Thursday, June 4, 2015

Appropos of nothing

Two figures now figure more and more prominently in my life these days — Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln.

Mostly it's circumstance. Also, age.

If youth is wasted on the young, so is history. Now that I'm not young, history has grown richer and more rewarding. Maybe I have a more patient regard for mortality.

Mark Twain roamed, however briefly, the streets I roam every day. He wrote for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise newspaper, and talked the Sacramento Union into sending him to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) from whence he would send occasional features.

Twain had a thing or two to say about Sacramento in its youth, and I quote him when the occasion warrants, on tour of the Old Sacramento Underground.

He found lifting the city to protect it from flooding a foolish marvel. Of course, being Twain, he made it sound as if the city was lifting only the streets, but leaving the buildings where they are.
"Some people call it a priceless blessing, because children who fall out of second story windows now cannot break their necks as they formerly did," he wrote. "That this may be regarded in the light of a blessing is, of course, open to grave argument."
It's mostly funny to adults on tour. I'm not sure children and teenagers like it. Ah, youth!

Two key anniversaries came up last month. One that just hopped away was the annual Jumping Frog contest in Calaveras County, the so-called Gold Country. Twain brought that event into being by the force of words alone, buttressing a story he'd been told about a jumping frog contest during the Gold Rush. The short story catapulted Twain to fame.

Key to the story is covert tampering and corruption — even before FIFA! — a frog made to eat buckshot and so impede its ability to jump.

Which is why I drew this cartoon 25 years ago, thinking of the fun Twain might have had when someone wanted to enter an imported goliath frog from Africa to compete in the jumping frog contest.

Contest officials protested and forbade the imported frogs — only American bullfrogs would do.

Of course, there's no story in that. Twain knew. A strange frog, leaping and bounding above and beyond the pack — that's the punchline. Competitors would have demanded to know the secret. The imported-frog owner should have sneaked the frog in and asked forgiveness rather than permission.

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated 150 years ago last month. He never came to California, but I read lately he entertained notions of retiring here. He got so much love from the new state, and returned in kind. California's admission to the Union tipped the balance toward free states over slave states, the gold found was helping finance Union war efforts, and several of the key military minds — those who eventually helped turn the war in Union favor — came from California.

Lincoln's dream of one nation lay gleaming in the ground in Old Sacramento. Most people walk over it without notice. I try to stop my tour groups and regard it:

The western end of the great Transcontinental Railroad.

A coast-to-coast line of defense and supply, the railroad would truly make the states United. Lincoln was fascinated by the idea and spoke at length and depth with Granville Dodge, the visionary engineer behind the Union Pacific, being built westward from Omaha, Nebraska. Surely he would have buttonholed Theodore Judah, the brains behind the Central Pacific Railroad being built eastward from Sacramento to join the Union Pacific, had Judah not died young before his plans could take shape.

Political power from slave states fought for dismemberment of California, so that Southern California — or whatever that state would have been called — would be another slave state and restore the balance of free vs. slave. A railroad stretching coast to coast from the south would have strengthened that divisive plan.

It was all the more important that the Transcontinental Railroad trace a northerly route and help hold the country together. So important, perhaps, that the "Big Four" directors of the Central Pacific Railroad — Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins and Leland Stanford — took advantage of Lincoln's zeal and distractions over the Civil War to bamboozle the federal government into awarding far more in subsidies and real estate than the railroad should rightfully have gotten.

Twain probably liked that story. I imagine he would have enjoyed telling it.

People on tour often ask about ghosts. Though I let them down gently, I do feel Twain walking the shady sloping alleys of the old town, blowing smoke literally and figuratively. And I can see Lincoln in the day's heat, arms akimbo, near the Central Pacific depot, kicking at his dream, gleaming in the earth.

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