Friday, April 18, 2014

Clan of the Cheeseheads

Recently in conversation with one of my UK acquaintances I made reference to “cow tipping”.  Shockingly she had never heard of this rural American pastime and inquired as to whether it was a real thing or not.  Actually, it happens to be the rural equivalent of an Urban Legend, but the simple fact that my ‘cross the pond pals were unaware of it made me wonder how many other aspects of life in rustic Wisconsin were alien to them. 

So on the basis of my decades long study of this distinctive culture I present:


I should probably start with the basic subject of self-identifying names.

Wisconsinites can be referred to as Badgers.  This dates back to the earliest settlement of the state at a time when lead mining was a huge industry in the southwest corner of the state.  Folks came from all over.  They dug holes.  Some used their excavations as crude shelters to winter over.  They were called Badgers.  Other folks, mostly from Illinois,  would come up the river in the spring and go back down in the fall.  As this mimicked the behavior of a similarly named fish they were referred to as Suckers.  The term has since evolved to specifically refer to any citizens of Illinois who still trust their State Government.

The Badger is also the mascot of the University of Wisconsin.  His nick name is “Bucky” but it has no special significance.  They held a contest to name him.

There are heated rivalries between Illinois and Wisconsin in both college and professional sports.  Chicago fans – not a gentle bunch – used the derisive term “Cheeseheads” to refer to fans of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team.  It became a badge of honor and fans started wearing home made foam rubber hats shaped like a wedge of cheese.  The prototype is said to have come from a discarded sofa.

The Cheeseheads gained additional attention when a private pilot on his way home from a game had to make a crash landing.  Alertly donning his foam rubber hat he averted serious injury.

The Cheesehead is one of three Ceremonial Attires found in Wisconsin.  The second is blaze orange hunting garb.  It has become somewhat less common in recent years but traditionally schools were let out of session and factories shut down for the duration of the fall deer hunting season.  The odds of the local newspaper displaying on their front page pictures of large defunct deer exceeds the probability of the sun rising in the east.

The Third Ceremonial Attire is team merchandise of The Green Bay Packers.  This is an American style football team that is the subject of adulation seldom accorded to mortal man.  Confusingly to the scientific observer, Packers football games can involve the wearing of all three styles of ritual garb….or if beer intake has been sufficient, of almost no clothing whatsoever regardless of the winter conditions.

Traditional foods in Wisconsin trend towards the carnivorous.  In the far southwest a hint of Cornwall is recalled in the ongoing popularity of the pasty.  In the northwest areas a Friday night “fish fry” is a grease laden carry over from the days when Catholic citizens were expected to skip meat that day.  The large German population has made the bratwurst a staple food item.  Larger meat markets sometimes have dozens of variations.  And if while traveling in the back country of the state you encounter a “hot beef” don’t be concerned that you are becoming enmeshed in a local disagreement.  The term refers to a sandwich prepared with sliced roast beef and onions.  It seems to be a requirement that they be served at all graduation parties.

Of course modern times have changed Wisconsin a little.  Now when you drive through the small farming communities that typify the state you find some of them much reduced in size as smaller farms are being replaced by larger operations.  Some of the little hamlets have in fact contracted down to the smallest possible unit of Wisconsin society: A post office.  A park with a war memorial cannon.  Two churches, one Catholic, one Protestant. And a tavern, where both faiths join hands to worship the Green Bay Packers.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

History's First Memo to the I.T. Department

In my last post I had a little fun with the notion of what I would bring back in time to the Roman age in order to guarantee myself a life of relative ease.  You know, daily trips to the baths, slave girls feeding me grapes and so forth.  Planning for a return trip to the future seems even less plausible.  I mean, what would you bring back that would not be immediately challenged as fake?  Those mint, uncirculated rare denarii would only get you in trouble.

So a one way trip it shall be.  But it did get me thinking....could I send some gift from ancient Rome to modern times?  I think so. After accumulating my enormous fortune I would just have to compose the first memo in history to the "I.T. Department".

To: Chief Librarian, Museum of Alexandria
From: Badgericus Magnus, Merchant in Silks and Spices


Forgive the imperfect language of this message.  I have seen more years than you can imagine and as time runs short for me I find myself reverting to the subjects of my younger days.

By separate courier you will shortly receive my Last Will and Testament naming your Library the beneficiary of my considerable fortune.  Even after making provisions for the ongoing maintenance of numerous slave girls I think the sum will please you.  I ask that you use it to attend to the following issues.

1. Data Storage Media.  Dude, seriously, papyrus?  It has not been so very many years since the unfortunate fire associated with Julius Caesar.  Although that gossip Plutarch overstated it shamelessly it nevertheless was a warning that should not be ignored. Much wisdom can be destroyed by a single violent man with a torch.  And let me assure you, the past and the future contain many violent men. Also careless ones.  Can you be certain that Demetrius the Simple will not drop a lamp at any moment?

You should commission the local metalworkers to hammer out sheets of metal and inscribe upon them the thousand or so most important works in your collection.  And repeat the process every decade.  You could use lead, no doubt you are familiar with it from the use by the superstitious of "Curse Tablets". If the weight of this substance proves cumbersome consider using copper. The restless subjects of Judea have done some interesting work along these lines already.

Of course all this effort would be wasted if these durable mementos are not stored carefully.  Pick a number of places, ideally in the remote desert.  Inside the Great Pyramid would be a nice touch.  But most importantly place copies in as many spots as you can. You need only refer to Gaius Plinius Secundus' Naturalis Historia to understand the innate wisdom and nobility of the Squirrel.  (Modern readers take note, in exchange for my very excellent advice in AD 79 - "You do NOT want to get on that boat to check out the Vesuvius eruption" - Pliny the Elder will have allowed me to add to his Natural History no fewer than eight chapters on the Wonders of Squirrels!)

2. Physical Plant Security.  Hey, great bit of beachfront real estate you got there.  But you have noticed that you are along the waterfront.  Taverns, drunken sailors, and we are not even talking yet about how the native Alexandrians are so riot prone.  You could build some nice walls, even hire a cohort of Library Police.  But I suggest you relocate to a nice solid, easily defended hill outside of town.  Why?  I suggest on the next clear still day you go out in a boat right off your patio.  Look down. Notice anything?

Gee, look at all the big stuff that slid into the bay after earthquakes.  What are the odds that will happen again.  And again.  And again.

3. Future Information Technology Needs.  You are no doubt aware of the marvelous calculating machines invented by Archimedes and his followers.  I have had the opportunity to view the remains of one that was sadly shipwrecked on a sea voyage.

When intact this Device could rapidly determine the positions of Celestial Bodies, and the dates of intermittent events such as eclipses and the Olympic Games.  I suggest you seek out, finance and encourage the makers of such wondrous machines.  They are clever fellows and much future good will come from their further efforts.

But beware.  One day the cleverest of these fellows will come to you.  He will announce that a Terrible Event called "The Y One K" will be upon you in a few short centuries.  He will further state that he can solve all of your problems with something he describes as an "Operating System".  He will proudly name it "Fenestrae" (Windows).

Have him executed on the spot.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Time Travelers Back Pack

Only a couple of weeks now until I can forget the modern world.  Yes, the annual archaeological trek to be a volunteer excavator at the Roman site of Vindolanda.

Originally it was a solo trip, but of late an add on week has lured the Spouse along.  This is a better thing overall, but I do have one lingering bit of pique about it.  I have to use decent luggage.

My wife despises the disreputable Norwegian Army surplus backpack that is my preferred option. Comfortable to tote, more or less legal carry on size (takes a bit of scrunching on some planes but is fine on the Airbus overhead), I have managed to fit two weeks worth of stuff in it with ease.  And that is allowing for rain gear and sufficient changes of clothes for Northumberland weather quirks.

So as I pack for my "trip back in time" I set the back pack aside wistfully.  But not without a bit of musing.

If I were literally going back to Roman times, what could I fit in my back pack that would ensure me a comfortable life?  Oh, not slave girls feeding me grapes kind of comfort, but a few cups of wine a day and a nice visit to the baths on a regular basis.  It is a tricky question.

I would prefer not to bring back blueprints for muskets and the formula for gunpowder.  In science fiction stories this rarely turns out well.  You either get condemned for sorcery or more likely get blank stares as the blacksmiths try to comprehend bridging the gap from hammering bog iron up to running a precision lathe.  So if we leave aside the items that are pure Harry Turtledove and perhaps skip the things that would monstrously damage the time line, what's left?

I suppose you could start with about 40 pounds of this:

Pepper.  Widely used and greatly appreciated.  It was a big part of why the Romans bothered trading with India and lands beyond.  It is also one of the few precious commodities on which we have something of a price quote.  Pliny the Elder comments on the stuff.  Evidently the Romans knew of "long pepper" which went for 15 denarii a pound, white pepper that went for 7, and black pepper for 4.

I would have thought the prices would be higher.  After all the stuff got hauled by sea from Indonesia. But economies of scale one supposes.  I presume Pliny was quoting the price in Rome, perhaps for my friskier Cayenne pepper I could get a premium price out in Londinium.  But still, what I could conveniently carry would only get me around 600 denarii.  That's not bad, but really is less than three years wages for the average Legionary grunt in Pliny's early Empire.  You could do a little better with cloves and ginger perhaps, but Pliny is quite vague on this stuff.  One wonders if he had any specific information on where some of it came from and just what it was.

Oh, I bet I could do better if I kept a few side pockets free for:

I have a pleasing vision of myself as a gentleman spice farmer in southern Gaul....

If you have a darker side, and were very concerned about packing light, I suppose you could bring along a few grams of Polonium.  It has become the preferred undetectable poison for Eastern Bloc assassins and conspiracy kooks. If you believe the "I, Claudius" version of history you might find Empress Livia to be a reliable customer.  But watch your back, there would likely be a dagger aimed at it from every dark corner.

Nah, I have no interest in toppling dynasties.  Too risky anyway.  I want to make money.  And not piddling denarii either.  Lets go for the aureii!  Here's the contents of my Time Traveler's Backpack:

Bulk silkworm eggs.  $19.99 for 2000 or so.  Plenty of room left over for:

This is 10 pounds of powdered "Silk Worm Chow".  That ought to keep the little beggars happy until my first crop of mulberry seeds starts to sprout!

I am totally not kidding about this scheme.  The amount of money flowing from Rome to China for silk was supposedly high enough that the Senate tried to abolish the trade as damaging to the Roman economy.  And just how much was silk worth?

The best measure is probably from the  Edict of Diocletian.  This bit of desperate wage and price control legislation was circa 301 AD, when inflation had nearly wrecked the Roman economy.  So prices are both much higher than in the early Empire and are anachronistically listed in denarii, a fine silver coinage long since debased and out of circulation.  By way of reference our hypothetical Legion soldier now made 1,800 denarii per year.

And a pound of white silk from my industrious little fellow time travelers?  12,000 denarii.  Ah, bring on the grapes.

Note:  I can't claim any originality in my scheme.  The Byzantine Emperor Justinian pulled this off back in the 6th Century AD.  Some speculate that the economic boon from breaking the Chinese silk monopoly helped sustain Constantinople through its long difficult centuries in an increasingly hostile world.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


It had been a rough three days of shifts.  12 hours on, 12 off.  And seldom had I ever seen such a stretch of woe and morbidity. A lot of it was self induced.  It is almost as if the long winter had finally depleted the last reserves of alcohol and meth and heroin in the area, and the ambulances were running like mad hauling in folks with the stormy tremors of withdrawal or the odoriferous, languid zen state that comes when your liver finally surrenders.

I needed something to cheer me up.

So I stopped by the local Store that Sells Everything.  Because I knew that way in the back I would find:

Lean over the side with me.


Ahh.  Feel better yet?

Despite being exactly the same shade of yellow as the end stage cirrhosis patients they are pretty darn cute, and such a bargain!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Tree Shaped Tombstones - J.J. Lundy, Independence Iowa

To finish off a week where I have tried to pay homage to the few craftsmen I have been able to associate with "Tree Shaped Tombstones", I present the marvelous cabins of J.J. Lundy from Independence Iowa.

And here is his rather understated signature on one of the above:

Stone cutting seems to have been one of the niches in American society in which immigrants dominated.  Lots came from Italy. John J. Lundy on the other hand, came from England.  He was born in Otley, Yorkshire in 1869 and came over with his family when he was 13 years old.  He moved to Independence, Iowa and never left.  He learned the stone carvers trade from an uncle and set himself up in business in the early 1890s.  He was the usual solid citizen of his day, member of multiple fraternal organizations and such.  On his death in 1921 the byline read:


But if you go beyond the basics of his life it does sound as if there was a lot of sadness there as well. He married, but their only child died at age three "..this being a crushing blow to the parents."And his health was not good.  Mention is made of him having to retire from business for a time due to poor health.  And his death at the fairly young age of 52 occurred when he contracted ptomaine poisoning, ironically on a trip to Pueblo Colorado where he had gone "..on account of ill health."

I am just speculating today, but I wonder if perhaps he suffered from silicosis.  This is a nasty chronic lung disease caused by exposure to stone dust.  Miners, stone cutters and tomb stone makers were all plagued by this until better understanding of occupational exposures and wider use of respirators made it, in the modern era, an uncommon disease.

Next trip through I shall look up the monuments of the Lundy family.  I suspect J.J. has a swell one, his company continued on after his death.  And I fear there will be a smaller, sadder one for his infant son somewhere nearby.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Tree Shaped Tombstones - Goshen Indiana

So we were in a cemetery in Goshen Indiana.  The story is complicated and peripherally involves a gas leak and explosion, but never mind all that.

A stately specimen, notable for this small script on the "scroll"

Marks identifying the carvers of these masterpieces are frustratingly rare.  I have a policy of not scrubbing at these things so my best guess is C.D.S. GOSHEN.  Nice fake square nail next to it.

Time has been a little hard on this one.  The "scroll" has partially broken away.  And I wonder if the round area just above the COBBUM inscription used to hold some sort of metal inset?  Next up is a nice one.  This is a size I have not seen before, rather slender.

And what a great flower basket.  Local variations when you go from one region to another keep the hunt interesting.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Tree Shaped Tombstones - A. Ambrosini

Having spent several years now looking for "Tree Shaped Tombstones" I can report that the vast majority leave us with no clue as to the artisans who created them.  I have in fact to date found a grand total of three specimens that are signed with the name of the man who carved them.  One was a magnificent specimen I encountered in New Ulm, Minnesota that had a discrete "A. Ambrosini" hidden on it.

Anthony Ambrosini was from Cercino, Italy.  This was not far from Cararra, a place famous for stone cutting since ancient times.  It is reasonable to assume he grew up in the trade.  He turns up in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1883 working as a stone cutter.  Earlier he had found similar employ in Chicago.

He spent a few years working in partnership with a man named Peterson, but most of the 1880s he worked for others, probably more on building projects than on more artistic concerns.

In 1890 he struck out on his own, his new location at 941 Jackson Street being on the grounds of Oakland Cemetery it is reasonable to assume that monuments and headstones were now his main product line.  An ad from this era runs:

Granite and Marble Worker
dealer in
of all descriptions
Delivered to any cemetery in the Northwest

The ad also mentions that he has a branch office "Opposite Calvary Cemetery on Front Street".

Three years later he moved his operation to the newly opened Forest (now Forest Lawn) Cemetery on the north side of St. Paul.  It seems likely that the abundant "trees" and "benches" I encountered there are products of his workshop. Forest Lawn 1Forest Lawn 2Forest Lawn 3.

As best I can tell, none of his stone carving shops has survived.  One would have thought with his background that they would have been substantial, durable stone buildings.  But perhaps less expensive wooden buildings were a more practical option for a humble if talented artisan.

At some point Anthony handed the business down to his son John before moving to California, probably after his wife Augusta passed away in 1917.