A curiosity shop is a place of odds and ends in a wide range of categories. One never knows what one will find on any visit, and that is the goal of this blog. Here you'll find postings on doings around Easton, the world's environment, history, recipes, fly fishing, books, music, and movies with many other things thrown in as well. Hope you enjoy it and keep coming back.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Yankee Activist Supports Terrorism and a Blind Boy in Easton

Henry McArdle and several other Irish immigrants came to Easton in the late 1830s and lived in the new Ames Boarding House. He worked at the shovel shops into his seventies and his efforts gave him enough money to buy four houses and bonds in his boss' Union Pacific Railroad. In 1846 his son Henry Junior was born and shortly after 1850 the family moved into their new home at 50 Pond Street, only the second single family residence on that street.

An arrow struck and blinded little Henry when he was nine years old and here our story takes a turn. Luckily for the McArdles, Boston was home for what is now the Perkins School for the Blind, the most progressive institution in the world for educating blind children in the mid-nineteenth century. The name of the school comes from philanthropist Thomas Handasyd Perkins who donated his mansion in South Boston for the site of the original school. Perkins made his money owning ships that brought slaves from Africa and opium to China. The director of the new school was Samuel Gridley Howe who believed that handicapped people should be fully integrated into society, a radical idea at a time when many were often hidden away by their families.

Howe realized that a blind child could learn to play instruments and to sing so musical groups from the school toured the country in the 1830s and 1840s. People were amazed and the school's reputation grew. Little Henry would learn the complex trade of piano tuning during his seven years at the school.

Howe was full of reforming zeal and was an active supporter of abolition, somewhat ironically given his institution's origins. A year after Henry came to the school. Howe met a gentleman who was willing to do almost anything to free the slaves. That man was John Brown, and Howe became a strong financial backer of Brown's attacks on slave holders in Kansas. He and five other prominent Yankees became the secret supporters of Brown's attempt to start a slave revolt by arming them with weapons taken from a raid on the federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859. Brown was either completely nuts or uncertain of his success. It seems that he believed that a full scale civil war might be needed to free the slaves and what better way to do that than convince the South that the North supported Brown. Thus, Brown left documents incriminating the "Secret Six" including Howe in his headquarters.

John Brown was hanged. Howe survived the ensuing scandal, and the Civil War began about 18 months later. A group of Easton men in the Twelfth Massachusetts Infantry began to train at Fort Warren. While there they made up a song about John Brown which they sang wherever the Twelfth Massachusetts regiment went. The song was a good soldier's song which talked about "John Brown's body" and "hanging Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree." A refined lady was appalled by the lyrics, but liked the tune and rewrote the song as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." That lady was Julia Ward Howe, the wife of Samuel.

Some lose ends remain. Were the students at the school provided free education or did they have to pay? Could Henry McArdle afford to do this? How did he hear about this school and what made his son special enough to go there? Here's a tantalizing detail. The Secret Six had been radicalized by providing money for abolitionist settlers to go to Kansas and have it voted into the country as a free state. The Emigrant Aid Company was not quite the same thing as supporting a killer like Brown, but the group did provide guns for the settlers to protect themselves from slave owners. Who was another supporter of this group? Easton's very own Oakes Ames. Did Ames know Howe and speak up for the McArdle boy? It wouldn't be surprising to learn this given other stories about Oakes Ames.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Knights of the Air

For many years in the mid-1970s through the late 1980s my main hobby was re-enacting the Revolutionary and then the Civil War. There were lots of parades and lots of explaining to people that the Civil War wasn't the one where we beat the guys in the redcoats, but in between was an invaluable education in how soldiering was conducted in early America. What I learned was that the academic historians often didn't know what they were talking about because the stuff that turned battles around were little nitty-gritty things that didn't get written down in reports.

Naturally I was attracted to the many simulation games that were around in the '70s and '80s as well. I became Randolph High's simulation game club advisor. OK, I became the head of the Dungeons and Dragons Club. I learned important things like never approach an angry dragon from the front which is exactly the opposite of the way to approach horses in the real world (to the front and side).

Then along came computers and the age of simulation took off. A man named Sid Meier invented  Civilization and stuffy historians like me could test out various hypotheses on the processes that drive real events. Meier is now 59 and has a number of other famous games to his credit including a railroad game where you can see if you can build a transcontinental railroad without a variety of stock finangles. You'll quickly develop an appreciation for Oakes Ames with that one. Recently he has developed a game called Ace Patrol that is a simulation of World War I air combat.

Air combat games usually combine battle simulation with a flight simulator. You might not think so, but you live most of your life in a two dimensional world-left and right, backwards and forwards. Flight simulators add the dimension of up and down. That's OK if you are flying a 747 simulator and an air traffic controller is looking out for you. If other guys are flying around trying to shoot you the mechanics get complicated fast. Add in that an IPad has a built in gyroscope that actually allows you to twist and turn it to fly a plane and an old guy like me is not going to learn much about the war in the air in 1917-18 with a typical air combat game.

I really want to learn about this era because my great uncle Fred was one of the first Marine pilots and actually flew at least one combat mission over the Western Front in a DH4, the so-called "Flying Coffin." Enter Sid Meier whose new game combines some of the features of the old time board games with modern computing. You actually get to plot the flight of your plane step by step in a turn based system not in life or death real time. Planes have their own design limitations in climbing, diving, turning, and speed and pilots start with a very limited skill set of maneuvers-not everyone can do an Immelman turn, but they can learn one with experience. So what can a historian learn from a simulation like this? First, the saying that "there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots" is true. Hiding in a cloud bank while waiting for the perfect time to swoop in on a recon mission is much better than fighting your way through the enemy lines. You may never become an ace (five or more confirmed kills including balloons), but you get to do your job day after day. Second, no matter how good a pilot you are inferior aircraft will always do you in. There are certain points early in World War I where German planes are substantially better than those of the Allies, but by the end the tables are turned. The game really gave me something to meditate on as my single German plane took off against a squadron of superior American planes with no hope of victory late in 1918. Third, the simulation shows you that most of the missions performed by the Air Force today were developed in World War I including strategic bombing, strafing ground targets, tactical air superiority missions, and recon. It didn't take the "Knights of the Air" long to move from shooting at each other with shotguns to creating modern air combat. Fourth, the phrase "you can't get there from here" has special meaning in the air as there are many times when a pilot wants to maneuver into a certain position, but can't get the plane to do it. Finally, air combat in World War I was intensely personal. These "canvas falcons" came as close to birds in flight as any machines man has made. They twist and turn around each other, often only a few feet apart, in their attempt to get in position to fire. They are called "dogfights," but in World War I they look more like small birds attacking a crow in flight. Like dragons the best attack position is behind, actually behind and above.

So, a little imagination has gotten me thinking about the experiences of my Uncle Fred. An invaluable aid in updating the family story. Philosophically, I've argued against simulations ever being close enough to the real thing to be considered real. Chaos theory limits the accuracy of weather simulations, the Turing test still tricks computers trying to pass as people, but a good simulation game can stimulate good historical thinking. Sid Meier's Ace Patrol is such a simulation.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A Sad Bird Story

I had attended today's blog to be about the first public meeting of Envision Easton which took place on Wednesday. It was an interesting and very positive event attended by about 70 Eastoners. But a happy story is for another day.
I've been feeding suet to my birds all winter long and have attracted a large number of woodpeckers.
Besides our common Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, I've seem the wonderful Red-bellied Woodpeckers pictured above. My bird feeders are near my driveway and yesterday I pulled in just as the little red-head landed on the suet. Always more nervous than the littler woodpeckers, the bird quickly ate a few bites before flying off with a beak full of suet. Why so nervous? woodpeckers never seem to touch the ground where the loathsome neighborhood cat waits for the unwary and the feeder is pretty safe from the hawks. I didn't think about the obvious until this morning when I realized she must have a nest she needs to get back to.

This morning I came out to go to school and found a Red-bellied woodpecker dead on the street just outside my driveway. Was she somehow killed by that miserable, murderous cat or a force of nature like the hawk and then dropped on the street? Perhaps not. On an early morning food run it looked as if she flew too low and was hit by a car. A terrible sight all beautiful feathers on a crushed body. I stopped to bury her and wonder about her nestlings. Hopefully the other parent can persevere.

What am I becoming that I feel the death of this little bird more than the lives and deaths of men?

Saint Luke had Jesus say "Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?" Would that it is true although I suppose I'm too old to really believe it.