Day 4: Few Things More American

Posted by Whit Barringer , Saturday, May 31, 2008 10:00 PM

Note: I'm sorry about the dead-pan boring narrative I had going in those last three entries. It's hard going from morning to night walking, driving, reading, browsing, and writing (too many cognitive processes, not enough hours in the day). I promise that the narrative will pick up a little from this entry forward, and that the finale (to be revealed soon!) will not (read: hopefully will not) disappoint.



There are few things more American than war and chocolate, and I did both today. We set out early this morning, Jeremy again not in tow. We traveled first to that battlefield of great renown – Gettysburg.

We first went to Visitor's Center, but I had to go back to the car because of "no backpack" signs. I was annoyed because I had planned on walking around with it. No sooner had we walked in the front door than I saw four different people with backpacks and no one stopping them.

The visitor's center is apparently brand new or damn close. They had a "saloon" that was like a cafeteria, guided tours, a movie theater, a huge gift shop, and a free museum. We opted to just do the free museum at first, but I was not disappointed. When first walking towards the museum, two videos are playing on opposite sides of the entrance. The one of the left is a video of how a Civil War soldier would have loaded his gun. The one on the right is how a soldier would load a cannon. Before entering the main part of the museum, two cases side by side, show the classic blue and grey uniforms of the North and South. It's not so hard to imagine a time when the men who wore those uniforms would have rather destroyed each other and their ideals than stand shoulder to shoulder. Now they stand together, long without bodies to fill them.

The museum is laid out in chronological order. The first part gives the reasons and events leading up to the war. Then there is another part describing how the war had gone thus far. The next three parts after that were for each day of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). The final part was dedicated to the myriad events that happened after the war, including Lincoln's assassination, the ultimate failure that was Reconstruction, and Democrat politics up until Woodrow Wilson. Throughout the museum there were touch-screen computers that could illustrate parts of the battle. I looked up Confederacy regiments that were in Gettysburg fighting, and sure enough one lone Arkansas regiment was there, far away from home.

When we finished the museum, I went to the gift shop (the other two had already gone to the gift shop while I had been wandering through the museum). While I was in there, seeing things I wanted to buy and nothing that I really should, I heard a woman screeching at one of the workers. I looked over and heard her mention something about "Nehzi swastikas" (at least, that's how I would imitate her later – I don't think her accent was that bad). It turns out she was upset about – are you ready? – the story selling paraphernalia with Confederate flags. Did you catch that we're at a Civil War museum? Her argument was that you would never see Nazi flags in a World War II museum. All I can say to that is that she's never been to a good World War II museum. If you have a World War II museum that doesn't have a single swastika in it, then you've either got a museum on the eastern theater or one with any less than inconspicuous "All Hail America!" theme. She continued to complain to the woman, raising her voice loud enough for everyone to hear. Finally she asked for the manager. After squawking at her about the flag being on Confederate coasters and getting no satisfaction (I'm sure nothing less than pulling everything with a confederate flag on it from the shelves would have sufficed), she asked to speak to that person's boss.

Listen to me, people. I understand what the swastika has come to represent (it wasn't always that way). I understand that it became the symbol of one of the darkest hours humanity has ever faced. I realize that the Confederate battle flag has become the symbol of a lost people and a lost cause that was evil and oppressive. But just as not every man, woman, and child in the South was a slaveholder (West Virginia didn't secede from Virginia for no reason), not every man, woman, and child was a Nazi. The first and foremost reason that the Confederacy entered into the Civil War was not really just slavery, but for the overarching issue of states' rights. The Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler provoked World War II not just because of its Aryan ideology, but because Germany was full of bitter hungry people who rewarded a man who gave them bread with their service and lives. Neither the aristocratic slave-holding South nor the insane racist NSDAP were indicative of the whole. Does that mean that things didn't go wrong? That the worst crimes in the history of humanity were not committed while the world stood by and watched? Absolutely not. But to raise hell over coasters is picking the wrong battle.

I almost went and bought the coasters, but, after much deliberation, I decided on a nice blue and gray keychain instead.

We went and ate in the Saloon for lunch. I had a chicken sandwich with some sort of olive spread on it. I thought it was pretty good for a visitor's center saloon (not that I have much of a basis for comparison). Afterward, we went straight to the car to begin the auto tour. Rachel had bought the tour CD, but my CD player had been acting up since we left Arkansas. It was content to leave us in silence as it had most of the trip, so we had to play the CD on my laptop and its pitiful speakers. We followed the auto tour routes, but we got lost with the CD. Ash got frustrated. I turned off the laptop, and we took pictures in silence so nobody would have a reason to blow up.

We got out in a little park area right after it started raining. We were only a few steps away from the Gettysburg cemetery, so we decided to go ahead and go. The field primarily for soldiers was adjacent to the larger city cemetery for Gettysburg. A good sized monument stands close to the entrance commemorating Lincoln's speech. Surprisingly, the monument is not on top of the place where he gave the speech. It is some 100 or so yards away, which is now where the Soldier's monument is.

We walked on the sidewalks, taking note of the hundreds and hundreds of graves. Few have flowers.

We trooped back to the car and headed to Hershey. We decided to go a different route than what I had written down in my handy-dandy Moleskine (everyone needs one – I'm serious), and I got a tad lost for the first time since we started the trip. In no time we were back on course. Within two hours we touched our feet on the parking lot in the mecca of chocoholics and the bane of dieters everywhere – Chocolate World.

I wasn't sure whether to regret coming or not when I walked up to the front door and saw monstrosity upon monstrosity. There were happy chocolate bars smiling and hyper kids screaming. It was almost too much to handle. I'm not ready for kids, yet I had become a pro at ignoring them as if I was already a mother.

We first went to what looked to be a simple exhibit on how chocolate was made. In fact, it was something farm more horrible and sinister. It was a ride. We were herded into tea-cup like vehicles and set on a track with music, a narrator, singing cows, factory belts, more screaming children, and songs (sung by cows). It was spectacularly horrific, and I don't think I'll choose to see anything quite like it again. It was a Willy Wonka nightmare.

Escaping from the teacup was the best thing I did all day, and I immediately ran to the gift shop to make my escape. Still, there was little respite to be had there. Children were swarming the shops, apparently on some sort of eighth grade graduation trip. I bought stuff for my family and sat in the cafeteria, eating my questionable pepperoni pizza. I later had an authentic Hershey's chocolate milkshake that tasted like a cocoa powder slush and was strong enough to make me think twice about drinking it. A part of me was relieved when we finally went out to the car, but it made me have fun (somewhere deep dark inside where I never let anyone peek in lest they hang what they see over my head) that the other two enjoyed it so much.

Our drive back was relatively uneventful until we hit some sort of traffic cluster****, and I had to switch out driving with Rachel because I couldn't do it anymore. I really have no idea what time we got back since I was asleep in the backseat with one foot in the back window.

More coming soon!

Day 3 - Knowledge in Pages, Wisdom in Books, Learning in Everything

Posted by Whit Barringer , Friday, May 30, 2008 8:31 PM

Today didn't seem quite so long, but it was no less tiring.

I set my alarm for 7:30 this morning, but none of us got up until 9:00. By the time we all got around, it was already 11:30. I was mad about it, but we compromised and decided to go to the Smithsonian museums another day, and to go to the Library of Congress, the Capitol Building, and the Supreme Court today.

We set out on the long Metro ride (around 30 minutes to get to where we needed to be) and ended up near the Library of Congress at 12:45 or so. We (minus Jeremy, who was sick) went into the LoC. Immediately, Rachel and Ash starting taking pictures. I had been there not too awfully long ago, but it was much more technologically advanced this time. TV screens were everywhere, as well as touch-screen computers dotting the entire premises (it would show a picture of something in the room, and highlights of the room would have plus signs by them; pressing a plus sign revealed more details about that particular highlight) and even a cell phone number that could be dialed for floor-by-floor tours. We saw the tours up on the sign, and the next possible one was at 1:30, and the next was at 2:30. We decided to go eat nearby in the Madison Building, one of the three buildings of the Library of Congress. The main building that is commonly associated with the LoC is the Jefferson Building, and the third building is the Adams.

Off we went to the Madison building and up to the sixth floor, where the cafeteria was. We waited in line behind a huge group of kids, but after we sent Rachel ahead to see if we could go on in, we figured out that that the groups had to go through some sort of "cafeteria seminar" to even go in. The rest of us could go in head first.

The LoC Cafeteria was pretty large and pretty cheap. Mine was more expensive because I didn't see the "prices include employee discounts" sign, but it was still good. I read a brochure on 25 FAQs, and found out that we could see a typed copy of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in the copyright office on the fourth floor. We got all excited, and immediately put up our stuff (after a quick picture of the LoC trays) and went to the elevators. We went down to the fourth floor and looked around, but couldn't find anything. Then we went down to what we thought was the floor we came in on, but we were wrong again. We followed signs and - somehow- ended up underground in a walkway. We came out in the Jefferson Reading Room areas - which was a bit frightening, since the signs practically warned that they would shoot you if you went into the reading rooms without a registration card. We finally came out where the library was, and breathed a huge sigh of relief. We looked around a bit, but went ahead to go grab seats for a tour.

While we were waiting on the tour guide, a man in front of us got up, tripped over the bench, and fell, hitting his head on the corner of the bench Rachel, Ash, and I were sitting on. He immediately started bleeding, and the woman (who I presume was his wife) started screaming, "Help! HELP!"

A guard came over and looked stunned. "Didhefaint? Didhefaint? Didhefaint? Hetrip? He trip? Hefell? Didhefall? Didhefaint?" All the poor woman could say was, "He tripped! He's bleeding!" A woman from another group came to the rescue and held a tissue over the bleeding gash on his forehead. Later on, I heard the woman say that he would have to have stitches about half the length of his eyebrow.

We decided to go ahead and look around on our own after that. We took pictures of all of the architecture in the main room, and I played with the interactive touch screen computer. The first exhibit we went to was Exploring the Early Americas. The pieces were amazing. There were pre-Columbian pieces galore (which touchscreen computer allowed you to turn, "unroll" (if they were bowls or cylinders), and "read" (the markings would have plus signs that revealed more information about that part of the piece when touched). The maps were cool as well.

The other exhibition was a two-in-one deal: Creating the United States and Thomas Jefferson's Library. As awesome as it was to see the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, I've got to say that seeing Jefferson's library was an amazing experience. To see what affected the beginnings of our country first hand is a powerful thing to behold.

When we came out of the exhibit, we snuck in behind another tour group about to see the Main Reading Room. We listened to the guide tell stories for a few minutes before he led us in. We went up into the mezzanine, which was separated from the actual reading room by plexiglass. The tour guide showed us the statues of philosophy and their corresponding figures (for example, Religion was parent to two statues of Moses and St. Paul). The ceiling, from the perspective of what I came to D.C. for, was one of the more interesting pieces in the room. But I'll write more on that later.

When we finally left, we went to the Capitol only to find out we had to have tickets, which usually go very fast. I was pretty upset since it was past 4:00 and we'd only done one thing. We walked to the bottom of Capitol Hill and happened upon the U.S. Botanical Gardens which, thank God, were free. There were literally hundreds of different species of flowers and trees. It was a beautiful example of the beauty that exists in the world just beyond our fingertips.

After the Gardens, we went back up the Hill to eat at Tortilla Coast, which the tour guide tells us that George W. Bush ate there before he was elected (it does so in a very "leave it at that" manner). It was all good, even though we ended up taking most of each of our plates back to the hotel room. Two metro rides and one metro-nap later, we went back to the hotel room and watched Children of Men and Adult Swim.

Reflections will be posted later, as there are many of them for this day. But tomorrow there will be even more: Off to Gettysburg and Hershey, PA!

Day 2 - The Suffering of Those We Never Knew

Posted by Whit Barringer , Thursday, May 29, 2008 11:38 PM

Such a long long day.

We were slow to get around. I was still sore from the drive and my body was reluctant to respond. I totally missed breakfast in the hotel, and the half muffin that Jeremy and Rachel brought back for me had a hair in it. Blegh.

We asked for directions to the metro. The woman at the front desk was very hesitant to give them, insisting instead on driving us. After hemming and hawing, we finally got directions. When we followed them, we got lost. We ended up going back to the hotel and asking another guy for directions, but we could barely understand him. What we could make out matched what the other woman had said, so we tried the same way. We went over a ridge into a park which we had originally thought was a dead end. It turned out to be the right way.

We walked to the Metro station and bought our seven-day pass. Under my direction, we took the wrong metro train and had to get back on another with even more stops. Then Jeremy and Rachel got off at one stop to "use the bathroom." An hour later of Ash and I sitting in the metro waiting for them, we went up to the street and called, only to find out that Jeremy and Rachel had gone to the Air and Space museum since they couldn't find us.

We finally got ourselves together and went to the most anticipated of our stops in the Smithsonian "district" - the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The first thing that struck me was how open the museum was. One huge wall had only a verse (from Isiah, I think), which said, "You are my witnesses." They had multiple exhibits, and we had to take a ticket with a time to be able to go to the Permanent Exhibition. Our time was 3:30, so we decided to go to the kosher cafeteria to get lunch. When we got out, we had enough time to go to the 1936 Nazi Olympics exhibit.

For those who don't know much about it, it was the only Olympic contest held in Nazi Germany (yes, there was even one). They had pictures of different men and women who had won in the Olympics but were killed during the Holocaust. An American might be more familiar with it as the Olympics where Jesse Owens broke a running record, then came home and wasn't allowed to run in a race because he was black.

We went to the museum shop for a little bit and looked around before our 3:30 time. Then we were ushered into elevators. Before we got in, we were supposed to take a card with a person's name on it. I don't know if it was the same way with everyone's, but the person on Ash's and my cards all survived.

The elevator was cold gray metal and looked like the outside of a boxcar. When we got out, the first thing we saw was a video of the liberation of one of the camps and a large photo of charred black bodies. As we kept walking, there were concentration camp uniforms mounted on a rounded wall built especially for it. I looked over the railing and saw uniforms down below as well. It reminded me of a well of souls.

There were two videos to watch as we wound our way through the museum - one on the rise of Hitler, and the other on antisemitism. We saw a car used to haul things, including bodies, a boxcar used to carry men, women, and children to their deaths in extermination camps, and a model of the gas chambers and crematoriums. They had a hospital bed which was used in Action T4. They even had beds from Auschwitz, where men and women would have had to sleep six to a bed. Three boys from a middle school slapped their hands on it, and one proclaimed, "I could have slept on here!" People died on those beds, and all that boy could think was to make a loud challenge to anyone who once slept there.

They had mini-videos all around the museum. Some were on mobile death squads. Another video was on Nazi medical experiments. Others were about those who were persecuted, like the Sinti and Roma (Gypsies) and the Jews. They didn't have much on political prisoners, and even less on homosexuals, but they did identify major groups that were persecuted.

One wall showed Polish men who had been photographed minutes before they were shot. The Polish, as a nationality, got the brunt of Nazi wrath. Millions of Polish people died. In the pictures, almost all were exclusively priests and teachers. They all looked tired and uncertain.

The museum tried its best to evoke emotion, and it did from me. Seeing the shoes, which made of leather, were chosen to survive over things made of flesh. There was a wall with pictures of forearms with the Nazi serial number tattoo. There were also pictures of mounds of hair.

There was one hall that had pictures of Jewish men and women that had been collected over the years. The pictures extended several stories. All of these people were human, and they were all slaughtered.

The museum goes into the creation of the state of Israel, but doesn't go so far as to validate either side of the conflict. They had a video at the end that was long, but showed men and women who had been liberated and their stories. When we left, I felt heavy.

We next went and visited the Washington Monument, the World War II memorial (complete with fountains that weren't there the last time I came), the reflecting pool, Mr. Abe Lincoln, and the Vietnam War Memorial.

On Lincoln: I thought it was very interesting that the inscription above his head (which I have a picture of) refers to the memorial as a "temple." I'll share my thoughts on that later on.

We walked what seemed like over a mile to the nearest metro, and took it to Union Station where we ate in a restaurant called - get this - "America." I had a burger, which was pretty good. They had light-up outlines of Texas and Louisiana on the walls, which we thought was pretty funny (apparently that's where all American food comes from - in fact, most of the food on the menu was prefaced with "Na'wlins" or "Texas"). We finally left (we limped, really) and went back to the Metro station. We were almost accosted by a crazy person, and we were accosted by a drunk guy, so we couldn't get back to the hotel fast enough. When we came in around 11:45, we collapsed and fell asleep not long after our heads hit our pillows.

I'll post my observations later.

Day 1 - Flying on Wings of Rubber and Steel

Posted by Whit Barringer , Wednesday, May 28, 2008 10:54 PM

We are in Washington, D.C.

We stayed the night in Memphis last night and left this morning at 7:00 on the dot. It took us a little over 14 hours to get to our hotel, and we ordered pizza so we wouldn’t have to step outside the door again for another 12 hours.

On the way, we saw quite a few interesting and beautiful things. The mountains were the best part. We were able to see the Appalachian Mountains and bits of the Smoky Mountains. Most exciting was seeing the signs of all the Civil War battle names – Manassas, Wilderness, Shenandoah, Fredericksburg, and quite a few more.

To those of you who don’t know why we’ve come so far: It’s not exactly a vacation.

My best friend, Jeremy, his girlfriend, Rachel, and my other best friend, Ash, have come this far on a mission. We are looking for American identity.

We are looking in the places that seem obvious. The memorials, the museums, the monuments, the statues. We see these things as intrinsically tied to what we think it means to be an American. But at the same time, there are details in the places that seem irrelevant that are just as important to that definition. We will be coming home in a week, and we’ll have many stories to tell.

For instance: Something that I thought was particularly interesting was the number of roads in Virginia that were dedicated to people as “Memorial Highways” or “Memorial Bridges.” That, in addition to the number of Civil War battle sites, military institutes, and military museums (as well as this past weekend being Memorial Day) reminded me of how Americans identify with death on a daily basis. We are a nation of remembrance, and we are constantly reminding ourselves (out of guilt? debt?) that we are never to forget. Americans believe that they live, breathe, and die by certain ideals that they regard as closely intertwined with Americanism. But what are they, really and truly? What does it mean to live and die for a word like “freedom” or “America” and not really know what it means? What does it mean to be loyal to a vague blur of hand-me-down stories and distantly removed history lessons?

We are observers while we are here – intense yet biased, understanding yet separated. It will certainly be an adventure, and I hope you will stick around for the ride.

I’ll see you tomorrow.

Wh... what? Did she just say that on national television?

Posted by Whit Barringer , Sunday, May 25, 2008 10:28 PM

No, not Hillary, though what she said is bad enough.

From Talking Points Memo, which got it from DailyKos.

Now was that classy or what?

When you stand on the backs of your brothers.

Posted by Whit Barringer , Saturday, May 24, 2008 10:34 AM

I went to a dinner in Little Rock yesterday as a brief reunion with friends from school. On the way home, I did not drive above 70 miles per hour. Gas was $3.78 yesterday, and that was down from what it was. I was trying to make it home on what I had. I wasn't on a deadline. I didn't have a curfew. I wasn't in a hurry to go home.

I was passing a truck that was traveling around 65 when a car came up on my bumper and stayed there. All I could see was headlights. As soon as I passed the truck, I got into the right lane. The car was actually an SUV, and it passed me going at least 90 mph.

This got me thinking about the energy problem facing the United States, and who and what people believe the problem is.

Obviously, it's not us.

The house recently passed a bill allowing the U.S. to sue OPEC. Oil executives were "grilled on fuel prices." I'm sure you've heard about the gas tax holiday that McCain proposed and Clinton backed - despite the fact that economists all agree it would be a horrible idea. Oil speculators are making their money, too.

So who's the blame, according to our actions? OPEC, the oil companies, taxes, and speculators. While these all play their parts, there's still the one cog that no one is blaming too loudly, lest they lose their congressional seat: the consumer.

I understand what people are saying. They don't really have a choice when it comes to driving those long distances. My mother is one of them, as she drives an hour to work each way (and that's with good traffic). My college is an hour and a half away from my home. My grandmother works two jobs and drives to both. I get it. The people who need to drive are the ones getting hurt.

But not everyone is in this situation. Many people live in cities, where there is public transportation, but they refuse to take public transportation because they can still afford to drive their Hummers and their SUVs. But that's hardly the only problem. Remember the person in the SUV who was going 90? That person was willingly spending as much as $1.20 for gas, and wasting what he or she was paying more for.

Does anyone live in a vacuum? Why do people think, "Well, I can afford the gas today, so I'll go ahead and drive fast" only affects one wallet? It's disheartening to see people still use these attitudes. They believe in the power of their own money rather than the power of common sense.

I don't understand how people can still use this reasoning - that they're not the problem. Is the person who can only nickel and dime his gas tank the problem? Because I'm pretty sure they are lowering demand, not increasing it. Are the coworkers who carpool the problem? Because I'm also pretty sure that they're using as much as half of the gas they were before.

Every time you step on the gas, you're taking money out of your wallet and someone else's. I know, this kind of "help your brother" attitude is not very American, but our attitudes aren't the only thing that has to change if we're going to survive these tough times.

I hope people think about that as they lounge on their boats this Memorial Day weekend, commemorating what others sacrificed for them. Maybe they - we - will realize that it's our turn.

Food + History = Delicious

Posted by Whit Barringer 10:18 AM

"Food Fight": The history of American centric warfare since World War II as told by food. See if you can guess the countries.

I'm still too lazy to make another Firestarter post for a while, but the occasional link or YouTube video will do until I decide to do another.

The Day the President Came to Dinner

Posted by Whit Barringer , Thursday, May 22, 2008 9:43 PM

Well, I'm sure he would have-


-if he had gotten the letter.

See, I had some important things to tell Mr. Clinton back in '94 or '95 (I'm not sure - I just know it has to be some time between the 29-cent stamp and my handwriting). I snuck a stamp out of someone's purse, put it on my envelope with my very important letter, went down the hill to the mailbox, stuck it in, and raised the flag. Thirteen or fourteen years later, my grandmother finds it while cleaning the house.

This was my very important message:


It's fascinating to me now to look back and see how my little mind grasped the world. I knew the president had money, and I knew, if he really wanted to and I could show him that we weren't completely without (the penny taped to the page), he could help us out, even a little.

Bill Clinton was a bad word in my house, and I never really understood why. I had an inkling it was because he was a Democrat (though Arkansas has elected all of seven Republican governors in its history, and four were during Reconstruction). The hatred of Bill mostly came from my grandfather, who could hold grudges for very small things. Maybe Bill made one too many jokes about watermelons, or perhaps he gave the cold shoulder to one of our cousins ten times removed. For the life of me, I don't know. But it was a cornerstone in the politics of our house that, whatever you did, you didn't say, "Well, I like Bill."

I believe I was in the second grade when we held mock elections for the next president. In a combination of peer pressure and rebellious determination, I voted for Bill Clinton. I remember my face growing hot and my heart racing as I marked his name. When I went home, I told my family that I had voted for Bob Dole. Lies. All lies. Even though I had enjoyed voting for Bill, I knew I couldn't hide my dark secret forever.

One day I went up to my grandfather, my head hung low. Papa asked me what was the matter, and I finally blurted it out.

"Papa, I didn't vote for Bob Dole!"
"Why, who'd you vote for?"
"Bill Clinton! I'm sorry!"

And I remember the look on Papa's face as he sighed so deeply that his chest rose and nearly touched his chin.

"It's alright, Honey. That's what we died for."

I felt my heart sink really low, but he patted his lap, and I dutifully crawled up and laid my head on his shoulder.

I don't know why my grandfather, war veteran and farmer, hated politicians so vehemently. But that day, I realized that he had put all of that aside for me, at least for a little while.

Looking back, I'm sure beyond a doubt that my grandfather took the letter out of the mailbox. I really don't know why, but I don't think it matters anymore. It's now an artifact and a conduit that makes the memories easier to recall. I'm almost positive that's not what he had in mind when he took out of the mailbox (and read it, no less). Whatever reason he had, I'm glad he did so.

Besides, it's not like Bill would have come down for supper anyway.

Is it hard? That "living under a rock" thing?

Posted by Whit Barringer 9:28 AM

Still haven't decided on a presidential candidate? This may help.

From GOOD Magazine: Meet the Candidates.

It only took 142 tries.

Posted by Whit Barringer , Wednesday, May 21, 2008 9:23 PM

I have buttons!

You can click a button on the sidebar to read either the Italy journals I wrote last summer or "Mr. Simmons Goes to Washington." They all come up in reverse, so you have to scroll down to start from the beginning. Hopefully Blogger will fix that one day. For now, it is as it is and that is that.

Let me know if something doesn't work or if you have suggestions. Originally, the Italy button had special effects and the Mr. Simmons one was animated, but they didn't load right (honestly, they look better the way they are now).


For want of a field, the historian was lost.

Posted by Whit Barringer 12:22 PM

You may remember that I'm looking at grad schools. Well, the search goes on. Here's the checklist for my search:

  1. Take the GRE.
  2. Figure out subjects that I'm interested in and that will be worth five cents in five years (when I get out of my long-term imprisonment - hopefully).
  3. Figure out schools I want to go to that offer said subjects.
  4. Email professors at said schools who teach said subjects.
  5. Figure out if I really want to work with those professors at said schools who teach said subjects.
  6. Apply to chosen school(s).
  7. Cross fingers.
I'm planning on taking the GRE soon after I get back from D.C. in early June. I don't know when it's offered yet (add that before #1, I guess), but I do know that I have to do it soon. Things are starting to get hectic, and it's not even really summer yet. My summer checklist is far longer than this grad school excerpt, and I'm working full days at my job, so my days are shorter at home - when I am home. I just happen to be home at night all this week because my car is in the shop and it was too expensive to rent a car.

This field stuff is getting to me, though. I know that those wiser than I have told me (warned me, even) that sometimes it takes a while for field interests to gel. As good of advice as that is, I know I've still got to figure out the general vicinity of my focus. You don't go to seminary to get a physics degree, and, while not as drastic, I'm not that far away from being completely clueless as to what I want to do.

Don't get me wrong - the Pickelhaube of Professorship has settled upon my brow and I think it fits rather well. However, my accoutrement, such as the Sword of Specialty, or even the Faulds of Forte, have yet to come into my possession. I am a little worse for the wear worrying about it, and I haven't figured out how to overcome this.

In the meantime, while my brain is whirring and ticking and spontaneously combusting, I have begun the slow and oh-so-envious! task of emailing professor after professor after professor. So far, I have been very daring and emailed professors and grad secretaries and grad recruiters at Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Berkley, University of Oklahoma, and the University of Texas at Austin, all of whom I'm sure are now regretting putting their email addresses online. So far, only those at Austin have gotten back to me and been very helpful at all. Unfortunately, I contacted them about American or International diplomatic history, which I was promptly told by a professor who's helping me that that field was, and I quote, "as dead as Vanilla Ice's career."

Ah well. The search continues.

Hiatus: Terminated

Posted by Whit Barringer 12:17 PM

Sorry that I've been gone so long, everyone. I know you were eagerly awaiting my return. I just… know these things.

So there are going to be some major changes coming up, including, but not limited to, more entries. I'm going to try and make this blog an actual blog instead of a waystation that I pass through sometimes on my way to other things.

Oh, and stay tuned for my summer trip blog this year. It won't be like Italy, really, but it will be very interesting for my traveling companions and me.

Mr. Simmons Goes to Washington - Chapter II

Posted by Whit Barringer , Tuesday, May 20, 2008 3:19 AM

This is a continuation of "Mr. Simmons Goes to Washington - Chapter I." If you haven't read it yet, I suggest you do so or you'll be lost. Enjoy.

I’ve got my coat on and my fedora. I had to sell my car about six months ago to make the rent, and now I’m back to taking cabs like some Joe Blow off the street. She’s already gone. As soon as we were out of the building, she made sure that nobody thought we were together. I could only watch her walk away knowing I’d see her again. She was going to be the end of me.

There are no cabs on this street this late, so I have to walk. It’ll be a long walk, and possibly a dangerous one. But gin and two month’s rent calls.

As I walk, I’m thinking about what all she’s told me. I’m dissatisfied with what little I know, and how that little I know is scarier than it should be.

I see a late driving cab, hail it, and tell it where to go. The driver’s surprised and asks me why I want to go there, but all I say is, “Family.” It’s true in a way. In the off and on light that is the street lamps, I pull out my notebook and start writing.

Villa comma Benny dash. Tisdale comma Jasper dash. Langley comma William dash. I look at the spaces after and between the names and groan. What a hell of a case this could be. I start filling in what I know. Next to Benny, I write “mafia racketeer” and “murdered Friday, September 22nd.” Then I realize an assumption. Who knows how long the body’s been there? Nancy. I frown.
Next to William and Jasper, I write “FBI.” I make a special note next to William that says “crooked.” Who isn’t? I sigh at the ridiculousness.

I come back to Benny Villa and think as hard as a gin-soaked mind can think. The cab stops before I’ve really started, and I get out, give the driver what little money I still have to make him stay put, and set out for Katz Grocery. I see it and observe that there’s no one else around. I jog a little, but I can’t go very far. I light up a cigarette from my reserves. I know it’s a liability because now I can be found in the dark, but God it’s good.

I see a police car coming my way and I duck into an alley and hide my cigarette. Seeing the car drives home how dangerous this could be, and I’m feeling good. I realize that I’m crazy. I blame it on the war, but I think it was coming on long before.

After the car passes, I run up the street and duck into the alleyway that leads behind Katz. It doesn’t take me very long to find it – and that means it was meant to be found. Sure enough, Benny Villa is bloated and staring back up at me, somehow both slack and rigid. I bend down and give him a good slap in his clean-shaven jaw, which is broken. It’s the least I could do for all the kids he killed by taking them in his gang. I was glad he was dead.

I stand up and survey the situation. He’s in a gray business suit. Benny Villa was notoriously sloppy, and the suit showed it. It was wrinkled and stained. He was so fat the buttons gapped. There were lots of bloody places all over his body. I pull open the holes in his shirt from the wounds. They’re slits. “Stabbed,” I say, the cigarette between my lips bobbing like an Adam’s apple. His high-dollar fedora was about three feet from his head. I unbutton his jacket, which isn’t hard, and look in his pockets. He’s got cigarettes inside his jacket, and I take a look. Chesterfields. I’m a Lucky Strike man, but I take them anyway. The other side of his jacket has a notebook with numbers with dollar signs. The usual. But I catch a name. Tisdale. It’s written with an “X” next to it. Jasper Tisdale. Was he dead?

I search the body for more, a bit more frantically, but I’m not finding much. His wallet has nothing in it. I finally give up looking in his pockets. I check the lining of his jacket and the inside of his belt, but nothing’s stashed away. All I’ve got is a name, but it’s valuable. I get up, about to walk away, when I look at his fedora again. It’s a damn good looking fedora. I take it. The rent’s up, and the gin’s running dry. Gotta take the breaks when I can. Mine was looking pretty old anyway. I make a fast break out of the alley and hail another cab that happens to be driving through. I want to go to my apartment to figure out what the hell has happened, but I know I’ll fall asleep if left alone. I could call Nancy, but the broad probably knows what I know already. I need more information. There’s only one place where a man like me can keep his ear to the ground.

“You know Olivetti’s?”

“You mean Mr. Olivetti’s ehhhh… cigar lounge?” This bastard’s quick.

“Yeah. The cigar lounge.”

“Yeah, I got you.”

“I’ve gotta go see the Yak.” The cabbie nods, and drives on without another word.


Of course, Olivetti’s isn’t a cigar lounge. As the cab pulls up, I can see the darkened neon sign come into view. It says Olivetti’s in bright green and red when it’s lit up, but the real deals go down when the light’s off. The neon sign is left over from the days that this was an up and coming bar, before the church ladies and preachers turned off the taps a few years ago. Prohibition hadn’t choked off everything, though. While Olivetti’s had been able to change it’s front to a cigar lounge, it was still one of the best speakeasies in the whole damn town. Now it made five times the profit, and at all hours of the day.
I walk into the alley beside the doorway and go down a steps leading to the shipment door. I kick the door with my shoe, and a slide on the door at eye level immediately comes open.

“We’re closed.” I can tell this guy’s as big as a Ford by his voice, but I know how to handle it.

“Yeah, but your sister ain’t.” The slider shuts, but I hear the guy laughing as he opens the door.

“Hey, good one, Tony. Welcome back.” I tip my new fedora to the doorman. I pat him on the shoulder even though I can’t remember his name.

“Yeah, thanks.” I walk to the end of a wooden-paneled doorway, but I could have followed the smell of cigars and whiskey just as easy. I hear some girls laughing and a few men drunk enough to sing. I come to the open end of the hall and see about thirty people spread out across the room. I take a look over my shoulder as I walk to the bar. The man I need to see ain’t here. As I look back to the bar, a familiar face is smiling back at me. The bartender, six feet tall, cross-eyed in one eye and lazy in the other, looks at me with one eye turned to my face and the other to my hands.

“Damn, Pete. I don’t know how you can even see with those goddamn eyes.” Pete picks up a glass and starts cleaning it while laughing.

“To hear the sisters down the street tell it, it’s God’s work. But I don’t believe it.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” He’s filling me up a glass of gin.

“Why not?”

“Because God would be one crazy sonofabitch to come in here.” Pete roars with laughter, and I share a laugh with him and nod. He slides the glass across the bar into my hand and I chug the whole thing down. Pete watches me with one eye.

“Bad night, Tony?” I grimace.

“Yeah. You might say so.” Pete straightens up and towels his hands.

“What are you here for, then?”

“Ain’t it obvious?” I say as I dig my finger around the glass for the last drop. Pete obviously disapproves and frowns at me.

“I’d say it’s the gin you need.” I slam the glass down.

“Hell no. I need to see the Yak about a thing. I didn’t see him when I came in. Where is he?” Pete looks beyond me and nods.

“Right where he usually is.” I turn around and see a slender figure sit down at the piano on a stage at the far end of the room. I pass the glass back to Pete without looking. When his fingers hit the keys, I know the tune. People in the room start laughing and singing along. When his fingers hit the keys, I know the tune.

“She brings her father, her mother,
Her sister and her brother,
Oh I never see Maggie alone!
She brings her uncles and cousins,
She's got 'em by the dozens,
I never see Maggie alone!”

I watch him as he gets into playing, laughing and nodding along with the words that the patrons are nearly shouting at him. It’s a small crowd for a night like this, but they sing like there’s ten times as many here. He keeps playing, his hands flying across the keyboard, putting flourishes in places the recordings don’t.

“I threw the line in
Then I gave a shout
Thought I had a trout
I pulled the line right out
There was her father, her mother,
Her sister and her brother!
Oh I never see Maggie alone.
No, I never see my Maggie alone!"

He finishes with a flourish and the crowd goes crazy, begging him for more. He stands up, smiling, enjoying the attention, and is about to oblige them for an encore when he sees me. He blinks once, and then turns to the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I have other matters to attend to. But if you’re still around when I’m done, I’ll play you another tune.” The women in the crowd plead with him, and even rush up and touch his arms and shoulders, while the men hoot for him to play again. I tilt my new fedora on the back of my head and push my glasses up on my face. He pushes them aside, obviously pained to have to shy out of the limelight, but he gestures to another man off stage, who immediately comes out, slides out on the piano bench, and starts playing before he’s even settled.

Suddenly, someone grabs my arm. I look up and it’s the delivery truck that let me in.

“Tony, he’s waiting for you.” I pull my arm out of his grip.

“I know the drill.” I move away from the bar and move across the room to slide behind the same curtains the acts used. I see a few men in black suits and even better fedoras than mine. I nod to them all and move between them. They don’t stop me.

I go into the back room. It’s dark and I can barely see my hand in front of me. One lone lamp lights the room. I see the ashes of a cigarette glow bright orange and then settle into a dull red color. The wisps of smoke push into the lamplight, and I move for my own cigarettes. I was always a soft man for an addiction.

“Still smoking Strikes?” I don’t answer as I light it. I take a deep drag and nod.

“Yeah. Always.” He chuckles.

“I saw you asking around. What do you want, Anthony?” It’s been a long time since someone used my name and it didn’t make me cringe.

“Yak, Benny Villa’s dead.” There’s a pause.

“I know.” I nearly choke on my cigarette. Maybe it's the gin, but I'm so angry that I can feel the mercury rise up the back of my neck and explode in my brain.

“How the hell do you know? I had some broad come into my office and tell me to investigate this damn murder because of jewelry and the FBI and all sorts of strange shit, and you’re telling me you already know what’s going on? How do you know he’s dead?” I see the cigarette light glow bright orange again and hear him stand. Only his mouth is in the lamplight. He brings up his hand and takes the cigarette between his index and middle finger and flicks it. I can't help but watch the ashes fall to the floor. I realize I can't hear the piano playing anymore, and the silence is almost absolute except for my own wheezing breaths. Suddenly, I know what he's going to say before he says it.

“I know because I had him killed.”

To be continued when I damn well feel like it.

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