Tag: Oklahoma

Day 992: The John Wilkes Booth World Tour

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When John Wilkes Booth was crouching in Richard H. Garrett’s tobacco barn, listening to Lieutenant Colonel Everton Conger’s orders to surrender, he decided to go out with a bang. He refused the surrender, then once the barn was lit on fire he took a bullet to the neck, delivered by Sergeant Boston Corbett. He was dead by the break of dawn, less than two weeks after he had prematurely terminated the presidency of Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre.

Or was he?

Way out in the sprawling suburbs of historical perception there exists the notion that the man whose life was snuffed to a nub in that barn was actually a man named James William Boyd, a Confederate soldier who looked enough like Booth that his body passed through ten pairs of identifying eyes (not counting the pair that aimed the gun that took his life), as well as an official autopsy. The composers of this theory also posit that the government knew about the mix-up and let it happen. Because where is the fun in a murder without a deep and sinister government conspiracy?

As for the “real” John Wilkes Booth… well, on the off-chance that this is all true, we can say with a relative certainty that Booth was, in fact, this guy:

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One day in 1873, some eight years after the furor over the Lincoln assassination had been pressed between the leaves of history, Memphis lawyer Finis L. Bates met and befriended a liquor and tobacco merchant named John St. Helen. It’s good to get to know the man who sells you booze and smokes, and Bates was particularly taken by John’s ability to spout Shakespeare from memory. The two became good friends outside the seller-consumer relationship.

Five years later, John St. Helen was on what he believed to be his deathbed, profoundly ill. He confided in Finis Bates that he was in fact John Wilkes Booth. He asked Finis to advise his brother, Edwin Booth, of his demise. Then he recovered. Read more…

Day 932: Tornadoing It Right

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As the summer weeks amble past that first premature sploosh of sun, sweat and network television’s filler programming (the latest season of Fox’s 24 notwithstanding), we are reaching the time when the season becomes entrenched in whichever little cubbyhole we wish to place it. For some, it’s the season of swimming in a sun-soaked pool. For teachers and their flock, it’s the season of delectable freedom and a furlough from responsibility. For those of us who live with both a teacher and a student, it’s the season for drinking heavily to compensate for the globby paste of envy we feel at watching everyone else in the household sleep as we leave for work.

But for a number of geographically-encumbered folks, the sub-surface pillow-down of summer brings with it more grave and ungroovy consequences. Hurricanes and tropical storms are gearing up to spank the Gulf of Mexico with a debris-wreaking fist. Droughts will speckle farmland country, crapping its dusty fury upon a smattering of unlucky agriculturalists. And inevitably the funnel clouds will open up their peppery maws at the vengeful sky, bullying rural settlements and trailer parks alike on the ground.

Edmonton has seen but one tornado in our 100+ years as a city, and it left its mark on everyone who lived through it – even for those of us who saw nothing worse than the dog-spittle of rain against our windows. But in the interest of public safety – and as part of my court-ordered restitution for ‘liberating’ those pet store frogs into the IKEA ball-pit – here are some safety tips.

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Remember that viral video in which a Kansas TV crew near El Dorado fled from a nearby tornado and took refuge beneath an overpass? Yeah, don’t do this. If you happen to be caught on an empty two-lane highway with a tornado sneering at the hairs on the back of your neck, you might be tempted to tuck yourself under a concrete canopy, but you’ll really only be worsening your chances of survival. That TV crew happened to pick a rather odd overpass – there was a hollow crawlspace at the top of the embankment where they could grab hold of the exposed girders to stay stable. Read more…

Day 877: One Last Gut-Cram Before I Go

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Sometimes sinking one’s brain-fins into the waters of a good hypothetical topic and paddling about with one’s friends can be a healthy exercise. “What ten albums would you want on a deserted island?” “Which three children’s books would you travel back in time to read to a young Calvin Coolidge?” “If you could repaint the Great Wall of China in any shade of turquoise…” But my favorite of all hypothetical dalliances is the notion of the final meal.

The problem here is that we don’t generally know when our final meal will take place. It has crossed my mind upon consuming the occasional flaccid offering of meat-like McFiller-Material that I might be condemning my taste buds to an anticlimactic splatter of blandness, should a tragedy befall me suddenly. In order to become lucidly aware that your next meal will truly be your last, you’ll have had to have made some pretty nefarious life choices. For those of us who will probably never be on death row, each time we order off the menu we’re rolling the dice that we’ll get another chance.

The last meal is the one romanticized element of capital punishment. In truth, the condemned prisoner is usually not allowed to order with the full breadth of his or her imagination. If they could, I’m sure the final meal would often consist of a key to their cell baked into a Twinkie, along with a fully-armed rocket launcher, maybe garnished with a side-salad. In the US, even alcohol is usually on the forbidden list.

Of course, the real reason prisoners are entitled to a glorious final meal has nothing to do with mercy or consideration for the doomed. It’s all about ghosts.

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The last meal for the condemned is rooted in ancient superstition. Serving someone a free meal implies making a form of peace with the host, a truce if you will. The prisoner’s acceptance of the complimentary grub implies that he or she has forgiven the judge, the executioner and the witnesses. It was the state’s (or the crown’s) way of saying, “Here, enjoy this feast. Please don’t come back and haunt us. We’re cool, right?” The better the food and drink, the less likely the prisoner will return to spook those involved with his death. Read more…

Day 842: Locked Up For Life, And Then Some (part 1)

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On June 29, 2009, District Judge Denny Chin sentenced Bernie Madoff to a whopping 150 years in prison for defrauding thousands of investors and ripping off more than $65 billion for his own pocket from people who presumably actually worked for that money. Madoff had committed an act of wickedness that would make any Bond villain shake their heads in filthy humbled admiration, but Judge Chin’s sentence was a headline unto itself. The federal probation office had suggested fifty years. Madoff’s lawyers had asked for twelve.

At the time, I questioned the reasoning behind sentencing a 70-year-old man to 150 years in prison. Fifty would have been plenty to ensure he died behind bars, even if Bernie had been spending giant globs of that $65 billion on youth-juice injection treatments. One hundred years would have been sufficient to deliver a message to any would-be Ponzi-cookers out there that the benchmark standard for such schemery was death in the joint, even with time off for good behavior. But 150?

It’s a glorious fuck-you to Madoff’s great-great-great-great grandkids, a permanent etching of shame upon the family name. But even as far as prison sentences go, Madoff’s lengthy booking is far from the longest ever handed down. His crimes may have been more despicable than those committed by some of the others on this list, but I guess it’s all a question of who you piss off.

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Velupillai Prabhakaran had a dream. He wanted to create a peaceful Tamil state just northeast of Sri Lanka, a gift unto his people, albeit with himself as the corruptible, mustachioed leader-for-life. He founded the Tamil Tigers, an organization dedicated to achieving this goal through violent means if necessary (which, as it turned out, was constantly necessary). 32 countries called Velupillai’s organization a terrorist group. After an unsuccessful attempt at peace talks broke down, Velupillai was killed in a clash with the Sri Lankan army. Read more…

Day 741: Welcome To The City Of The (Sorta) Future

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I will admit to a moderate love/hate relationship with Edmonton, the city where I would hang my hat were I hip enough to own a decent hat. The ‘hate’ stems mostly from the weather, as the recent “warming” trend to near-freezing temperatures mocks me and subtly reminds me we’re only two months in to our six-month dog-fight with winter. I’m also perturbed by the excessive number of jacked-up pickup trucks adorned with decorative metallic testicles, but that’s a kvetch for another day.

But put aside the redneck hickery, tuck in that atrocious neighborhood sprawl and set the perma-calendar to an eternal July and this is one of the finest places a person can plant roots. Like most cities, Edmonton has shifted and adapted with time. When some lucky schmuck discovered oil nearby, our little skyscrapers started poking at the sky. When they built our primary tourist attraction (a giant shopping mall) in the west end, the neighborhoods out that way spread their borders like a vinyl-sided virus.

With some cities, you saw what they were going to be on the side of the box. They were built (or were almost built) with a blueprint. A concept. A pre-ordained destiny. Maybe it’ll be sci-fi and futuristic, the utopian embrace our cold, alienated shoulders have been longing for. Maybe it will inspire a new era, a new reality in urban awareness. Or maybe it’ll just be creepy.

Welcome to Celebration, Florida.

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If this quaint little strip of Americana looks too perfect to be real, well in a way it is. Located right around the corner from Walt Disney World near Orlando, Celebration is the brainchild of the Disney Development Company. It was built in the 1990’s with the aim of contradicting the perpetual state of sterility and individual isolation that has been suffocating American suburbs over the past few decades. The theme is neotraditionalism – pedestrian-friendly, intrinsically self-sustaining, and ideally the kind of place where you’ll actually want to meet your neighbors. Read more…

Day 694: The Grizzly End Of Pretty Boy Floyd

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Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd was fortunate to have chosen the life of a bank robber back when media-hyped crooks still had the ability to turn into folk heroes. He earned his nickname not from hubris but from a colorful post-robbery description to the police by the victim. And he hated it. He didn’t hate the job – in fact he was quite good at it. And while I’m sure he appreciated the adulation that was shoveled his way by his somewhat misguided but adoring fans, he knew that his career choice was not one that promised a lengthy and comfortable retirement. Something would have to give.

Floyd was known as the Robin Hood of the Cocksoon Hills in Oklahoma. He had a habit of burning mortgage papers when he robbed banks, absolving people of their debt while he disappeared with his loot.

One might have wondered if it would be over-confidence or a poor calculation of risk that would lead to Pretty Boy Floyd’s inevitable downfall. As it turns out, it was neither. Depending on whose story you believe, it was self-defense, misidentification, or possibly an excessively trigger-happy FBI that did him in.

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Charles Floyd was not destined to end his story inside a prison cell. He had been pinched for a payroll robbery in St. Louis in 1925, serving three and a half grueling years behind bars. After that, he swore he’d never see the inside of a jail cell again; it would be a clean getaway or a hail of bullets for Floyd. While his vow wasn’t quite met – he did some time for vagrancy and suspicion of highway robbery, though nothing that doled out too much time – it helped to define the criminally brash approach he brought to his day job. Read more…

Day 560: Pay No Attention To The White Conservative Behind The Curtain…

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I’ve never been one to buy in completely to a juicy conspiracy theory. I’ve listened to Jesse Ventura rant passionately and succinctly on Howard Stern’s satellite radio show about how the World Trade Center towers’ collapse on 9/11 was clearly the result of a vast government plot. I have watched videos detailing the obvious signs of a Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld set-up, and other videos debunking everything from the first videos.

Now when someone brings it up, I just nod my head and act as though my curiosity has been piqued. It hasn’t. The truth is, I don’t care.

That isn’t exactly true – I sincerely hope the truth is someday edged to the front of the stage, but until then I’ll simply plead ignorance and move on. I’m not going to be the guy who finds that magical thread to pull that somehow definitively exonerates or incriminates Bush, Cheney, the Galactic Empire, Scientology, or the agents of K.A.O.S. in that terrible tragedy, so I won’t lose sleep over it. Nor will I fret and fear any of these wacky conspiracy theories.

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According to a number of people you really wouldn’t want to get stuck talking to at a party, every president in the history of the United States has been related to royal European blood, and it’s the candidate with the most royal ties who wins every election. A financier and genealogy-lover named Harold Brooks-Baker – who had once been investigated by the FBI for an ‘are-you-secretly-related-to-a-billionaire’ scam – was a strong proponent of this theory, which naturally ends up with the entire government being run by the Illuminati. Read more…

Day 272: Neighbor, My Neighbour

Many of my more astute readers will no doubt have noticed that I tend to favor the American spelling system above the British / Canadian system I grew up with. A number of people (and here I’m assuming we can utilize zero as a number) have asked why that is. I have spent my life living amid the Queen’s English, yet I forsake my national heritage to adopt the scandalous and heinous Yankee spelling.

I do this for two reasons: first, a lot of my audience is based in the US. This is because my agent (who is not, technically speaking, very good) arranged for my site to become mandatory reading in US prisons across seven counties in and around the Oklahoman panhandle. Second, most of the US spellings make more sense to me, both aesthetically and logically. Allow me to explain.

Let’s start with the ‘-or’ vs. ‘-our’ choice. The ‘u’ in the middle is pointless. ‘Color’ and ‘Colour’ end in a syllabic approximant. It’s a non-vowel, wouldn’t even merit a schwa in phonetic transcription. Adding another vowel there is a wasted effort, an ornamental and unnecessary expenditure of my right index finger. Most of these words were imported to English through a bunch of Latin non-agent nouns, all ending in ‘-or’ or ‘-ur’. It was only after the Norman conquest of England in the eleventh century that folks started adding a ‘u’ in the middle.

I’ll be damned if I’m going to conform to a spelling principle solely because the Brits got their asses kicked 900 years ago. Read more…

Day 182: Counting The Jedi

For the record, this article is not about Star Wars.

It’s about faith. Religion. Spirituality. The Force. I’m referring to the Force in this time, in this galaxy. I’m talking about a religion to which hundreds of thousands of people belong, yet for which there is no church, no temple, no sacred real estate. There is no Holy Trinity, only the Holy Trilogy.

In 2001, census-takers around the globe found themselves recording an unusual number of people who listed ‘Jedi’ as their official religion on the survey. This wasn’t a bunch of Americans pulling a prank on the Man – in fact, the article doesn’t list the United States as one of the countries who was in on the gag.

Part of me wants to call this a ‘movement’ instead of a ‘gag’, but it’s hard to take it seriously, and I consider myself as devoted a Star Wars fan as anyone in my generation, except maybe for those people who dress up like Boba Fett to go out shopping.

That’s right, this is almost me.

Emails began to circulate in ’01 suggesting that if enough people put ‘Jedi’ down as their religion, the government will have to take it seriously enough to declare it as an official faith. I received one of those emails, and I probably did put Jedi down on my census form. I’m Jewish by birth, but the only connection I have with that part of my heritage is a fondness for lox and an affinity for Woody Allen movies. Jediism makes as much sense to me as anything else on the table – more than most really – so why not?

Besides, if L. Ron Hubbard can write a sci-fi novel that inspires a religion, why can’t George Lucas do the same with a trio of movies? I say ‘trio’ because the prequel trilogy, while not the festering dump truck full of guano some believe it to be, still tested my faith more than it reaffirmed it.

Read more…

Day 170: Pop Goes The Art

Pop art is a wonderful thing. Because of its nature, it can be a field so wide and vague that acceptance within its community can appear arbitrary to the outside observer.

I would be one such observer.

Don’t get me wrong – I can appreciate Warhol’s alternate perceptions of Campbell’s Tomato Soup, and Lichtenstein’s bedotted comic-panel-ish art is fantastic. But sometimes pop art’s conceptual nature overshadows its aesthetic appeal. At least for me. But then I’ve always felt that the finest of fine art can only be made from bacon.

I have yet to be proven wrong.

Luckily, Ed Ruscha’s debut book, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, is a work of pop art that one can appreciate beyond whatever statement it makes on societal decay, or “minimalist notions of repetitive sequence and seriality”. It just looks cool.

Ruscha lived in California, and would regularly drive home to Oklahoma to visit his family. He came up with the concept after checking out some non-commercial street-vendor books in Europe: snap a bunch of pictures of gas stations along his next journey home.

And that’s it. That’s the book.

Spoiler alert! It’s another gas station.

He took the pictures along Route 66, and they mostly appear in order, west-to-east. These twenty-six photos have been interpreted as being subtextually correlated to the 14 Stations of the Cross, an homage to Walker Evans’ Depression-era photos, and concluding with a Duchampian pun. Art critics have had lengthy discussions on the symbolism of this work… which is seriously nothing more than twenty-six photos of gas stations. Read more…