‘Fake news’ often more enticing, entertaining than reality

There has been significant discussion recently regarding “fake news.” Much of what is being touted as fake news would, in the past, simply have been labeled as the propaganda it is. On the other hand, some so-called fake news is simply mistaken reporting. Neither are new trends.

Take the latter: 95 years ago newspapers across the Carolinas ran a story detailing how workers toiling in a rural Saluda County church cemetery on July 2, 1922, had uncovered a macabre secret:

Grave diggers, while digging a grave at Dry Creek church, dug into a grave that seemed to have been dug in the wrong place and unearthed a skeleton, finding a rope around the neck with a large knot in the rope under the right ear. The condition of the skeleton showed that it had apparently been buried some 50 years. Parts of the coffin remained and the plate with the words, ‘Rest in Peace,’ could easily be read. There seems to be some mystery concerning the identification of the body. The grave itself was where no grave was supposed to be, and the oldest inhabitant of the community knows nothing of anyone who had been hanged being buried in the cemetery.

While the article itself didn’t suggest it, 50 years prior to 1922 would have been during the height of Reconstruction, a turbulent period when extralegal justice was meted out on a regular basis. To uncover a skeleton in an unmarked grave with a rope around its neck would suggest someone had met with an untoward end.

Of course, few lynching victims were sent off to their eternal reward in coffins with a plate inscribed “Rest in Peace.”

Initially, the unidentified skeleton was quickly reburied, but a short time later two men decided to inspect it more closely, according to a second story, which appeared in the Edgefield Advertiser on July 12, 1922. Edgefield is about 12 miles from Dry Creek Baptist Church Cemetery.

The skeleton was discovered to be that of a woman, and the “rope” was actually a long plait of hair that “had been coiled around her head coronet fashion, after the times,” according to the Advertiser.

With time and decomposition, the hair had come detached from the scalp and slipped down around the neck, giving it the appearance of a rope, it added.

But while the first story, with its mysterious insinuations, ran in papers in both South Carolina and North Carolina, the follow-up article only appears to have been printed in the Edgefield publication.

As a result, even today the tale of the unidentified hanging victim still has credence, despite the mystery having been cleared up within a couple of weeks of its discovery.

Even today, many love a good conspiracy story; reality, though, is often much less interesting and, as a result, fails to gain the same coverage.

Satan’s imps charge forth with obtuse tenacity

far-side-hell

Those that believe in a hell often imagine it in myriad different ways.

Spend any time driving in traffic, shopping around the holidays or at the Department of Motor Vehicles and one becomes convinced of Sartre’s famous quip that “hell is other people.”

Along those lines, the question then arises, are there specific pockets of hell for the particularly nasty?

If so, those sentenced to such locales will be tormented by former homeowners’ association presidents and the passionately ignorant, not that the two are mutually exclusive.

Candidates for my own version of hell reared their heads recently in Hilton Head, SC, a resort island along the coast noted for a heavy population of northern transplants, a strict adherence to conformity and the general busybody nature of many of its residents.

One of the gated communities in the area is called Hilton Head Plantation. It has a section called The Rookery where, for nearly a decade, one homeowner has flown a variety of historic flags during certain holidays, including the most recent Presidents’ Day.

The flags included a POW/MIA flag, a South Carolina flag from the Civil War era (not a Confederate flag), and the Grand Union and Gadsden flags from the American Revolutionary War era.

In a move absolutely no one could have foreseen given the hyper-sensitive nature of many in the US, several complaints were lodged after the most recent flying of the flags during Presidents’ Day, on Feb. 20, according to the Hilton Head Island Packet.

“Peter Kristian, general manager of the gated community, said his office received several complaints recently from residents upset about the flags,” the paper reported.
“Some of them had slogans that you could take to be political,” Kristian said.

“Unfortunately in the times we live in, you have to be careful about this,” he said. “Once you open the door to one person’s expressions, you open the door to all expressions and that can be dangerous.”

Yes, expression can be dangerous, especially on an island that is essentially a retirement community for the state of Ohio.

Kristian would not identify which flag or flags was deemed offensive. However, he could have been referring to the Gadsden Flag, also known as the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, a favorite of Tea Party advocates, known for being conservative and often Republican.

The Gadsden flag was designed by South Carolinian Christopher Gadsden in 1775 at the opening of the American Revolution and was used as an early flag by Continental Marines, the marine force of the American Colonies.

Kristian, in a real display of intestinal fortitude, stated that there is one flag that residents are allowed to put out on plantation property without asking permission.

“We did say they could display as many American flags as they would like,” he said. “We do live in the United States, and I hope that is the one thing we are all OK with.”

In other words, “I hope that is the one thing we are all OK with, but if not, let us know and we will take it down because, well, everyone has the right not to be offended.”

Another image of hell is that inhabited by individuals described in Yeats’s work The Second Coming:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

(Top: Far Side cartoon about hell unrelated in any fashion to story, but good for a much-needed laugh.)

The price of principles vs. rhetoric of empty platitudes

lone-bird

When white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine blacks inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Charleston in 2015 there was a gnashing of teeth among some about how white society was complicit in Roof’s actions.

One journalist, a South Carolinian writing in the Washington Post, pulled no punches when describing how whites, particularly Southern whites, were responsible:

So I and every other white South Carolinian who has let the racist jokes go unchecked, who has looked the other way at some sanctioned act of bigotry, who has not taken the time and effort to listen to what black people have to say about their experience, is, in some sense, responsible for Dylann Roof – even as he remains responsible for his own actions. Every white South Carolinian … is responsible for Dylann Roof. He is our child. We should have never let him fall into whatever hell he occupied when he decided to go into that church. Of course, 99 percent of southern whites will never go into a church, sit down with people and then massacre them. But that 99 percent is responsible for the one who does. We white southerners – those of us who left, the others who stayed, and even those millions who have migrated to the Sun Belt – are all Dylann Roof. We are all responsible. We cannot shirk it. We cannot go forward until we fix ourselves. We must organize ourselves, educate ourselves and come together to fight against white supremacy. If we don’t, there will always be another Dylann Roof around the corner. And in the mirror.

At the time I disagreed, and I continue to disagree with the idea that every white South Carolinian, or every white Southerner, or all whites – take your pick – is responsible for the heinous actions of one, or a handful, of extremist bigots.

I was reared by parents who actively pointed out the errors of racism and bigotry, and I have done the same with my children. I was told right from wrong, warned of the perils that would befall me were I to commit such idiotic acts as using racially charged terms and expected to live it. My children have been imbued with the same expectations.

I’ve instilled in my children the idea that while we can’t undo the past, we can make the present more tolerable by realizing that we’re no better or worse than anyone else just because of our background.

We need to listen to those different from us, recognize that their experiences and backgrounds give them different perspectives, but also understand that self-flagellation for sins we did not commit doesn’t move the ball forward in terms of reconciliation, either.

Our society has many flaws, including racism, but I am not going to bear the cross of hateful acts committed by the intolerant, even if others insist I do.

So where is this going? Last week one of my daughters got a glimpse of ugliness that I never witnessed in my many years of schooling.

She attends a magnet high school in a well-regarded school district in South Carolina. I will not name the school, for reasons that hopefully will be obvious.

The weekend before last she received a group text from a friend’s boyfriend. It said simply, “Join me and (his girlfriend) as we kill all blacks with the KKK.” It was followed with a second text, an attachment that was an application for the Ku Klux Klan.

My daughter was upset by the texts and told the boy that it wasn’t funny and that he was to stop.

She showed it to me later and we contacted the school. The school took the matter seriously and took action against the boy, though it would not disclose what action.

However, my daughter is now being harassed by the kids who were part of the group text, and others, being called out in particular for being a “snitch.” Already shy, she now dreads going to school.

I can tell her all day long she did the right thing, but it’s not much consolation when she walks into class and kids are talking about her, or are sending her text messages about how she’s ruined someone’s life because she went to school officials about something she knew was wrong.

I can tell her that we don’t get many chances in life to do the right thing in truly difficult situations, and that most people take the path of least resistance when those few opportunities present themselves, but it doesn’t make it any easier to handle the glares, the whispers or being blocked on social media when you’re 16 years old.

I don’t know how this happens, that a 16-year-old boy, whether simply showing off in an utterly misguided fashion or displaying some very serious problems, thinks it’s OK to voice such views, never mind send them to others via technology.

Where does someone at the age of 16 even get such ideas? I don’t know.

But I do know that if anyone ever tries to pin the blame for the racially motivated actions of others, past of present, on any of my children, especially my 16-year-old daughter, who is currently dealing with being ostracized for speaking up when everyone else failed to so much as utter a peep of protest, they’re going to get a stern word or three from a certain father.

Bottom line: if we’re ever to reach any sort of understanding regarding the past, it will be through compassion, empathy and standing up for right, not by ladling out, or taking on, heaping doses of collective white guilt.

Protecting monopolies under the guise of reducing risk

tucson-homeless

To paraphrase English playwright William Congreve, hell hath no fury like an occupational licensing board catching wind of an “nonprofessional” practicing said profession.

In Arizona, for example, the state board of cosmetology is investigating Juan Carlos Montesdeoca after receiving a complaint that he gave free haircuts to the homeless.

Montesdeoca committed the deeds on Jan. 28 at a downtown Tucson library, after organizing the event through a Facebook group and soliciting help from volunteers. He did it “out of the kindness of my heart,” and in memory of his mother, who loved her hair, he told Tucson News Now.

That didn’t set well with the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, which began an investigation after it received an anonymous complaint alleging that Montesdeoca was “requesting local businesses and local stylists to help out with free haircuts (unlicensed individuals) to the homeless.”

What one man views as charity another sees as unwanted competition, apparently.

The Arizona board is pulling out its big bag of disjoined logic in an effort to keep Montesdeoca and other “do-gooders” like him from helping those unable to afford haircuts.

Those getting their hair cut outside a licensed salon by an unlicensed person run a real risk, according to Donna Aune, the board’s executive director, adding that state law prohibits a person from practicing cosmetology without a license.

Remember, we’re talking about haircuts, not letting back-alley butchers remove gall bladders.

It wasn’t too long ago that those who wanted to braid hair legally in South Carolina had to demonstrate 300 hours of training. If one decided to use hair extensions as part of said braiding, regulations required a full cosmetologist curriculum, some 1,500 hours of class.

I’ve seen youngsters learn to braid hair in 15 minutes. What possible reason could there be to have required 300 hours of training, or to force someone who wants to apply extensions to take a 1,500-hour cosmetologist curriculum except to winnow out competition?

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that the costs of occupational licenses outweigh the benefits. For hair braiding, as for many other occupations, licensing appears to do little more than prevent some people from earning an honest living in the occupation of their choice.

In 2012, Mississippi, which requires zero hours of training, had more than 1,200 registered braiders. Neighboring Louisiana, which requires 500 hours, had only 32 licensed braiders – despite its larger black population, according to the Institute for Justice.

Reason.com had some pithy comments regarding the potential risks involved with having an unlicensed individual cut the hair of the homeless in Tucson:

“The risk of getting a bad haircut is certainly chilling. But these were free haircuts. Free haircuts given to people who were in no position to pay for one. I’m sure they were aware of the risk they were taking by letting the unlicensed Montesdeoca cut their hair outside of a licensed salon environment, but they were probably okay with that level of risk considering they were homeless and were getting haircuts for free,” according to the magazine.

A problem many homeless have when it comes to job hunting is presenting well when it comes time for an interview. A decent haircut can go a long way toward boosting self-esteem and making a good first impression.

But the Arizona State Board of Cosmetology, whose members likely weren’t serving these individuals in the first place, is more interested in making sure absolutely no one infringes on their monopoly.

(Top: You could give this homeless man in Tucson food, money and a job, but not a free haircut – unless you’re a licensed cosmetologist – thanks to the heavy hand of the Arizona Board of Cosmetology.)

Internet diagnosis: The common cold or breakbone fever?

webquack-image

Thanks in part to spending a full hour walking the rows of Longterm Lot No. 2 at the Charlotte International Airport searching for my car at 1 am, I recently found myself under the weather. As in, sick enough to miss work, which happens about once every five years.

After several days of feeling generally awful, and having little else to do, I decided to enter my symptoms into a certain Internet site, just to make sure I didn’t have something other than the common cold. Schistosomiasis is said to be on the uptick in these regions, or so rumor has it.

Fortunately, I’m not the easily excited type as the exercise proved, yet again, the utter absurdity of how knowledge is used on the World Wide Web.

I went to a very well-known site – which I will simply call WebQuack – and entered my symptoms, none of which were unusual: Headache, hoarse voice, nasal congestion, nighttime wheezing, post-nasal drip, runny nose and sore throat.

Be forewarned: this is not an exercise for those who might lean toward hypochondria.

After I entered the relatively straightforward symptoms, I was given 97 possible diagnoses. Only a very few seemed probable, such as sinusitis, nasal congestion, hay fever and the common cold.

Others seemed to have little relation to the listed symptoms: astigmatism, nearsightedness, farsightedness, post-concussive syndrome, toxic shock syndrome, sunburn, chemical burns, thermal burn of mouth or tongue, goiter, insulin reaction, hernia and narcotics abuse.

Some were almost comical: caffeine withdrawal, excessive caffeine use, foreign object in nose, malocclusion (bite out of alignment), botox injection and constipation.

Others were dreadful: diabetes, stroke, meningitis, brain aneurysm, brain infection, brain tumor, lung cancer, esophageal cancer, throat cancer, intracranial hematoma, multiple sclerosis, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and whooping cough.

Then there was the handful of potential afflictions that seem utterly improbable: plague, radiation sickness, cyanide poisoning and ricin poisoning.

Plague? I generally keep my distance from flea-infested rodents, particularly in large Third World cities where the Black Death is still a problem.

Radiation sickness? I haven’t been to the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear power plants, and stay clear of spent nuclear fuel whenever possible.

Cyanide? I think I’d have a few more symptoms that those I listed, such as seizures, profuse vomiting and cardiac arrest.

Ricin?!? That’s what Soviet-bloc agents used to do away with enemies of the state. Unless I, in my misspent youth, angered a Stasi agent with a long memory but incredibly poor tracking skills who’s just getting around to evening the score, this seems quite unlikely. That, and the fact I’d be dead before I could have typed my symptoms in WebQuack.

So, what’s the point of this aspect of WebQuack? One supposes it’s to get people to go see doctors, ask for products advertised on WebQuack’s website and drive revenues to said advertisers. As for being helpful, it seems anything but.

The kind of critter they make science-fiction movies about

crypt-keeper-wasp

There isn’t much in the wild that I haven’t tangled with, including arachnids and insects. Black widows, hornets, millipedes, cockroaches and scorpions are all fair game, though the more ornery the critter, the more circumspect I am.

Scientists have recently found a new bug, however, that sounds absolutely appalling.

Nicknamed the crypt-keeper wasp, it has a decidedly distasteful life cycle, according to online publication Red Orbit.

How distasteful? Researchers named it after Set, the Egyptian god of evil and violence. That will buy you some street cred among fellow creepy-crawlies, one imagines.

The adult wasp, shown above, lays its egg within the small, wooden compartments built by a different species, the gall wasp, inside live sand oak trees.

When the egg hatches, crypt-keeper wasp larva dig into the gall wasp and takes control of its brain. This forces the gall wasp to tunnel out of the tree, a task the crypt-keeper has a hard time doing by itself.

If that weren’t grim enough, crypt-keeper wasp larva then causes its host to punch out a hole not quite big enough for it to escape from the tree.

“After the bigger wasp is stuck in the hole it’s burrowed, the crypt-keeper eats its host from within, finally erupting from the host’s head and out into the world,” according to Red Orbit.

I haven’t seen any of these, but I think I’ll do my best to keep my distance from this member of the order Hymenoptera should I happen across any in the future.

Trying to recollect memories of fabled Milk Farm Restaurant

davis-1-23-2017-015For more than 50 years I’ve passed the old Milk Farm Restaurant sign near Dixon, Calif. The visits are less frequent these days, occurring on trips West when I visit family, but each time as I head along Interstate 80 south of Sacramento I see the venerable marker, all that remains of the once-famous eatery.

Those not conversant with area history have no way of knowing that the site was once one of the busiest stops between the state capital and San Francisco, where thousands were served weekly.

The 100-foot sign, topped with a cow jumping over a moon, once lit up with neon so vivid that it pierced the thick winter fog of the Sacramento Valley.

In my memory, I couldn’t recall the restaurant ever being open, and supposed that it had closed sometime in the 1960s. My parents said they had taken me there when I was around 18 months old, which would have been around the start of 1966. Yet, I would pass the site dozens of times in later years and could not remember the restaurant in operation, or even what it looked like.

So it was somewhat startling to find out that the Milk Farm, which began serving customers in 1919, remained in business until 1986.

Old Milk Farm Restaurant sign, Dixon, Calif.

Old Milk Farm Restaurant sign, Dixon, Calif.

Just down the road was another famous restaurant, the Nut Tree, in Vacaville, which operated from 1921 through 1996. I clearly recall that location and stopping there on more than one occasion. But the Milk Farm remains a void, except for driving past its iconic sign each time I headed north to such places as Davis, Sacramento or Lake Tahoe.

Fortunately, the world does not base historical judgment on what this author does or does not remember.

The Milk Farm began in 1919 as Hess Station, named for local rancher Karl Hess, who rented cabins to travelers in the days before motels.

The site was beside the old Lincoln Highway – Highway 40 – which was later expanded and renamed I-80.

Hess was apparently quite a promoter: he held milk-drinking contests, sold inexpensive chicken dinners and offered “all-you-can-drink” milk for 10 cents. He also helped make a named for the town of Dixon, where my grandfather and other family members attended high school, as the heart of the California dairy industry.

In 1938, Homer Henderson and his wife bought Hess Station and renamed it the Milk Farm. They added the cow logo which can be seen on the sign today.

“Stables, gas stations, an orange juice stand and a new restaurant all contributed to the Milk Farm being labeled ‘America’s Most Unique Highway Restaurant’ and to features on the radio and in such national publications as the Saturday Evening Post,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Celebrity visitors including crooner Bing Crosby, boxer Jack Dempsey and California Gov. and future US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren.

The sign still visible today was erected in 1963 at a cost of $78,000, no mean sum more than 50 years ago.

The restaurant was eventually done in by rising food prices and increased competition, particularly from fast-food chains.

It closed in 1986 following damage from a violent windstorm and never reopened. In time, vagrants began inhabiting the structure, and in 2000 what remained of the building was razed.

Only the sign remains, a witness to the pre-chain-restaurant era, when part of the fun of vacationing involved the journey itself, and eateries put more emphasis on the quality of their food than on gimmicks used to lure travelers inside.