Tuesday, June 30, 2015


            The word “miracle” comes easily to mind whenever we think or speak of the events which led to the Declaration of Independence and the resulting Constitution we celebrate each July. If there is an underlying truism associated with such a view, I believe it is especially manifest when examining the sheer likelihood that such a uniquely qualified group of spirits should be present at one time and in one place in the entire story of human events. Of the original 58 who pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, hardly a one failed to lose his wealth, his property, his family or very life in the Revolution that followed. And those who gathered in Philadelphia to draft our empowering document were not some obscure or random collection of theoretical zealots. All were professional politicians – in the highest sense of that calling – rather than amateur theorists. 42 had served in Congress, 10 were serving judges, 30 were then state legislators, 7 had served as state governors and 20 had helped draft their own state’s constitution; 21 had fought in the Revolution and ALL had been born British subjects. The oldest was Benjamin Franklin at 81, the youngest Jonathan Dayton of New Jersey at 26; Alexander Hamilton the committed Centrist from New York, only 30. The average age was 42.
            Nor were they uneducated “frontiersmen”. Thomas Jefferson had studied law, languages, physics, agriculture, mathematics, philosophy, chemistry, anatomy, zoology, botany, religion, politics, history, literature and rhetoric. He was conversant in Latin, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew and he was a Master of French. Not yet satisfied he dabbled in Anglo Saxon, and he chartered the University of Virginia.
            Though one of the lesser-known of the “great men” of U.S. history, George Wythe of Virginia was a life-long classical scholar, learning one more foreign language at the age of 80. He helped to educate and polish such men as Thomas Jefferson, John Marshal, James Monroe, Henry Clay and scores of other prominent shapers. He was America’s first professor of law and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He was an undying advocate of emancipation, freeing his own slaves and providing for them in his will.
            Alexander Hamilton, born in the West Indies, became an ardent supporter of America’s patriotic cause earning Washington’s admiration and trust as a military leader in the field, and then as a self-educated expert in designing a system of banking and a national monetary direction capable of bridging a wide disparity of regional opinions.
            If Washington was the “Man of Order” and “Little Jimmy” Madison the “Man of History” at Philadelphia, then Benjamin Franklin was the “Man of the People”. After years of loving and reading U.S. Constitutional History, I have a deeply-held affection for this “senior apostle” of Representative Republicanism. Always affable and approachable, universally and genuinely held in fatherly esteem by his countrymen, he was as much at home before the courts and palaces of Europe as under the branches of his favorite backyard Mulberry tree. Without apology or pretense, he was a shameless materialist, taking unabashed delight in flouting convention and unproductive polity. He was an enthusiastic “citizen of the world”, possessing a depth and breadth of self-acquired knowledge and material wealth rare at any time and in any place.  He maintained an eclectic personal library of nearly 5,000 volumes and whatever device he couldn’t find or purchase somewhere, he invented and produced himself. Skeptical of a strong central government, he brought to the Convention a sense of democracy few others could match.  Most of all, Franklin was unflinching in his belief in THE PEOPLE.
                                      Speaking of our Constitution in 1792, James Madison warned us:
                        “Every word of it decides a question between power and liberty”  If we remember nothing else about who we once were and who we are this July 4th, this is worth giving thought to.

Thursday, June 18, 2015


            The first doughnut I can remember as a child didn’t even have a hole in it, since it was in the form of a Cruller with a sugar-laced twist from Krug’s New Jersey bakery. This would have been about the same time that I watched in awe while visiting with relatives who dropped half-dollar size pockets of apple-filled dough into a bubbling bath of hot fat only to watch them blossom into softball size fritters that were sheer magic to my eyes and tummy. With a father who roasted huge batches of coffee beans for the Hills Bros. Coffee Company, I became a witness to the first act of “dunking” at an early age, and I was proud to sit next to him as I learned to practice the same artistry with Mom’s home-made-from-scratch hot milk cocoa. I soon figured out that the best “donuts” (*) for dunking were the solid cake-type that didn’t fall apart at just the wrong time. Right from the start I placed the yeast-blossomed raised variety in second or third place (third that is behind the jelly-filled wonders delivered door-to-door by the Duggan’s truck.)
            (*) Exactly when Americans invented “Donut” as opposed to the internationally-established doughnut nomenclature isn’t clear; probably between WW I and WW II. It was during The Great War in 1917 and 1918 that the Salvation Army decided to take on the mission of serving freshly-made donuts to American troops, followed in this effort by the Red Cross. (By the way the story that our troops got their name “doughboy” from this connection is a myth; they were known by that appellation already.)
            Most of the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were coming from Holland where they had certainly picked up many recipes from the local folks with whom they had lived, including the fried and baked dough-based desserts for which the Dutch people were famous. And no one visiting New Orleans can fail to credit the French for their world-class version of THEIR donut: the incomparable Begnet!
            In fact almost every country has its version of a fried dough dessert, from the Paczki in Poland to the Spanish Sopaipillas and Italy’s Zeppole. And no one knows how far back in Native American history that centerpiece of daily fare we call Navajo Fry Bread has been around. I think the best I ever tasted in years of loving research was in the Reservation village of Chinle near Canyon De Chelly in the Navajo Nation.
            Then, there is the ultimate donut – known but to a handful of lucky New Englanders and fellow travelers – kept alive by a few devoted roadside 50s-style diners and side-street bakeries in Vermont, where many of us believe it was originally introduced by an angel from on high more than a century ago. Each one the weight of a half-dozen air-filled “raised” cousins, dense with cinnamon, nutmeg and mace and a crusty exterior which recalls a day when freshly-rendered lard was king, it is universally revered by adherents as “the Vermont Sinker”! I was lucky enough to live near the town of Randolph where the venerable Jarvis family bakery turned out daily trays of their secret recipe to generations of “dunkers” who remember smelling the latest spicy batch when still two blocks away. Alas – since the last of the Jarvis family bakers passed away some years ago, and with him that magical recipe -  I am forced to fall back on a certain Molasses-flavored substitute I find only in Maine.
            Thinking on the whole subject on our 77th National Donut Day this June, I can taste that sugary cruller which first sweetened my days a lifetime ago.

      A Vermont “Sinker” donut – minus the “patented” fragrance. Each year Americans consume some 10 billion                                               donuts of all kinds.                                                                                                                               


            This story actually begins about 21 million years ago – give or take a million years one way or the other. That’s about when the earth carried out a tilt of its axis leading the Laurentide ice sheet to decide to head south from what we might call the “Canadian Arctic”, carving out huge chunks of the planet’s surface, pushing thousands of square miles of stony debris ahead of it and changing the very face of what we call New England today. As it began to melt leaving terminal moraines behind to become new places, like Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod and Long island to name a few examples of that mighty work, it shaved the top off of entire mountain ranges such as the spines of Vermont’s Green and Taconic Mountains which were already ancient before the Alps were even born. Melted ice raised the sea levels enough to cover the continent-sized Pangea and create river basins such as the Hudson and St. Lawrence and even Lake Champlain.
            It was mere child’s play to leave behind tiny lakes, ponds and stream beds, but that’s how Sunset Lake in the town of Brookfield in central Vermont came to be; not very long, but so deep it became known as “bottomless”. The very nature of Vermont’s political geography and judicial subdivisions played their own unique role in surveying early road systems and the towns and villages they would serve. Here rather than counties – of which Vermont lays claim to fourteen – it was the town that became the primary unit of government – with a voting representative to the legislature – and the town meeting from which local residents had a powerful voice in New England’s home-centered democracy. At last count the “patchwork quilt” of Vermont “places” consisted of 237 towns, 9 cities and 4 gores (left-over, sections of unincorporated and mostly unsettled land and a term used frequently in fabric cutting.)
            Early Vermont settlements developed along valley watercourses where the power to operate mills and industry existed, and between which carriage roads naturally multiplied. The very water sources which made all this possible bred a bridge-building art form unique to the timber-rich landscape, including hundreds of covered bridges designed to survive harsh weather conditions. The town of Brookfield however, surrounded as it was by West Brookfield (where I did much of my growing up,) Center Brookfield, East Brookfield and Pond Village itself, the obvious need to bridge Sunset Lake was a troubling challenge inasmuch as its immeasurable depth precluded the driving of pillars of any kind.
            Local tradition claims that a resident named Luther Adams, with the help of neighbors built the first “floating” bridge out of tarred barrels in 1820, possibly assembled while the lake was frozen over, settling into place as the weather warmed. Finally solving the problems of access and economic growth for neighboring communities, it also brought some fame and tourism to Pond Village over the years. As a boy, I and my friends would fish and “skinny-dip” from the bridge’s railed walkways, and thrill first-time visitors by demonstrating the exciting sound of a noisy “tire wash” when driving across the partially submerged timber decking.
            Depending on which version of history I choose to believe, the old and storied bridge at Pond Village has been rebuilt either six or eight times, the newest and most improved version opened to the eager public in May, 2015 (all 318 feet of it), with a projected life of 100 years. I look forward to revisiting this Vermont landmark of my youth this fall; this time with dry tires. (“No skinny-dipping” my wife warns me.)

Long ago floating bridge.

On the far side of Brookfield’s “new” floating bridge – still the only one east of the Mississippi  -also resides the longest continuously-operating (1791) library in the U.S..             Photo courtesy Wayne Pelkey