Tuesday, July 29, 2014

World War I

Several news articles this last week have noted the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the Great War, the War to End All Wars. Well, we know that last one didn't stick.

The museum in Kansas City is supposedly the only museum in the country exclusively devoted to World War I, and it is superbly done. Considering the absolutely terrible events it depicts, the museum can't be described as a "good time," but it is a worthwhile experience.

The War That Changed the World introduced the modern era, eroded the French and British colonial powers and elevated the United States and the US currency to the top of the world's economic and military powers.

Nine million soldiers died in the war, twenty million wounded. Over 1.2 million soldiers were killed or wounded in one battle, the Battle of Somme. The US lost more soldiers to the 1917-1918 flu epidemic than to battle and my paternal grandfather's brother, Bill, never got further than hauling out the dead at Fort Riley (then Camp Riley), Kansas during the war.

Human occupation of this earth was fundamentally altered by that conflict. Fighting was ended by the Armistice signed the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, November 11, 1918 and celebrated today as Veteran's Day. It was Armistice Day for many years. The treaty that succeeded the Armistice, the Treaty of Versailles, punished Germany and set the stage for the rise of Hitler and the onset of WWII.

Unlike the political leaders we have in the US today, it seems that leaders learned from history back then--MacArthur's respect for the culture of Japan and reconstruction, the Marshall plan.

Let us remember.


In 1965, 42% of Americans smoked. That has dropped to 18% now. I remember buying cigarettes for 50 cents a pack and now, the Federal tax is $1.01 per pack.

Smoking is blamed for $300 billion in medical bills and lost productivity, so there is still a long ways to go. Living a stone's throw from North Carolina where the tobacco industry is still a big deal, the statistics have to be a lot higher, but at least we don't have to eat in smoky public places any more.

Remember when people smoked on airplanes? The gunk clogged the gyroscopic instruments which I would imagine is a bit more serious than the danger of using your iPad while in flight. Even though I was a smoker at the time, it surprised me to find the ashtray in a Beechcraft Bonanza located just above the valve that controlled the fuel flow from the wing tanks.

Making progress. Not sure if it will continue, though, as nicotine is such an insidiously habitual drug. And it lasts forever. A friend and I once made a pact--we would continue to avoid smoking until we turned 80. Then it isn't going to accelerate your demise greatly, so might as well go for it!

Monday, July 28, 2014


I just saw a short news article about a new book that is coming out about President Warren G. Harding. While he has long held the hotly-contested title of Worst President Ever, this book is about his love letters to his mistress. Apparently she was not only his mistress to whom he hand wrote these passionate, explicit letters that sometimes were 40 pages long, she was also a German spy who tried to blackmail him. She also holds the distinction of being the only woman to blackmail a political party, a story I have yet to research.

Carrie Fulton Phillips died in 1960 and although Harding implored her to burn the letters, she stored them. Some were given to an author, some were not discovered until after her death. There was a long legal battle between the families resulting in an agreement that the letters (most of them) would be sealed for 100 years from Harding's death (2023). About 1,000 of them are to be released tomorrow, but they have been examined by the author of the new book previously.

Meanwhile, where was Mrs. Harding? She had a kidney condition and was severely ill for many years.

There were two things that ended the affair--Phillips tried to blackmail him and he voted for war in his role as a Senator. I guess that would do it, even in the most passionate of affairs. Anyway, the affair was over before he assumed the White House in 1921.

Harding apparently deserves his ranking at the very low end of the Presidential scale. His administration's scandals include the Teapot Dome scandal and he is rumored to have lost the entire White House china service in a poker game with the boys. He was preceded by Wilson, succeeded upon his death in mid-term by Cal Coolidge, himself no star. It was the Roaring Twenties, the economy was soaring after WWI and the corruption of the White House did little to interrupt the flow.

Harding was from the conservative wing of the Republican party, but sponsored no-nonsense legislation that created the first Federal Budget and sponsored legislation, some of which was unsuccessful, supporting the interests of labor, women and minorities, especially black Americans. Not your typical Republican...actually, not your typical American of the time.

Among his unpopular stances was described in a statement he made to Congress in which he said that the United States did not have the right or the obligation to impose a democracy on any other country, that they should decide their own form of government. We should maybe listen to that today?

While I may have latched onto that statement as a thoughtful pronouncement, his written and spoken efforts were not always appreciated. For instance, H.L. Mencken said,

"He writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights."

At his inauguration, which was a simple affair, he said, "Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much from the government and at the same time do too little for it." Boy, that sounds very much like a quote that is always assumed to be original to the 35th President 40 years later. The latter quote is certainly more poetic with its "Ask not..." structure, but seems like it is the same sentiment.

Anyway, for all you guys out there who are looking for love letter ideas, a new book is on its way.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Congressional Budget Office statistics

Thought this was interesting:

What percentage of total US Taxes are paid by the wealthiest Americans? Ranked by income.
Top Quintile Top 5% Top 1% Lowest Quintile Middle Quintile
1980 65% 35% 17% 0% 10%
1990 70% 42% 22% 1% 9%
2000 80% 55% 36% -2% 6%
2010 64% 39%

What this seems to tell us is that all the hysteria about making the rich pay more taxes is working. They really do pay a lot of taxes, a huge share, compared to the rest of us.

The lowest quintile ranking is most interesting! According to the CBO, the taxpayers who have lower income and rank in the lowest 20% didn't really pay taxes...they got money back.

Our system is a "progressive" tax system--the more you make, the more you pay. This all makes sense, but tweaking the laws over the last 30 years has resulted in the top earners paying more and more of the total tax bill of the country.

Listening to the politicians and reading the "news," you could be forgiven for coming to a different conclusion.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


I didn't start out trying to achieve my personal best in the sprint-and-run-to-the-house-screaming event, but that was how the day ended.

Milk cows have names. They hang around for a few years, you learn their quirks and their standing in the herd, and sometimes a quirk...or whatever...gives them their name. Killer had never really killed anyone, but it was just a matter of time.

My calf Buttercup was a prize winner at the Nance County Fair, but ironically, she was a less than mediocre producer. Schram was named after the fellow who sold her. Bess, Maude, Helen (she had good shoulders, like the woman she was named after) and the rest of the 60 or so that we milked. Addy was the boss cow, named after a woman who nobody liked in the neighborhood so we had to keep it a bit quiet.

There was always a boss cow, the one who led them to pasture, led them back to milking and was the first one into the milking parlor. The pecking order in the herd was well-established and they mostly came in order after that, so each individual was milked within minutes of the same time every morning and every night, an important factor in dairy husbandry and one that has evidently moved the dairy industry to milk every 8 hours, around the clock, in the large facilities.

We had a neighbor, Al, who was just not cut out for farming or dairy. He would sometimes stop in town for a beer and a cigar, not that he didn't deserve that once in a while, but he wouldn't get home until 10 or so because he had forgotten the cows. When a cow is not milked, she dries up and that puts a dent in herd production.

The combination of genetics (instead of only producing two or three heifer calves in a lifetime, a prize cow can now, by virtue of Petri-dish technology, raise multiple sex-selected offspring carried by cull cows) and good practices has changed the dairy landscape. The USDA keeps good statistics about how much:

1957 Average milk production per cow, about 450 pounds per month

2013 Average milk production per cow, about 1,800 pounds per month

Since 2004, the production per cow has spiked 15%.

Al would hire my brother and me to help him lay out pipe and get the pump started. His operation pumped from the creek into "tow lines" that were moved from one setting to another by pulling the whole line lengthwise to the next patch. The only problem was that he didn't get around to it until a couple of weeks too late and the corn was already burned up. Although THE CODE said we needed to help the neighbor, it was kind of aggravating that we did all that hard, hot work with the mosquitoes and it wasn't going to make any difference.

Sometime later, Al got a job in Columbus.

Certainly, someone knows why some cows are indifferent to the milking process and others are very sensitive. My explanation was that some are ticklish and then they have the natural instinct to prevent their milk from being stolen from their calf. Whatever the reason, Killer was hyper-I-don't-like-to-be-milked. They kicked and were just difficult, but THE RULE was always in force: the meaner the cow, the more she produced.

Killer was always one of the last to walk up the ramp, enter the milking parlor and munch on her grain waiting to be milked. Built on our farm in 1956, it was a real improvement as the cows were elevated in three stalls so there was less stooping, each stall was served with stainless steel pipelines for the milk, overhead feed chutes to dispense a treat of cracked corn and water to wash the cows as the udders were invariably dirty--the worse the weather, the worse the dirt.

My brother and I were milking, I was probably about 12 years old making my brother 17. He actually graduated from high school when he was 16 since he did not attend kindergarten, and that age discrepancy between him and his classmates was masked by his size. He was a big boy/man, over 225 pounds, maybe 250, and at that time about 6' 2" or better.

I manned the two west stalls and he would milk Killer in the third, east one, as was typical because the operation to keep her in check to milk was more than others. First step was to throw a rope over her flanks and cinch snugly between her hip bone and ribs so that she could not easily kick forward/sideways/out which is the natural kicking motion of a cow versus a horse or mule that kicks back.

Then, press your head into the flank to further stymie the attempts to kick and put the kicker chains on her legs that were quite comfortable for her but would prohibit independent movement of her legs.

We all knew she was a bomb about to explode, it was just a matter of when and how. And who would get hurt. The next step was to release the rope that had initially been placed over the back and around her middle as that interferes with the blood flow (there is a big vein under a cow's belly).

On avg. 400 - 500 units of blood passes through the udder for each unit of milk synthesized by a high producing dairy cow; that is ~280 ml per sec.   (ansci.illinois.edu)

The milking would then proceed and, when done, the milking cups removed and the last step was to take off the "kickers," the chains connecting the legs. To do this, your head is again pressed into the flanks, the chains removed and you step back. Dick didn't step back quick enough.

I was busy when I heard a combination sonic boom and earthquake as that big man flew back and hit the wall of the barn. I turned just in time to hear him emit a sigh that I interpreted as a death rattle and slowly slide down the wall until he sat on the cement floor with blood spurting from his face. I thought I had witnessed my first catastrophic mortality, and that is when I took off for the house, screaming that something was very, very wrong in the barn.

When my mother arrived, he roused and seemed to again grasp the here and now but with a squished up nose where Killer had cracked him with a hoof right between the eyes.

Since I was not the one getting kicked, I was sort of neutral on the subject, but Dick and my mother were adamant--Killer went to market. Even though THE RULE was still in force, she had to go. And we never had one that was that difficult again.

The dairy operation which was well-developed before the milking parlor, all the stainless steel and the bulk tank operation was built, probably allowed our family to survive the 1950's while all around us "dried out" and moved to California. All of my mother's brothers and sisters lived in California, it wouldn't have been so bad. Every year, the number of kids in the one-room school dwindled.

I have always claimed that all I wanted to "be when I grew up" was dry and warm most of the time. Because on a dairy farm, you are cold and wet all the time. And everything smelled of chlorine bleach used to clean the pipelines.

Finally, when my brother went to the Army and I went to college, the cows went to market.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Maurie's Diary

Cousin Jan Cruise and her sister-in-law, Teresita McCarty have been working on the diaries of Jan's father, Maurice Matzen that she painstakingly transcribed. They have added explanatory information and documentation, much of it from the local St. Edward, Nebraska paper along with some family pictures making it into even more of a "treasure" as Terri calls it.

References from another source, an "Oral History" created from Maurie's recollections in May 2005 (age 96), were also added and one of them really caught my eye--Making the Ice House.

The Icehouse 

We built forms for cement walls and it had a lumber roof.  My dad was enough of a carpenter to make the rafters.  At least 8 feet of it was underground and there was about 5 feet above ground – so we could walk in.  We put about 8 inches of straw between the walls and the ice and on top of the ice.  We’d come to St Edward in the winter to get ice (1½ miles).  It would take a couple of days to fill the icehouse.  The man with the ice would fill his own icehouse first and then he’d cut for the rest of those who wanted ice.  First they would mark the ice and then the circular saw would cut to a depth of 12 to 14 inches.  A bar would be used to crack the rest of the way.  We were charged so much a load. 

An Oral History: Maurice Theodore Matzen, May 2005

The Peterson ice house was filled this week with extra good quality ice 10½ inches thick. Cutting for the farmers will probably start the last of this week.

St. Edward Advance, December 22, 1932

Farmers of the surrounding territory are hauling their summer’s supply of ice from the Peterson pond this week. The ice is the finest in years, it being more than 10 inches thick and clear as crystal.

St. Edward Advance, December 29, 1932

The "Peterson" named here is not a known relative of ours.

Lack of refrigeration is so foreign to anyone alive today. We expect to have ice cream, fresh peaches and healthy meats and seafood made possible by refrigeration in the processing industries and transportation. But to arrive at our current condition, a lot of things had to happen or we would still be cracking ice with a bar from a lake and trying to store it during the summer.


I vaguely remember the power lines being built to our farm in 1949. Maybe I just remember the stories since I was only four at the time, but it seems real. The REA (Rural Electrification Administration) came to Nance county and lots of things changed.

One of the first changes was that Mom got a freezer. We already had a refrigerator, but I was too young to fully comprehend the technical issues--was it a 32-volt system due to a Delco battery-generator? I just don't know. A microcosm of the Tesla-Edison battle.

Probably more significant was the acquisition of milking machines and a water-bath cooling system that held the cans of milk as they cooled for transportation. The grade-A dairy probably allowed our family to survive the 1950's on the farm when others sold out and moved to California.


Prior to the REA, Freon, Charles Kettering, George Norris, TVA and Frigidaire, food was kept cool with ice stored the previous winter. But that cooling resource was scarce and carefully parsed. Not everything went into the "ice box" and you certainly did not stand at the open door and stare without receiving a scolding.

Every spring, around Easter, we would get flats of chicks, put them in the brooder house, then into bigger pens as they grew. "Free Range" was not encouraged as they would then be easy prey for the opportunistic predators of the neighborhood, like mink, weasel and coyote. They were the food supply for the summer--fried chicken, chicken and dumplings and all kinds of meals that could be strutting around the pen in the morning and on the table at noon and evening.

In his diary, Maurie talks about butchering a hog from time to time, but I don't recall entries detailing the chicken raising--maybe just too mundane, and it often fell to the housewife to be in charge of much of the chicken harvest. In my experience, the men would snag the chickens with a hook that caught a leg, chop off the head and bleed them out and dip them in boiling water. Most of the family then participated in plucking, a smelly and messy process, and then the bird was turned over to my mother for singeing off the pin feathers (another distinctive smell that I have not experienced in 50 years) and "dressing" the chicken. Everything was eaten or recycled as more food for the other chickens.

When you visited another farm for operations that involved crews, you were most likely going to get chicken in one form or another, although the skill of the cooks varied greatly. It might be a meal centered around canned beef or canned pork, but not usually. It wasn't until it froze and the flies were controlled before you could get a decent meal of fresh beef or pork although some folks utilized the locker plants in town to keep some frozen meats.

Vegetables were seasonal, based on what the garden was then producing. My mother planted and produced a huge supply of cantaloupe one year, and we ate so much that I still can't stand the stuff. You took care to establish the asparagus bed on the south side of a wall or hill so that it started early in the spring when air temps were still cool and would not bolt until you had enjoyed it for several weeks. Now I complain if the stalks are a bit too big in the store.

I mentioned neighbors--I distinctly remember earning a small wage at age 12 working for a neighbor hauling hay bales. Ray was a bachelor, and not one you would recruit for the modern TV show of the same name as he was so dirty that when he came to our house to see my dad, they would either stay on the porch or go outside. He lived with his mother, Nettie, in a house that had electricity, but all the cooking was on a stove heated with corn cobs and the lighting was generally only with kerosene lamps. When I get a whiff of kerosene exhaust at the airport, it takes me back to that kitchen. I wonder if I am the only one whose memories are often connected with odors?

He told me that he had owned only one new car in his life, a 1949 Chevrolet that he drove for years and years, as long as he lived. Again with the odors--he had gone to town to pick up some 2-4-D that was apparently packaged in glass, it broke and the smell never left that car.


These were the days of my parents, during the Depression, before WWII, before the nuclear age and before so many other things. Something we consider so routine and essential, refrigeration, was a luxury, difficult to obtain at that time. We had to wait for Freon, standardization of voltages, inexpensive (relatively) home refrigerators and freezers and the REA to deliver the power before it would be common in rural areas.

Amazing to me, it was just a few years before I was born. Of course, it continues to amaze me that people are dying that are my age or just a few years older, too, and not from freak accidents--from "old age." Ah, yes, the way it was.