Washington’s presidency set standard for future US leaders

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It’s inauguration day in the United States, and while there’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the man who will take office today, I prefer to believe that the presidency has an ennobling effect upon those who ascend to the office.

Certainly, the aura connected with the presidency, with its corps of staff and aides providing assistance, has great potential to provide a stabilizing influence on those elevated to the Oval Office.

The position can bestow a solemnity on even the most political of beings, given the gravity and history connected to the office.

If the United States has an unusual place in the world, it’s due in part to its tradition of peaceful transition of power. Consider that even some of the world’s smallest nations, such as Gambia and Equatorial Guinea, are despotic tyrannies where leaders refuse to let loose of power.

From the start, the US has followed a protocol in which opposing parties have handed off power without incident, even when election results didn’t go the way the majority of voters had wanted.

That is due in no small part to George Washington, the US’s first president and one of the history’s most remarkable individuals.

Washington, who took office in 1789, remains the only man to receive 100 percent of the electoral votes cast under the US system.

His accomplishments were legion even before he became the first chief executive.

Against almost unfathomable odds, he led a rag-tag collection of volunteers and state militia troops to victory over the then-greatest military force on the planet, enabling the Thirteen Colonies to secure their independence from Great Britain.

He also presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and his support convinced many states to vote for ratification.

As president, Washington avoided the temptation of war. His farewell address has been cited as a primer on republican virtue and as a warning against partisanship, sectionalism and involvement in foreign entanglements.

He reluctantly began a second term in office in 1793 but afterward retired to Mount Vernon, Va.

Few men, given the opportunity to hold office for life, as he was, would be able to walk away in the manner of Washington.

Washington did it twice, first after the American Revolution and again after his second term as president.

That didn’t escape the notice of British monarch King George III. Following the end of the American Revolution in 1783, George asked painter Benjamin West what Washington would do next and was told of rumors that he’d return to his farm.

The king responded by stating, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

There has been no other president like Washington and there never will be. But Washington set a standard for the office which all who follow in his steps would do well to attempt to emulate.

(George Washington being sworn in as the US’s first president in 1789 in New York City.)

Study shows purple sandpiper to be tough guy of bird world

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The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has not only documented the migratory movements of more than 100 western hemisphere bird species but created a fascinating animated map which shows the approximate location of each throughout the year.

This is the first time data of this sort has been compiled on such a scale. It includes such extreme migrations as that of the Lapland longspur, which travels well into the Arctic Circle in July and August, and the dark-faced ground-tyrant, which makes its way to the tip of Tierra del Fuego from November through February.

There are others that migrate from Brazil and other South American countries all the way north to central Canada, a distance of 7,000 miles or more.

“We used millions of observations from the eBird citizen-science database,” said lead author Frank La Sorte, a research associate at the Cornell Lab. “After tracing the migration routes of all these species and comparing them, we concluded that a combination of geographic features and broad-scale atmospheric conditions influence the choice of routes used during spring and fall migration.”

(You can access a second map here, which will provide an index through which you can follow different species on their year-long route.)

Purple sandpiper: Tougher than it looks.

Purple sandpiper: Tougher than it looks.

Perhaps the most unusual migration is that of the purple sandpiper. This species winters near the eastern tip of Cape Breton Island, in the Canadian Maritimes, than spends its summer on Baffin Island, in far northern Canada.

While not limited to Canada, in North America the species’ breeding ground is the northern tundra on Arctic islands in Canada. They also breed in Greenland and northwestern Europe, perhaps in part to cement their role as ornithological tough guys. Anyone or anything that purposely winters in the Canadian Maritimes and also spends time in Greenland has my respect.

It appears, according to Cornell’s interactive map, that purple sandpipers have little interaction with other species, as none have migratory patterns that bring them within a couple hundred miles of the small shorebirds.

An important discovery of the study is that bird species that head out over the Atlantic Ocean during fall migration to winter in the Caribbean and South America follow a clockwise loop and take a path farther inland on their return journey in the spring, La Sorte said. These include bobolinks, yellow and black-billed cuckoos, Connecticut and Cape May warblers, Bicknell’s thrush, and shorebirds, such as the American golden plover.

“These looped pathways help the birds take advantage of conditions in the atmosphere,” he added. “Weaker headwinds and a push from the northeast trade winds as they move farther south make the fall journey a bit easier. The birds take this shorter, more direct route despite the dangers of flying over open-ocean.”

The study found the spring migration path follows a more roundabout route but the birds move faster thanks to strong tailwinds as they head north to their breeding grounds.

Species that do not fly over the open ocean use the same migration routes in the spring and fall. Geographic features shaping this pattern include mountain chains or isthmuses that funnel migrants along narrow routes, according to the study.

(Screen grab from Cornell migration study, showing location of different species on April 9. The purple sandpiper is the blue dot seen in the far eastern reaches of Canada.)

Tedious, repetitive life of Pacific killer whale ends at 105

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The longest-lived killer whale is believed to have died recently, at the age of approximately 105.

Known as Granny, the orca lived in the northeast Pacific Ocean and coastal bays of Washington state and British Columbia.

Last seen on Oct. 12, 2016, it was classified as dead by The Center for Whale Research earlier this month.

Granny was noted for having elicited this remark from Capt. Simon Pidcock of Ocean Ecoventures Whale Watching in a 2014 story that appeared in The Daily Mail:

“[…] it’s mind-blowing to think that this whale is over 100 years old. She was born before the Titanic went down. Can you imagine the things she’s seen in her lifetime?”

Actually, it’s not too hard to imagine what an orca inhabiting the northeast Pacific for more than a century would see in its lifetime: lots of murky water, rocky shoals and other killer whales, along with fish, cephalopods, seals, sea lions, sea birds and, every so often, a glimpse of the sky.

All in all, not that fascinating. Well, except for the cephalopods.

(Top: Undated photo of orca known as Granny, doing what it had done for the previous 80-100 years.)

Photographer captures fury of Pacific Coast storm

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The above photograph, taken by photographer Larry Gerbrandt, shows Santa Cruz Lighthouse during a California winter storm earlier this year.

The spectacular image was named the best photo of 2016 by the National Weather Service Forecast Office for the San Francisco Bay Area/Monterey area.

Gerbrandt, of San Juan Bautista, Calif., said he checked the tide tables and learned not only when high tide would take place along the Monterey Bay, but that a so-called “king tide,” or very high tide, would occur. In addition, the tide was likely to be enhanced by a winter storm passing through the area.

Gerbrandt, an experienced photographer, was able to shoot at 1/4000th of a second, freezing the water in way most cameras can’t capture.

Despite the preparation, it still took Gerbrandt more than 1200 shots to capture the winning photo.

Santa Cruz is where your intrepid blogger attended high school, and where I still go every so often to visit Madre y Padre Cotton Boll.

I remember occasional storms of this magnitude. The tremendous roar of pounding surf, cascading whitewater rushing over cliffs and rocks, and salt spray being blown hundreds of feet off the water always left one awe-struck by the mighty fury of the ocean.

Georgia town tries to keep one foot in past, one in present

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Hundreds of US towns, cites, counties, lakes, etc. bear the name Washington – most, one would think, in honor of George Washington, although it’s possible baseball vagabond Claudell Washington may have been recognized by a locale or two in recent years.

The first town to name itself for America’s Founding Father was Washington, Ga., which definitely took a leap of faith when it opted to identify itself with the then-commander in chief of patriot forces in January 1780. At that point, the colonies’ hopes for defeating the British in the American Revolution were very much touch and go, and would be for another 18 months.

One imagines that if the war had gone the other way, British and loyalist forces would not have looked kindly on those who opted to name their town for the defeated rebel leader.

Today, Washington is a bucolic community of about 4,000, with a surprising number of antebellum mansions – more than 100 – including that of Confederate Secretary of State and later General Robert Toombs; the residence of planter John Talbot – now called the Griggs Home – where Eli Whitney spent time perfecting his cotton gin; and the Slaton Home, where Sarah Porter Hillhouse, Georgia’s first female newspaper editor, lived more than 200 years ago.

At the heart of the town is the Washington’s court square, which, more accurately, is shaped like a rectangle and is surrounded by one- and two-story brick buildings.
Many date from the late 1890s, having been built after a particularly devastating fire in June 1895 that claimed five stores, an office building, a wagon-and-machine shop and a residence. In addition, the town’s Episcopal church and two other dwellings were seriously damaged.

Window on T.C. Hogue Building, built in 1895 and located in Washington Court Square.

Window on T.C. Hogue Building, built in 1895 and located in Washington Court Square.

Obviously, the conflagration wasn’t on par with the great Chicago Fire of 1871, but in a town that then claimed 2,000 residents, such a blaze could have proved debilitating to business and citizenry alike.

The town’s residents didn’t take long to rebound; several of the structures in the court square bear the date 1895.

Propelled by agriculture and its position on a key rail line, Washington continued to thrive despite the occasional setback.

A short distance from courthouse square sits the old Barrows House Hotel (above), built by Edward F. Barrows, an architect who assisted with construction of the Atlanta Penitentiary.

The Barrows Hotel opened in 1899, and was a two-story, Romanesque Revival-style, brick building that featured a square, two-and-a-half story corner tower, a parapet roof with elaborate cornice, round-arched windows and an arcaded first floor on the front facade.

The hotel sat across from the old Georgia Railroad depot and was built to accommodate “drummers,” or traveling salesmen.

But, like the town, and rural communities across the region, the hotel has fallen on hard times in recent decades.

The train depot was demolished in the 1970s and the hotel itself has been in disrepair for at least that long. Still, despite creeping foliage, scattered debris and the occasional broken window, the structure retains at least a sliver of its past grandeur.

In recent years Washington has embraced efforts to renovate many of its many older structures. Taking on a project the magnitude of the Barrows House Hotel would be no mean feat, but it would be a worthy compliment to the other stunningly restored edifices around the attractive Southern town.

(Top: Barrows House Hotel, located on Depot Street, Washington, Ga.)

Recalling the shambling, witless piety of Davey and Goliath

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This blog isn’t particularly big on recounting childhood memories. There’s no deep, dark reason behind that: My parents are good people and my early years were a particularly happy time spent in Huck Finn-like fashion, splashing among ponds, creeks and rivers when not playing sports or being involved in low-grade mischief.

However, most of my adventures were just that – my adventures – and probably not of particular interest to those who don’t know me.

In addition, I’m not big on contrasting my generation with that of my children’s, despite the many differences. Time alters perception and with the exception of the fact that social media and video games have drastically reduced spontaneous outdoor sports activity among youth today along with personal interaction, I don’t see a whole lot of changes.

One difference I do tell my kids about is that in weekend television viewing habits. I point out that not only was there no Cartoon Network 40 years ago and no limitless stream of animated entertainment on the Internet, but cartoons only appeared on Saturdays, when they were shown for a few hours in the morning. That, as I recall, was it for the entire week.

Oh, except for a low-grade “cartoon” that appeared on Sundays called “Davey and Goliath.” The claymation program, produced by the Lutheran Church of America, was anything but entertaining to a 10-year-old boy whose key interests were baseball, fishing and engaging in rock wars with neighborhood friends.

But, in the days when television consisted of the three major networks and, perhaps, PBS, the choice on a cold winter morning was Davey and Goliath, loud-mouthed evangelists or whatever obscure public affairs topic the local PBS affiliate had relegated to Sunday.

For those unfamiliar with the program, Davey was a young boy and Goliath his dog. The latter represented Davey’s conscious, and would speak to Davey, although if I recall correctly, only Davey could hear him. (I believe serial killer David Berkowitz also had a propensity for listening to dogs only he could hear, with somewhat more dire consequences.)

Davey would wrestle with such theological quandaries as whether to own up to hitting a baseball through his neighbor’s window or being disrespectful of his parents’ wishes.

For the blessedly uninitiated, you can see an episode here.

Goliath, in a sonorous, yet whiney voice, would pipe up each time Davey was about to make a bad choice (i.e., thinking bad of someone for being different, kneecapping a younger boy for failing to pay a gambling debt), with “I don’t know, Davey” and “I don’t think God would like that, Davey.”

Davey would ultimately see the error of his ways and take the path suggested by Goliath.

Part of me, I suppose, hoped against hope that the claymation program would, just once, be entertaining. Time and again I was bitterly disappointed.

With its focus on issues such as respect for authority, sharing and the evils of racism – not exactly what a preteen boy hopped up on sugared cereal considered Grade A entertainment fare – I came away dissatisfied and, at times, even vexed.

Even then, without the hindsight of today’s spectacular animation techniques, I realized that Davey and Goliath was an artistic monstrosity.

Worse than that, though, was its obdurate moralizing.

Looking back, I don’t fully understand what the Lutheran Church was attempting to accomplish. By the 1960s, there were plenty of entertaining cartoons already on television; Davey and Goliath was not only artistically inept, its storylines were duller than an elementary school spork.

Safe to say the number of converts Davey and Goliath brought into the Lutheran Church was in the low single digits.

In addition, even kids know when they’re being preached at, and most don’t like it, especially when it’s coming from shoddily crafted, priggish animated figures.

Yes, looking back I realize I should have turned off the television and read a book, but some things have to be learned the hard way. In retrospect, watching the old television test patterns that would run after programming went off the air would have been more illuminating.

Zzyzx, Calif.: Where a charlatan created an empire

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Just off Interstate-15 in a lonely section of San Bernardino County, Calif., sits the implausibly named locale of Zzyzx.

To get there, you take 4.5-mile-long Zzyzx Road.

The name was the creation of a quack preacher/televangelist/medicine man named Curtis Howe Springer, who arrived in the Southern California area in 1944.

Looking to set up a health spa, Springer came up with the name Zzyzx. By naming his spa the Zzyzx Mineral Springs resort, he was able to claim that it would be known as “the last word in health,” according to the website Roadtrippers.com.

Springer, born in 1896 in Alabama, had already enjoyed a lively career traveling the nation preaching, promoting various endeavors, selling fraudulent cures and working to stay a step ahead of authorities by the time he arrived in California.

Among his many enterprises was founding health spas. During the 1930s and 1940s, he opened a spa in Fort Hill, Pa., and tried to open others in Maryland and Iowa. But because Springer wasn’t fond of paying taxes, he lost his Pennsylvania spa to government seizure.

By the mid-1940s Springer had headed west and, working in conjunction with an associate, filed a claim to 12,800 acres in California’s Mojave Desert.

Springer, ever the resourceful sort, hired homeless men from Los Angeles’ infamous Skid Row to build the Zzyzx resort.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Springer’s resort, which ultimately included a 60-room hotel, spa, mineral baths, a radio studio, and a church, was built on a fraud. He used a boiler to heat pools around the resort.

He promoted the resort through his radio program, which was carried on more than 320 stations, according to Roadtrippers.com. It also included advertisements for his special remedies.

“Listeners would send in donations for his ‘cures,’ which he claimed could relieve constipation, hemorrhoids, hair loss and, oh yeah, cancer,” according to the website. ”However, what people were getting was, well, actually a bit better than snake oil. It was mostly celery, carrot and parsley juices.”

In the late 1960s, he was “swapping” lots in Zzyzx for large sums of money. If the Feds didn’t take notice of his quack cures, they did eventually catch on to the fact that Springer was making a lot of money and not paying much in taxes.

He was accused of squatting on the land and his claim to Zzyzx was invalidated. Springer and the other inhabitants of the community were evicted, and Springer was convicted for selling junk “cures,” although he served less than two months in jail.

He died in 1985 in Las Vegas.

For the past 30 years, the Bureau of Land Management has allowed schools in the California State University system to manage the land in and around Zzyzx.

While the remains of Springer’s charlatan empire is still evident around Zzyzx, the area is now home to a highly regarded Desert Studies Center, the handiwork of a consortium of CSU campuses.