Thursday, December 23, 2021

Over the River and Through the Woods


Edna Catherine (Schwartz) Bunsey (1904-1994)
As a kid growing up in Mansfield, Ohio, I did not have to cross a river or go through a woods to get to my Grandmother's house. Okay, I could go through the woods on my bike, and that route crossed a creek or two, but in the car with my family at Christmas, we probably went down Abbeyfeale, up Midland, to Gadfield, then Austin, left on Woodhill Road to Grandma's house at the corner of Woodhill and Andover.

This post mostly is about this picture of Grandma, as a way to say "Merry Christmas" to anyone who reads this blog, but of course it brings back memories.

This grandmother is my mother's mother. That is the family I grew up with. All of Dad's 'people' were in St. Louis or Central Illinois so we rarely saw them. Grandma and Grandpa (Edna and Frank to everyone else) had six kids. Their three oldest girls, which included my mother, married and had six kids each. I am the senior cousin. 

I like this picture, not because it is how I remember Grandma, but because it is not. The woman in this picture looks too quiet and disengaged to be my grandmother. I wouldn't call Grandma loud. Aunt Lee, her sister-in-law, was loud. We are not a quiet bunch, but Grandma could hold a room without raising her voice. Our family was a matriarchy and she ruled. She had many arrows in her quiver, sarcasm not least of them. Her mother, Grandma Schwartz, was still very much in the picture too. It was quite the operation.

In my earliest memories of Christmas, Grandma and Grandpa's house figures more prominently than our own, probably because of the expanded cast of characters. Mom's two youngest siblings were teenagers. I had three younger brothers and, during the period in question, several cousins in our same age bracket. There always was at least one baby being passed around. 

The house had a cozy den. You had to go down a few steps to get to it. Their tree, in that space, always seemed much grander than ours. They had all these cool, old ornaments and--the best part--bubble lights! I could not get enough of the bubble lights.

Grandma and Grandpa had their six kids over a span of 17 years, so they had a collection of toys that they, cleverly, let us play with but did not let us take home. I remember an old chutes and ladders game, some weird blocks, and a thing with knobs that you turned to move marbles through a maze. My favorite was the stereoscopic viewer that was so much cooler than the View-Master I had at home. The pictures were all black-and-white but it was images of pyramids and the Eiffel Tower.

After our three families filled out, there were just too many people to have everyone over to the house on Andover on Christmas Day, so other traditions were established, but we would still get to their house during the season, usually more than once, and saw the cousins and their families in some combination.

This is the time of year when people like to tell you what Christmas is 'about.' Here is my take. 'Christmas' is a name some people give to an annual observance that has been going on, all over the world, since long before the birth of Christ. What is true in every culture, in the more northerly reaches of the northern hemisphere, anyway, is that the world is literally covered in darkness. Everything is dead. It's cold. It all seems to be ending, but we do not despair, because we know the darkness will lift, it is lifting already, a little more each day. That is why we celebrate, take stock, and build memories. 

Monday, December 13, 2021

When Alcohol Was Money

A collection of pioneer stills at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Whiskey plays an outsize role in American history, largely because this continental nation had an active frontier for nearly 300 years and distilling was a typical pioneer industry. 

Whiskey enthusiasts tend to focus on a narrower window, the middle to late 18th century, a period that saw the beginning of bourbon and the birth of a nation, when the frontier was the land west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

On the frontier, whiskey-making was an adjunct to farming. Almost everyone grew grain and distilled some of it into liquor, one way or another. If you didn't have a still somebody in the neighborhood did. Distilling was the only sensible thing to do with surplus grain. Wherever fruit was plentiful, it was fermented and distilled too. 

Distilled spirits were more than just another consumable. They were valuable. Where currency was scarce, as it typically was on the frontier, alcohol was a handy substitute. Fermented beverages such as beer, cider and wine were fine for drinking, but they were bulky and didn't keep. They weren't much good for high finance. Distill that beer down to about fifty percent alcohol-by-volume (100° proof), then you've got something.

Whiskey (or applejack) was like money in the bank. Everybody had a general idea how much a given quantity was worth, it was easy to divide, and always in demand. You could buy a nice farm with a barrel of whiskey. Abraham Lincoln's father did.

Businesspeople today talk about ‘liquidity.’ On the American frontier, ‘liquidity’ was literal. Alcohol was money. Before bourbon was bourbon it was a medium of exchange vital to the frontier economy.

On the frontier, most people were subsistence farmers. Communities were important but households had to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, and shelter. To live you needed a farm, and to farm you needed land. The constant need for more land inexorably pushed the frontier west. Since Roman times, governments have struggled to provide farmland for retired soldiers. The need for farmland following the French and Indian War (1754-1763) created friction between colonial administrations and the British government, leading to the American Revolution (1775-1783).

America’s original frontier had been the Atlantic coast, two fragile colonies of European immigrants in what would become Massachusetts and Virginia. Brewing and distilling began right away. Europeans brought with them barley, wheat, rye, oats and other Old World grains. The people who were already here introduced them to maize. 

The word ‘corn’ originally referred to any grain. Wheat and rye were types of 'corn.' This usage lives on today in terms like 'barleycorn.' When Europeans encountered maize for the first time, they called it ‘Indian corn.’ Eventually, English speakers in North America shortened that to simply ‘corn’ and the word’s original, broader meaning died out. 

Bourbon is whiskey made from maize, i.e., corn, a New World grain. That is what makes bourbon whiskey uniquely American. The first distilled beverages made in the colonies were not whiskey and the first whiskeys were not made from corn, at least not as the main ingredient. The first fermented beverages were made from fruit; mostly wild berries and grapes. Apples for cider were among the first cultivated fruit. When the first cereals the immigrants planted yielded their first harvests, food for animals and humans was the priority. Only when the fields yielded surpluses for those needs were cereals fermented and distilled. 

As trade got going among the New World colonies, the residue of Caribbean sugar production was shipped to New England where it was distilled into rum for local sale and export. Rum was America's first commercial distilled spirit. In the mid-18th century, bad mojo with Mother England created a clog in the molasses pipeline just as the growing colonial population began to spread into the interior. Only then did Americans start to make whiskey…spirit distilled from a fermented mash of grain…in earnest. 

At first they mostly used familiar cereals they brought from Europe: barley, wheat, rye, and oats, but by the 18th century they knew how to work with corn too. 

If a frontier grain farmer had a surplus of anything it was corn. Corn grew well and was very productive. It was excellent livestock feed, which is how most of it was used, but had limited applications as human food, to European tastes at least. Unlike barley and wheat, corn contains no gluten so it isn't much good for bread. Pioneers tended to eat corn only when they had nothing else, which often enough was the case.

So they turned their surplus corn into alcohol. That wasn’t easy either, nothing on the frontier was easy. Despite obstacles, corn became the go-to grain for distillation in the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.

To make alcohol, you need a solution of sugar, water, and yeast. Since yeast is almost everywhere, you often don’t need to do anything except mix the sugar and water together. With fruit or any other direct sugar source, such as honey or molasses, starting fermentation is easy. Left alone, a sugar-and-water solution will ferment whether you want it to or not. 

It is harder with grain because you need an additional step. Cereals such as corn, barley, wheat and rye are mostly starch, so first you need to convert that starch into sugar. Seeds convert starch into sugar by producing certain enzymes. Any seed can produce the enzymes, but for our purposes the grain starches must be dissolved in water before the enzymes are introduced. Barley is favored because, when ground, its starches dissolve easily in warm water. Corn is tougher. To get its starches to dissolve takes hotter water, more time, and agitation. 

Corn beer never caught on as a drink, but it was (and is) a terrific base for distillation. Corn the hogs don't eat can be converted into something useful. 

The stage for bourbon was set. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

"That Night Was Scary." Pearl Harbor Remembered


Curtiss P-40 Warhawk

Eighty years ago today my father, Ken Cowdery, was at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. He was a 21-year-old private in the United States Army, lined up for breakfast. Japanese bombers bound for Wheeler Field next door flew over his head, so close he could see the pilot's face.

Thirty years ago, for the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he wrote down some of his memories. Mostly they were stories we, his children, had been hearing for years. He passed in 2010, so it's nice to have them now in his own words.

The story of the morning attack I have posted on several of these anniversaries, most recently in 2018. This is what happened that evening.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, chaos reigned on the island. Dad was company clerk, "like Radar on M.A.S.H.," he told us. His job that night was to monitor radio traffic, answer phones, and otherwise handle anything the officer in charge, Lt. Waid, needed him to do. Here is the rest of the story, in his own words.


That night was scary, we could hear random bursts of small arms fire from time to time but had no inclination to investigate. The headquarters building was designated as a pick up spot for dependents to gather. The alert plan had this spelled out and busses were provided to haul them down to Honolulu to get them away from any legitimate target areas. While this mob of women and children was gathering downstairs a long burst of automatic weapon fire was heard nearby. The screaming did not subside for at least 10 minutes.

Fortunately, our people were pretty lousy shots at that point because we never heard of anyone being hit.

The worst case of trigger happiness occurred in our battalion. We had a 50 caliber machine gun set up on the roof of the barracks, it was on an anti-aircraft mount and protected by sandbags. Shortly after dark we heard a P-40 coming in low, (under certain wind conditions the normal landing path for Wheeler Field was directly over our barracks). As the plane approached the barracks we heard the 50 caliber open up. We didn't hear a crash so we figured everything was OK. A little while later we got a phone call, it was a Corporal from Wheeler Field asking us to inform the machine gunners that the plane they shot at was a P-40 and they should make sure what they're shooting at.

We had a field telephone line, not connected to the regular lines, over to the roof so we called them and told them to be more careful. They said that they were sorry, that it was an accident and it wouldn't happen again.

About a half hour later we again heard the familiar sound of a P-40 coming in on its landing path, and again we heard the POM, POM, POM of the 50 caliber. A few minutes later the phone rang again, this time it was a Sergeant, he was a bit more agitated and pointed out that we didn't have very many P-40s left and that our guys should quit trying to shoot them down. We called the gun crew again and chewed them out a bit, and they again said that they were sorry, that they were sure that it was a Jap and that they wouldn't do it again.

Sure enough, a bit later we again heard the familiar sound of a P-40 coming in and, unfortunately, the all too familiar sound of the 50 caliber. This time the call from Wheeler was very quick, very loud, (he wouldn't have had to use the telephone) and very angry. It was the pilot of the last plane. After several minutes of invective he said to tell those jerks up on the roof that he was informing all the other pilots still up in the air that if it happened again they should shoot back. 

Lt. Waid and I went up to the roof ourselves and tried to impress these guys with the gravity of what they were doing and the probable consequences.

They seemed to be duly impressed and promised that it would never happen again. Lt. Waid and I got off the roof quickly and went back to headquarters, in time to hear yet another P-40 start its landing approach. You guessed it, again the 50 caliber opened up.

Then we heard the P-40 pilot pour on the coal. We could hear him circle around and approach the landing path again, only this time we heard his 50 calibers firing.

After that, no more phone calls, no more shooting at friendly planes--those guys probably never fired another shot for the rest of the war.

Lt. Waid and I went back up to the roof the next morning. There were several spots in the roof that we were convinced were 50 caliber bullet holes, none real close to the sandbags but close enough to scare the bejabers out of those gunners.