Tag Archives: George Custer

What Hath Bell Wrought

28 Feb

This week, I have been telling my classes about some of the technological advances of the late 1800s. That was a time when inventors experimented in labs throughout the world to develop the next great invention. One of those, the telephone, greatly impacted communication and continues to be an integral part of our lives.

(Interesting Trivia: The telephone was up and running before George Custer was killed at Little Big Horn; before Wyatt Earp became a lawman in Dodge City; before Jesse and Frank James attempted a failed bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota; and before Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president.)

Alexander Graham Bell is known by most as the inventor of the telephone. Of course, there has been debate about who invented it first, but he is the one who took the invention and made it a part of everyday life. This post is not about who invented it. Instead, it is about what we discussed in class.

I took the students through the evolution of the phone. We talked about party lines and how neighbors could listen to your conversations if they were so inclined.Party Line

We talked about how operators used to connect calls by sticking wires in the proper sockets.Operator

We talked about rotary dials, when people had to stick their hands in the proper holes and turn the dial. Then, they listened to it click as it moved back into place.Rotary Phone

We talked about phones with long cords that became tangled and stretched.Phone Cord

In short, we talked about things that they had never seen.

The telephone was a great invention and has alter the direction of humanity. However, I noticed something as I talked about the history of the telephone. Several of the students were not listening because they were playing around with their iPhones and Droids. While I was going over the virtues of the telephone, they were taking part in the bad side of the telephone.

For teachers, or anyone else who needs to have the attention of a group of people, telephones are the work of Satan. They are distractions for the ones using them, and they are distractions for the rest of us. These things have become attachments that people cannot do without.

On the first day of class, I tell everyone to stay off their phones. No texting. No tweeting. Put them away and do not look at them. I may as well be whistling in the wind. People cannot put down their phones. I am convinced that Steve Jobs was the most successful drug dealer in the history of the world. We cannot do without his product.

Just once, I would like to go back to the old days and have a class where no phone was in the room. Students would still daydream or stare out of the window. At least there would not be the blatant act of picking up a phone and looking at it and providing physical proof that they just do not care.

Ironically, I had to stop talking about the history of the telephone to tell people to get off their phones. As I walked out of class, I began to wonder what hath Bell wrought.

Picture This – Little Bighorn

24 Feb

Montana 2012 and Other Stuff 126

On June 25, 1876, George Custer and part of the 7th Cavalry charged into a Sioux encampment on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. The events that followed would become one of the most famous battles and most famous defeats in American history.

Many people in this part of the country can go to a Civil War battlefield and know the details of what happened there. I can do that at Little Bighorn. I first visited the battlefield in Montana when I was a kid and have been back several times. However, it was not the event that first gained my attention. It was the white markers scattered around the landscape.

At some point after the battle, marble markers were placed where soldiers had fallen. Some of them are not accurate, and they have since caused controversy. Native Americans have wondered where the markers for their fallen have been. In recent years, a few markers have been placed for killed warriors.

This post is not about the inaccuracies or the controversy. It is about the effect. For me, the markers make the battle seem like it happened a few days ago. I can scan the battlefield and see where people fell. I can see where some made a stand and others died alone. I can look at the markers and see the battle in my mind. I can listen to the wind and hear the sounds of the fight.

Civil War battlefields do not provide the same effect for me. I can study a battle and know the troop movements, but the land looks like a peaceful field. At Little Bighorn, the individual markers remind me that blood was shed on the expanse.

A few years ago, I went to the battlefield with my dad, my brother and my nephews. We stood on Last Stand Hill, where Custer’s body was discovered, and my nephew filmed me talking about the battle. I looked over the landscape and pointed to where everything happened. I provided accounts from warriors and military records. It was a thrill to be able to do that on site.

When I finished, I turned around to find a busload of people listening to me. Apparently, I had drawn a crowd. I answered a lot of questions, but I really wanted to tell them to look at the markers. They are why I have read so much about the battle. They are the genesis for why I studied the American West. For me, they are what makes Little Bighorn a spiritual place.

Boiled Custard, Dead Hogs and Black-Eyed Peas

3 Aug

Every Friday, a group of us guys has lunch together. Same restaurant. Same table. Usually, the same meals. Through the years, some people have taken to calling us the Mafia. We don’t get anything accomplished, but we think the world would be a better place if people listened to us.

One member of the group of full of old-time ideas about such things as the weather. For example, he says that if you hang a dead snake over a fence rail, then it will rain. It has rained a lot lately, so, today, I asked him if he had been killing snakes. His reply was that he hadn’t seen any snakes. Maybe, they knew it was about to rain, so they stayed out of his way.

Since lunch, I have been thinking about superstitions and traditions such as this. I have heard them all of my life, and they sound like something that you would find in the Farmer’s Almanac. I wonder if people in different parts of the country have different things like this. I mean, is the dead snake idea universal, or is it a southern thing?

There are a lot of southern things that have come down through the generations. Prominent in my family is the idea that you should eat black-eyed peas and hog jowl on New Year’s Day.Black Eyed Peas

If you do this, then you will have good luck for the rest of the year. When I was a kid, I hated the idea of eating black-eyed peas, but my dad insisted that we do it. Surprisingly, I liked the hog jowl. Overall, I suppose it works. As a family, we have had pretty good luck.

Another tradition is making boiled custard at Christmas. When I say boiled custard, I don’t mean egg nog. This is completely different, and it is completely good. I don’t know what’s in it, and I don’t know why people only make it at Christmas. In my mind, anything that good is worthy of year round consumption. Being a strange child, hearing people talk about boiled custard always made me think of George Custer.George Custer

There is another tradition that is dying out, and I want to experience it before it does. In these parts, people have always killed hogs on the day after Thanksgiving. In the old days, my grandfather had a hog-killing on his farm. Obviously, it involves a lot of blood, but it was necessary to have enough meat for the winter. Also, they needed the hog jowl to put in the black-eyed peas for good luck.Hog Killing

Few people still do it, but the family of one of the Mafia members continue the tradition. This year, I’m taking part. The day after Thanksgiving is known as Black Friday. I bet the hogs wish they were out shopping.

These are all traditions of the south. Are they also traditions in other places? What’s the old-timey way of doing things in your part of the world?

Baseball, Crazy Horse and a Great Big Rock

7 Aug

I have returned from my ventures in Montana and can report that a great time was had by all. The best part was spending time with my dad, my brother and my nephews. We picked on each other, laughed and learned a few things along the way.

The trip began as we landed in Billings and found our way to the hotel. It was immediately apparent that my oldest nephew would be the navigator of the trip as we felt our way through the town. We had planned a journey through history, agriculture and different landscapes, but first we needed to do something for my youngest nephew. That meant going to a baseball game.

Good looking bunch, isn’t it?

We saw a Rookie League game between the Billings Mustangs and the Helena Brewers, and you could tell from the quality of play that this was about as low in professional baseball as someone could get. There were dropped balls, balks and wild pitches. However, the action is not what caught my attention. These guys were living the dream of playing pro ball and trying to move up through the ranks. Then, I realized that the Brewers are part of the same organization as Nashville’s AAA team. Those guys were working hard to get to Tennessee on their way to Milwaukee.

While living their dream, the players were offering entertainment for the community. The stands were filled with people of all ages, from the very old to the very young. The outfield fence was lined with people in lawn chairs. We found ourselves in a real community event, and that is one of the things I like about these kinds of trips. At times, you can avoid the typical tourist destinations and immerse yourself in another lifestyle.

We talked to the people around us and learned about life in and around Billings. We got free t-shirts for being among the first 500 fans. We paid reasonable prices for food and paid a dollar to enter the pitching cage. For one night, we were honorary citizens of Billings.

The next morning, our driving journey began as we headed down Interstate 90 toward the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. This is where George Custer and the 7th Cavalry was defeated by Sioux warriors led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. It is my favorite historic site and an event that I have read many volumes about. We drove to Last Stand Hill, where my nephew wanted to film me giving my lecture on the battle. I talked about the events that led to the fight. I talked about the battle as I looked over the land and pointed out where different stages took place. When I finished, I turned and discovered that about 20 people had gathered around to listen. Then, I spent time answering questions.

As a historian and a teacher, there is nothing better than being able to talk about an event where it took place. I wish I could beam my classes to different places as we cover them.

The site of two big events – Custer’s Last Stand and my lecture.

After a drive through the battlefield, we went across the street to KFC. Yes, the Sioux won the battle but the Colonel won the war. Unfortunately for the Kentuckians, the KFC didn’t open when the sign said it would, so we went to the Custer Battlefield Trading Post instead. I had fry bread stuffed with meat, cheese and beans. After that, I had fry bread covered with honey. It wasn’t as good as the sopapillas of New Mexico, but beggars can’t be choosy.

As we dined, a photograph of an imposing Native American looked down on us.

This is a Native American warrior – not a founder of a chain of strip clubs.

I didn’t pay much attention to the photo because images like this can be found in books and places throughout the West. Then, the owner of the trading post came by the table to see how we were. My brother told him that I was a historian of the West, and the guy asked:

“Do you know who that is?”

“I don’t think I do.”

“That’s Crazy Horse.”

Here’s the thing. Every book I have read and every teacher I have heard tell the same story. Crazy Horse refused to have his picture taken. Now, the owner of a tourist trap is telling me that I am looking at the image of Crazy Horse. After the meal, he took us to another room; pointed out the smaller original; said that the descendants told him privately that it is a photo of the warrior; and, gave me a free copy to put in my classroom. Is it really Crazy Horse? I don’t know, but I hope it is.

We left the trading post and got into the SUV. Unfortunately, our door hit a red truck parked next to us. The woman in the truck jumped on us pretty good, and we got out of there as fast as possible. George Custer could only wish that he had our instincts.

We drive north and hit a back road (interstates suck on these kinds of trips) toward Pompeys Pillar.

Did Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage make a movie about this place?

This rock was seen by William Clark on his return voyage with the Corps of Discovery. As Meriwether Lewis traveled on the Missouri River, Clark went down the Yellowstone River.

The Yellowstone River

Clark climbed the rock; named it Pompeys Tower in honor of Sacagawea’s son; and, carved his name on it. People say that it is the only permanent mark the Corps of Discovery made on the land they explored.

William Clark was here.

I’m not sure about that. They told the Native Americans that the land they lived on was owned by the United States. Over 70 years later and only a few miles away, the Battle of Little Bighorn would be one of the results of that statement.