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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Joe Hill, and the killing of an icon

There's a new book out next week - not by me - that comes the closest I've seen to figuring out what really happened in a century-old murder case that led to the execution by firing squad of Joe Hill, a Wobbly organizer and songwriter who became the face of radical American labor.

The book is The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon, by William M. Adler, who my Detroit friends might recognize as the author of Land of Opportunity, the story of the eastside Chambers brothers crack empire.

Hill, whose songs were largely parodies of contemporary pop music and religious hymns, was an agitator of the lyrical kind. Others wrote songs for the Industrial Workers of the World - the Wobblies - but none with as much wit, or drive. So when Hill turned up wounded in Salt Lake City on the same night a father and son were murdered in the family grocery store, Hill made a convenient suspect for the Salt Lake City police. It didn't help Hill's case that the Wobblies were actively organizing in Utah at the time, much to the consternation of the local business leaders and the local newspapers.

And drawing on a long-forgotten letter, Adler establishes to a point of near certainty that Hill was not guilty of the killings, that he had been shot by a rival for a woman's affections (it's her letter Adler found) unrelated to the grocery store case, and that Hill had been railroaded by a local power structure blinded by his radicalism and intent on stomping out the Wobblies. The New York Times this morning has a nice overview of the book and Adler's findings.

Incidentally, Hill's story overlaps with that of the Colorado coal field war and the Ludlow Massacre, the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. The grocery-store killings occurred in January 1914; the Ludlow Massacre came that April; Hill was executed in November 1915. While Hill's trial and the coal field war were separate events, they both occurred against a backdrop of significant class frictions, upheaval, and a rich-poor gap that rivaled conditions today.

I encourage you all to pick up The Man Who Never Died. Even if you're not that interested in the history of radical Americans like Hill and the Wobblies, Adler has done a fine job of finding the human story behind a complex set of details, and lays them out in a highly readable narrative. It is a story of injustice, but also about an odd sense of chivalry, and Hill's eventually fatal desire to keep his lover's name out of the public eye.

Ultimately, it turns out Hill likely was executed by a Utah firing squad because he put too much faith in the American court system's ability to discern truth, and justice. Maybe now the truth has won out. But it's far too late for justice to have been served.

Embedded here is a contemporary cover of one of Hill's best-known songs.

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The Blue Hole: Scuba diving on the High Plains

Kids diving into the Blue Hole as divers begin a lesson. Photo/Scott Martelle
Well, I went 0-2 on selling travel stories this summer, and as with the Chautauqua Institution piece, I'd rather share this story here than have it fade away on my laptop. An outlet that was interested before I left on the trip was less so after a mid-summer budget adjustment, and I couldn't raise interest in it elsewhere. Not sure if that says something about journalism budgets these days, or my choices of travel destinations.

By Scott Martelle

SANTA ROSA, N.M – For a few minutes, I thought my friend had lied to me. Or at least maybe stretched the truth a bit. I had risen before dawn to catch the early light at a place called the Blue Hole, an artesian-fed pond out here in the middle of the high plains that, my friend insisted, was the most popular scuba-diving spot between the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

It was the anomaly that drew me: Scuba diving in arid eastern New Mexico, where annual rainfall barely breaks into double digits, the temperature often hits triple digits, and the horizon is as bleak and unbroken as an ocean.

So a few minutes after 6 a.m., hoping to take some pictures in the soft morning light, I pulled up to the park gate just a few blocks from old Route 66, Santa Rosa’s main street and lingering claim to fame. The gate was locked; Not a good sign. I tooled around town for a few minutes – in truth, that’s all you need to see the whole place – took some photos of a cemetery, cooled my heels back at the hotel then returned a little after 7 to find the gate wide open. A single motor home had backed up to a shaded picnic table on the far side of the dirt parking lot from the Blue Hole, and a couple of other people were walking their dogs.

Nary a diver in sight. I should have figured divers in a desert was too good to be true, even though my friend, M.E. Sprengelmeyer, owner of the Guadalupe County Communicator weekly newspaper, had promised me it was so. I parked and waited, the car door flung wide to catch a scant breeze as I entertained evil thoughts about my friend and his tales of the Blue Hole scuba divers. I finally gave up around 8 a.m., and as I drove toward the gate, I glanced at the motor home and there, hanging from the rafters of the picnic shelter, were two wetsuits swaying in the morning breeze. Nearby, Doug and Crystal Lang were going through their safety check ahead of their morning dive.

Ah, I thought, Sprengelmeyer doesn’t lie.

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Mountain flowers, and a few other plants

Finally loaded up some curated photos of wildflowers I took during our three week trip up and down the West Coast. The route was up the Big Sur, through the Humboldt redwoods, into Portland, Ore., then Seattle; cruise ship up the Inside Passage as far as Skagway; back to Seattle then to Mt. Saint Helens, through the Columbia River Gorge to Kennewick, Wash., then meandered south to Crater Lake, Mt. Shasta and Lassen Peak, then the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada through Death Valley to Vegas, and on home.

Next installment: Whale photos. Enjoy.

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Hiroshima aftermath; there are no words

Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb (3 of 5) by Harbert F Austin Jr in Japan

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On Chautauqua, and a travel story not taken

Alan Alda (right) in conversation with Roger Rosenblatt at Chautauqua's Amphitheater.
Last summer, during an extended driving trip to New York and researching my Detroit book, I stopped by Chautauqua Institution for a day with plans to write a travel piece. The outlet that was interested in it then wasn't so interested this summer (getting a little tired of this "non"-recession), and I haven't been able to find another taker for it. Rather than watch it molder, I'm posting it here. Hope you all enjoy it (photos are mine, too, for better or worse).

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. – It was late on a chilly June morning and all of ancient Palestine lay at my feet – with a white-striped chipmunk scurrying Godzilla-like over the hills just east of the Dead Sea, and Alan Alda’s voice echoing faintly in the distance. But they were mere distractions from the task at hand: Finding the musician’s practice shed in which George Gershwin finished one of his signature compositions.

The juxtapositions can get confusing here at the Chautauqua Institution, which began in 1874 as a lakeside summer training camp for Methodist Sunday school teachers and has evolved into one of the nation’s most enduring enclaves of arts, faith, and the genteel embrace of popular culture.

If Las Vegas is an adult Disneyland, then Chautauqua Institution is an adult summer school. In a good way, not in a “if you had studied algebra better you wouldn’t have to make up this class” kind of way. Hundreds of thousands of people over the years have traveled here to the southwest corner of New York State to sit, read, listen and think.

This also is a place of history, from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “I hate war” speech delivered in 1936 (Ulysses S. Grant was the first of four sitting presidents to visit, in 1875), to Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” which he finished 86 years ago in
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Nature, and the nature of a glacier

We returned yesterday from our three-week trip that included a weeklong cruise along Alaska's Inside Passage. The boys hadn't burned down the house in our absence, only two plants on the patio were dead (truth be told, they were fading anyway), and the stacked up mail only contained three bills.

Not bad.

But apparently we missed the action in Alaska. Jerry Pohlen, my editor at Chicago Review Press, sent me a link to an article that included this Youtube video. We were in Tracy Arm, but not anywhere near this close to the Sawyer Glacier.

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