent years, he has been joined by his wife, Kelli, and the two of them crisscross the state every week, from Beaumont to El Paso, and from Dalhart to Brownsville, telling the stories that make Texas special.

It started out back in 1971, when Bob was a young staff member at Dallas TV station KDFW, channel four. He saw the “On the Road” segments that Charles Kuralt was producing for the CBS Evening News, hosted by Walter Cronkite. Bob figured he could do something similar in telling Texas stories, and 4 Country Reporter was born. A few years later, it morphed into an independent, syndicated TV program, and became Texas Country Reporter, or TCR. The program is found locally on Abilene’s KTXS-TV, channel 12, along with a number of stations across the state, as well as the RFD-TV cable channel and YouTube.

In celebration of their fiftieth year, Bob and Kelli have produced a live musical program that they are taking around the state. The format goes something like this: they arrange for a local band or orchestra to play the music, featuring familiar and historic Western and Texas tunes, music from the TCR show, and original compositions. While the music is playing, the hosts provide narration that recounts the history of the state from the days of the first European settlers up to modern times. It’s called “A Texas Tribute.”

During its running length of about 90 minutes, the show celebrates many of the things that make Texas unique and special. This past Friday evening, they brought the show to Abilene’s Historic Paramount Theatre, with the World-Famous Cowboy Band from Hardin-Simmons University providing the music. Bob and Kelli took the stage, and as Bob’s familiar voice began and the music drew us in, we in the audience were treated to a special evening.

Bob & Kelli Phillips in front of the HSU Cowboy Band, at the Historic Paramount Theatre in Abilene. They were presenting their affectionate tribute to the history and culture of our state in the program, A Texas Tribute, produced as part of TCR’s 50th anniversary celebration.

As the program got started, we heard narration from a speech by Stephen F. Austin, given to prospective settlers, in which he discussed the outstanding qualities of the land and the place to which he was inviting them. We heard the letter that Colonel Travis wrote from the Alamo as the band played “El Degüello,” the bugle call of the Mexican army, meaning “No Quarter” – no mercy for the enemy. The narrators then took us to San Jacinto, where legend says General Santa Anna was keeping company in his tent with a beautiful former slave named Emily Morgan, who was – ahem – “distracting” him from his duties with the army. And legend says, that’s where we get the song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s a good story.

One of my personal favorites was during the time they were talking about the cowboy way of life, and they read an excerpt from a memoir by an old cowboy from the famous XIT Ranch. He talked about his last days of riding for that brand, and some of the memories he had of being alone on the range with only his horse for companionship. And he talked about the day that he rode to the nearest railroad town, took his saddle off the horse and turned him loose. He watched as the horse made his way back to camp, then the cowboy turned towards town and his cowboying days were over.

From there, it was ragtime music and remembering the Spindletop oil gusher of 1901. We also heard a new arrangement of our official state song, “Texas Our Texas.” Back when I was in elementary school, we used to sing it regularly, but these days, not very many folks even recognize the tune anymore, let alone remember the words. The first verse goes,

Texas, Our Texas! All hail the mighty State!
Texas, Our Texas! So wonderful, so great!
Boldest and grandest, withstanding ev’ry test
O Empire wide and glorious, you stand supremely blest.
      God bless you, Texas! And keep you brave and strong,
      That you may grow in power and worth, throughout the ages long.

It was a wonderful evening of Texas music, history, and legend. Kathy and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and we saw several Haskell friends and neighbors there. Thanks to our daughter Brittany who gave us the tickets.

And God bless Texas.

Seven Score and 18 Years Ago…

It was on this date 158 years ago – November 19, 1863 – that Abraham Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history. Yes, I know there are plenty of other nominees for that honor, but as important as those speeches were, none have had the lasting impact on our national identity and purpose as the Gettysburg Address.

In this speech, President Lincoln redefined and refocused the reason for the Great Struggle, he provided comfort for a nation reeling from staggering losses; he took what had been a relatively obscure line from the Declaration of Independence and made it a national mantra, and once and for all seized the moral high ground in the war. And the fact that Lincoln did all this using only 272 words is a reminder that when it comes to words, it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

Like any great historical event, numerous myths surround the speech and its delivery. For one thing, Lincoln did NOT compose it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up from Washington, nor did he scribble down a few thoughts at the boarding house where he stayed the night before the speech. The historical evidence shows that he had already completed at least one or two rough drafts of the speech that he had shown to some of his friends and advisers before he ever left Washington.

This lithograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg was originally published in 1905.

Another enduring myth is that the speech was a flop when it was first delivered, and the crowd was visibly displeased with it. Not so. It’s true that newspaper editorials about the speech differed widely in their reviews of it, but generally broke along party lines – most Republican papers praised and endorsed it, while most Democratic papers dismissed it.

It’s also true that it was short, but it was supposed to be. Dedication of the new cemetery at Gettysburg was primarily a state function, and national involvement was not considered necessary or automatic. The main speaker at the dedication was Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, perhaps the most skilled orator of the time, who spoke for over two hours, reviewing the battle, condemning the Rebels and praising the Union. President Lincoln had been invited only to give a few brief remarks, and nothing more was expected.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate what a different time it was, politically. But if you know our nation’s history, you know that the framers of the republic didn’t know what to do about slavery, and since they couldn’t agree on a solution, they basically just punted that particular ball to a future generation. The Constitution says that a black man counts as 3/5 of a person when it comes to the census. It’s not clear just what the framers originally meant when they wrote, “All men are created equal,” but to one extent or another, they were thinking educated, white, landowning males.

Authors use words to create the reality of other worlds in their books as they write. Good speakers do the same, helping their audience see things “as they could be.” In this speech, Lincoln took the Declaration’s words about equality and breathed new life into them. He redefined a war that had been about political theory, economics, and states’ rights, and turned it into a moral struggle for liberty for all. To this day, we’re still debating some of those issues.

There are five versions of the speech with slight variations. Here is best known version, which the President himself wrote out and signed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I would say the President was wrong about one thing: the world has indeed long noted what he said. And rightfully so.