Engaged with the World

Category: Movies


Look what my favorite offspring gave me yesterday!

My favorite book is S. Morgenstern's The Princess Bride, good parts edition by William Goldman

“This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.” – William Goldman

I discovered the Princess Bride in its first edition when I was a teenager in the mid-1970’s. I loved it. LOVED IT. It remains one of my favorite books in all the world, and I have owned many copies and many editions of it. (My favorite back-cover blurb read simply: “What happens when the most beautiful woman in the world marries the most handsome prince in the world and he turns out to be a son of a bitch?”) I usually keep at least one extra copy on hand because this is a book I push on people.

They wave it away dismissively. “I’ve seen the movie,” they tell me. “But you haven’t READ it,” I insist as I make them take the book anyway. The book contains all the good parts and many good parts didn’t make it into the 1987 movie.

Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.

For years I refused to see the movie. I could not bear the thought of my beloved book ruined by Hollywood’s chop-shop attitude toward beloved books.

I need not have delayed. William Goldman was both the author and the screenwriter. William Goldman, who wrote such classic screenplays as Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid. Yes, THAT screenwriter. My beloved book was in the very best hands for the job. It was in the hands of the brilliant S. Morgenstern himself.

When the swordfight between the Spaniard and the Six-Fingered Count finally arrived on screen during that first reluctant viewing, I probably shouted with delight. Mandy Patinkin got it exactly right – exactly as I had pictured it in my head for all those years. “HELLO. MY NAME IS INIGO MONTOYA. YOU KILLED MY FATHER. PREPARE TO DIE.” And Patinkin delivered the ultimate line when Count Rugen promises Inigo anything – anything! – if Inigo will please not kill him, with perfect anger and finality: “I want my father back, you son of a bitch.”

Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max was spot-on. Goldman literally conceived of Fezzik as Andre the Giant. Very briefly after my divorce, I dated a guy who was a dead ringer for the non-hunchbacked, screen version of the Sicilian Vizzini. The relationship was doomed when he didn’t understand why I kept referring to his need for an immunity to iocane powder or why the word “inconceivable” seemed to slip into the conversation so much. I will admit that I thought Cary Elwes was a little too pretty and not quite muscle-bound enough to be Westley, but Chris Hemsworth was still in diapers. I will also confess that I own a CD of Mark Knopfler’s soundtrack to the movie.

As I flip through the beautiful pages of this edition, I see illustrations straight out of my reader’s memory. I reread favorite passages that I had memorized before I was old enough to drink alcohol legally. Some passages didn’t make it into the movie, like the very beginning of the book:

Chapter One. The Bride.

The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette. Annette worked in Paris for the Duke and Duchess de Guiche, and it did not escape the Duke’s notice that someone extraordinary was polishing the pewter. The Duke’s notice did not escape the notice of the Duchess either, who was not very beautiful and not very rich, but plenty smart. The Duchess set about studying Annette and shortly found her adversary’s tragic flaw.


Armed now, the Duchess set to work. The Palace de Guiche turned into a candy castle. Everywhere you looked, bonbons. There were piles of chocolate-covered mints in the drawing rooms, baskets of chocolate-covered nougats in the parlors.

Annette never had a chance. Inside a season, she went from delicate to whopping, and the Duke never glanced in her direction without sad bewilderment clouding his eyes. (Annette, it might be noted, seemed only cheerier throughout her enlargement. She eventually married the pastry chef and they both ate a lot until old age claimed them…).

Goldman brilliantly used the device of an editor inserting himself into the narrative to explain “cuts” in the “abridged version”. The movie changed that device somewhat and while Peter Falk still would have been the perfect immigrant father reading to his very ill son in the 1940’s, I deeply regretted the loss of the scenes in Los Angeles and New York, with that sick little boy all grown up and desperate to find a copy in English (not in the original Florinese) to give to his own son.

This is my favorite book in all the world, and I have read it countless times. I will read it countless more, I am sure.

Thank you, Jack! There’s a reason you’re my favorite.

West of Memphis and the West Memphis Three

Last week I went to the Market Street Cinema to see the free screening of West of Memphis, the newest offering among the documentaries about the West Memphis Three. (It’s offered again later this month for anyone interested, and will be back again later in the fall.)

West of Memphis, Sundance Film Festival, West Memphis Three

In the event that anyone reading this has lived under a rock for the last couple of decades and isn’t aware of the case, the West Memphis Three are Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. They were teenagers when they were convicted of the capital murder of three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas.

In 1993 and 1994, there was a media circus surrounding the arrests and the trials. The West Memphis police, ignorant and superstitious, claimed that Echols, who was a weird kid who dressed funny, liked magic, and listened to heavy metal music, was the leader of a Satanic cult that ritualistically killed the little boys. After a nine hour interrogation, the West Memphis Police coached a confession out of Misskelley, a mentally handicapped high school dropout. All three were convicted. Echols was sentenced to death; Misskelley and Baldwin were sentenced to life without parole.

After nearly two decades of legal wrangling, the WM3 were freed from prison about a year ago, when, rather than go through a new trial, they entered pleas pursuant to North Carolina v. Alford, pleading guilty but simultaneously declaring their innocence. It was a long road getting there – 18 years long. That’s half again as long as the Millennium Falcon’s Kessel Run. They took the whole 18 parsecs to get there.

Scott Ellington

Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ellington (source)

In the film, Prosecutor Scott Ellington repeated his assertion that, despite not having reviewed the evidence in the case, he believes the West Memphis Three are guilty. He was not the original prosecutor. That dubious honor went to John Fogelman and Brent Davis, a pair to whom I have no problem assigning contempt.

Likewise, the judge was not the one who had presided over the case for 18 years. Judge David Burnett repeatedly ruled against the defense at the pretrial, trial, and post-trial proceedings. Had he still been on the bench when this offer was extended, we cannot be assured of the same outcome.

A week before the murders happened, I hung out my shingle and opened my solo law practice. Even though I had been out of law school for five years, I felt like a neophyte when it came to actually practicing law. Oh, there are stories, some of which I’ve told and some of which I will never tell, about how I groped my way to a successful practice. But in 1993 I was uncertain and confused about the practice of law. And like most of the rest of the state, I was riveted by the unfolding case. By the time of the trials eight months later, I was appalled at the travesty of justice I saw. I felt completely impotent. I had no idea that I might have helped, and boy, I wanted to help. I had gotten into the business of law to help the underdogs of the world, and the West Memphis Three defendants were underdogs from the day they were conceived.

When the first appeals were being pursued, Arkansas’s Death Penalty Resource Center, a state agency that provided litigation support and appellate representation in death penalty cases, was defunded and disbanded. One of its attorneys, Al Schay, sublet office space from me. The day he trundled in the boxes that held the transcripts of the Echols-Baldwin trial, he said I could read them. I had read countless transcripts as a law clerk for an appellate judge, and was undaunted by the thousands of pages of testimony and exhibits. I sat on the floor of Al’s office after hours and I read. And read. And became enraged at the prosecutors and the judge who presided over the cases. The fact that those three young men were convicted of capital murder on such flimsy evidence was appalling.  What’s worse, I don’t remember a single motion that went in the defense’s favor – except one. That one favorable ruling was ultimately undermined by juror misconduct. The ruling should have prevented Jessie Miskelley’s coached confession from coming into evidence against his co-defendants. However, the jury foreman in the Baldwin-Echols trial made a special effort to ensure that the jurors were aware of it.

Courtroom Rotunda, Arkansas Justice Building

Courtroom Rotunda at the Arkansas Justice Building (source)

The day the Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the convictions, I realized that the court was nothing more than a calculating political beast. The majority reached its conclusion because that was the conclusion they felt they politically had to make. Three devil-worshipping teenagers had ritually murdered three little cub scouts. It was sensationalism that sold papers. It was sensationalism that provided job security even in the august halls of the Supreme Court, where I had been so proud to work not long before. It sickened me.

Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols should never have been convicted. They did not receive a fair trial. Did Jessie Miskelley? I don’t know. I’ve never read the transcript of his trial. My guess is that with the same people in positions of power, and the same facts, he did not. I know that Dan Stidham, Misskelley’s lawyer, believes he did not.

Dan Stidham

Dan Stidham, Legal Hero (source)

I met Dan Stidham at a seminar recently. For fifteen years, Dan Stidham was an active hero in the West Memphis Three case.  He was appointed to serve as Jessie Misskelley’s attorney at trial, and was the only attorney who stuck with his client after the trials, even to the point of preparing Jason Baldwin’s appellate paperwork when Jason had no lawyer. Stidham is now a circuit judge, but he was Jessie Misskelley’s lawyer throughout the trial and appellate process until 2008, when he assumed the bench. I told him that I wished I had reached out back in those days. I didn’t because I thought I had nothing to contribute. I realize now that I could have offered my time. I told him that when the trials were ongoing, I had wanted to do something – anything – because I saw what a miscarriage of justice was happening. He gave me a look that said, “Why didn’t you?” and I felt more impotent than ever. I regret not doing something back then, even though I didn’t think I was competent to do anything.

In the years between their convictions and their release, I was peripherally aware of the movement to free the West Memphis Three. I had seen the billboard in West Memphis with its tipline phone number. I read each court’s decision denying any relief at all to the convicted men. I never forgot them, but I believed their case was hopeless. A results-oriented judicial process was at work, one I knew intimately from the inside. It didn’t matter how the judges reached their decision, only that they reached the one most politically appropriate. They had constituents to answer to each election cycle. A case as notorious as the West Memphis Three had to be controlled with an iron fist.

I never saw Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills  or Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, the HBO documentaries about the West Memphis Three. I never read Devil’s Knot, investigative reporter Mara Leveritt’s book about the case. I had read news articles about the case, though, and read each judicial opinion at every level, both state and federal, as the fruitless appellate process lumbered on over the years.

Then, in the spring of 2011 I heard from Ken Swindle, an attorney in the northwest part of the state, whose contributions to a listserv for trial lawyers I had admired for several years. Would I sign a petition asking for a new trial for the West Memphis Three? I didn’t have to think about it. Hell, yes, I would! The West Memphis Three case exemplifies for me what is wrong with the criminal justice system on so many levels: cronyism among law enforcement officials and the State Crime Lab, results-oriented judicial decision-making, religious bigotry, a lack of critical thinking skills among the population at large (which make up our juries), prejudice, bad science, superstitious ignorance, the lack of resources available to all but the wealthiest criminal defendants, and the complete failure of standards of reasonable doubt and the assumption of innocence.

There’s no way I could ever practice criminal law. I would stroke out in very short order from the stress caused by the rampant injustice. The assembly-line attitudes I have encountered in family court and in juvenile court are bad enough without compounding it with the inequities of the adult criminal justice system.

But finally, the Arkansas Supreme Court did the right thing. Finally, it agreed that DNA evidence had to be considered in light of all the rest of the evidence – including evidence that at least four trial witnesses had recanted in the intervening years, and possibly including evidence that the Echols-Baldwin jury was tainted by the published confession they were never supposed to consider – and which the jury foreman made sure they did. And when the Arkansas Supreme Court sent the case back to the trial court this time, there was a new judge in town.

Judge David Laser acknowledged in open court that the release of the West Memphis Three pursuant to the Alford pleas wasn’t justice for anyone – not for the defendants, and not for the victims – because innocent men remained convicted, and were robbed by the State of nearly two decades of their lives.  The terms of the plea agreement allowed three victims of a miscarriage of justice to finally go free, albeit under the burden and stigma of probation. Judge Laser said,

I don’t think it will make the pain go away to the victim families. I don’t think it will make the pain go away to the defendant families. I don’t think it will take away a minute of the eighteen years that these three young men served in the Arkansas Department of Corrections.

West Memphis Three Press Conference

WM3 at the Press Conference After Their Release Hearing (source)

Since their release, I have seen the first two Paradise Lost documentaries as well as the third one, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which was being made just as the WM3 were freed. I have read Devil’s Knot. The thing is, it didn’t take any of these efforts to convince me that justice was not served. While they told me more than I knew before, I knew when I read the transcripts and looked at the evidence on the first appeal that the West Memphis Three were innocent. Not just “not guilty,” which can mean that they probably did it but the state didn’t prove the case, but innocent. 

And that leads us to the real question: who killed Chris Byers, Stevie Branch, and Michael Moore?

West Memphis Three Victims

West of Memphis left me with more questions than ever before. In December 2011, three new witnesses came forward with hearsay evidence that Terry Hobbs, Stevie Branch’s stepfather, has admitted guilt to members of his family. It’s my understanding that, despite his strong assertion that he would look into anything the defense brought him, Ellington has not done a single thing in the last nine months to look into those allegations. Hearsay is plenty good enough for investigators to launch investigations in much less serious crimes. If it is true that the “Hobbs Family Secret” is that Terry killed those boys, Arkansas is denying justice not only to the WM3, but to the victims and their families.

That having been said, West of Memphis did not show conclusive evidence of Terry Hobbs’s guilt. I don’t think it intended to. It raised serious, valid questions that need investigation, though. Someone killed those kids, and that someone has never done a single day’s worth of prison time for their murders.

Also disconcerting to me were David Jacoby’s on-camera statements and his willingness to allow recordings of his telephone conversations with Terry Hobbs about the night the boys disappeared. Jacoby is a friend of Terry Hobbs, and was with Hobbs for part of the evening and night when the families and police searched for the missing children.  He stopped short of saying outright that he wasn’t with Hobbs during the time Hobbs claims. Since he is Hobbs’ alibi, I wish Jacoby had been asked that tough question directly, and I wish he had given a straight answer. The implied answer is there, but the lawyer in me wants it airtight.

I don’t know if Terry Hobbs did it. I don’t know if there was someone else in those woods who killed the children. But “beyond a reasonable doubt” and “innocent until proven guilty” have to mean something. They just HAVE to. And despite two juries, and despite the affirmed decisions of the appellate courts, the West Memphis Three were not proven guilty.


As a postscript, my hat goes off to Ken Swindle, who didn’t stop working on the case when the West Memphis Three walked out of that courtroom last August. Ken has filed requests for disclosure of evidence under the Freedom of Information Act on behalf of two of the victims’ parents. The West Memphis Police Department maintains that the case is closed, so the information is fair game under FOIA. The problem is, they won’t deliver. The plaintiff parents, Pam Hobbs, ex-wife of Terry Hobbs and mother of Stevie Branch, and Mark Byers, adoptive father of Chris Byers, are both very outspoken supporters of the West Memphis Three. Today, Ken requested a hearing on the FOIA request, which has been resisted by both the West Memphis PD and Scott Ellington, the current prosecuting attorney.

You go, Ken. Call me if you want help.


Catapult. Yes, Catapult.

How “Star Wars” is Like Jesus


“My English Teacher is ruining Star Wars,” Jack moaned the other morning.

“What? How is that possible?” I was twirling my hair into Princess Leia rolls on either side of my head in the bathroom mirror.

“Archetypes. Only she says ‘arc-types.’ I think English class is nothing more than a conspiracy to ruin every good book ever written, and now it’s being extended to movies, too.” My 10th grade progeny was glum, very glum.

“Give me some examples of how Star Wars can be ruined just by talking about it,” I said reasonably. “I mean, we talk about Star Wars all the time and it’s never ruined it at all.”

“Yeah, but when we talk about it we don’t get the story wrong, and we don’t compare every character to Jesus.”

“Compare every character to Jesus!” I echoed. “I can see the similarity in Obi Wan…”

“No, Mom. According to a substitute teacher we had the other day, every character in Star Wars is like Jesus.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Really. She pointed out the ‘arc-type’ then she talked about it for awhile then she compared it to Jesus. I swear.”

“Fine. How is Han Solo like Jesus?” I demanded, imagining that roguish grin. I have always loved pirates. I have known pirates, and Jesus was no pirate.

“You know how when Luke is making the Death Star trench run? Han swoops in and saves him from evil, just like Jesus would do.”


“Darth Vader. Evil. The evil archetype. Han saves him, just like Jesus…”

“Oh. Ok. So, how is Darth Vader like Jesus?” I’m sending my kid to an Episcopal school so he can learn THIS? I thought. Mentally I shook myself.

“He dies to save Luke from the Emperor and from the Dark Side, just like Jesus died to save us from all of our sins.” Jack said the last part of that sentence in his best televangelist voice.

“Well, then, the Emperor. How is Palpatine like Jesus?”

“We’re just talking about Episode IV, A New Hope. Palpatine isn’t in that one. It’s Vader all the way.”

“He’s not?” I was surprised, and thought on it. “Who else is like Jesus?”

“Don’t even get me started on friggin’ Skywalker. Whiny bi…”

“Jack,” I cautioned him. “Don’t swear all the damn time.”

“Sorry.” Somehow he didn’t convince me.

“What archetype is Luke?” Aha, I thought to myself. Let’s see how much attention he’s paying in class.

“Luke is several archetypes. First, he’s the Hero. He’s The Young Man From the Provinces. The pupil in The Pupil-Mentor Relationship, the son in The Father-Son relationship”

“Wait a minute. Back up. The Young Man From the Provinces is an archetype?”

“I kid you not.”

“Why can’t you just say he’s the naive young person, or the initiate?”

“Oh, he’s also The Initiate.”

“What’s the difference?”

“The Young Man From the Provinces is the character who is taken away from home and raised by strangers, but returns triumphant to wrest the throne from the usurper. The Initiate is a young hero or heroine who has to go through training and ceremony, and usually wears white.”

“Hmmm. Both Luke and Leia wear white, although I think Leia is already initiated, seeing as how she’s already a Senator and all.”

“Yeah, but she’s also an Initiate, and she’s also in The Platonic Ideal, with, well, Guess Who.”

“Luke. Her brother.”

“But we don’t yet know they’re twins. It’s Mrs. Tyler jumping ahead again. We don’t know of any family relationship. And oddly enough, we’re reading Oedipus Rex in History.”

I laughed. “Jack, I am your mother.”

“Uh huh. And there’s an archetype relationship of Mentor and Pupil.”

“Luke and Obi Wan, as well as Vader and Obi Wan.”


“There’s The Devil Figure, or Jesus, if you will.”

“What? Jesus is the Devil? What is this?”

“Vader is the Devil figure, and as I explained earlier, Vader is also Jesus. Therefore, Jesus is the Devil.”

“I can see how Vader is maybe a Jesus figure once he appears after his death there at the end of Return of the Jedi, but how is he Jesus in A New Hope?”

“Oh, we’re talking at the end of Return of the Jedi. She totally ruined the movies for anyone who hasn’t seen it.”

“Someone hasn’t seen Star Wars? Inconceivable.”

“You’d be surprised. More than half my class has never seen the original trilogy.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. What other archetypes is Vader?”

“Well, in The Father-Son relationship archetype…”

“No! We had no idea about that relationship until the second movie! She really did ruin it.”

“She sure did. She said that Like Han, he’s The Apparently Evil Figure with an Ultimately Good Heart. Oh, and he’s also the wayward son in The Father-Son Relationship with Obi Wan Kenobi. And in a way, he’s The Scapegoat, because Emperor Palpatine is really the Evil One and Vader is just trying to please, or to save his love, or is hopeless until he finds hope in Luke, although Obi Wan is kind of a Scapegoat in that he lets Vader kill him so the others can get away.” Jack peered at me. “You do see the Jesus parallel there, don’t you?”

“Yes, I see.” I was taking it all in. My mind was racing.

“And Han is also the archetype of The Outcast, and he has the archetype of The Friendly Beast, Chewbacca, as his sidekick.”

“How is Chewie like Jesus?”

“He’s always willing to put himself in harm’s way for someone else he believes to be more important than he is.”

“That person being The Lovable Outcast.”

“Exactly. Which makes Han and Chewie the archetypal Hunting Group of Companions.”

“What, Like Beowulf and his men or something?”

“Yes. There are other Hunting Groups of Companions in Star Wars, too.”

“The Jawas. The Tusken Raiders.”

“Not the Tusken Raiders. They’re just the Evil Beasts. Grendels, if you want to use the Beowulf analogy. Luke, Leia, Han, the Droids, Chewie, and Obi Wan make a Hunting Group of Companions, too.”

“That makes sense. But how are they like Jesus?”

“Duh! The disciples!”

I grimaced. Dopey me.

“And then there are the Loyal Retainers.”

“Chewie again?”

“Sort of. Really, though, R2-D2 and C3PO are the Loyal Retainers, especially R2. He’s the one who summons help, and who always comes to the rescue.”

“And he’s like Jesus because…?”

“He summons help and ultimately comes to the rescue. Like Jesus summoned help and ultimately came to the rescue in the sense that he provided a path to everlasting life. Do I have to spell this out for you, Mom?”

“No, no. Pray, continue.”

Then there is the Archetype of the Creatures of Nightmare. The Evil Beasts. Those are the patrons at the Mos Eisley Cantina, or the Tusken Raiders.”

“Creatures of Nightmare? At the cantina?”

“Yeah. Because they’re so bizarre, surreal. And then there is the archetype of The Star-Crossed Lovers. Han and Leia, obviously, Like Jesus and Mary Magdalene. And Greedo did too shoot first.”

“Not in the original movie, he didn’t. In the remake, sure, but not in the first version of the movie.”

“Whatever. Leia is the archetype of The Damsel in Distress. She even wears the flowing robes and has the long, virginal hair, like the Virgin Mary.”

“Not like Jesus?”

He rolled his eyes. “She’s a girl, Mom.”

I cleared my throat. “Right. How silly of me.”

“And there’s the archetype of the soft-spoken, sensible Earth Mother.”

“Princess Leia Organa is no Earth Mother! Well, maybe with the long flowing hair in the third movie, in the scene in the Ewok village.”

“Not Leia. Beru.”

“Luke’s aunt?”

“Yes. And no, she’s not like Jesus.” His eyes and his tone warned me not to go there, despite my temptation to do so.

“There are symbolic archetypes, too,” he informed me.

I waited. Jack was on a roll. I knew he’d go on without my prodding.

“Light versus Dark, Heaven versus Hell, Life Versus Death. You see these in the struggle between Jedi and Sith, the Empire and the Rebellion, the serene light blue of Obi Wan’s lightsaber against the angry dark red of Darth Vader’s lightsaber, the lush natural form of Yavin 4 against the mechanized construct of the Death Star.”

I nodded.

“Then there’s the symbolic archetype of Innate Wisdom that doesn’t speak much contrasted with the Educated Stupidity of constant chatter: again, in R2-D2 and C3PO.”

“I can see that one.”

“And there is Supernatural Intervention. That’s another archetype.”

“The Force, you mean?”

No, The Force is the archetype of The Magic Weapon. Supernatural Intervention is when Luke is in the channel on the Death Star and he hears Obi wan tell him to use The Force, and he hits the target using the Magic Weapon rather than more conventional means.”

“So how is Luke like Jesus?”

“He saves the galaxy. I really do have to spell it all out for you, don’t I?”

“No, no.”

“I mean, Luke’s probably bigger than Jesus, who just saved one species on one planet.”

“Stop right there, kid. You have no idea of the flap John Lennon started with a similar statement.”

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run

It’s almost August in Arkansas. That means it’s hot and the air is so heavy and stands so still I can lift a chunk of it in one hand and cut it with a knife.

How can someone who hates hot weather keep cool? She gets creative. In addition to tall glasses of sweet iced tea, sun dresses, and air conditioning cranked so low you could hang meat from my ceiling, I decided to pull out an old favorite: a book about dog sledding that I read a few years ago. There’s nothing like the thought of the Iditarod to put ice in one’s blood, now is there?

This isn’t a book review, although if you want to read more about the serum run the book I read is an excellent choice.

Pull up your chairs and settle in. Let me tell you a story about what really, truly happened one long wintry night in Alaska – where winter nights last for months.

Map of the Serum Run, January 1925, from The Cruelest Miles

Map of the January 1925 Serum Run along the Iditarod Trail from The Cruelest Miles

Prior to reading The Cruelest Miles, a fabulous book by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury about the legendary inspiration for the annual Iditarod dog sled race, my own knowledge of the historic Serum Run was sparse. What little I knew came from modern-day  news reports of the Iditarod race, most of which I ignored, and my son’s old videotape of the animated feature, Balto, which I watched and listened to ad nauseum when he was a little guy. Although I suspected that the children’s movie had taken liberties with the facts, I was compelled to buy the book because of that movie as much as by the chance to read another vignette from American history. And yes, the movie did take generous liberties with the facts. Apparently, so did the creators of the statue of Balto that sits at the Children’s Zoo in Central Park in New York City.

The 674 mile trek was endured by brave Alaskan dog-sledders to stop the Nome diphtheria outbreak in the dead of winter, 1925. The Salisburys’ book is altogether readable and informative not only about the desperate race against the disease, but also about dog-sledding, Alaskan topography and climate, and the personalities and temperaments of the sled dogs themselves.  The characters who I most admired, though, were the score of determined men who accepted the challenge to risk their own lives to save a town full of dying children at the top of the world almost 100 years ago.

News reports of the day breathlessly followed the unfolding tragedy. As the men and dogs ran hundreds of miles in searing cold, suspense gripped the entire world. Reporters world-wide wrote about each leg of the desperate race to get the diphtheria anti-toxin to Nome in time to save the town. The book intersperses fascinating facts and asides which leave the reader hungry for more, but not impatient with the interruptions of the dramatic unfolding of events. The story has great flavor because of the fullness of its telling. As each team of dauntless dogs is hitched to their sled, the anti-toxin’s epic journey is punctuated with the unfolding crisis back in Nome.

When an Eskimo family brought one of their four children to him in the fall of 1925, Nome’s local doctor, Curtis Welch, did not immediately suspect diphtheria, nor did he realize that he was seeing an epidemic in its infancy. He believed at first that he was dealing with tonsillitis, which is an inflammation of the tonsils and throat caused by a virus or bacteria. None of the other children in the family were ill, and the parents reported no other instances of sore throats back in their village, which was close to Nome. Since diphtheria is highly contagious, it was unlikely that only one child would be affected, and in the decades he had been practicing medicine in Alaska’s northwest, no cases of diphtheria had been diagnosed – at all. But the Eskimo child died the next morning. Welch first concluded the cause of death to be from tonsillitis, which was rare. After the cases of diphtheria began making themselves known, though, Welch changed the child’s death certificate to reflect diphtheria as the cause of death.

That fall and winter, Welch noticed an unusually high frequency of tonsillitis and sore throats. On Christmas Eve, he saw a seven-year-old girl with a severely sore throat. Her Eskimo mother would not permit him to examine her fully without the child’s Norwegian father present, and the father had left the area on business. The little girl died four days later. This was now the second death from tonsillitis. Deaths from tonsillitis do occur, but even in the days before antibiotics they were extremely rare. When news came that four other native children had died after suffering from sore throats, Welch began to suspect that something was seriously amiss.

Diphtheria is an airborne bacteria that thrives in the moist membranes of the throat and nose and releases a powerful toxin that makes its victims tired and apathetic. In two to five days, other, more deadly symptoms would appear: a slight fever and red ulcers at the back of the throat and in the mouth. As the bacteria multiplied and more of the toxin was released, the ulcers thickened and expanded, forming a tough, crusty, almost leathery membrane made up of dead cells, blood clots, and dead skin. The membrane colonized ever larger portions of the mouth and the throat, until it had nowhere left to go and advanced down the windpipe, slowly suffocating the victim. [The Cruelest Miles, p. 36]

On January 20, a three year old boy from Nome, Billy Barnett, displayed the characteristic gray membrane of diphtheria. Dr. Welch was no longer just guessing. Since the diphtheria antitoxin his hospital had on hand had expired, and the fresh antitoxin he had ordered during the summer of 1924 did not arrive before the Bering Sea froze completely that fall, Dr. Welch had no choice but to watch the tiny boy die. Then the day after Billy Barnett’s death, an Eskimo girl with obvious diphtheria died.

Dr. Welch understood the significance of the problem. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, the native population had attempted to flee the disease and instead spread it further. If a panic occurred, the disease would not be limited just to Nome’s population of about 1500. Diphtheria is highly contagious and the bacteria was capable of living for weeks outside a human host. Panicked flight would guarantee the spread of the epidemic faster and farther. Containing it, especially during northwest Alaska’s brutal winter, would be impossible.

The town council met and was informed of the dire circumstances. Nome had been devastated by the flu pandemic six years before, losing more than half its population. Of 300 orphans created by the flu pandemic in all of Alaska, 90 of them were in Nome. The men were well aware of the seriousness of the situation.

The decision was made to quarantine the town and to prohibit any group gatherings. Children, the ones most likely to be affected by the disease, would not be permitted to leave their homes at all. Two urgent telegraphs were sent. One went to the US Public Health Service in Washington, DC. The other was an all-points bulletin for the entirety of Alaska.

Nome’s medical care team was quickly overwhelmed by sick children exhibiting the same symptoms. Not only was a deadly epidemic spreading rapidly through the town and neighboring villages, but Dr. Welch’s medical facility, the best in the region, was cut off from the rest of the world by pack ice and the harsh arctic winter. While this might be good inasmuch as a quarantine was concerned, no one would survive the epidemic to tell about it unless a delivery of antitoxin got to Nome fast.

Keep in mind, now: it’s the dead of winter two degrees below the arctic circle. The sea is frozen. There is no rail service within 700 miles of Nome. Even today there are no roads in or out of Nome, and in 1925 truck transport over such a distance, without roads, was completely out of the question.The only available airplane was a World War I model with an open cockpit – this was 1925 – which would have been almost certain suicide for the pilot in the dead of the North Alaskan winter.

The only way to get the serum to Nome was by dog sled, if serum could even be found.

To be continued…

Catholicism – WOW!

Jack, my 15 year old son, and I were watching Dogma the other day. You know, the Kevin Smith classic where George Carlin, as Cardinal Glick, rolls out a kinder, gentler Catholicism and its new front man, “Buddy Christ.” Naturally it made me think about other changes the Catholic Church has made recently. I initiated yet another theological conversation with my favorite Scion.

“Did you hear, Jack? Limbo’s gone.”

“What do you mean, gone? What happened to it?”

“The Vatican abolished it.”

“Abolished it? Just like that? How? I mean, I thought it was, like, dogma!”

“It says in this article that ‘Limbo has never been defined as church dogma and is not mentioned in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states simply that unbaptized infants are entrusted to God’s mercy.’ So I guess Limbo was just policy.”

“So how does the Church have the authority to abolish Limbo? That would seem to be under the jurisdiction of God to do.”

“Well, according to the articles I read, it seems that the Church was really just wrong about Limbo existing in the first place. It never really was there.”

“I thought the Church was infallible.”

“The Pope is infallible. The Church, well, like the Muse and the Apostle say here in Dogma, there was the silent consent to the slave trade, and the Church’s platform of non-involvement during the Holocaust. Protestants were condemned to Hell until the 1960’s when the Church made an exception to heresy. And there’s the whole usury thing, too. Mistakes have been made.”

“Other than the unbaptized babies, who was in Limbo?”

“Um, I think anyone who would have gone to Heaven but wasn’t baptized. You know, the people who qualified except for the technicalities. Pre-Christian Jews. Pagans. Good Buddhists.”

“Does that mean that if I live a good life and do right, but don’t go to Church or anything, that I still go to Heaven?”

I rolled my eyes. “The notion was that only those who didn’t get the chance to know about Christianity would go to Limbo. It wasn’t fair to send them to Hell since they didn’t know, but they can’t get to Heaven except through Christian beliefs. So you have to toe the line.”

“Okay, so, now that Limbo doesn’t exist, and apparently never did, what happened to the souls the Chruch thought were warehoused there?”

I checked the article I had seen on the internet. “Hmmm. I’m not sure, and evidently the Church isn’t, either. It says here that ‘the carefully worded document from the Vatican’s International Theological Commission stops short of certainty in this regard, arguing only that there are “serious theological and liturgical grounds for hope,” rather than “sure knowledge.”‘ That really doesn’t say much, now does it?”

“So what about all the souls in Limbo?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they can go to Heaven now. And the good news is that from now on there’s no waiting. Unbaptized babies who die can go straight to heaven.”

“Man, I bet the people who had to spend all that time there are pissed about that.”


“It’s like doing time. Paying dues. They had to do their time in Limbo with no hope of ever getting out, and now the new guys get to go straight to Heaven. They get a free ride, without the Guantanamo-like experience the old guys had.”


“Yeah. You know, those guys in Guantanamo have no idea when or if they’ll ever get out. So if we have another war and suddenly they are freed and the new POWs we get are repatriated without the wait as soon as the President announces ‘Mission Accomplished’ – and are designated POWs without the ‘enemy combatant’ BS – the Guantanamo guys will be pissed off.”

“I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms.”

“And Mom, what if the Church is wrong about this, too? They abolish Limbo but God still won’t let the innocents into Heaven since they weren’t baptized? I mean, what if the policy really isn’t changed and the Church didn’t get the right memo?”

“Well, son, I guess those souls will have to go somewhere. I just don’t know where.”

“You know, the government still has a lot of empty FEMA trailers… I bet souls don’t take up too much room.”

“How many souls do you think would fit in a single trailer?”

“I don’t know. Is it anything like how many angels fit on the head of a pin? I mean, they aren’t, like, substantial or anything.”

“Hmmm. And I suppose they won’t exactly eat a lot, either. Jack, I think you’re on to something.”

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