Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bonne Terre

Bonne Terre, MO, population 4,939, is about 60 miles directly south of St. Louis. From 1864 until 1960 it was home to what became the largest lead mine in the world. Lead was extracted in this area as early as 1720 by the French. Surface mining of lead quickly spread throughout the eastern Ozarks becoming one of the engines for European settlement. Prior to the Civil War the primary uses of lead was for water pipes, containers, white pigment [remember lead paint?], manufacture of crystal and roofing. The Civil War caused a significant increase in the demand for lead as bullets and shot.

On March 25, 1864, six New York businessmen incorporated the St. Joseph Lead Company. Few of the incorporators knew or cared much about the mining business. They bought the 950 acres known as Bonne Terre for $25,000 cash and $50,000 in unsecured bonds. They hoped that the mere possibility of a profitable lead mine might bring investors and they would get rich. One hopeful stockholder who attended the 1865 annual meeting in New York City was J. Wyman Jones, a young lawyer from Utica, NY. In a turn of events common in those robber baron times he was promptly named president of the company. Jones turned out to be a terrific manager. The mine prospered.

On a tree-lined street with a few modest Victorian homes in the middle of town is a block surrounded by a high board fence. In the center of the gravel parking lot inside sits a square green building with a sign over double doors reading “Mule Entrance.” Old, rusting mining gear, small gauge mining cars and power shovels are scattered around. Along the back is a row of tired storefronts with a board sidewalk. There's a general store, but the rest are labeled: Showers, Changing Rooms, Diver's Lounge. The store is locked with a sign that the next tour starts in fifteen minutes. The price for a one hour walking tour is $18 a person, $23 if you add the boat tour. We decide to pass. It is getting late.

Just as we were about to leave two men emerged from nowhere. The older guy with a handlebar mustache dressed in what looked like a painter's outfit introduced himself as Chuck. He wanted to know if we were interested a tour. We hesitated. He unlocked the store and showed us a live video feed from the dock on the underground lake.

It is a scene from another world. Beyond the dock a flood-lit blue green lake stretches in all directions. The roof is supported by huge stone pillars that disappear into darkness. We are hooked.

Back in 1960 the lead ore was running out. A new source of better quality ore was located further into the Ozarks. Bonne Terre Mine closed and the pumps that kept spring water out were turned off. Crystal clear water quickly filled the mine nearly to the top. The town tried using the water for a municipal supply but it had too many dissolved minerals. That's when the owners of a St. Louis Dive shop, Doug and Cathy Georgens, bought the place. They pumped the top two levels of the mine dry and set up “Billion Gallon Lake Resort.” Thanks in no small part to numerous cable TV shows that have featured it, people come from all over the world to scuba dive.

Chuck shows us a fist size chunk of nearly pure galena, the state mineral of Missouri. Galena, or lead sulfide, is silver gray, and has a metallic gleam. He shows us old mining tools and explains their use. We enter the mine and walk down 60 steps or so to the upper level. We are in a series of dimly lit massive rooms each a cube about the size of a city block. Every 40 feet or so a hand-hewn stone column rises to the roof. We look down a shaft where ore was dumped and we can see the lake far below. We work our way down room after room. Some have calcite coated walls, cream colored if iron is mixed in, black if manganese, green if copper, pink if cobalt, stark white if pure.

When the mine was opened in the 19th Century all the work was done by hand using simple tools. Men dug with shovels. They drilled holes by pounding a drill bit with a sledgehammer. They filled the holes with black powder and blew up the rock, hoping not to blow themselves up in the process. They loaded one ton cars by hand. A shift lasted as long as it took to load 22 cars. The cars were hauled along narrow gauge rails by mules. The mules lived their entire working life underground. Day after day for a hundred years the miners broke rock and hauled it out leaving behind this huge void of about 1,500 giant rooms on increasingly deep levels. When the rooms became too tall, they built tottering wooden scaffolds and hung trapezes from the ceilings 50 feet in the darkness where they continued to hammer rock. The work was dangerous and serious injuries frequent. Chuck told us if an injured miner managed to live long enough to be carried out of the mine, the authorities didn't record his death as a mine accident.

We reach the dock and board a pontoon party barge with a silent electric engine. A group of eight divers swim just ahead of us then disappear. We glide from eerie room to room. Lights make the clear water glow green. We can dimly see mining equipment in the deep. I keenly sense the ghosts of long gone miners watching as we trudge back to daylight.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Update: Historic Aircraft Museum

Readers of this blog may remember Al Stix, our crusty tour guide at our recent visit to the Creve Coeur Aircraft Museum. See: Sunday afternoon, 11/22/09, Al crashed his yellow mid-1930s Stearman biplane on take-off when the engine lost power. Neither Stix nor his passanger were seriously injured. Stix had started to turn back toward the landing field when a wing caught a tree. According the the Monday edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Stix told reporters, "When you fly these old planes, you're bound to have some exciting moments, hopefully, they don't get any more exciting than this." You can read the entire story here:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why I'm not an academic

When I was in high school my mother suggested from time to time that I become a surgeon. I was a good student and liked science. I have small, fairly delicate hands. I was a pretty good pianist which suggested to her that I had the dexterity she assumed surgeons need.

I found the idea appealing. I had little idea of the work doctors do. What I knew for certain was that I was destined for a life as an intellectual. I loved books and still do. I read voraciously. I was sure as a teenager that a life of physical labor would not suit me well.

So I set off for Bucknell University, a good liberal arts college, with a vague idea of possibly, maybe becoming a doctor. I signed up as a biology major. The first shock came in the second week of my freshman microbiology lab. We were examining a specimen, trying to draw the cells. Everyone else seemed to think this was extremely easy. I couldn't get the damn thing in focus. After a long struggle the lab instructor told me I had just drawn my eyelash.

By mid-term exams I was still struggling with biology lab and way behind my peers in the other subjects. This was new for me. I never failed at any subject but I could see I was on a course to fail now. The one bright light in that first semester was an English Literature course I took to fill a humanities requirement. I loved it. The professor was terrific. I did well. I didn't have a vocational plan but “temporarily” became a humanities major. I tried courses in History, Philosophy and East-Asian Studies. I loved them all and did very well. I started to learn to write. I got a BA in History with Honors. I never doubted my future as an academic as I earned a MA and PhD in philosophy.

In all the years of intense study I never questioned my ability to make a living. I did odd jobs. I taught freshmen and prison inmates. I learned basic plumbing and wiring. I heated with wood and became president of the local food co-op. I surrounded myself with books. I read every day and slowly learned to be a better writer. When I finally finished my PhD it took me a year and a half to land a regular teaching job, but I finally got one at a small Franciscan school in Western New York, St. Bonaventure University.

During my first years at St. Bonaventure I threw myself into really learning how to teach philosophy. It was hard but I had fun. I found I was pretty good at inspiring a fair number of my students to read, write and even think about things they never considered before. I developed a couple of new courses. I helped start a student outdoors club that flourished.

At the end of my second year I was called in by my department head for an evaluation of my work and my progress toward the golden ring of academia, tenure. He started out by praising my work as a teacher. He liked the fact that students gave me good evaluations. I was also pulling my weight in the generally distasteful committee work required of all academics. I was well liked by other members of the department and was fitting in. Unfortunately, he was not able to give me a good recommendation.

The problem, he explained, was that I had never published anything in an academic journal. In fact, I admitted that I was not even working on a research project. I had read a few papers at professional conferences, but that was it. Unless I could get going on something major, I would not be ready by the time my formal tenure review came up the following year and I would be let go.

I walked out of the meeting in shock. All the work I had done counted for nothing. I wrongly assumed that at a small college I would get a lot of credit for being a good teacher. I assumed lack of a research publication might be overlooked. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

About a week later I was starting to get angry. I stopped in to see the department head and asked him to name a journal where he would like to get published. The Journal of the History of Ideas.

Over the next few weeks I poured over that journal trying to get a handle on the sort of articles they generally published. I holed up in a library with a good collection of works by and about Spinoza, a philosopher about whom I knew nothing. I skimmed everything I could find about Spinoza's political and ethical views looking for a topic. Then I focused on carefully reading everything he said on the subject of freedom of speech. I wrote an article of exactly the right length with appropriate footnotes and references. I polished it and sent it in. A few weeks later, just as the summer break was ending, I received the letter telling me the article would be published.

I returned to St. Bonaventure deeply disturbed by this exercise. On first meeting my department head before fall classes I told him I had written an article about Spinoza. Great, he said. Was I working on getting it published? I handed him my acceptance letter. He was pleased, actually quite jealous. I had proved my point. Academic publication is a sham exercise, just part of the hazing, with no practical consequences except in the tenure game. Now I was bitter. I never recovered my enthusiasm.

The next spring my department head told me he was happy to recommend me for tenure. Maybe they would even consider early tenure. By then I was making plans to attend law school with hope that I might find an intellectually honest profession at last. I've not been disappointed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum

Our friend, Jim Leiter from Syracuse, visited us in St. Louis the first weekend of November. His hobby is photographing airplanes. Over the years he has amassed quite a collection, all neatly organized in binders. While I'm sure Jim was pleased to visit us in the big city by the big muddy, he was also really, really pleased to be able to visit the aircraft museum at the Creve Coeur airport.

Not many people even know there is a world-class museum along the flats of the Missouri River on the western edge of St. Louis at the end of an unmarked dead-end road past a farm stand offering hayrides the day after Halloween. As luck would have it Butch O'Blennis, an ALJ with the office next to mine, is taking flying lessons at the Creve Coeur airport and could give us directions. He knew the place is loaded with old planes, but had not had time to tour the museum. Butch kindly offered to accompany us on our tour. He had a lesson scheduled the day we planned to visit, so we agreed to get there in time to see if he had learned to land safely, yet.

Creve Couer airport is a private, non-profit created out of farm fields in 1983 by three vintage airplane fanatics, Al Stix, John Cournoyer and John Mullen. The field has evolved to include a paved runway, a grass runway and about 100 privately-owned hangers. Most of the hangers are used to house, restore or build small planes. It turned out Butch's instructor was ill the day we visited so he did not get to fly. While waiting for the museum to open we decided to wander through the rows of hangers to see what we might discover.

The place is crawling with small planes. We encountered a man wheeling a very small plane singlehandedly out of his hanger. He was happy to show us the homemade craft built around a VW engine. He claimed it was simple to build. I have no idea how he defines “simple.” I asked him how it flies. He raved about how much fun it is, the only problem is that it pulls pretty hard to the right on takeoff. He only figured that out while taking off in it for the first time. He's obviously a quick study.

At 10 am the three of us bought tickets to the museum [a bargain at $10 per person] and met our guide. It was airport owner, Al Stix. Stix knows virtually every detail of every plane in the collection. He knows where it came from, its complete history and how it flies. He has personally flown almost all of the planes in the collection and lived to tell the tale.

The airport's museum is comprised of three large hangars packed with about 50 vintage airplanes. Many of the planes are one of a kind. There's a 1916 Sopwith Pup with the original 80-horsepower engine, a Taylor E-2 [father of the Piper Cub], and the only flying de Havilland Dragon Rapide in the country. The collection also includes a rare restored 1930 St. Louis Cardinal. According to Stix all but a couple of the aircraft are flyable except for "the two or three that no one has yet had the nerve to try." Stix loves these old planes, but is not at all sentimental. "If these airplanes were really any good, planes would still look like this." Al and the collection were recently featured in the Simthsonian Air & Space magazine. You can read the whole article here:

To be honest I got tired of looking at old planes pretty quickly; it's not really a big interest of mine. We wandered through rows of shining biplanes, old monoplanes and some scary small vintage passenger planes with wicker seats. Al kept things pretty interesting with his tales of smuggling an old WWII Soviet flying boat out of Russia labeled as tractor parts or about how Lindbergh was tricked into falsifying parts of his own autobiography.

Perhaps Al's best stories have to do some serious daredevil flying. It is a very good thing that almost all of this priceless collection can be flown since the airport is located on the flood plain of the mighty Missouri. During the great flood of 1993 the entire airport was under 20 feet of water. The historic planes had to be flown to higher ground, many by Stix. One little two cylinder plane that Stix particularly hates hardly generated enough power to get off the ground. He flew it at treetop level looking for places to crash land all the way. While scoping out driveways to use as a makeshift runway he claims to have flown right by a guy brushing his teeth in a second story window.

Two hours later, we emerged into the sunlight, but Al had detected Jim was a truly dedicated fan and Butch was also seriously captivated. The three of them took off in Al's van to visit some treasures in more remote parts of the airport. I stayed behind to meet up with Merry. We waited for Jim in the little administration building where a cup of coffee costs $0.50 on the honor system and pilots sit around trading stories.

I wasn't sure we would ever see Jim again, but about a hour later he returned tired, hungry and very happy. As we got up to leave a snappy little biplane called a “Pitts Special” taxied up and posed for us. Then we headed off for a late lunch and the rest of Jim's tour of St. Louis.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chicken catcher

The hearing was already over when Karen, my hearing monitor asked, “How do they get them in the crate with four in one hand and three in the other?”

I didn't know and forgot to ask. I summoned his attorney, who asked his client.

“Well Judge, see, two of 'em work as a team. One opens the crate, the other stuffs the chickens in.”

It had been a long and difficult hearing for a fellow from deep in the Boot Heel of Missouri. He had worked sporadically at a lot of different agricultural labor jobs. His longest employment was four years full-time as a chicken catcher on a big poultry operation. I questioned him pretty carefully on how he did this job because I knew it to be very physically demanding. I wanted my vocational expert to understand it clearly. I wasn't entirely sure she was all that familiar with the poultry business.

Commercial chickens intended for meat are generally raised in long metal buildings that each hold hundreds of birds of the same age. When they are large enough to be processed someone has to go in, catch them, crate them and put the crates on a truck. That, in a nutshell, is what chicken catchers do.

This is about the smelliest, most dirty, dusty and hot work available. In many ways it is also one of the most brutal. Animal rights folks often describe commercial chicken farming as one of the most objectionable types of farm animal cruelty due in part to how chicken catching is done.

For my purposes, I had to find out exactly what sort of physical abilities are required to be a professional chicken catcher. Only in this way could I decide if the claimant could theoretically return to that work. So I took a deep breath and asked.

On the farm where the claimant worked he and another guy would herd the chickens against the walls or into a corner then grab them by their necks. He said he would get four at a time in his right hand then three more in his left before stuffing them in the crate. After four trips, the crate was jammed with 28 chickens. They would load that crate onto the truck and go back for more. Eight hours later the chickens were gone and they went home.

After he finished testifying about the other jobs he held, I asked the vocational expert if she needed me to ask any further questions about any of the jobs.

“Just about the chicken catcher job, Judge.”

“OK, what do you need to know?”

“He said he typically carried seven chickens at a time. I need to know how heavy the average chicken is. I'm thinking about 3 pounds.”

I immediately knew where she was going. If each chicken weighs 3 pounds, then 7 chickens weigh 21 pounds and the job would be classified as light work. If the chickens weigh more, then it's medium work. I knew that it was in fact heavy work because of the weight of crates full of chickens, but I had failed to ask those questions.

“OK, sir, how much do you think those chickens weighed on average?”

“I don't exactly know, Judge. I expect about 5 pounds.”

“That's about what I was thinking. Ms. Expert, how does that sound to you?”

“OK, I've got it. I guess I was thinking of the chickens without their hair.”

Everybody in court looked up suddenly. There was a split second of stunned silence before the claimant burst out laughing.

“I meant feathers!” the vocational expert sputtered, too late.

We all roared.