Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tommclaughlin@fairpoint.net

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What's In A Name?

Maine.” It’s the answer I give when traveling and people ask where I come from. If they know Maine, they ask “What part?”

Lovell,” I answer, then wait for signs of recognition that almost never come. “Near Fryeburg?” Some have heard of Fryeburg. “Near the New Hampshire border in the mountains,” I add.“Ah,” they respond and let it drop.

We don’t know for sure where the word “Maine” comes from, but “Lovell” and “Fryeburg” (where I teach) originate in conflict between English and French colonists and Indian tribes allied to each. Lovell is named for Captain John Lovewell of Dunstable, Massachusetts, who led a group of English colonists to what is now Fryeburg in 1725 to kill Pequawket Indians living there - in retaliation for their raids on Massachusetts towns. “Fryeburg” is named for Colonel Joseph Frye of Andover, Massachusetts. He was another militiaman who fought Indians, French colonists, and regular units of the French Army. One battle was in 1745 at Fortress Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, where I visited two weeks ago.It was one of only two walled cities on the continent of North America, the other being Quebec, and 20% of it has been rebuilt by the Canadian government. Begun in 1961, Fortress Louisbourg’s reconstruction is the meticulous result of extensive archaeological and historical research. Visitors are challenged by an armed sentry at Dauphin Gate, the landward entrance. He, like everyone else who works there, speaks in the character of an actual individual living there in 1744. All have extensive knowledge of life there, in that year, from his/her character’s point of view. Every building on the site is a full-scale model of the one it replaced in situ. It’s a very impressive national, historic park and I advise anyone visiting the area to take it in if you can. A tour takes at least a full day, and I could easily have spent a week.There are three operating restaurants - two lower-class and one upper-class - and advertise themselves as such. Being a lower-class person, I naturally visited my appropriate eating establishment although the only utensil we got was a large tablespoon - no knife and no fork. Only the upper-class restaurant supplied those. The menu is also from 1744 and I ordered French toast. My wife ordered vegetable soup and both were delicious.

Although Fortress Louisbourg rivaled Gibraltar in its heyday, it was taken by New England militiamen who, like Frye, were mostly from Massachusetts, of which Maine was then a part. Louisbourg was a threat militarily and economically. France was encouraging its Abenaki (of which tribe Fryeburg’s Pequawkets were a part) Indian allies to attack British colonists and they did so savagely - killing, carrying off captives, and taking scalps. Portland, Scarborough, York, Andover, Dunstable and Deerfield were all attacked. Settlers were reluctant to venture any further into the interior as a result. There were wider-world influences on these local events too: France and England were struggling for control of the North American continent, and the Reformation played a part also. France and its Indian allies were Roman Catholic while the British were protestant.

Control of the codfishing industry was the primary economic factor. I had little idea how lucrative that fishery was until my visit. Cod can be preserved by drying and salting more readily than other species and Louisbourg’s location was strategic as the northernmost ice-free harbor near the best fishing grounds. Many of Boston’s richest families made their fortunes in the cod fishery and were rivals with the French for its control. More than 70% of the European fish diet was cod - mostly because of the Catholic ban against eating meat on Fridays or during Lent.

Louisbourg guarded the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where France’s principal colonies were, as well as the primary cod-fishing grounds. So, Massachusetts colonists were doubly determined to take it. This was accomplished by attacking it from the landward side where it was weakest because the fortress was designed to prevent attack by sea.

Joseph Frye’s cousin Benjamin was shot and killed during the 1745 siege, one of about a hundred men lost. The French lost 53. Another 800 Massachusetts colonials died the following winter from sickness, however, and there’s a lonely mass grave further out on the point commemorating them. Their survivors were appalled when the British gave the fortress back to the French three years later. In 1758, Louisbourg was taken again by General James Wolfe, then totally destroyed.

Effects of the protracted struggle between France and England, played out here in western Maine and all of northeastern North America, are felt profoundly to this day. Indeed, it led directly to the American Revolution only twelve years after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 to end it. I’ve come to believe we don’t understand ourselves as Americans well enough unless we understand something about that conflict.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Glad To Be Back

Two burly Canadian border guards searched my truck. They told my wife and I to stand in front of the grille “for our safety” while they were pulling our stuff apart, and I watched them through my windshield. One found a box of bullets in my glove compartment and showed it to his partner. Then he came around to me and said, “Put your hands behind your head. Lace your fingers. Point your toes outward.” Then he patted me down, including my groin.

“Got anything sharp on you?” he asked.

“There’s a knife in my pocket,” I said, wondering what prompted them to put me through this. My wife stood by, wide-eyed.

“Have you got a gun in your truck?”

“No,” I said and explained that I usually kept a small .22 revolver to shoot porcupines when I checked the properties I take care of around Kezar Lake, and that’s why he found those .22 shorts. I didn’t mention that I usually have .38 and 9mm shells in there too, but I’d been practicing with those guns lately and used most of it up. I haven’t been able to find any more in the stores for the past few weeks. Since the election last November, people have been hoarding it, fearing Democrats will try to ban it again.

My problem started when I pulled up to the little booth at the border like everyone else to answer questions about why I was coming to Canada. A seemingly nice young woman asked if I had any alcohol. I told her we had some wine and beer in the back. She said we were over their limit on wine and instructed me to pull over so I could pay Canadian taxes on three bottles. I parked, went into the office with the wine, and noticed that all the young men and women were wearing bullet-proof vests and sidearms - even the ones punching computers. One entered data on my wine and told me I’d have to pay a $28-something tax. That was more than I’d payed for the wine back in New Hampshire! I decided to pay $9-something on one bottle and leave the other two to pick up on my return trip. Then he told me the two burly guys outside would have to search my truck “for my safety.”

Maybe the guards noticed the small, circular sticker on the back window of my truck cap saying “I’m a bitter gun owner and I vote.” The NRA had sent it and it mocks what President Obama said about people like me when he was campaigning in liberal Marin County, California. I don’t think those guards understood the nuance, however, and my wife believes that’s why they searched me. Oh well. Whatever the cause, it was an inauspicious beginning of our Canadian vacation.

We’d traveled to Canada several times, visiting Quebec City, Montreal, and Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick. Merchants seemed apologetic for high taxes on nearly everything, and repeatedly told us we could get refunds at the border if we saved our receipts. On this trip nobody told us that. Because they think Americans are getting accustomed to big government perhaps? In Nova Scotia, for instance, there’s a “Harmonized Sales Tax” or HST of 13% on all goods and services. However attitudes of people I talked to in Cape Breton were anything but harmonious when referring to their government.
One had been a fisherman with two boats and a crew of four who said the federal government told him he couldn’t fish for cod anymore and offered to buy back his licenses for $30,000. “I still have them,” he said, because they were worth far more than that, even if he couldn’t fish. “They’ll just give them to the Indians.” He ridiculed a policy that tried to protect seals, cod and lobster because seals ate up both the cod and the lobster, while local fishermen like him were restricted. Meanwhile, fish buyers purchased huge catches from large, foreign vessels fishing in the same waters.
The United States was born in revolution against an oppressive British government overtaxing Americans, restricting their trade, and trying to take their guns. Loyalists who supported those British policies moved to Canadian Maritime Provinces like Nova Scotia, so I expected to find descendants who didn’t mind government running their lives. Cape Breton Island didn’t meet that expectation. It’s dominated by descendants of Roman Catholic Highland Scots - a feisty, independent-minded strain of Celt, who seemed less than thrilled with their big, liberal, federal government. I saw a pro-life billboard near Mabou with a big hand and a little one reaching out for each other and the script: “Take my hand, not my life.” I liked Cape Breton.
Coming back across the border into Houlton, Maine last Saturday I retrieved my two bottles of wine from the Canadian guards, then drove a little further on where the the US border guard said, “Welcome home” and waved me through. I felt especially glad returning to a country ruled (so far) under a Constitution with a 1st and a 2nd Amendment.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Ready To Admit It Yet?


When I saw the election results last November I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad, this fast. Nobody I know did either, but here it is. Congressmen and senators are voting on legislation that spends trillions of our tax dollars - as well as our children’s and our grandchildren’s - without even reading it. If they’re not reading legislation, what the heck are they doing? Who writes the bills legislators don’t read? Staffers? Career civil servants? Who is in charge? Evidently, we’re being governed by nameless, faceless, socialist bureaucrats. Why isn’t the press exposing this? Are voters even aware? Will they reelect these “legislators” in 2010? Have we become a nation of wimps?

Reading a Canadian blog called Small Dead Animals the other day, I saw a link to the US Republican Party about just one of the many horrendous things Obama’s “Cap and Trade” bill would do:

The bill (H.R. 2454) requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to provide monthly cash payments, or “energy stamps”, to low-income households for their estimated “loss in their purchasing power” resulting from the Democrats’ national energy tax. The bill establishes a national standard of eligibility (covering everyone under 150% of the poverty line). Energy stamps would reach an estimated 65 million individuals (about 20 percent of all US residents) – making it a larger program than welfare, food stamps, or even Medicaid. (H.R. 2454, American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, Sec. 431, p. 1193)

While 65 million Americans will be thrilled, 200 million will pay another huge tax and get nothing back. Remember when President Obama promised to cut taxes for 95% of Americans? I knew that was a crock because about 40% of Americans didn’t even pay federal income taxes and many got checks instead under the “Earned Income Tax Credit.” How do you cut taxes on people who don’t pay any?

Newt Gingrich mocked the president in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last February, saying “Let me get this straight, we’re not going to raise taxes on anybody making under $250,000 a year, unless they use electricity, [or buy gasoline, heating oil, or natural gas].”

Our only hope is that the Senate won’t pass this “piece of sh--” legislation - as described by Republican Congressman John Boehner (He evidently read it). But then, with 60 Democrats along with our two liberal “Republican” senators from Maine, it probably will.

The most ludicrous thing is: reducing carbon emissions will not affect climate change. Climate has been changing for millions of years with no humans around to influence it - and it will continue to change no matter what we do or we don’t do. Obama, Pelosi and Reid are putting us all on a bus to La-La Land.

Now comes the Democrats' national health care bill. What will it cost? $1.5 trillion? $2 trillion? Where will we get that money when neither China nor any other country wants to lend us any more? Print it, I guess.
So how is all this spending affecting our economy so far? Are we feeling stimulated? Evidently not. Unemployment is rising much faster under President Obama. All this bold New-New Deal legislation is making things worse. Now, unbelievably, Democrats are calling for a second stimulus. About that, Investor’s Business Daily says: “This is a little like a medieval barber bleeding his patients to improve their health, then bleeding them again when they fail to improve.”

If you want to see what the future holds for America under liberal Democrat policies, look at states and cities where they’ve been in power for decades. Check out Detroit for instance. Said Gingrich about that sad city: “Let’s discuss the total failure of the Detroit political system - which has taken a city of 1.8 million, which had the highest per-capita income in the United States, and has driven it into the ground so that there are today fewer than 900,000 people living there with a per-capita income that is 62nd in the United States.” Then there’s California, with the 8th largest economy in the world - bankrupt, paying employees with IOUs banks refuse to accept, and watching entrepreneurs move out of state.

I’m noticing bumper stickers that are signs of the times: One says: “Don’t tell Obama what comes after a trillion” and the other asks: “Ready to admit Obama was a mistake?”

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Out of Touch Again

Barack Obama’s inauguration did not thrill me. Michael Jackson’s death did not cause me grief. Could this mean I’m out of touch with my fellow Americans? I’m feeling that way more and more lately, but it started when Elvis Presley died in August of 1977. I’d just moved to Maine and I noticed people were shook up. “The King is Dead” declared headlines in local media. “Hmm,” I thought. His music never did much for me and Elvis was considered a has-been where I’d come from in Massachusetts. Having known many who ruined their lives with drugs and/or alcohol, I looked at his death as simply another in a long line. Thirty years ago “The King” died, and last week “The King of Pop” met his maker.

I felt it again twenty years after Elvis’s demise when Princess Diana died. I looked at her death as just another traffic accident that killed someone I didn’t know, but people around me were profoundly affected. When I noticed a neighbor had been crying, I asked what was wrong. “I watched Princess Di’s funeral this morning,” she said, and I figured there was little I could do for her. I wrote a column about how alienated I felt while witnessing the prolonged, melodramatic hand-wringing of those around me. It wasn’t well received, and it’s likely this one won’t be either. Oh well.

When I saw images of Reverend Al Sharpton doing the bump and grind during a memorial service for Michael Jackson the other day, I had to turn away. This is the guy ran for president looking like a washed-out Elvis impersonator. According to a CBS New report: “[Sharpton] and Director Spike Lee urged the audience to revel in Jackson accomplishments and disregard what they characterized as negative news coverage of the star.”

Yes, ignore the bizarre surgeries, the evidence that Jackson was a transgendered child molester. He was a king. Although we crave a king or a princess to look up to, we can turn on him or her if we perceive flaws. The ancient Irish would only accept as a king or queen someone who was physically unblemished. Maybe it was easier to believe the king really was perfect if he looked that way. People wouldn’t perceive his peccadilloes when he posed in royal robes. But if he should lose a fingertip or scar himself, the illusion would melt away, he would be dumped, and a “perfect” leader put in his place.

About six years into his administration, Americans focused on George Bush’s blemishes and there were more than a few. Eight years in, his flaws were being magnified daily and people started believing that if we could only find the perfect king, our economy and everything else would be fine again. That was certainly true on the first Tuesday of November last year when we elected Barack Obama president. He posed as the rightful king who would put things right and 53% of us believed him.

Returning to my original question - am I out of touch with American culture? Yes - large swathes of it at least, and I don’t want to adapt myself either. That I’m “in it, but not of it” describes my position best, I think. I’ll never be part of the collective hand-wringing or keening that goes on around me when some iconic celebrity dies prematurely. I won’t join the starry-eyed, hero-worshiping throngs enthralled with the new king either. Am I cold? Unfeeling? I don’t think so. Instead, I’m thinking too many people around me are immature, easily manipulated, reluctant to grow up - and that segment of our population has temporarily become the majority.

Some portion of them, however, will mature when they realize their newly-elected perfect king cannot put everything right again, that it was childish to think he could, and that he’s making things vastly worse instead. It will be a heartbreak to face up to this, but recognizing it and dealing with disappointment forces us to grow up, right? That’s the hope and change I’m waiting for.

Though I try to avoid it, saturation coverage of Michael Jackson is all around me, and there’s still his funeral to deal with Friday. Guess it doesn’t matter that our economy is sinking fast in spite of the trillions we’re borrowing and printing to stimulate it, that Iran is in revolt against its Islamofascist terrorist government, that North Korea is trying to touch off another war, that the dollar is collapsing, that communist Cuba’s ally Venezuela is threatening militarily action in Honduras, that Congress is trying to deepen our bankruptcy with socialized medicine and an energy bill to fight a non-existent climate threat. None of that is as important as the death of a cultural/sexual/racial freak.

Yeah, I’m out of touch. It’s the only way to be these days.

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