Category Archives: Americana

We Were Watermen, or, Why I’m Thinking About The Beach Boys, Part I

We were watermen.

Or at least we were the Utah equivalent of the Polynesian term for someone whose life, as surf legend Chris Malloy once put it, is dictated by the ocean’s moods.  A waterman swims, dives, surfs, and spear fishes.  He lives in and for the sea.

Our seas were the lakes and streams along the Mirror Lake Highway in northeastern Utah.  Each summer, a sequence of family camping reunions allowed my cousins and me to escape to our aquatic Shangri-La in the Uinta Mountains for days on end.  Matt, Adam, and I learned to swim at a young age in the frigid waters of the Upper Provo River.  Our older cousins Tommy and Josh taught us how to safely ford rapids and properly acclimatize to cold depths.  Eventually we learned to fashion rafts out of driftwood and catch rainbow trout with our bare hands.

By about age 9, we considered ourselves experts.  Each morning after breakfast we’d leave camp for the river, often not to return until sunset.  We navigated miles of the Upper Provo, charting swimming holes and naming landmarks.  There was Coney Island, a large rocky islet near the Soapstone Campground.  A particularly sandy shoreline earned the title “Waikiki Beach.”

Matt had a Sony Walkman with a pair of portable speakers.  The happy, surf-centric harmonies of the Beach Boys provided the soundtrack for our adventures.  We’d belt the chorus of “Surfin’ USA” as we tossed a Frisbee over the river between Coney Island and Waikiki.  Many of our landmark names came from Beach Boys tunes.

When Uncle Garth bought a power boat, our turf extended to Rockport Reservoir, an impoundment along the Weber River.  Time not spent water skiing was passed lounging on a wide beach on the lake’s north side.  Adding to my delight was the fact that our annual trip to Rockport coincided with my birthday.  Water, sand, campfires, and birthday presents—it couldn’t get any better!

One year, Tommy’s wife, Shanna proudly gifted me a New Kids on the Block album on cassette.  Later, Tommy pulled me aside and discretely handed me another album, The Beach Boys’ Still Cruisin.

“The New Kids are hot now,” I remember him saying quietly, so as not to upstage his wife’s gift, “But The Beach Boys are timeless.”

I don’t swim in rivers much these days, but I pine for my waterman days—for the loud rush of the Provo, the glow of a Soapstone campfire, the lazy days on Rockport’s beaches.  Those times epitomized summer for me, and so did the tunes.  That’s why every year around this time, I get an irresistible urge to crank The Beach Boys and head for the mountains.


Disneyland wasn’t always the ‘Happiest Place On Earth’

“To all who come to this happy place, welcome!”

That’s one quote you probably don’t need to be a Disney buff to remember.

“They can drink Coke and Pepsi, but they can’t pee in the streets.”

And there’s one even Disney buffs might not have heard.

Both were uttered by Mr. Walt Disney in regards to the dedication of his Disneyland theme park in July,  1955.  The first embodied Walt’s starry-eyed vision for the place.  The second, his sheer practicality.

Like any other red-blooded American dad, I’m a huge fan of Disney (select aspects of it anyway– I don’t care for its modern teeny-bopper fluff).

More accurately, I’m a huge fan of Disneyana.  I love Disney’s old-school classic movies and Pixar’s new-school masterpieces, too.  I love the origins, the vision, the theme parks and the philosopies that inspired them.

I find the history of the theme parks especially fascinating.  Disneyland, in particular.  If you’ve ever taken your kids to Disneyland, you’ll probably agree that once you get your head past the cost of admission and the annoyances of the crowds, it’s a pretty magical place.

But I’ll let you in on a secret– one that may shock you to your core:  It wasn’t always sunshine and lollipops at “The Happiest Place On Earth.”  At least not on “Dedication Day.”

July 17, 1955 is a big deal in theme park history. In just over a year, Walt Disney had transformed a non-descript orange grove into a 160 acre wonderland.  The dedication was attended by throngs of reporters, celebrities, and movie stars.  ABC broadcast the event live.  It was magical.

It was also a disaster. posted a piece last week about what Walt Disney and team would later refer to as “Black Sunday.”  From the article:

“…some of the rides (there were only 20 at the time) broke down. Filled beyond its capacity, the ferryboat sank. A gas leak fouled Fantasyland. A plumbers’ strike meant the drinking fountains didn’t work (though the toilets did).”

The second Walt quote above referenced this last point and is explained in a short video Wired put together about Black Sunday:

Fake Tickets, Scorching Heat: Inside Story of Disneyland’s Disastrous Debut

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Posted by on October 4, 2010 in Americana


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I smell like campfire smoke today

At work today, an Air Force color guard retired four United States flags in honor of Flag Day.  Watching a flag retirement always touches my heart.  If you’ve ever participated or watched this ceremony before, you know how I feel.  I returned to my cubicle with a full heart and clothes that smelled like campfire smoke.

Thank you, Old Glory.

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Posted by on June 14, 2010 in Americana, Holiday Related


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Overdue: Shedding some light on the George Washington library book story

The copy of Vattel's The Law of Nations that was given to the New York Society Library by George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate

I’m at once amused and fascinated by the matter of George Washington’s overdue library books.  Amused because, after all, Washington sewed seeds that changed the world.  Men of his honor and caliber rarely grace the history pages.  Considering the political scandals of present, it’s fun to look back on trivialities of the past.

My fascination with this story is based less on the historical facts themselves and more on the process of connecting the jigsaw puzzle.  I hated history in high school (no offense, Mr. Madsen) because the work had been done for me.  My grade depended on memorization and regurgitation, not investigation.  I wonder how many kids who think they hate history would realize they actually love it if their teachers thought outside the textbook.

My post about Washington’s library books last week was supposed to be a simple Friday blurb about an interesting historical factoid (a great date night conversation piece!).

But the more I researched this story, the more questions arose. Not big conspiratorial questions– just curious questions about the timeline and some inconsistencies in the press reports. Some news reports had mentioned two books, others mentioned only one. Beyond this, I wished somebody had taken time to flesh the story out a little more.

I started by contacting the New York Society Library and the media office at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens to ask for help. Both parties were extremely helpful, taking time to answer my questions and send me all sorts of good information. The information presented below was culled from Washington’s diary, press kits, and my interviews with NYSL and Mount Vernon staff. So, I’d like to present you what the late Paul Harvey would call “the rest of the story.”

In 1789, the U.S. government was based out of Federal Hall at Wall and Broad Streets in Lower Manhattan. Occupying the top floor of the building was the New York Society Library, which was founded in 1754. The library was a useful resource for government officials and it was frequented by the likes of Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, John Jay, and sometimes the president himself.

By fall of 1789, Congress was in recess and the president was preparing to tackle the touchy issue of diplomatic affairs with Britain. In fact, he’d be meeting with Chief Justice John Jay and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton about these matters on October 7. Given these circumstances, it’s no surprise that Washington would check out library material on British parliamentary dealings and international diplomacy.

Federal Hall, the shared location of the New York Society Library and the Federal government in 1789 (courtesy of the New York Society Library)

October 5, 1789: Washington (or an aide- we don’t know) walked upstairs and checked out two books from the library: The Law of Nations by Emmerich de Vattel and Vol. 12 of the Commons Debates. The transaction is recorded in the library’s leather-bound charging ledger. In the borrower column, the librarian simply writes “President.”

October 15, 1789: Washington leaves New York for a tour of New England. Though he keeps a detailed diary, no mention of the books is made.

November 2, 1789: The books are due, but Washington is fishing for cod off of New Hampshire’s Portsmouth Harbour. Washington notes in his diary that he and his companions only caught two fish between them. Then, in true fisherman tradition, he justifies the skunking by blaming an improper tide. The  library books are likely the last things on his mind. Though no official fine record exists, a pennies-per-day fine would begin accruing after this date.

April 1792: The 18 lb. ledger is filled and is filed away. It is later misplaced– likely during one of the library’s re-locations.

Dec. 14, 1799: George Washington dies at Mount Vernon. Most of his belongings, including books, are divided up among his family.

1934: NYSL staff rediscover the deteriorating ledger in the basement of the library’s fourth Manhattan location. The ledger’s pages crumble to the touch, so it is used only rarely for reference until the beginning of its restoration in 2007. NYSL staffer Sara Holliday suspects that the Washington transaction was noticed sometime after the ledger was found, as it had been discussed unofficially and anecdotally among library staff for years.

2007: NYSL begins restoring and digitizing the ledger.

2010: Restoration complete, NYSL staff check their inventory again. Washington’s books are still missing. The New York Daily news picks up on the Washington transaction and breaks the story. The fine estimate of $300,000, according to Holliday, was calculated by the Daily News, not the NYSL. She says fine policies changed over time, and that an exact total would be tough to determine. Anyway, it’s something the NYSL has no interest in tracking.

Upon hearing about the overdue books, staff at Mount Vernon search their own archives with no luck. Considering The Law of Nations the much more significant of the two books, they purchase an identical copy online for an undisclosed amount (I’m told the price reported by one outlet and echoed in several others is inaccurate).

May 19, 2010: In a ceremony at NYSL, Mount Vernon President James Rees and Librarian Joan Stahl present the replaced book.   Most media reports focus only on the return of The Law of Nations, making no mention of the still missing Commons Debates.

Holliday says restoring the ledger familiarized NYSL staff with habits of their 18th Century counterparts. Patrons from the Federal government were commonly referred to by their titles, which is why the informal “President” appears next to Washington’s checkouts in the images below.

Exhibit A: the portion of NYSL's charging ledger that shows the Washington transaction. I've highlighted the relevant rows.

Exhibit A.1: The same portion of the ledger, but I've identified the columns.

Washington is off the hook– at least for The Law of Nations.  And that’s where the media called it good and skipped out.   But the father of our country still has one overdue book out, and though history has certainly forgiven this oversight, it’s going to drive me nuts until somebody finds it.  Maybe it’s time to book a trip back east!


Copyright 2010  All images courtesy of the New York Society Library.  Special thanks to the NYSL‘s Sara Holliday and Mount Vernon‘s Melissa Wood and Joan Stahl.


Posted by on May 27, 2010 in Americana, History


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