The Acts of the Apostles

In light of the recent kerfuffle on the Right by the Pope Francis’ “radical” statements on the distribution of wealth, I thought I’d post something I wrote this past summer (without the help of the Pope, so pardon my lack of proper theological/teleological/and/or exegetical terminology).

July 19, 2013
The Acts of the Apostles

The Early Church

The Early Church

One thing I’ve struggled with over the years is what I see as the contradiction of Conservative Christians between their theology and their economics, or maybe more to the point, their absolute hatred and revulsion for any practice they see as socialistic, or even leaning slightly toward socialism, or even sounding like it might begin to lean toward it. In the minds of many Americans, it seems socialism has become the number one threat to both Christianity and the nation. Obama’s election has brought an even sharper focus to the hated S-word. I’ve pretty much let it be because 1. I figured it to be an election ploy to rile up the ignorant, and 2. I didn’t think I had much Biblical ammunition on my side of the argument.

While it’s true I haven’t been much of a Bible reader in my adult years, for the past couple of nights before bed I have been reading my King James version of the Acts of the Apostles, and have found some pretty interesting passages.

In what must have been the utterly amazing, confusing, exhilarating time after the ascension of Jesus into heaven, the Disciples found themselves reaching a population first of Jews, then Gentiles, who were very open to the idea that the Jesus they (the Jews) had killed, might in fact have been The Messiah. At first in Jewish circles, the Christian Church began to grow, and grow so fast that the original 12 disciples found they could no longer manage the day-to-day operations. They asked the newly-formed congregations of Christians to nominate the equivalent of a group of middle management types so that they could continue in their roles as CEOs (Chapter 6:2-6). Upon doing so, “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples (that’s small ‘d’ disciples) multiplied in Jerusalem greatly….” (verse 7)

And what does Acts tell us of how these churches organized themselves? Chapter 2: 44-47: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”

Whoa! I don’t think there’s any other way to interpret this passage than to infer that the earliest Christians (living, lest we forget, in the epicenter of the, if not capitalistic by name at that time, at least materialistic world of the Roman Empire) chose – gasp! – a type of socialism as the best way to exemplify how God wanted them to live together on earth.

In Chapter 3, Peter and John enter the Temple and encounter the lame man asking for alms. Peter’s reply (verse 6), “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” Apparently Peter just wasn’t managing his mutual funds well. (What would T.D. Jakes say?)

Chapter 4 reaffirms the lifestyle (verse 32): “And the multitude of them (the early Church members) that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common…. (verses 34 and 35) Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

Verses 36 and 37, the last two verses of Chapter 4, appear to be laying a foundation for the first verses of the next chapter: “And Joses, … Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” It seems clear that the selling of all private possessions and the pooling of the resulting collective funds is the clear expectation in the Christian community.

Now a big moment. In Chapter 5, the communistic lifestyle of the early Church seems to be confirmed from on High. Ananias and his wife Sapphira, in the manner expected, sold off “a possession” BUT (verses 2-6) “kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and bought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? And after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? Why has thou conceived this thing in thine heart? Thou has not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.”

And of course, just a few verses later, wife Sapphira gets the same treatment. Holy Crap!

Now when I was little, the story of Ananias and Sapphira was told to me as a lesson in lying, the less-than-subtle message being that you’ll be struck down just like they were if, for instance, you were to say you weren’t in fact swimming in Swatara Creek when your soaked jeans and Keds told a different story.

And that may in fact be the main message. But look what they were lying about. Would God (through His instrument Peter) have struck them down if they had lied about swimming in the creek? We’ll never know (although I can confirm that I was not struck down*), but I’ll hazard a guess that what they were lying about was something of vital importance to the early Church community in the eyes of God. And that something was the fact that they had tried to hold out some money on the side for themselves, apart from the body of believers. This was apparently a big enough no-no to deserve the death penalty.

Okay. So there seems to be Biblical evidence in support of socialism. I believe there is also Biblical evidence in support of capitalism (the parable of the ten talents? and maybe others? I’m sketchy here). My point being, not that, AHA! See? God was a Communist!! I’m just trying to blunt the Christian Right in their blind hatred of all things Socialist, as they wave the Book they themselves hold as the only source of all Truth. It doesn’t appear to me that God takes real sides on the issue, or if He/She does, if anything the scales might tip in favor of socialism.

With the evidence of early Church socialism so apparent, this leads to another problem of today’s Christian Right: they either have to 1. ignore these passages completely, 2. write them off as being representative only of their times, or 3. find some way to re-interpret them. The first two of these responses fly directly in the face of their own stated philosophy of the importance, inerrancy and unchanging nature of every word of the Scriptures, and as for Option 3, the clarity of the passage (even in the stilted language of the KJV) rules it out. Option 1, then, is their most viable… and I’m guessing you won’t hear T.D. Jakes preaching on these passages in Acts**.

Which leads me to conclude that either 1. In most cases the loudest screamers against the evils of socialism are ignorant of the very Bible they tout as God’s Word, or 2. they lie, by either omission or commission, in which case, they need to re-read the story of Ananias and Sapphira.


**Google search turned up nothing

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“Phone Calls From White House To Jack Ruby”

“Phone Calls From White House to Jack Ruby”

Jack Ruby

It’s November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Like the majority of Americans, for a variety of reasons I feel there was more than one gunman, thus a conspiracy, thus a President was overthrown and the American people fifty years later don’t know who did it or why they did it. Important questions in a democracy. Am I positive of conspiracy? No.
The past fifty years have shown us a large number of conspiracy theories that are simply ridiculous: John Connally was the actual killer, the limo driver was the killer, umbrella man’s umbrella was actually a gun that shot a poison dart, etc. etc. Keeping legitimate and rational questions from turning to the irrational is a difficult thing in a nation of hundreds of millions.

Here’s my brush with irrational conspiracy theory.
In November, 1994 I was the faculty chaperone to a group of Downers Grove North High School students attending the CloseUp program in Washington, D.C. As the students were involved with the program almost every day all day, I had a significant amount of free time to roam the city. It was great. I toted my video camera along and did a running documentary of my visit. I visited the Vietnam Wall, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, Union Station, Arlington Cemetery, rode the little train underneath the Capitol, Ford’s Theater, snuck the camera into the Library of Congress (it was a different age)… and visited the Assassination Archives and Research Center (AARC).
My department chair recommended the AARC. He said it was a must-see, and it sounded quirky, so I added it to my list. I called the center a day or two before I went and asked if it would be okay if I brought my video camera. I spoke with the director, Jim Lesar, who assured me that that would be fine. On the spur of the moment I asked him if I could interview him on camera and he agreed. This could be interesting.

Jim Lesar

Jim Lesar

There was no internet to speak of in 1994, but if there had been, here is the AARC self-description (from their “About” page today): “As a result of two FOIA lawsuits pending at the time this law was enacted, the member of the AARC Board of Directors who brought the suits was able to force the CIA and the FBI to reprocess under the terms of the JFK Act approximately 750,000 pages of JFK assassination records that these two agencies had made available to the House Select Committee on Assassinations….The AARC’s holdings comprise the most extensive collection of records on the JFK assassination in private hands. It has approximately 1,500 books on assassinations, organized crime, covert activities, and a wide variety of other subjects relevant to the study of assassinations and related topics. Its “main files” consist of newspaper and magazine articles, unpublished manuscripts, trial transcripts, photographs, tapes, notes, letters and other materials which fill some 36 four-drawer file cabinets.”
While just a few blocks from Ford’s Theater, the AARC was in quite a seedy part of town. I found myself standing in front of a rather run-down looking ten story-ish office building, rather narrow, and entered, walking toward the back of the building down a narrow, dirty hallway. My expectations were dwindling. There was a very old elevator, the kind with the accordion gate, still manned by an actual elevator operator. I stepped in and said “Sixth Floor” (yes, I see the connection). With a lurch and a hum, we were on our way.
Stepping out into an even narrower hallway I turned to my right and was facing a door, sign reading “Assassination Archives and Research Center”. Somehow I couldn’t picture scholars trooping to find this place. I rang the bell, and Jim Lesar answered it. He was a rumpled, gray man wearing a droopy sweater. He looked like he didn’t get out much. He looked very tired, but he was pleasant.
Immediately upon entering one couldn’t help but notice the floor to ceiling stacks of cardboard file boxes lining the left side of what was a fairly long hallway – at least ten high and twice that long. Jim explained that these were over a half million pages of documents just received as a result of a Freedom of Information suit.
He took me out of the hallway and into what was a suite of connected rooms, perhaps at one time an old high-ceilinged apartment. The first room was his office. I think there must have been a desk, but you couldn’t see it for the papers and books stacked everywhere. I had an immediate sense of disorganization, if not chaos. This is an archive??
I had my video camera running as Jim began the tour. The next room was the library, a relatively small room with library-style floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Jim said they have every book they knew of on the topic of assassination, not limited to Kennedy or the Kennedy brothers.
Jim continued the interview as we went into the next room. It was larger and its walls were lined with filing cabinets. There was an additional cluster of filing cabinets backed up to one another in the center of the room.
Just as he was beginning to continue the interview, the phone rang in the office and Jim excused himself, telling me to feel free to look around. I could hear his voice coming from the office, two rooms away as I began to nose around. I found a large Styrofoam-backed chart propped against one of the filing cabinets. It was a matrix chart, maybe 4’x3′ containing the names of every conceivable person who had anything to do with November 22 and there were lines drawn wherever any person was connected to another person in any way. It was amazingly complex and I spent several minutes looking at it before continuing to wander. I remember pulling open a few filing cabinets and staring in wonder at not only the number of but the detailed titles of the folders, none of which I can remember today.
But then I found something I’ll never forget. For some reason (and in the maze of random papers lying around this place, I have no idea why) my eye was drawn to a sheaf of loose papers lying just above my eyeline on top of one of the filing cabinets (yes, I’m short). They were hanging over the edge a bit. As a random act I pulled the sheaf down, making certain to keep the papers in order, and here is what I read as the title to the top paper:
“Phone Calls From White House to Jack Ruby – September 15-November 22, 1963”
As my mind was wrapping itself around this title, my eye moved down the paper. It was a typed list of over twenty telephone calls from the White House to Jack Ruby. Each call was dated, with the phone number of the White House, the length of the call and another number I assume to have been Ruby’s in Dallas.
Very quickly, the importance of what I was seeing hit me and I remember my first thought being, “Whoa! Now WHO is calling Jack Ruby twenty times from the White House before November 22?!!!” That’s one call on average every three days. From the White House. To Jack Ruby. (This would be the time for me to iterate that while I was in fact a believer that there had been a conspiracy to kill the president, I could just as easily have been a lone-assassin convert, given good reason to believe so.)
Suddenly I got the creeps as thoughts began racing through my mind. Holy Crap! What WAS this document? Could it be real? If it was, the import was huge. How could it not have become public? I quickly turned on my video camera and held the papers at arms’ length, hoping the camera would focus in on the paper. I did a very quick video “review” of the thoughts that were racing through my mind, and as I was taping I heard Jim hang up in the other room.
I was spooked. Of course I shouldn’t have been, but I was. I quickly shut the camera off. I didn’t want Jim to catch me with this document. My instant reaction was that I was holding in my hand the single hottest piece of evidence of the entire assassination conspiracy and if anybody knew I’d found it I was going to be killed. Yes, I know in hindsight that’s ridiculous. Yes, I’m sure the document couldn’t have been real. (Could it??) I quickly put the papers back on top of the filing cabinet and turned to meet Jim as he came back in the room.
Of course the thing to do was to ask Jim about it, right? And I will kick myself forever for not doing that, but I was so spooked at the moment that my brain wasn’t working right, and Jim and I continued our little video interview where we had left off, an interview I now had absolutely no interest in. We finished, I said my thanks, and left.
I offer no rational explanation for my actions. I was excited by the knowledge that I had a really cool piece of video to show my students back at DGN. I of course told Lois about it and showed the video to my students, but it wasn’t until two months later, when the thing kept nagging at me, that I finally called the AARC and spoke to Jim. I was quite certain that the fact that time had passed would be insignificant – nothing in that place seemed to have moved in years, so all I had to do was tell him where the document was and he would retrieve it, explain what it was (or be amazed at what it was), and that would be that.
So I explained to him who I was – did he remember the teacher who interviewed him back in November, etc. etc. Yes, he did.
“Well, I found this document when I was there that I simply can’t find an explanation for and I’m wondering if you’d help me.”
“Of course, if I can.”
And here’s the frustrating ending to this story. Jim had no knowledge of the document. When I told him I could tell him exactly which file cabinet to find it on, he said, “I’m sorry, but last month they came in and painted the entire interior of the complex and everything has been moved. I wouldn’t know where to begin to look.”

I’ve arrived at a couple of theories as to what this document, if real, could have been. I’d be very interested in hearing yours.

I have the video tape. It moves in and out of focus at my arm’s length, but you can read the title and some of the dates and perhaps even make out the telephone numbers. I really need to get it transferred over to dvd, and if I had the money, I’d get it digitally enhanced. Until then…

anybody for a trip to Washington, D.C.?

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Anger Management

July, 2013

Last month, Lois, Anna and I took a 6000-mile car-camping trip through the western U.S. It was terrific. We drove across the Rockies, the Great American Desert, the Sierras, the Pacific Coast Highway, saw San Francisco and L.A., visited Dinosaur National Monument, Yosemite, Muir Woods, and saw a lifetime worth of small things that make lasting memories.
It was in the Visitor’s Center at Yosemite Village, and again on a boat tour of San Francisco Bay that I was reminded of something that used to bother me as a teacher. At Yosemite, it was a written history of the Indians who used to live in the valley, displayed nicely with pictures in a walk-through gallery. Think about it. These Indians lived for hundreds of years in the closest place possible to the Garden of Eden, and then they were suddenly expelled from the valley by a vigilante brute squad. Most died.
Yet somehow the National Parks version of this story managed to be so saccharin, so matter-of-fact, that you could stand there in the gallery and watch visitors file past, read (maybe) this horror story without understanding any of the horror, nod and move on to the next panel to read about the redwoods’ root structure. All the same.
On the San Francisco Bay tour, we were given headphones and a little transmitter which you tune to the language of your choice. The tour is so down-to-the-minute that the headphone tapes were on perfect cue at every part of the trip. This time it was the headphone narrator’s voice that was saccharin. Female, young, perky. As we glided past Angel Island, the hundred or so passengers on the boat listened to another horror story: the internment, sometimes for up to a year, of Chinese immigrants on Angel Island, for no other reason than their race. It was selective and random, like Jews being herded off the box cars, some to the left, some to the right. And yet, the voice telling the story in our ears was so non-committal, so “unbiased”, a story told in the same tone we heard describing the vast array of sea life in the bay and the number of bolts in the Golden Gate Bridge, that as I looked around the deck at all the people hearing the same thing I was hearing, I saw not a single expression of anger or dismay. It was just an inevitable fact, you see. What could have been done? Shit happens and it happened a long time ago (that would be before yesterday), so… whaddya gonna do?
I used to have my students read a short passage from their textbook (booorring!) about slavery or Native Americans. I hated that textbook as much as they did, but they would dutifully pull these 20-pound behemoths out of their book bags, drag them up onto the desk, and begin reading obediently.
I’d give them a few minutes and then ask for volunteers to answer this question: “How did reading about the treatment of these people make you feel?” Silence, of course, because in fact, it hadn’t made them feel anything. It was a history textbook – how could you possibly feel anything? Eventually I’d be able to coax something like this from a semi-reluctant sophomore: “I guess it makes me feel kind of sad.” Which might have been true, but was more likely the answer they thought I was looking for, and SOMEbody had to take a leadership role so we can get Mr. Graham off this stupid and vaguely uncomfortable topic.
Except that wasn’t the answer I was looking for. Not once in the years I asked that question did one student EVER say, “It makes me mad!”
But it’s the answer I always hoped for. What happened to slaves/Native Americans/union organizers/Jim Crow blacks/etc. in my country makes me MAD! What happened to Rosa Parks makes me MAD! What happened to Chief Blackhawk makes me MAD!! The use of chains and whips on millions of unnamed Americans makes me MAD!!! Not just “kind of sad”.
“Sad” is easy. It doesn’t require action. It’s retroactive. There’s nothing that can be done about what happened. “How… sad.” This is indicative of exactly what is wrong with U.S. History textbooks. They exude that formal “historical” sense that history happened exactly according to one script and that there could not have possibly been any other outcome. Same as that Yosemite placard. Same as that perky voice in San Francisco harbor. No action taken by anyone could possibly have changed the course of history. (This is especially comforting when your race or nation comes out on top every time.) And so we check our souls out from under any responsibility with a, “Gee, it’s sad, but I guess nothing could have been done. Awwwwww. (Now how soon can I check my texts to see what my friends are doing after school?)”
But “MAD” is an entirely different thing. It requires us to do something. It means we understand that things COULD maybe have been different. It makes us wonder what it would have taken for those things TO be different. It makes us understand that maybe WE have some kind of civic and moral obligation to face up to and take action on yesterday’s issues, when perhaps our forebears didn’t.
The Civil Rights Movement is a glorious exception to the rule. It’s a sterling example of a people rising up in moral indignation – righteous anger if you will –  to right a massive wrong. But sixty years after the fact, even it is now succumbing to the same kind of bland, “unbiased” treatment in the history books. After all, what Rosa Parks did was inevitable, wasn’t it? It had to happen – otherwise the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t have started, right? And the further away in time we get from these events, the more they become just another dull chapter in the history textbook. So a chapter of our history that should excite us down to the heart of our hearts, instead evokes the response, “I guess it makes me kind of glad.”
All the passion is removed. All the humanity. J.K. Rowling’s brilliant character, Mrs. Umbrage, the head of the Ministry of Education in the Harry Potter series, is the embodiment of this movement. Mrs. Umbrage would love “It makes me feel kind of sad.” Rowling’s point, I believe, in creating this character was to show that there are great forces of evil masquerading as human, in very high places, and what they want more than anything is the extinction of all emotion outside of a very narrow range, because passion is the essence of humanity, and human, truly human, is the last thing the forces of evil want people to be. I think Rowling and C.S. Lewis were very much on the same page on this, as are intellectuals who oppose the “politically correct” movement.

There’s a lot to be “mad” about in history. Let’s not be afraid to let ourselves be human in the fullest meaning of the word.

“Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike.”

– J.K. Rowling

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November 14, 2013


A friend posted this on Facebook. It’s a sweet little travel article dealing with the problem of expectations. It poses the hypothesis that if we travel with “no expectations”, especially when we travel to places widely felt to be “dull”, we will often be surprised by joyful little discoveries. So, be open-minded and make the most of your travel destination, wherever it might be. Sounds good.
So guess which state they feature not only in their opening visual, but all through the article, as apparently the worst-possible travel destination: Nebraska.
Ohhh, NeBRASka. Ha ha ha. Of COURSE. How many people have I spoken with over the decades who moan about how long it seems to take to drive across the endless expanse of that wasteland. “Thank GOD we FLEW to Denver.” Etc. etc. etc.
This may seem like a change of subject, but let me just say that we don’t allow Anna to use the word “boring” in our home. Being bored is a decision, not a fait accompli. And in the case of Nebraska, every time I hear someone say how booooring it is, I think they’re advertising their ignorance. Here’s why.

With a cabin in Colorado, we travel back and forth across Nebraska by car sometimes up to three times a year, and I’ve made the trip for more than forty years now.

Nebraska Road Map

Nebraska Road Map (click twice on this map for larger version)

In the early 1980s, well before I began my career as a history teacher, for whatever reason I became intrigued with the Oregon Trail (well before the video game).


I was fascinated primarily by what motivated American men (the primary decision-makers of that era) to be so dissatisfied with their existing life that they would risk their lives and the lives of their families to leave all behind and travel the better part of 1500 miles for three months in a covered wagon across desolate and dangerous terrain to get to a place they at best had heard about from a travel brochure. After a lot of reading on the subject, I’m still not sure I know.

I was equally intrigued by the journey itself, and found myself joining the fledgling Oregon-California Trails Association, and reading Oregon Trail journals (there are many of them – these pioneers had the time to write, and they were recording the greatest adventure of their lives).

Main route of the Oregon Trail through Nebraska

Main route of the Oregon Trail through Nebraska

The best book on the subject (at least at the time) was The Oregon Trail Revisited, by Gregory Franzwa, probably THE best OT (Oregon Trail) historian at the time. I fell in love with this book, as it told the history of the trail in the first part of the book (back to the first mountain men to learn from the Natives that there was a way to get across the Rockies without climbing the Rockies, to Marcus and Narcissus Whitman, and so on) and in the second part laid out state-by-state, county-by-county, and turn-by-turn directions of how to find the trail today. I was hooked. This book led me to read other books about our great westward migration. I would single out Bernard DeVoto’s fabulous, Across the Wide Missouri as perhaps the most entertaining and informative of them all. Merrill Mattes’ The Great Platte River Road, and Irene Paden’s In the Wake of the Prairie Schooner are also excellent. Ms. Paden and her family re-traced every mile of the trail in the 1940s. I’ll never forget her description of being at Register Cliff in eastern Wyoming near Guernsey, a sandstone wall covered with the carved names of pioneers and the date of their passing by.

Register Cliff

Register Cliff

As she was kneeling in the weeds to read names near the bottom of the wall, she came across a metal rod, quickly realizing that its “scraper end” fit the exact width of the graffiti carved above it in the 1850s. There lay the very tool used 90 years before, left for others who followed to use… and eventually, for Ms. Paden to find.
I purchased (and still own) every Nebraska county survey map that the trail goes through. When Interstate 80 crosses the Blue River in eastern Nebraska, I know that’s the river that pioneers “jumping off” from Kansas City (Westport) followed up to its confluence with the Platte. It’s really just a ditch, but there is a tiny sign that says “Blue River”. I look for it every time. I’m not kidding – every time.

In the 1980s, Rose and I and the girls began exploring the trail (okay, so maybe the primary decision was still made by the man) as we worked our way west on summer vacations. We camped a number of times on Mormon Island near Grand Island, pitching our tent on the bank of the Platte, listening to the June breeze in the cottonwoods overhead, cottonwoods that lined that river in the 1850s. It didn’t take much imagination, especially after dark, for us to see our tent in the middle of a group of pioneer tents, wagons just over to the side there, oxen tearing off grass and chewing their cud. We took a picture of Ruth and Alyce standing on dried cow patties on Ivor Dilke’s ranch in Brule, Nebraska, where ruts are still visible as the wagons for the first time forded the North Platte River to climb over California Hill and lumber on toward Scott’s Bluff, Ft. Laramie and South Pass. I’ve sat on the south bank of the river there in Brule and dangled my legs in the water at the spot where the wagons would have by necessity forded that stream. I chose not to try to ford it myself because I didn’t know where sand turned to quicksand, and where six inches changed to six feet. Imagine the risk in 1850 – no AAA to speed-dial on your cell phone.

I-80 crosses the Platte between Omaha and Lincoln. But it’s not until Grand Island that the “Great Platte River Road” really begins. This is where the streams of Mormons on the north bank headed to Salt Lake and streams of “Gentiles” on the south bank headed to Oregon or California merged (just after the Blue joins the Platte, see) and began to travel in earnest by the thousands. Ft. Kearny is understood in light of the protection from Indians those travelers needed (or thought they needed), as is Cozad, which straddles the 100th meridian, “where the East meets the West”. Its founder, John Cozad, thought that location would make it a significant attraction. He was wrong. But west of Cozad, the climate changes, primarily due to the subtle elevation change as you begin to climb the million-year erosion field of the eastern slope of the Rockies. I love Cozad – it’s where The West begins.

Nebraska gains in elevation as you move west. In the east is corn and soy country. By the time you cross the state you're in dry ranch country.

Nebraska gains in elevation as you move west. In the east is corn and soy country. By the time you cross the state you’re in dry ranch country.

Gothenberg boasts a real Pony Express station in the heart of town. And it is real, just not on its original location. For that you have to go west of town a ways to find the tumble-down ruins of a station still on its original foundation. Gothenberg doesn’t advertise that one because it wouldn’t bring people into town, would it?
There’s more. Larry McMurtry’s heralded Lonesome Dove explained the immense importance of the city of Ogallala, Nebraska to the cowboy era. Every time we approach that city from the east I “look” for Clara’s little ranch.

The Lincoln Highway, America’s first coast-to-coast paved roadway, runs right along the railroad tracks. Here’s a few pictures I took this summer of a restored Lincoln Highway motel, albeit in Wyoming, from the early days of automotive travel.

Black and Orange Cabins You park your car in the garage next to your room

Black and Orange Cabins
You park your car in the garage next to your room

Your room, sir.

Your room, sir.

Lincoln Highway milepost

Lincoln Highway milepost

Every time you see a long freight train stretched out with you on the north side of I-80 you’re looking at the mainline of the original transcontinental railroad. Stephen Ambrose’s lousy (sorry, but it was) book on the birth of this railroad, Nothing Like it in the World, was hard to plow through, but ultimately explained a lot. His much-better book, Undaunted Courage, describes in amazing detail the Lewis and Clark expedition, which of course went up and then back down the Missouri River which forms Nebraska’s eastern border. So every time we “cross the wide Missouri” from Iowa into Missouri I look down at that water and squint to see the Corps of Discovery poling upstream along the banks. (The squinting helps eliminate the casinos that line the banks now.)

Lewis and Clark would weep

Lewis and Clark would weep

For the Oregon Trail pioneers, crossing that river was known as “jumping off”, because that’s what you were doing: leaving the United States of America fo

You'll find Harrah's right around that next bend there.

You’ll find Harrah’s right around that next bend there.

r the great unknown of the American West. As soon as you cross that river you are greeted by the shadows of the two huge locomotives in Kenefick Park that remind you you’re at the start point of the transcontinental railroad.

Kenefick Park, Omaha

Kenefick Park, Omaha

One of those locomotives is a Big Boy and the other is a UP “Centennial” (The Centennial was made at the GE Electromotive Works on 47th St. in McCook, Il. I recognize the building in some of the background shots on the video link. Electromotive has been gone for a good twenty years.) Both are the most powerful locomotives of their generation and when you stand next to them you get just how big and powerful and important this industry was to the nation. You also get a sense of just how much time, energy and money can go into something, and how very quickly it can become history.

So think about this. The Platte River, the Pony Express, the first telegraph lines, the transcontinental railroad, the Lincoln Highway and I-80 interweave themselves virtually all the way across the state of Nebraska. You’re not just traveling on an interstate; you’re traveling on a highway system that’s been in place for human migration and communication for thousands of years. And you’re traveling the history of our nation. In Nebraska.

I know. Boooorrriiinggg.

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Why We Need Civics


This is the text of something I submitted to my district several years before I retired in 2010. Civics is no closer to being required in our district now than it was then.

Why We Need a Civics Requirement in District 99

In his 7th State of the Union letter, December 7, 1796, George Washington proposed the establishment of a national university. He didn’t see that happen, although his statement below as to one objective of that university is compelling in its urgency:

“A primary object…should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing on its legislature than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country.” –George Washington, 1787

But today, more and more universities are demanding less and less of college students in the area of Social Studies, let alone Civic understanding; thus we find that each year fewer and fewer college graduates possess knowledge of the increasingly-savvy machinations of those who hold and want to maintain power in our nation. They increasingly possess either overly-naïve or overly-cynical views about their government, but what they don’t possess is the democratic equivalent of Christianity’s “whole armor of God” with which to battle for their Republic. Washington would be mortified.

The Founding Fathers understood “the power of the ring” and made a point of separating those powers. In a “post-modern democracy”, politicians are much more sophisticated in their attempts to grasp that power. It is no longer sufficient to teach young Americans the surface areas, the Civics of Old: today’s Civics class must be much more sophisticated – as sophisticated as our politicians. In much the same way as the police must continue to upgrade their weapons as street gang weaponry becomes more deadly, so must we be upgrading our civic awareness. But is this happening? At the very moment that the crooks are entering the vault, we are laying off the guards.

In District 99, despite the faculty protestations otherwise, we hit only the surface areas of Civics, if that, in our required U.S. History, Constitution and other Social Studies courses, and our elective offering in this area hits less than 2% of our annual student population.

Why? Because that’s what everybody else around us is doing. There is not a single significant-sized high school district in the western suburbs that requires Civics any longer. (A possible reason: the de-emphasis of Social Studies on standardized tests.)

And off they go to college, where they don’t get anything remotely like Civics lessons.

Result? Millions of “educated” college graduates per year who know nothing about how their citizenship rights are being eroded by an oligarchy that has a much deeper understanding of both human psychology and the uses of media than the citizenry, and has become much more efficient in collecting power than at any previous time in our history. In fact, the very concept of Republic is in as much danger now as it was at the end of the RomanRepublic (which by the way is the message of movie, Gladiator).

The risk to our nation is greater than at any previous time in its history.

This would be acceptable…. IF We the People were choosing it of our own free will. In fact, we are not, and we as educators, particularly those of us in the Social Studies, should be fighting Washington’s good fight, not enabling those who would facilitate the end of the Republic.

W.E.B. DuBois spoke to the issue of what education should (and shouldn’t) be in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), “Atlanta must not lead the South to dream of material prosperity as the touchstone of all success; already the fatal might of this idea is beginning to spread; it is replacing the finer type of Southerner with vulgar money-getters; it is burying the sweeter beauties of Southern life beneath pretence and ostentation. For every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged, – wealth to raise the “cracker” Third Estate; wealth to employ the black serfs, and the prospect of wealth to keep them working; wealth as the end and aim pf politics, and as the legal tender for law and order; and, finally, instead of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, wealth as the ideal of the Public School.” (emphasis mine)

And what does “the fatal might of this idea” lead to? Barack Obama, April 2, 2008: “Our (national) problems always occur when people aren’t paying attention.”

But how CAN one pay attention when they don’t even know what they’re missing? Read this article and weep:

College students struggle on history test

September 17, 2007

By Tracey Wong Briggs, USA TODAY

“Students don’t know much about history, and colleges aren’t adding enough to their civic literacy, says a report out today. (emphasis mine)

The study from the non-profit Intercollegiate Studies Institute shows that less than half of college seniors knew that Yorktown was the battle that ended the American Revolution or that NATO was formed to resist Soviet expansion. Overall, freshmen averaged 50.4% on a wide-ranging civic literacy test; seniors averaged 54.2%, both failing scores if translated to grades. (I missed the last question on taxes and government spending: 97% overall.)

“One of the things our research demonstrates conclusively is that an increase in what we call civic knowledge almost invariably leads to a use of that knowledge in a beneficial way,” says Josiah Bunting, chairman of ISI’s National Civic Literacy Board. “This is useful knowledge we are talking about.”

Failing Our Students, Failing America: Holding Colleges Accountable for Teaching America’s History and Institutions analyzes scores of a test given to 14,419 freshmen and seniors at 50 U.S. colleges last fall on American history, government, international relations and market economy. Freshman and senior scores at the schools, 25 selective and 25 randomly chosen, were compared to gauge civic learning.

The report generally echoes the results of a similar study done last fall by the ISI, which promotes civics in higher education. This year:

•Average scores for the 25 selective colleges — chosen for type, geographic location and U.S. News & World Report ranking — were much higher than the 25 randomly selected schools for both freshmen (56.6% vs. 43.7%) and seniors (59.4% vs. 48.4%), but the elite schools didn’t add as much civic knowledge between the freshman and senior years. At elite schools, the seniors averaged 2.8 points higher than the freshmen vs. 4.7 points for the randomly selected schools.

•Harvard seniors had the highest average at 69.6%, 5.97 points higher than its freshmen but still a D+. A Harvard senior posted the only perfect score.”

Get that? Harvard seniors with highest average at 70%?? ONE perfect score?? Really???

So why is Civics no longer taught in our high schools? Among other reasons, because Civics as it was taught to an earlier generation was a stagnant course, usually taught by ex-Marine jingoes who used it to boast of the perfection of the American system. By the 1980s, this kind of Civics class was being seen for what it was: an empty shell that was no longer (and never was) serving the commonweal.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that Social Studies simply doesn’t matter anymore because it does not appear on the standardized tests. Why, you ask? Because those who design those tests (the business community) see no need for any knowledge outside of reading, math and science. Sadly, our own government is encouraging this (which brings us back to understanding why they would).

The following is an incomplete list of Government/Civics concepts I have compiled that it benefits our young citizens to understand in order to be equipped to deal with those who are advantaged by our ignorance of them. It is by no means complete, and I don’t mean it to be a standard: I am simply hoping to demonstrate how difficult the job of citizenship is in the 21st century, and therefore demonstrate that at the very time we need to be “girding our loins” and singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, we are in fact, abandoning our soldiers in the field and leaving them defenseless.

With how many of these concepts are you familiar?

1. Redistricting/Gerrymandering – its use by both parties to guarantee ‘permanent’ power – its history (Elbridge Gerry) and its mastery by the Republicans of the Tom DeLay era

2. 2-party domination of our democracy – comparison/contrast with European-style democracies – the difficulty of gaining power as a 3rd party candidate at any political level

3. Control of Congressional Committees by the party in power – ramifications for democracy

4. Media literacy (a broad topic in its own right)

a. Spin (We use the phrase so glibly now we’ve lost sight of the real damage it does)

b. VNRs (Video News Releases), Slates, A-Roll, B-Roll, Branded journalism

c. Satellite media tour

d. “Floating” a story

5. Protection from credit card companies for college students – a solvent citizen is a better citizen

6. “Beer & Circus” –  Professor Murray Sperber’s concept of how big-time athletics and alcohol in tandem are undermining our system of higher education in dangerous ways to the nation

7. Recognition of “Political Speak” – the ‘non-denial denial’ and other ways to dupe the naïve

8. The Environment and Politics – global warming and the host of other environmental issues explained by the politics that drive them.

9. Political advertising literacy – how “My opponent voted against supporting our troops in Iraq” might be just as misleading as “My opponent voted to kill puppies”

10. Omnibus bills and the Line-Item veto -as above, how they put politicians in difficult positions

11. Pork/Earmarks

12. Lobbying

13. PACs/527s

14. Unitary Executive Theory and “Signing Statements” – misunderstood or unknown to virtually every American

15. The National Debt – ramifications for the future

16. Scandals

– awareness of them in our history (from Credit Mobilier to Teapot to the vicuna coat to Watergate to Iran-Contra to Monica to Abramoff to….

– dissecting which ones are personal tragedies as opposed to truly dangerous to the Republic

17. “Legislating” by the federal courts

18. Founding fathers protected against abuses of political power; how has the Constitution handled abuses of corporate power?

19. The Supreme Court ruling on Eminent Domain

20. The ramifications of the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act

21. The power of the Citizen to change history – a virtually neglected topic in our history texts which tend to concentrate on politicians, warriors, geniuses or other “great men”, and lead our future citizens to a subliminal assumption that history is something that is out of their hands and cannot be changed by ordinary citizens.

22. NGOs and dozens of other ways to help human beings.

23. The impact of privatization (neoconservatism) – the dismantling of publicly-owned structures (including our military)

24. The significant differences between philosophies that espouse power in the hands of   government, as opposed to power in the hands of the individual.

25. History of our political parties – can be of great value in understanding present party philosophy

26. The struggle for power between the three branches of gov’t. throughout our history

27. Use of Fear to control the populace

28. “Official” Propaganda (it wasn’t just a Hitler thing) (see George Creel)

29. What it means when a public official begins a statement with, “I don’t recall…”

30. U.S. involvement in and ramifications of the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO

31. Government’s role in the life of its citizens: Liberal v Conservative approaches. What is a Neo-conservative? Neo-liberal? Libertarian?

32. Ramifications of Executive Order 13233 – limiting access to presidential materials,      enacted Nov. 1, 2001, drafted by Alberto Gonzalez

33. Ramifications of National Security Presidential Directive 51 – May, 2007 – allows      the president the power to run the entire federal government (all three branches) in case of a national emergency… that is declared by the president.

34. The concept of privatization as interpreted by neo-conservatives (de-construction of    every publicly-run structure (including the military – see Blackwater and           Halliburton)

35. What the loss of the draft and the establishment of the all-volunteer military means(We the People won’t fight an immoral war or a war for empire… but a private army will)

36. warrantless wiretaps

37. Guantanamo

38. Patriot Acts I and II

39. Originalism (Scalia doctrine that the SC cannot interpret the Constitution in any other way than the Founding Fathers intended)

40. Citizens United

41. Black Sites

42. “Enhanced interrogation”

43. Push polling

44. Stop-loss

45. The evolution of the filibuster (filibuster reform)

This list could certainly be longer (please feel free to make suggestions), but it’s hopefully long enough to demonstrate how badly our children need to be armed against what is being thrown at them.

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Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer
Kinzer describes the machinations behind the overthrowing of the 14 national leaders deposed over time by the U.S., acting in its own national interest.

This is not a book review per se, but more an inquiry. Pertinent questions:

How many U.S. citizens know that the United States has done this?

How many U.S. college students are taught that the U.S. has done this?

How many U.S. high school students are taught that the U.S. has overthrown 14 international leaders?

I think these are valid questions, and I think it speaks volumes about the jingoism that permeates American public education and consequently American life. It is one reason why I have been a crusader (politically incorrect word these days) for the return of Civics as a required course for every American high school senior. This of course would have to be a REAL Civics class, one that emphsizes the brilliance and wonders of the American system of government, but also does not ignore its deficiencies. As I always told my students, “Do you know any human being who is perfect? Of course not, so why would we expect any nation to be perfect? We strive, hopefully, to be our best, but as humans we must acknowledge our mistakes and sins if we hope to improve ourselves. Why is it considered treasonous these days to ask for the same kind of national self-examination?”

Keep in mind that Kinzer’s book deals only with leaders we have actually overthrown; it does not include the much longer list of nations – 234 of them between 1798 and 1993 alone – where we have intervened militarily, as outlined here by the Department of the Navy*. (More recently, how many ways have we intervened in the politics of other countries in non-military ways?)

So, here is the list. Here are a few questions to ask as you read it:

1. Have you ever heard of this person? If so, do you know where and when you heard of him/her? (I’m betting it wasn’t in high school. Maybe college, at best, and probably not until your later adult life.)

2. Do you know why the United States disposed of them?

3. Was the removal justified, either practically at the moment, morally, or in light of later history?

4. Did this removal enhance the international standing of the United States? (This may depend on your definition of the word ‘enhance’.)

Expansionist era
1893 – Queen Liliokalani, Hawaii
1898 – Cuba
1898 – Puerto Rico
1898 – Emilio Aguinaldo, Philippines
1908 – Jose Santos Zelaya, Nicaragua
1908 – Honduras

Anti-Communist era
1952 – Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran
1954 – Jacobo Arbenz, Guatemala
1963 – Ngo Dinh Diem, Vietnam
1972 – Salvador Allende, Chile

Invasion era
1986 – Eric Gairy, Grenada
1989 – Manuel Noriega, Panama
2001 – Mullah Omar and the Taliban, Afghanistan
2003 – Sadaam Hussein, Iraq

If you are intriqued by this list, then read Kinzer’s book. It is well-written, well-balanced, and well-documented.

*In a future post, I may address this list.

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Major General Smedley Butler – “War Is A Racket”

Yes, I smirked when I heard his name the first time, too. And then I thought the letter must be a fake (like the famous Chief Seattle letter) because no twice-Medal-of-Honor-winner Marine Corps Major General would EVER write an indictment of such magnitude. And yet, here it is, written in the 1930s in his retirement years as he looked back on what it was he had really supported with his career. Note that Butler wrote this at the same time the Senate’s Nye Committee was meeting. This committee concluded its findings by 1936: the United States entered WWI primarily due to the influence of a combination of the American munitions and banking industries. These findings and Butler’s book had a great deal to do with America’s strong neutrality movement of the late 1930s that made it difficult for FDR to engage America in the 2nd World War. (FDR would resort to trickery, with his own “Tonkin Gulf Incident”, but more on that in a later post.) Isn’t it wonderful how well we learn the lessons of our history?


War Is A Racket
Major General Smedley Butler
(excerpted from his 1935 booklet and speech)

“WAR is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. (Ed. Note: This was written prior to the proliferation of the huge multi-national corporation.) It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

In the World War [I] a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

And what is this bill?

This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it. Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out.

Again they are choosing sides. France and Russia met and agreed to stand side by side. Italy and Austria hurried to make a similar agreement. Poland and Germany cast sheep’s eyes at each other, forgetting for the nonce [one unique occasion], their dispute over the Polish Corridor.

The assassination of King Alexander of Jugoslavia [Yugoslavia] complicated matters. Jugoslavia and Hungary, long bitter enemies, were almost at each other’s throats. Italy was ready to jump in. But France was waiting. So was Czechoslovakia. All of them are looking ahead to war. Not the people — not those who fight and pay and die — only those who foment wars and remain safely at home to profit.

There are 40,000,000 men under arms in the world today, and our statesmen and diplomats have the temerity to say that war is not in the making.

Hell’s bells! Are these 40,000,000 men being trained to be dancers?

Not in Italy, to be sure. Premier Mussolini knows what they are being trained for. He, at least, is frank enough to speak out. Only the other day, Il Duce in “International Conciliation,” the publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said:

“And above all, Fascism, the more it considers and observes the future and the development of humanity quite apart from political considerations of the moment, believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace. . . . War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the people who have the courage to meet it.”

Undoubtedly Mussolini means exactly what he says. His well-trained army, his great fleet of planes, and even his navy are ready for war — anxious for it, apparently. His recent stand at the side of Hungary in the latter’s dispute with Jugoslavia showed that. And the hurried mobilization of his troops on the Austrian border after the assassination of Dollfuss showed it too. There are others in Europe too whose sabre rattling presages war, sooner or later.

Herr Hitler, with his rearming Germany and his constant demands for more and more arms, is an equal if not greater menace to peace. France only recently increased the term of military service for its youth from a year to eighteen months.

Yes, all over, nations are camping in their arms. The mad dogs of Europe are on the loose. In the Orient the maneuvering is more adroit. Back in 1904, when Russia and Japan fought, we kicked out our old friends the Russians and backed Japan. Then our very generous international bankers were financing Japan. Now the trend is to poison us against the Japanese. What does the “open door” policy to China mean to us? Our trade with China is about $90,000,000 a year. Or the Philippine Islands? We have spent about $600,000,000 in the Philippines in thirty-five years and we (our bankers and industrialists and speculators) have private investments there of less than $200,000,000.

Then, to save that China trade of about $90,000,000, or to protect these private investments of less than $200,000,000 in the Philippines, we would be all stirred up to hate Japan and go to war — a war that might well cost us tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of thousands of lives of Americans, and many more hundreds of thousands of physically maimed and mentally unbalanced men.

Of course, for this loss, there would be a compensating profit — fortunes would be made. Millions and billions of dollars would be piled up. By a few. Munitions makers. Bankers. Ship builders. Manufacturers. Meat packers. Speculators. They would fare well.

Yes, they are getting ready for another war. Why shouldn’t they? It pays high dividends.

But what does it profit the men who are killed? What does it profit their mothers and sisters, their wives and their sweethearts? What does it profit their children?

What does it profit anyone except the very few to whom war means huge profits?

Yes, and what does it profit the nation?

Take our own case. Until 1898 we didn’t own a bit of territory outside the mainland of North America. At that time our national debt was a little more than $1,000,000,000. Then we became “internationally minded.” We forgot, or shunted aside, the advice of the Father of our country. We forgot George Washington’s warning about “entangling alliances.” We went to war. We acquired outside territory. At the end of the World War period, as a direct result of our fiddling in international affairs, our national debt had jumped to over $25,000,000,000. Our total favorable trade balance during the twenty-five-year period was about $24,000,000,000. Therefore, on a purely bookkeeping basis, we ran a little behind year for year, and that foreign trade might well have been ours without the wars.

It would have been far cheaper (not to say safer) for the average American who pays the bills to stay out of foreign entanglements. For a very few this racket, like bootlegging and other underworld rackets, brings fancy profits, but the cost of operations is always transferred to the people — who do not profit.”

So there it is. 1935. And here we sit. 2013. Is there anyone today who doesn’t know why America engages in its wars? Yet we cynically line up and salute the flag every time a president gives us the latest version of the “keeping the world safe for democracy” speech. We’re presiding today over the moral disintegration of our military, as suicide and rape statistics dominate the headlines. Is it because the moral underpinnings of most of our wars have been a sham? We’re also presiding over the moral disintegration of Congress: is it because the moral underpinnings of our nation have become a sham?

It’s fitting to conclude with the lyrics from Bob Dylan’s 1963 masterpiece, Masters of War:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks.

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain.

You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion’
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud.

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins.

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do.

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul.

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

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