Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The life of a blogger

As a blogger who fashions minor essays from the small events of his own life, I am continually in search of material. In fact, the blog frequently has the salutary effect of getting me off the couch to go in search of something worth mentioning in the blog. I find myself being more receptive toward invitations to concerts, ballgames, nature walks, and tourist attractions -- activities that I formerly was luke-warm about -- because of possibilities of discovering a topic for a blog entry. For instance, at least part of my interest in attending the recent Colorado Rockies game was the prospect of generating a blog entry to meet my September goal of 16 entries. So, nowadays I don't so much blog about my life as I shape my life to fit my blog. It is rather like being a crime reporter who robs a bank so that he will have a crime to report about.

Take me out to the ballgame!

Friends invited me to the Tuesday night baseball game between the Colorado Rockies and the Milwaukee Brewers. It was the most enjoyable ball game that I have ever attended.

The company was very pleasing. Our conversation was cheerful and frequently informative. (I had to be tutored at one point on the regulations concerning the ground-rule double.) The weather was excellent: a warm day gave way to a mild evening. The game had drama, excitement, and suspense. The Rockies led for most of the game but the Brewers rallied in the top of the ninth to tie and send the game into extra innings. The Rockies won the game with a home run in the eleventh inning.

I was surprised that I found the baseball action so engrossing. My attention didn't waver during the entire eleven innings. By contrast, when I am watching baseball on television, I'm only good for about two innings before I get restless and wander off. I think what I especially enjoy about being in the stadium is that I can see how the players on the field move in concert and back each other up. For instance, to fully appreciate the coordination needed to execute a double play, you need a broad view of the field to see the runner heading toward second base as the shortstop, the second baseman, and the first baseman are shifting into position. But the television camera typically takes too narrow a shot. You don't see the double play taking shape. Instead, television fragments the teamwork into the consecutive actions of isolated players. (Television does similar damage with its news coverage of politics.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Traveling through time

[A time portal?]

Science-fiction novels and movies have presented time travel by either mechanical or mental modes. An author who pictures the universe in terms of a mathematical space-time continuum will naturally draw an analogy with moving in space and conceive of riding in a machine that moves along the time dimension, forward or backward. An author who views time in subjective or experiential terms will draw analogies between time and memory and will tend to associate time travel with the movement of a character's consciousness back into the past.

H.G. Wells's The Time Machine shows an example of a mechanical mode of time travel. The time traveler built an elegant Victorian contraption of nickel, ivory, brass, and quartz. To operate the machine, the time traveler sat in a kind of saddle between two levers. He pulled one lever to send the time machine into the past. The other lever sent it into the future. In effect, the time machine was steered rather like a bulldozer. It was a practical, no-nonsense approach to time travel.

Modern usage of the mechanical mode of time travel usually exploits some kind of tricky relativistic or curved-space effect. The assumption is that if one can just go fast enough along a curved trajectory, one can spin oneself through time. The fourth Star Trek movie had the USS Enterprise slingshot around the sun to travel back into the past. One of the Superman movies had Superman fly around the Earth amazingly fast to travel in time, clockwise to go forward and counterclockwise to go back.

An early use of the mental mode of time travel was made by Mark Twain in The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Twain was interested in social commentary and had little patience with the rigmarole of time travel. He put his main character back into the time of King Arthur by applying a crowbar to his head:

It was during a misunderstanding conducted with crowbars with a fellow we used to call Hercules. He laid me out with a crusher alongside the head that made everything crack, and seemed to spring every joint in my skull and made it overlap its neighbor. Then the world went out in darkness, and I didn't feel anything more, and didn't know anything at all --at least for a while.

When I came to again, I was sitting under an oak tree, on the grass, with a whole beautiful and broad country landscape all to myself--nearly. Not entirely; for there was a fellow on a horse, looking down at me--a fellow fresh out of a picture-book. He was in old-time iron armor from head to heel, with a helmet on his head the shape of a nail-keg with slits in it; and he had a shield, and a sword, and a prodigious spear; and his horse had armor on, too, and a steel horn projecting from his forehead, and gorgeous red and green silk trappings that hung down all around him like a bedquilt, nearly to the ground.

The mental mode of time travel was famously used in the 1970 science-fiction novel Time and Again by Jack Finney. (Highly recommended.) In the novel the character Simon Morley prepares to travel back in time by first steeping himself in the history of 1880s New York. Then Morley goes to the old Dakota Hotel near Central Park and finds an apartment which has been preserved relatively unchanged since the 1880s, thereby presenting a nexus of closest physical approach between the present and the 1880s. Using a kind of self-hypnosis, Morley's mind dissolves the barrier between past and present and he is transported back to 1880s New York. The mental mode of time travel is an graceful complement to Finney's lush, nostalgic re-creation of old New York.

In my neighborhood the only locale that has been untouched by real estate developers is a little marsh (shown in the photograph above), which is bounded by the highway, the light-rail station, and a row of townhouses. The marsh could be my nexus to the Denver of the 1880s. If I put on some waders and walk into the marsh, perhaps I could think myself back in time, just like in Finney's novel.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Historic Denver

The top photograph shows the faded sign of the Studebaker Carriage and Wagon Company. The sign was painted in 1883 and is said to be the oldest surviving wall painting in Denver. The lower photograph shows the former John Deere Plow building, built in 1871.

And now the historical context:

In 1869 the completion of Transcontinental Railroad was celebrated with the driving of a golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah. The railroad started at Omaha, stretched through Wyoming and Utah and Nevada, and ended at Alameda, California. This route promised to make Omaha and Cheyenne the predominant rail centers west of the Mississippi River. Now all that was lacking to connect the East Coast with the West Coast was the construction of a railway bridge over the Missouri River between Omaha and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

The Denver city fathers, fearful that Denver's growth would be stunted without rail access, aggressively lobbied Congress to extend the Kansas Pacific, a southern branch of the Transcontinental Railroad, all the way to Denver from Kansas City, Missouri. During this same period the Denver city fathers hastily "railroaded" the approval of a bond issue to construct a connecting line from Denver to Cheyenne. Titanic amounts of money, steel, and labor were applied to the task and by August 1870 the complete Kansas City-Denver-Cheyenne circuit was linked to the main line of the Transcontinental Railway and open for business. By the time that Omaha completed its railway bridge to Council Bluffs in 1872, the southern bypass through Kansas City and Denver had already stolen the future from Omaha and Cheyenne.

As Denver's Union Station became the great rail hub of the Rocky Mountains, a host of distribution warehouses and factories appeared in Denver's lower downtown area around Wynkoop Street. As stated on the bronze Lower Downtown Walking Tour plaque on the Barteldes & Hartig Building:

"For more than a century, Denver's warehouse district has centered on Wynkoop. Stimulated by the arrival of the railroads in 1870 and the subsequent need for distribution services, an impressive array of three- to five-story warehouses, flat-roofed and faced in brick, often with stone trim, popped up from Cherry Creek to 19th Street. Unlike industrial plants built by engineers, most warehouses were the work of architects, and reflected the desire by warehousers for elegant and prestigious buildings in which to house both their storage facilities and their corporate offices. At one time, almost all warehouses along Wynkoop had covered loading docks and rail spurs. Sections of track are still visible as it is in the alley behind 1600 Wynkoop Street. This edifice housed Barteldes, Hartig & Co, a wholesale purveyor of fruits, produce and seeds, as well as feed, grain, and hay."

I spent Sunday afternoon walking the streets around Union Station looking for traces of historic Denver. The imposing brick buildings of the late 1800s have now been converted into upscale lofts, restaurants, and boutiques. The John Deere Plow building and the grand Neoclassical Revival brick warehouse of Spratlen and Anderson Wholesale Groceries are lofts. The gorgeous 1889 Denver Cable Railway Building with its intricate Romanesque Revival brickwork and graceful semicircular arches now houses the Old Spaghetti Warehouse restaurant. While I am happy that these fine old buildings have been preserved, I can't help thinking that they deserved a nobler end than to be the playground for young urbanites -- trendy Visigoths sipping their lattes as they sit upon the fallen columns of Rome.

On a more cheerful note, I had the pleasure of seeing a tour guide dressed as a 1880s dandy -- outfitted with derby, waistcoat, vest, cravat, britches, and ankle boots -- leading a gaggle of tourists through the Wynkoop area and expounding on Victorian architecture. Given my love of history and my love of expressing my random opinions to anyone within earshot, I should consider becoming a tour guide when I retire.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Birthday Hat

My younger son presented me with a new hat for my birthday. This excellent hat (first photo), an Australian safari hat of brown wax cotton, completes my image and declares to the world that I am a rugged adventurer. No longer will I disguise myself as a hick in a rumpled straw hat.

Consider it vanity if you like, but I consider myself quite dashing in my new hat. Look at those steely eyes under that brim. Look at that firm jaw. My face is taut and unlined, though I admit a bit sallow. Why, I could pass for a man in his late forties. Hats off to me! I am like a modern-day version of Will Honeycomb, as described by Richard Steele in The Spectator (essay No. 2, March 6th 1711):

We have among us the gallant WILL HONEYCOMB, a Gentleman who, according to his Years, should be in the Decline of his Life, but having ever been very careful of his Person, and always had a very easy Fortune, Time has made but very little Impression, either by Wrinkles on his Forehead, or Traces in his Brain. His Person is well turned, and of a good Height. He is very ready with that sort of Discourse with which Men usually entertain Women. He has all his Life dressed very well, and remembers Habits as others do Men. He can smile when one speaks to him, and laughs easily.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Stiff Upper Lip

Yesterday, while thinking about H.G. Well's time traveler in The Time Machine, I recalled a later fictional British adventurer from the same mold, John Buchan's Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, a thriller (or "shocker" as Buchan described it) set on the eve of World War I. The British heroes in popular fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were practical, self-reliant men of action -- men who would stand up for their honor and would always give a bloke a fair shake. The appeal of this sturdy fictional type declined over time, in step with the declining fortunes of the British nation, but revived in degraded form with Ian Fleming's 1953 creation of James Bond, an ultra-competent but amoral hero.

Richard Hannay introduces himself in the opening paragraphs of The Thirty-Nine Steps :

I returned from the City about three o'clock on that May afternoon
pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old
Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that
I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but
there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the
ordinary Englishman made me sick, I couldn't get enough exercise, and
the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been
standing in the sun. 'Richard Hannay,' I kept telling myself, 'you
have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'

It made me bite my lips to think of the plans I had been building up
those last years in Bulawayo. I had got my pile--not one of the big
ones, but good enough for me; and I had figured out all kinds of ways
of enjoying myself. My father had brought me out from Scotland at the
age of six, and I had never been home since; so England was a sort of
Arabian Nights to me, and I counted on stopping there for the rest of
my days.

But from the first I was disappointed with it. In about a week I was
tired of seeing sights, and in less than a month I had had enough of
restaurants and theatres and race-meetings. I had no real pal to go
about with, which probably explains things. Plenty of people invited
me to their houses, but they didn't seem much interested in me. They
would fling me a question or two about South Africa, and then get on
their own affairs. A lot of Imperialist ladies asked me to tea to meet
schoolmasters from New Zealand and editors from Vancouver, and that was
the dismalest business of all. Here was I, thirty-seven years old,
sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning
my head off all day. I had just about settled to clear out and get
back to the veld, for I was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.

In the story, Hannay's boredom immediately gives way to the primal excitement of survival on the run. He faces diabolical German agents, a car crash, pursuit by an aeroplane, and a host of other dangers. But Hannay overcomes it all and thwarts Great Britain's enemies using his wits and his nerve.

This is fine, bracing stuff for us sluggish middle-aged guys who are feeling liverish and need to be told 'You have got into the wrong ditch, my friend, and you had better climb out.'

Monday, September 21, 2009

Happy Birthday, H.G. Wells

Today marks 143 years since the birth of H.G. Wells. He was a man of many and varied parts: writer, futurist, amateur historian, and socialist crackpot.

In my youth I was captivated by his science fiction stories. His simple, expressive style gave vividness and immediacy to his tales. My favorite was The Time Machine. Here is an excerpt wherein the time traveler is stranded in the future after someone locks up his time machine in a mysterious White Sphinx. He reconnoiters the area and observes the Eloi, a band of childlike people living in great palaces that far exceeded their skill or diligence to construct. (Think of the Eloi as distant descendants of today's Slacker generation but more cheerful and better groomed.) The time traveler struggles to make sense of it all. At this point in the story, he rescues the lovely Weena.

I must confess that my satisfaction with my first theories of an
automatic civilization and a decadent humanity did not long endure.
Yet I could think of no other. Let me put my difficulties. The
several big palaces I had explored were mere living places, great
dining-halls and sleeping apartments. I could find no machinery, no
appliances of any kind. Yet these people were clothed in pleasant
fabrics that must at times need renewal, and their sandals, though
undecorated, were fairly complex specimens of metalwork. Somehow
such things must be made. And the little people displayed no vestige
of a creative tendency. There were no shops, no workshops, no sign
of importations among them. They spent all their time in playing
gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful
fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping. I could not see how things
were kept going.

Then, again, about the Time Machine: something, I knew not what,
had taken it into the hollow pedestal of the White Sphinx. Why? For
the life of me I could not imagine. Those waterless wells, too,
those flickering pillars. I felt I lacked a clue. I felt--how shall
I put it? Suppose you found an inscription, with sentences here and
there in excellent plain English, and interpolated therewith, others
made up of words, of letters even, absolutely unknown to you? Well,
on the third day of my visit, that was how the world of Eight
Hundred and Two Thousand Seven Hundred and One presented itself to

That day, too, I made a friend--of a sort. It happened that, as I
was watching some of the little people bathing in a shallow, one of
them was seized with cramp and began drifting downstream. The main
current ran rather swiftly, but not too strongly for even a moderate
swimmer. It will give you an idea, therefore, of the strange
deficiency in these creatures, when I tell you that none made the
slightest attempt to rescue the weakly crying little thing which
was drowning before their eyes. When I realized this, I hurriedly
slipped off my clothes, and, wading in at a point lower down, I
caught the poor mite and drew her safe to land. A little rubbing of
the limbs soon brought her round, and I had the satisfaction of
seeing she was all right before I left her. I had got to such a low
estimate of her kind that I did not expect any gratitude from her.
In that, however, I was wrong.

This happened in the morning. In the afternoon I met my little
woman, as I believe it was, as I was returning towards my centre
from an exploration, and she received me with cries of delight and
presented me with a big garland of flowers--evidently made for me
and me alone. The thing took my imagination. Very possibly I had
been feeling desolate. At any rate I did my best to display my
appreciation of the gift. We were soon seated together in a little
stone arbour, engaged in conversation, chiefly of smiles. The
creature's friendliness affected me exactly as a child's might have
done. We passed each other flowers, and she kissed my hands. I did
the same to hers. Then I tried talk, and found that her name was
Weena, which, though I don't know what it meant, somehow seemed
appropriate enough. That was the beginning of a queer friendship
which lasted a week, and ended--as I will tell you!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Last flowers of summer

Only two days remain before the equinox is upon us. As the local weather forecast calls for rain and chilly temperatures all this coming week, I have declared today the last "summery" day of 2009. In celebration, I rose at rock musician's dawn (10:00 a.m.) and walked four blocks to snap a photograph of my favorite flower bed, which is adjacent to the fire station property.

I don't know who maintains this elegant bed. The flowers seem too exotic for typical city landscaping. The towering broad-leaf plants with red flowers at the back of the bed look like tropical plants. Perhaps one of the firefighters is a master gardener.

The earliest frost date in Denver is October 8th, so I can enjoy the flowers for several more weeks.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

September Song

I will be 58 years old very soon. I checked my expected life span using the data at the Centers for Disease Control (now advertised in this era of swine flu anxiety as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The clever actuaries at CDC say that a white male such as myself is estimated to expire at age 81 on average.

If I translate my expected lifespan to a year of 365 days, I calculate that my present age of 58 translates to the 262nd day. After pulling out a calendar and adding up the days month by month, I found that the 262nd day is today: September 19th.

This correspondence rings true. My present life generally resembles the easy, temperate days of mid-September. My health and spirits are good. The first chills of autumn haven't arrived. But a certain restlessness and intimation of change are in the air. Time is moving faster. Maxwell Anderson's 1938 lyrics to September Song (from the musical comedy Knickerbocker Holiday, music by Kurt Weill) capture this feeling:

"Oh, it's a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn't got time for the waiting game"

I realize that the lyrics were originally written to portray a middle-aged man courting a much younger woman. Lest my blog readership jump to unwarranted conclusions, I hasten to say that I am not contemplating this particular form of lunacy at present.

Friday, September 18, 2009


My favorite Latin quotation this month is from Ovid's Ars Amatoria: Parva leves capiant animos. I have found the following translations.

Light minds are pleased with trifles.
Small things enthrall light minds.
Little minds are captured by trifles.
Small things affect light minds.
Small things amuse small minds.

I am often pleased, enthralled, captured, affected, and amused by trifles and small things. What should I conclude about this?

A foolish trifle: I noticed a large rack of greeting cards for Halloween at the supermarket today. Who would want to send a Halloween card? The greeting card industry must be desperate for business this year.

A pleasant trifle: I stumbled across a 2005 web posting of the talented writer and poet John M. Ford (1957-2006). This excerpt from his stone-age recipe for Hot Gingered Pygmy Mammoth shows the characteristic light humor of his frequent off-the-cuff contributions to the Making Light blog:

Preheat a giant turtle shell over a fumarole. A big giant turtle. Put some oil in there. Make sure no other giant turtles are around to see you do this.

On a flat rock, stirring with your Stick of the Dining God, dry cook the sesame seeds over medium heat until they are brown and smell good. Remove from the heat. Add the noodles to the turtle shell and fry fast until puffy and the color of sunrise. Remove from the oil and drain on non-itchy leaves. Throw salt. Set aside.

Sear the mammoth meat on the flat rock. Salt but don’t overdo it, you remember what happened to the Chest-Clutching Tribe of the Plains. Drain.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

You are old, Father Wagman

My older son has a new bride. Consequently, a point of decorum has arisen: how should the young lady address me? Before the wedding, she favored the polite use of "Mr. Wagman." Now that she has joined the family, a more familiar name is called for. I am fusty enough to be uneasy about being addressed by my given name. Being called "Father" would be imprecise, and a compromise such as "Father Wagman" sounds quaint. Besides, "Father Wagman" reminds me of the 1865 Lewis Carroll poem from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

First two stanzas:

"You are old, Father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head—
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," Father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."

I'm sure that the young lady and I will put our heads together and select a fitting name for me.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Sauerkraut Soup

I was checking out the South Broadway used book stores last Saturday in search of the Spectator essays by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. (With success! I bought a one-volume edition published in London about 1873.) While one expects to find used book stores in a low-rent area, this section of South Broadway has succumbed to a virulent species of urban rot more characteristic of degraded parts of New York City or Los Angeles. The used book stores are interspersed among sleazy bars, tattoo parlors, and fetish shops. An energetic bulldozer operator could do a world of good here.

I noticed Sobo 151, a Czech restaurant, on the other side of the street and decided to give it a try. I walked in and discovered that Sobo 151 was a Czech Hockey Karaoke bar with pool tables and a small restaurant area. I took a seat near the mural of old Praha (Prague), the waitress brought me a menu, and I ordered a large bowl of sauerkraut soup on a whim. Surely any dish called sauerkraut soup would taste better than it sounded.

The soup, called by the more melodic name of Zelnacka in Czech, was a long time coming. It was clear that no great pot of soup was bubbling back in the kitchen, at the ready for a rush of Zelnacka lovers. I amused myself with watching European soccer on the television.

At last the waitress brought out the bowl of Zelnacka and three slices of brown Czech bread. The soup was based on a tomato broth -- like a red Manhattan clam chowder -- with generous chunks of sausage and potatoes. The sauerkraut served as chewy vegetable noodles. A dollop of sour cream was added as a topper.

I was delighted with the soup. It was the perfect hearty meal for a cool, rainy Saturday afternoon. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Peju-bilation in Napa Valley

My younger son and I ventured out to the Napa Valley wine country to sample the grapes and their fermented byproducts. A single grape was sufficient to satisfy my curiosity about the fruit. The grape was cloyingly sweet and very tough-skinned.

To sample the fermented byproducts, we chose a charming little winery run by the Peju family. It was the day after Labor Day and the flood of tourists had abated. The Peju host, an engaging young man about thirty, felt free to offer us an especially hospitable winetasting that turned into a leisurely conversation enlivened by sips of the Peju inventory.

From the start my son, an aspiring bon vivant, was in his element. He knew when to sniff and when to swig. I, however, felt uncertain and ignorant. My knowledge of wine only spans two attributes of color, white and red, and two attributes of taste, nice and nasty. Of course, "nasty" is always expressed as "interesting" for the sake of politeness.

The host poured us some of the Peju Cabernet Sauvignon and described the wine in words that I later found on the Peju website.

Host: "Our 2005 vintage reveals a lovely nose with aromas of dark black cherry, bittersweet chocolate and hints of bay leaf. On the palate, the dark garnet wine is rich and concentrated with layers of plum, holiday spice, tobacco and dark cocoa. Velvety tannins provide a long, memorable finish."

My Son: (not to be outdone) "A very complex wine with a fine balance. I detect undertones of leather and cinnamon at the back of the palate."

Myself: (staring thoughtfully into the goblet) "Quite red I would say. Red and nice."

Over the next half hour the host brought out bottle after bottle. The conversation seemed to grow wittier with each successive tasting. I began to spout adverbs with abandon: nice became "really nice" or "truly nice" or even "exceptionally nice." Fortunately, I became aware that my face had tightened into an idiotic grin, a clear warning of loss of control. I called an abrupt halt to my sipping and left the host and my son to finish the wine circuit without me.

The current wine, a Chardonnay, had prompted a torrent of fruit-filled descriptions from the host. Oddly enough, as my son pointed out later, the wine reminded the host of a whole fruit salad, with the exception of grapes themselves.

Host: "On the nose, enjoy aromas of citrus, pear, pineapple and vanilla with hints of toasty oak. The full mouth feel and lovely round mid-palate from the barrel aging give way to subtle hints of spice and fruit. Savor flavors of bright citrus, crisp green apple, ripe juicy pear, with a light creamy texture to the finish."

My Son: "Not to mention accents of mango, passion fruit, and freshly waxed skis. And don't forget the highlights of aurora borealis."

The only thing more exhilarating than the wine is talking about the wine.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Coit Tower

The Coit Tower is a San Francisco landmark built in 1933 at the bequest of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, an eccentric socialite who left one third of her estate for the Supervisors of San Francisco to "expend the same in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of said city which I have always loved." The bequest amounted to $225,000 in 1929 dollars or about $2.7 million today. All things considered, this is not a bad price for enduring fame. I doubt that Donald Trump will be more than a historical footnote in 75 years despite all his building projects.

Lillie Hitchcock Coit first gained notoriety for her devotion to the San Francisco firefighters. She was known as "Firebelle Lil."

From a 1939 biography by Frederick J. Bowlen, Battalion Chief, San Fransisco Fire Department:

One of the most unusual personalities ever connected with our Fire Department was a woman. She was Lillie Hitchcock Coit, who was destined not only to become a legend but to attain that eminence long before her life ended.

She came to this city on the ship Tennessee in 1851 from West Point, where her father, Dr. Charles M. Hitchcock, was stationed. Dr. Hitchcock served in the U.S. Army during the Indian Wars. During the Mexican War he performed a splendid piece of surgery on Colonel Jefferson Davis, saving his leg. Davis went on to be U.S. Secretary of War and President of the Confederacy.

Seven years later, when only 15 years old, she began her famous career with Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5. On one afternoon that pioneer fire company had a short staff on the ropes as it raced to a fire on Telegraph Hill. Because of the shortage of man power, the engine was falling behind. Oh, humiliating and bitter was the repartee passed by Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3 as the total eclipse seemed to be but a matter of seconds. Then suddenly there came a diversion. It was the story of Jeanne d 'Arc at Orleans, The Maid of Sargossa and Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary fame all over again.

Pretty and impulsive Lillie Hitchcock, on her way home from school, saw the plight of the Knickerbocker and, tossing her books to the ground, ran to a vacant place on the rope. There she exerted her feeble strength and began to pull, at the same time turning her flushed face to the bystanders and crying: "Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we'll beat 'em!"

Everybody did come and pull and Knickerbocker No. 5 went up the slope like a red streak and got first water on the fire.

That was a famous day for Lillie. From that time on she caught the spirit of the Volunteers and Dr. Hitchcock had difficult work attempting to keep his daughter from dashing away every time an alarm was sounded. As it was, there never was a gala parade in which Lillie was not seen atop Knickerbocker No. 5, embowered in flags and flowers. She was, literally, the patroness of all the firemen of her city.


After her 1868 marriage to Howard Coit, a caller at the San Francisco Stock and Bond Exchange, she traveled extensively in the East, in Europe and the Orient. Notwithstanding all her wanderings, her love for California was steadfast and she at length made it her permanent home.

She was a notable figure even at the court of Napoleon III and a maharaja of India, and later when she came back to San Francisco to live she brought with her a remarkable collection of gifts from royalty and others. They included gems of rare value, objects of art, mementoes and souvenirs, some of them priceless.

It appears that her life was unconventional, bordering on scandalous. She was a trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking dame that delighted in the manly diversions of hunting, poker, and prizefighting. This colorful behavior makes for entertaining biography but puts a strain on domestic relations. Her husband grew weary of her madcap ways, and the two separated, though never divorced.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

California Eichler Houses

I took advantage of my visit to the San Francisco area to track down some authentic Eichler houses in San Mateo. Three examples are shown here.

Last March I devoted three blog entries to Eichler houses and showed examples of Denver houses built in imitation of the modernist Eichler designs. The Denver pseudo-Eichlers are smaller and lack the sumptuous landscaping of these real San Mateo Eichlers.

Back home again

I am settling back into my normal humdrum routine after attending the wedding of my older son and his lovely young bride. Their marriage ceremony, held in a beautiful garden center south of San Francisco, was a traditional Christian ceremony augmented by a personal touch: the symbolic blending of grains to express their new unity. As all of my principal blog readers were part of the wedding party, a detailed description of the ceremony and the subsequent joyful festivities is not necessary here.

A consequence of this momentous occasion is that I have been too busy living to attend to my blog this month. Blogging, at least the way that I practice it, is a ruminative form of literature. My typical blog entries deal with analysis or reminiscence -- that is, minor essays dealing with events viewed in the rear-view mirror. When real life comes rushing at me, I need time to calm down before I can assess what it all means.