George Abert – Thoughts & Observations

Notes from an interesting life

Two Ideas for Making Things Different & Maybe Even Better

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These are Preliminary Ideas!

I’m posting this to solicit constructive feedback on some ideas that I sense might expand our democracy at a time when the nation suffers from what appears to be a late-stage form of polarization. I suspect but certainly don’t know that such expansion could be an effective way to end that polarization.

If you’re inclined to offer constructive feedback, please do. These ideas, if valid, need to be firmed up to gain traction and cogency.

Not Every Nation holds a Leadership Position

It’s often said that the United States is an indispensable nation and hence obliged to exercise global leadership. Perhaps. The leadership mantle is not exclusive to any one nation, and not all nations can exercise a significant role in global leadership. And, as history shows, the mantle is seldom held by any one nation for very long.

There was a time after WW2 when the United States provided global leadership in a manner that, on balance, was both necessary and righteous. In some regions this leadership was briefly welcomed. But within a decade, that righteousness began to wane to be replaced by hegemony and, eventually, hubris. By the early 1970s the United States evolved to become a kind of superpower nuisance. After the fall of the Soviet Union, that nuisance assumed an even greater maliciousness.

Fast forward several decades to the state of the United States in 2019. For a variety of reasons, the country is bitterly divided along partisan lines. As I see it, this division hamstrings the capacity for the country to properly exercise a positive leadership role, a role some outside the United States yearn for.

Perhaps we should look at ways to increase democracy as the means by which to tone down the partisan divide and reassert the nation’s leadership in a more positive manner? There are several ways this can be done, but two stand out.

One might be to eliminate geographically defined Congressional Districts and the other might be to eliminate the Electoral College. As originally conceived, the Constitution compassed arrangements that made sense given the state of the nation in the late Eighteenth Century. Given that things have evolved somewhat in the two plus centuries since the Founding, perhaps we should give things a closer look?

At Large or Virtual Congressional Districts

What if Congressmen, like Senators, served “At Large” or perhaps “Virtual” Congressional Districts? I’m not sure quite what to term these districts so perhaps you’ll indulge me and read on? According to the Constitution, each state is supposed to send two Senators to Washington. Both Senators represent everyone in their states rather than specific districts. Unlike Senators, Congressmen serve specific districts that are typically drawn up by their State’s Legislators or various types of Commissions.

Congressional seats are not apportioned in full accordance with the manner outlined in Article 1 Section 2 of the Constitution which states that “The number of representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty thousand, but each state shall have at least one representative.” As the country grew, the number was limited to 435 by The Apportionment Act of 1911. If that hadn’t been done, after the 2010 Census, when the population was tallied at 320 Million, it would have been necessary to have over 10,000 representatives! Can you imagine how large a building would have to be to accommodate that many representatives and their support staff?

Moving on…

There are problems with the way most congressional districts are drawn up. The most notable is called gerrymandering[1], a practice that attempts to establish political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries to create partisan-advantaged districts. What is proposed herein is a process which would take the responsibility for drawing up congressional districts out of the hands of those temped to gerrymandering and place in the hands of the various parties and organizations that are able to garner enough votes to send representatives to Congress.

Instead of fixed congressional districts for which many would run campaigns to represent, there would be a primary and general election to establish a list of representatives for voters to select from. All those representing, say, the Republican Party would work with their party after elections to establish districts to represent for that Congressional Session. So, if there were four Republican congressmen elected, there would be four districts that would cover the entire state so that every Republican citizen would have a Republican representing them in that Congressional Session. What if the state that sends four Republicans to Congress also sends two Democrats? The Democratic Party, like their Republican counterpart, would establish districts for their representatives that covered the entire state such that no matter where they lived, every Democrat would also have a Democrat representing them in Congress.

How might this work? Those interested in running for Congress would organize petition drives to garner enough signatures to qualify to run and hence have their names added to state-wide Primary Ballots. In addition to garnering enough signatures to get their name added to the ballots, candidates would also state their party affiliation if they indeed were affiliated with a political party. When the ballots were printed up, the candidates would be listed by party affiliation. In states in open primaries, the ballot would have the names of all candidates regardless of party affiliation. In states with closed primaries, ballots would be printed up for each party.

It’s the custom these days for there to be just three party affiliations, Republican, Democratic and Independent. What if somebody representing some third party decided to run? Since it’s not yet illegal to run as a Communist, Nazi or Green Party candidate, those that did could call themselves, say, Independent Communists or Independent Nazis, etc. So, at this point, were any of those candidates qualified to run, their names would be listed on the Independent ballot. For now.

Voters would be able to vote for just a limited number of candidates based upon the number of Congressional Seats apportioned by the Census. Let’s say that a hypothetical state has five Congressional seats apportioned. Let’s say that the Republican ballot lists fifteen candidates. Those affiliated with the Republican Party would be instructed to vote for just five of the fifteen listed. If they voted for more than five their ballot would be deemed invalid and their vote would not be tallied. When the votes of the valid ballots were tallied, the five candidates with the most votes would go on to have their names added to the General Election ballot. The Democrats and Independents would follow the same procedure.

When the General Election Ballots are printed, all the remaining candidates, regardless of party affiliation, would have their names listed. Because this hypothetical state was apportioned five Congressional Seats, voters would be instructed to vote for just five of the candidates listed. Voting for more than five would render their ballot invalid. The five candidates with the most votes would be sent to the next Congressional Session. The parties would then draw up Congressional Districts for their successful candidates for that session. Interestingly, were a party to have only one successful candidate, that candidate would represent everyone in his or her state that shared his or her party affiliation. So, if a Green Party candidate was sent to Congress, he or she would represent every Green Party member in that hypothetical state.

Another benefit might be that congressmen wouldn’t be as obliged to go to Congress to “Bring Home the Bacon”. Sure, as is presently the case, various special interests, typically defense contractors, would be inclined to support candidates that worked to secure defense contracts that favored their state over others, but I sense the pressure to do so might not be as intense.

Another interesting variation might be to allow for more than just the three affiliations.

But let’s look at the second idea:

Eliminating the Electoral College

As does happen from time to time, there’s talk of eliminating the Electoral College, most recently in the wake of the 2016 elections by which victory went to the candidate that won the most electoral votes despite the fact that his opponent won the popular vote. The makeup and function of the Electoral College is compassed in Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution.

This was compassed with four features as follows:

  1. Electors are to vote for two persons, at least one of whom must be from outside the elector’s home state.
  2. Electors were not allowed to differentiate between the two persons as potential presidents or vice presidents. Electors were to simply vote for the two persons they viewed most qualified to become president. The person gaining the most votes, if a majority, would become president. The runner-up and presumably the second-most-qualified person, would become vice president.
  3. Electors, at least following the election of George Washington, would quite often fail to reach a majority for any specific candidate. When that happened, according to the original Constitution, the decision would be made by the House of Representatives, with each state’s delegation having one vote. The Constitution also provided that the House would choose in case of a tie vote between two candidates each of whom had received a majority of votes.
  4. Finally, because the Constitution, until amended in 1933, provided that newly elected representatives would meet for the first time only a full year after election, the choice would be made by a House that would likely have included some lame-ducks, including representatives who had been defeated in the recent elections. All these features were in effect in 1801.

The rational for this methodology was described in Federalist No. 68 which is attributed to Hamilton.

When the Constitution was drafted, the US was a largely rural country with few roads. Most citizens were illiterate farmers unable to keep abreast of the news. The larger cities were quite distant from the vast majority of the citizenry as well as from one another. These cities flourished because they were ports and hence able to facilitate and benefit from maritime trade. The preferred means of travel from, say New York to Boston, was by sea as overland travel took too long and was all but impossible during the winter months.

In Federalist No. 68, Hamilton argued for an Electoral College for several reasons.

  1. The first had to do with the founders’ overriding fear of mob rule. The objective was “to afford as little opportunity as possible to tumult and disorder.” “The choice of several to form an intermediate body of electors, will be much less apt to convulse the community, with any extraordinary or violent movements, than the choice of one who was himself to be the final object of the public wishes.”
  2. The second had to with their fear of foreign interference in general and with the electoral process in particular[2] “The most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the union?”[i]

3         The third reason was based on the founders’ desire to have the executive beholden only to the citizenry: “…the executive should be independent for his continuance in office on all, but the people themselves.”

Taken together, these three concerns were subordinate to the founders’ desire to ensure that the office was not bestowed upon “any man, who is not to an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.” While it could be possible for the actions of one state’s electors to be compromised, they reasoned that it would be quite difficult for all the states electors to be so compromised.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 2

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

(The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two persons, of whom one at least shall not lie an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; a quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two-thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice-President.)

The preceding clause, in parentheses, was superseded by the 12th Amendment as follows:

The Electors shall meet in their respective states and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves; they shall name in their ballots the person voted for as President, and in distinct ballots the person voted for as Vice-President, and they shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President, and of the number of votes for each, which lists they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the seat of the government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate;—The President of the Senate shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted;—The person having the greatest number of votes for President, shall be the President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed; and if no person have such majority, then from the persons having the highest numbers not exceeding three on the list of those voted for as President, the House of Representatives shall choose immediately, by ballot, the President. But in choosing the President, the votes shall be taken by states, the representation from each state having one vote; a quorum for this purpose shall consist of a member or members from two-thirds of the states, and a majority of all the states shall be necessary to a choice. And if the House of Representatives shall not choose a President whenever the right of choice shall devolve upon them, before the fourth day of March next following, then the Vice-President shall act as President, as in case of the death or other constitutional disability of the President. —The person having the greatest number of votes as Vice-President, shall be the Vice-President, if such number be a majority of the whole number of Electors appointed, and if no person have a majority, then from the two highest numbers on the list, the Senate shall choose the Vice-President; a quorum for the purpose shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of Senators, and a majority of the whole number shall be necessary to a choice. But no person constitutionally ineligible to the office of President shall be eligible to that of Vice-President of the United States.

The 12th Amendment was prompted by the election of 1800. That election was important because it was the first time an incumbent, John Adams, was defeated. He had been Washington’s Vice President for two terms and was then elected in his own right in 1796. His Vice President was Thomas Jefferson. This result reflected the Framers’ desire to avoid development of political parties and focus on the notion of best men[3]. By 1796, Adams was a member of the Federalist Party, while Jefferson was supported by the Democratic-Republican Party. They ran against each other in 1800. Both Adams and Jefferson had running mates. Charles Pinckney was Adams’ running mate and Aaron Burr was Jefferson’s running mate. The Federalist Party electors figured out that it was important not to cast both their votes for Adams and Pinckney, as that would create a tie and, if both got a majority of the vote, throw the election to the House where the Democratic-Republican electors would be inclined to vote for candidates they favored. In fact they dutifully cast both of their votes for their party’s champions, thus creating a tie majority vote that forced the House to choose between Jefferson and Burr.

The tie vote exposed flaws in the original methodology. The one-state/one-vote rule had the practical effect of giving Delaware’s sole Representative Bayard, a Federalist, the same power as Jefferson’s home state of Virginia, then the largest state. And what if a state had an even number of representatives who split their vote thus evening on their choice? In that case, the state’s vote was not cast at all! Given that there were 16 states in the Union in 1801, nine delegations had to agree on their choice. Only on the 36th ballot did Bayard finally agree to vote for Jefferson to break the deadlock. Jefferson was peacefully inaugurated on March 4, and an-important precedent was set for the peaceful transfer of power. But the original Electoral College system was exposed as flawed and there was widespread agreement that something had to be done. But what?

One possibility was to adopt a suggestion floated by Pennsylvania’s James Wilson at the Philadelphia Convention that presidents should be elected by a national popular vote. That was rejected in 1787 and did not become a serious possibility in the early 19th century. Still, it had become clear that political parties had become a permanent feature of American politics and that the Electoral College system should be modified to reflect this reality. But how?

The answer is simple: henceforth electors would continue to cast two votes, and one of them, as before, would have to be for a non-native of the elector’s home state, but one of the two votes would explicitly be cast for the president, while the other for the vice president. Never again could presidential candidates and their running mates face the embarrassing kind of tie vote that forced the House to choose between Jefferson and Burr. The 12th Amendment was proposed by the Eighth Congress on December 9, 1803 and submitted to the states three days later. There being seventeen states in the Union at that time, thirteen had to ratify it. Secretary of State James Madison declared the Amendment added to the Constitution on September 25, 1804, when fourteen of the seventeen states had ratified it. Delaware, Connecticut, and Massachusetts had rejected it. The election of 1804 and all subsequent elections have been carried out under the terms compassed by the Twelfth Amendment.

In addition to the implicit recognition of political parties, the 12th Amendment made another important change: The original Constitution provided that the failure of any candidate to achieve a majority would oblige the House to choose as president one of the five top-ranking candidates, with the person coming in second to serve as vice-president unless there was tie for second place, in which case the Senate would choose between them. The 12th Amendment obliged the House to choose the President from just the top three choices of the electors, and the Senate would choose the Vice President from the top two choices of the electors for that office. This setup guaranteed that there would always be a vice president, who could presumably take the reins of the presidency should the House be hopelessly divided among the top three candidates for the presidency.

This feature became crucial in 1824, the only time since the 1800 election that the House was required to select a president as the result of the inability of any of the presidential candidates to garner a majority electoral vote. Andrew Jackson won 99, John Quincy Adams 84, William Crawford 41, and Henry Clay 37. Under the original Constitution, the House would have been able to choose from all four, and it is possible Clay could have won. But under the 12th Amendment Clay was out of the running, and the choice was reduced to just Jackson, Adams, and Crawford.

Although no election since 1824 has been decided in the House of Representatives, a shift of just a few votes in a few key states could have forced this in 1948, 1968, and 2000. What this means, practically speaking, is that in contemporary America, Wyoming, the smallest state with just under 600,000 people, has just as much sway in choosing a president as does California with a population nearly 70 times more numerous. And interestingly, it’s possible for a popular vote winner to lose to the runner-up in part because gerrymandered delegations in the House of Representatives could vote for their party’s favorite rather than the person that actually received the majority of their state’s popular vote[4].

Because of the occasional and potential for disconnect between the popular vote and the electoral vote, there have been recurrent proposals to simply elect the president by popular vote. If, though, one shares any of White’s or Tracy’s concerns about the vice presidency, popular election would not necessarily assuage them if one were forced to vote for the president and vice-president as a single ticket[5].

One possible reform is to adopt the practice of many states and unbundle the election of the president and vice president. That is, just as in many states candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run entirely separate campaigns, meaning that sometimes the governor can be from one party and the lieutenant governor from another. One could therefore imagine separate elections for the president and vice president. Even within the Electoral College, we could imagine voting for two slates of electors, one charged with choosing the president, the other picking the vice president. Most of the time voters would pick the slates of the same political party. But one can imagine that voters might be so put off by the vice presidential candidate they would be inclined to “split” their ticket. That very possibility might serve to discipline presidential candidates more than is now the case, especially because candidates who win the presidential nomination today basically exercise unlimited discretion in choosing their running mates. This was not the case before the 20th century, when political conventions were far less “choreographed”[6] and often exercised the final choice in picking both candidates.

The 12th Amendment, although largely unknown to most Americans, has an interesting history but, much more importantly, has the capacity to play a key role should we ever become a multi-party system, as was the case in 1948 and 1968, in which a third-party candidate could theoretically earn enough electoral votes to deprive anyone of a clear majority and thus force the election to the House.

Before going forward, let’s acknowledge that the electoral process has been modified from what was originally compassed within the Constitution by the 12th[7] and 23rd[8] Amendments.

The Twelfth Amendment cannot be understood outside of the Electoral College, which was compassed as the indirect method by which Americans select their presidents.

So, why do away with the Electoral College?

For starters, the means by which to tally the vote has been vastly improved since the founding. Witness the 24-hour news coverage that accompanies the process from start to finish for which there’s a global viewing audience. There’s an almost real-time tally that occurs within minutes of the polling places being closed. If the networks can do this, surely some department within the Federal Government can be tasked with doing this.

If the Electoral College and specific Congressional Districts were eliminated, this could “expand” democracy. And since there’s some linkage between Gerrymandering and the Electoral College, eliminating both might be a prudent alternative to eliminating just one of the two.

So, should any of you, which have troubled yourselves to read this far, have any constructive ideas, kindly suggest them as comments. And, should you be inclined to be trolls, be advised that I retain the power to decide which comments can be posted.

[1] The origin of the term gerrymander dates back to the early 1800s in Massachusetts. The word is a combination of the words Gerry, for the state’s governor, Elbridge Gerry, and salamander, as a particular electoral district was jokingly said to be shaped like a lizard.

[2] At that time the concerns for foreign interference centered on Great Britain, the former colonial ruler that had designs on reclaiming their “paradise lost”. More recently this same concern has been focused on Russia, shown to have meddled in the 2016 election.

[3] Notions that were soon frustrated…

[4] All the more reason why we should adopt at Large or Virtual Congressional Districts!

[5] Political scientists have determined that voters rarely cast their vote on the basis of the vice presidential candidate.

[6] A somewhat kinder terminology than “rigged”?

[7] Amendment XII – Election of President and Vice President

Passed by Congress December 9, 1803. Ratified June 15, 1804. The 12th Amendment changed a portion of Article II, Section 1. A portion of the 12th Amendment was changed by the 20th Amendment.

[8] Amendment XXIII – Presidential Vote for D.C. Passed by Congress June 16, 1960. Ratified March 29, 1961. Section 1. The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as Congress may direct: A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment. Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

[i] Perhaps this is the basis for the obsession with Russian interference in the 2016 election? Noticeably absent from these Russian interference discussions is any hint at what the Russian’s motivation might be. Detectives and intelligence analysts are trained to fill in the blanks of the “Means, Motive & Opportunity” triad. While an abundance of discussion has been devoted to the Means and Opportunity, not one cogent iota of discussion has been devoted to Motive. During the Yetsin years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, western investment banks took advantage of the ensuing chaos to begin what could have been a decades-long plunder Russia’s eight time-zones of largely untapped Siberian natural resources. When Vladimir Putin assumed the Russian presidency, he promptly put a stop to this. Might this be why were expected to dislike Vladimir Putin as a means by which we’re to display our patriotism? Sure, the Wall Street/Canary Wharf Kleptocracy may be smarting, but what’s in it for the rest of us?

Written by GW Abert

November 26, 2019 at 09:50

Posted in Uncategorized

A Day Trip to Agra

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Taj01

A Few Words about this updated WordPress Site

Originally this site was setup to serve as the blog for what was briefly known as The Seagrove Institute for Spiritual Awareness. That initiative didn’t last very long and was replaced with stories about my life as an expat dependent growing up in Africa. After I ran out of stories from those years in Africa the blog remained dormant for several years.

But, at the request of one of my readers, I’m back. I’ve renamed the site to encompass stories from other times in my life and observations that I think worth sharing. After learning that a life-long friend’s got Stage IV throat cancer, I decided to tell some stories before I too succumbed.

This first story, one which coincides with my early years in Africa, takes place in India. Because that day trip was itself a small part of a much grander trip, accounts from the rest of the voyage have been included.

Taj3

A Day Trip to Agra.

The year was 1962. My family had been living in Africa then for almost four years where father was stationed with the US State Department. As was the custom in those days, families got home leave for three months every two years. Our first home leave brought us home in the summer. This home leave was delayed and lengthened so that we could be home for Christmas. We left in late September and returned in January. Normally we would have flown up to Rome on Ethiopian Airlines and transferred to some US airline to fly back home crossing the Atlantic. Since none of us had ever been east of Africa, father decided to take us back home the long way flying from west to east. So, after arriving in Rome, we transferred to Pan American Airlines to take us across Asia and the Pacific. Pan American had two flights which circumnavigated the globe using Douglas DC-8s that both originated and ended in New York. One took the westward route, the other the eastward route. They were designated flights “1” and “2”. I don’t remember which number designation our flight was, just that it flew from west to east.

The first stop after leaving Rome was Karachi, Pakistan. We spent a day there, long enough to learn that Karachi was hot and dusty. We drove through an area where there were a number of large government buildings that dated from the time when Pakistan was part of India and the British Empire. Beyond that I recall very little except that working class men wore especially long khaki shirts which now seem a variation of the kanduras Gulf State Arabs wear.

The second leg of our journey took us from Karachi to New Delhi, India. Although we could have, rather than hop on the Pan American flight, we used Pakistani International Airlines instead. The aircraft was a Vickers Viscount, a turboprop that featured especially large oval windows which afforded incredible views of the countryside between the two cities. The flight lasted about three hours. When we arrived in New Delhi we were met by an embassy car and the Council General’s wife. For three days we would be guests of the Council General.

On our first full day in India, the Council General’s wife took us on a tour of both New Delhi and “Old” Delhi. While in New Delhi, we saw more grand buildings that dated from the time when India was part of the British Empire. Although similar in appearance to edifices that serve the same general purpose in the UK, their design suggests a Moghul influence. Then it was on to “Old” Delhi and the bazaars where I was treated to a tailor-made shirt. Once I selected the material and “cut”, the tailors immediately set about to rough-stitch it up for an initial fitting. On our third and final day in India, we went back to pick up the finished shirt after a quick final fitting. I recall, upon our return home noticing that the tailors inserted several dozen pins into that shirt before handing over the finished product. Ii was dark blue and I may have worn it twice.

On our second full day in India we hired a taxi for the day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It was a black Hindustan Ambassador manufactured in an Indian government-owned factory. Its design was based on a 1940s English design that hadn’t the slightest hint of air conditioning. Well, not exactly true, the four windows in the doors could be rolled down, but that let in flies.

The route to Agra took us through what seemed like endless dusty crowded chaos. I doubt the taxi ever got up to cruising speed for more than a kilometer. It was stop and go while weaving through thongs of agricultural workers the entire trip. But, in accordance with tradition, we stopped at a garden inn at around 11:00 am to take tea. Quite the respite from the chaos we’d been witness to. The palatial main structure appeared to have been built by the British late in the Nineteenth Century. It had a large terraced garden that featured a series of shaded outdoor seating areas. Peacocks roamed about. We were led to an agreeable seating area where waiters, attired in heavily starched white uniforms, served us tea and biscuits.

After tea, our trip to Agra resumed and after a brief drive, we arrived in Agra.

While in Agra we made three stops. The first was to the Taj Mahal. Upon entering the grounds, we were obliged to pay a nominal entry fee. From there we walked to one of the entry doors where we were obliged to remove our shoes and don a pair of sandals. The building was magnificent! It was clad in cut white stone that had been decorated with countless smaller brightly colored stones. Samples were on sale at the curio shops that surrounded the grounds. Pictured are a pair of drink coasters made in the same manner as was the Taj Mahal’s cladding by descendants of the original craftsmen.

Our second stop was to the curio shop that may, if memory serves, have been located in the main entry building. While there we purchased the photo album pictured above and the two drink coasters pictures below.

Taj2

I’m not sure but I think our third stop was to the Jahangiri Mahal, known as Agra’s main fort. From there we climbed back into the trusty Hindustan Ambassador for the return trip to New Delhi. Along the way we stopped briefly for a light lunch and refreshments.

On our final day in India, we returned to “Old” Delhi to pick up my tailored shirt and to purchase some brass furniture that was packaged and sent to our home in Africa. That night we flew from India on Pan American Airlines to Bangkok.

We stopped briefly in Bangkok, long enough to leave the aircraft for about an hour so the ground crew could tidy things up. While on the ground we were confined to an open pavilion surrounded by an open paddock. It was hot, perhaps as high as 45 degrees Celsius. There large aggressive ants. We were served refreshments. Then it was back on the plane for the next leg of our journey to Hong Kong.

We stayed in Hong Kong three days. Our hotel, the Merlin Palace was located in Kowloon within a few blocks of the Tong City. Since Hong Kong’s return to the PRC, both the Merlin and the Tong City have been demolished. While there my father and I walked over to the entry to the Tong City. It was guarded by two soldiers of the Queens Gurkha Guard and a British officer. The other thing my father and I did was get fitted for tailor made suits. Although it’s possible to get these stitched up in as little as 24 hours, ours took a little longer. My suit was cur in a blue surge. On our last day there we hired a custom-made junk ordered by some rich guy in California to take us to a floating restaurant on the far side of the island. Except for that junk trip, it rained the entire time we were in Hon Kong. One day, I don’t remember which, we took the ferry over to the main island and hired a taxi to take us up to Victoria Peak.

Our next stop, again for three days, was Tokyo where we were guests of the US Council General and his wife. I remember Tokyo as being cold, gray and crowded. At one point the Council General’s wife took us to Tokyo Tower where we were afforded panoramic views from the main observation deck. As we were walking about on that deck, a kimono clad grandmother offered her unexpired pay binoculars to look through. The Council General’s wife helped ne say “Thank you” in Japanese.

The next leg of our journey took us to Honolulu where we went through customs. Our stay there was brief, perhaps no longer than an hour. From there it was on to Los Angeles where we were to have stayed for just long enough to visit Disney Land. Shortly after we awoke the next morning we hired a cab to take us out to Disney Land, I don’t remember much. I was excited to drive the go-carts. At one point we went into a restaurant/store that was chuck fill of Disney Parks Merchandise. I ordered a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. And, as if on cue, I succumbed to a head cold. The hotel called a doctor to check me out. He asked my dad to keep us in Los Angeles for an additional day so that my head cold would pass fearing that additional air travel so soon might aggravate things.

The final leg of our flight took us to Appleton, Wisconsin. We were to have landed in Green Bay but an early snow obliged the pilots to divert to Appleton. We had to hire a taxi to take us to Green Bay. We gave a ride to one of the other passengers, an Indian engineer that had never been the US before. He’d also never seen snow before.

Upon our return to our US home town, we rented a cottage by the lake and I was enrolled in school with the same kids I’d been with in kindergarten. I got to and from school by bus and recall thinking during the Cuban Missile Crisis that we might all die. Christmas with the extended family was grand.

Written by GW Abert

December 27, 2018 at 08:21

Posted in Uncategorized

Bud’s Tree House

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BudsTreehouse

Bud’s Tree House was in a tree not too dissimilar from this.

While my family resided in Nairobi we befriended another American family who hailed from Texas. I’ve written about this family previously in other posts. They had a son who was a couple years my senior with whom I shared some adventures. Once we attempted to climb Kilimanjaro and another time we were lucky not to be eaten alive by swarming safari ants.

Bud built a tree house way up in a very tall tree. The house his family rented was on a large plot that was situated on the side of a very steep river valley. Unlike the valley the river was tiny, little more than a nasty grey stream of slow moving puss-like liquid that smelled like a sewage treatment plant. Not all of Africa’s rivers are as the Nile.

The trees that grew on the valley sides were really tall, at least 150 feet in height. But with the exception of the top most thirty or forty feet, their branches had all been cut off by servants who removed them for use as firewood. The servants typically only cooked one thing, a ubiquitous concoction of dense white cornmeal commonly called Posho (or in some circles Ugali). They were thoughtful enough to cut the branches off about a foot or so from the trunks so that they could utilize the stubs that remained to climb up to remove the branches that remained still higher up.

These stubs were adequate to allow Bud access to the canopy foliage as well. So, over a period of a couple months, Bud managed to set himself up with some rather nice digs atop an especially tall tree. It was way the hell up there, the base of that tree’s canopy at least 100 feet above ground. The tree house had several levels with the lowest perhaps ten or fifteen feet up into the canopy. There was an intermediate level a few feet above the lower level and an observation deck set amongst the topmost branches that Bud had trimmed to accommodate it. The various components, odd bits of lumber, a few bent nails and old rope, were more-or-less attached to the tree with some, though minimal, vigor. None of these levels were, well, level, as most had a decidedly unnerving slope to contend with. I don’t know if she was aware of it or not but Bud had managed to requisition some smaller pieces of the family’s furniture to take up there as well. He even jury rigged a block and pulley setup which allowed him to bring up supplies for extended stays.

I think we’d only known each other for a few weeks when he first spoke of his treetop abode. Naturally as soon as I learned of it I had to check it out. I had no idea what I was getting myself in for.

We walked from the house down the valley side to get to the tree’s base. The first few feet up that tree were pretty easy but then, once up about fifteen or twenty feet, the lack of foliage made the height daunting. About halfway up it got really difficult to keep climbing but Bud encouraged me by warning me not to look down. As long as I kept my focus on climbing things were OK. Eventually I got to the foliage where climbing got easier as there was more things to grab onto.

And then I looked down!

It seemed as though we were up about a mile. I spent a couple hours up there checking out the different levels and admiring the view from Bud’s “Observation Deck”. The intermediate level was equipped with a canvas canopy to protect Bud from rain. He had a small bookcase up there which contained a few of his most favored titles. There were some eating utensils and a small kerosene lamp. It was great!

And then it was time to descend!

It was really hard to descend without looking down and Bud had to talk me down the whole way. When we finally made it back to the ground our fathers and about half a dozen servants were waiting. Boy was that a relief!

But then, as nightfall approached, we came up with a truly brilliant idea: “Let’s spend the night up there!”

Awesome! Spending the night atop a really tall tree obliges some logistical preparation. Bud’s mother fixed us some sandwiches and we filled a couple canteens with water. We scrounged around and managed to locate a couple old sleeping bags. Bud’s father let us borrow his binoculars. Once assembled we set about to getting all that stuff up the tree. Bud scurried up and manned the block and tackle while I stayed below to secure things into a makeshift net. After a few minutes all was where it was supposed to be.

Except me!

Now it was my turn to go up that tree. It was a little easier this time because I was somewhat more familiar with layout to the branches and by that time the sun was already setting. I had to hurry because the sun sets really fast at the Equator. When I finally got to the top it was almost dark.

We talked story for a while and marveled at the night sky from the deck. We ate the sandwiches and drank some water. Then it was bedtime, time to roll the sleeping bags out on that deck. There was barely enough room for one sleeping bag let alone two, and if you rolled the wrong way you risked falling off into the night. No matter, after talking story for what seemed like a long time we descended into a deep slumber.

I awoke a few times and recall being somewhat disoriented until I remembered that I was in a tree but then realized that I had to relieve myself from atop that tree, an action not contemplated during the rigorous planning exercise that preceded our adventure. So, after some thought and trepidation, I decided to just relieve myself harmlessly into the night! Ha! Good thing it was only a No. 1 as I’d no idea how to handle a No. 2 from such dizzying heights!

The last time I awoke the sun had already risen and it was time to descend and return to the house for one of Bud’s mother’s excellent breakfasts. This time getting down was made somewhat more difficult because the branches were wet with the morning’s dew.

I never went up that tree again. I wonder if any remnants of Bud’s treehouse still remain after all the interceding decades.

Written by GW Abert

September 6, 2015 at 15:14

Posted in Uncategorized

The Queen Mum’s Visit

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QueenMum

For the entire time my family resided in Kenya it, along with the rest of East Africa, was a British Colony and part of the Commonwealth. A Union Jack flew over Government House and the realm was ruled by a colonial governor. Shortly after we left to take up residence in Rhodesia in 1962, Kenya, though still part of the Commonwealth, become an independent country. Since it’s often in the news and I know a lot of people who either live there or have relatives who do, it must be doing rather well.

They were then and still are given to driving on the wrong (left) side of the road. Although this doesn’t seem to be an issue in Kenya, I suspect that driving on the left side of the road may not be optimal given that drivers in India seem to have a difficult time adhering to any one side of the road long enough to garner an advantage. So much for thousands of years of civilization.

Back to Kenya…

Since there were no foreign community schools, my parents enrolled me in Nairobi Primary School. Because the British school system is somewhat more advanced than the US system I was obliged to be tutored over the Christmas-New Year’s holiday to catch up with my classmates. There was a compounding factor. The school year in Kenya coincided with the calendar year. So, even though I’d just started the second grade in a US school months earlier, the school year in Kenya ended just weeks after our arrival. Fortunately, unlike now, I was a quick study.

Most of my classmates were the sons and daughters of British expats who had been lured to the colonies by the prospect of inexpensive land and otherwise attractive businesses opportunities. By all appearances, most were doing rather well, far better than they would have been doing had they remained in the then still excessively socialistic UK.

School started promptly around 7:00 AM and concluded at 1:00 PM. There was a lot of emphasis on sports. In keeping with tradition, everything stopped for Elevenses (tea at 11:00 AM) when we were served tea and oversized slices of bread spread with butter and Marmite (nasty salt-laden concoction derived from an extract of yeast).

Just as was the case in the UK, things were subject to a discipline and order that was enforced with tennis shoes and cane switches. If you got out of hand the schoolmasters could whack your backside with a tennis shoe. If you were especially unruly they could ramp up the severity of the punishment by whacking your backside up to six times with a cane switch, a ritual commonly referred to as “Getting Sixies”.

Things were reasonably British, so much so that members of the royal family were given to visit from time to time. These visits occurred with some regularity. In fact the current reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, while still a princess, visited Kenya in 1952 and while staying at “Treetops” learned that her father, King George VI, had passed. So most were not surprised to learn when the Headmaster announced that we were all destined to greet Her Majesty the Queen Mother the following week.

When the appointed day arrived, shortly after arriving to school, we were marched by class to a fleet of busses that had been commandeered to transport us to the Nairobi Trade Fair grounds where we would see and hear Her Majesty from a grassy field. The trip didn’t take very long. Shortly after leaving school the busses turned onto Ngong Road for the two to three mile trip to the grounds. Once there we were ushered by class to sit cross-legged on the grass. When we first arrived the sun had some ways to go before reaching its zenith. If memory serves, I think our school may have been one of the first to arrive so we had to wait for almost an hour before all the other students had assembled, long enough for the sun to ascend high enough for it to be hot, so hot that some kids started to faint.

There were kids from every school for miles around Nairobi. There were kids from primary and secondary schools. There were kids from the European schools as well as the Indian and African schools. All told, there were thousands in attendance. And there in that field we all waited patiently for Her Majesty to arrive. And all the while we’re being baked to crisps.

After what seemed like an eternity, some school master stepped up to the dais to announce that the Queen Mother’s entourage was running a “bit Late’ and commanded us to exercise additional patience and keep the ruckus to a minimum. I think this may have happened more than once.

Eventually the royal entourage turned into the grounds and we were commanded to stand up and cheer Her Majesty’s arrival. This noisy pandemonium went on for quite some time as it took a long time for the Queen Mother to get from her car to the dais. And then, as she approached the microphone, somebody called us all into action by yelling out “Three Cheers for the Queen Mum!” Hip hip hooray, etc., etc. or so it went.

Finally, after those in attendance quieted down sufficiently, the Queen Mum spoke. She didn’t have much to say and from where I was standing, she was difficult to hear. I seem to recall that she thanked us all for being there and expressed hope that we’d all do well in school. Then there was another round of “Three Cheers” after which she and her entourage left the dais. The whole address lasted no more than two minutes. I don’t remember for sure, but I suspect we may have sung “God Save the Queen” while she was there.

And once she left it was time for us to return to our schools.

That was not the last time that my life was touched by the royals. About a year after seeing the Queen Mum, the Queen gave birth to Price Andrew, the Duke of York. And then, about four years later, while my family resided in Rhodesia, the Queen gave birth to Price Edward, the Earl of Wessex, an event of sufficient magnitude that the day was declared a school holiday. Yea! No school!

I can’t speak for you but the Queen Mum always seemed like a nice lady to me.

Written by GW Abert

August 23, 2015 at 14:21

Posted in Uncategorized

The Gulf of Tonkin Incident

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tonkin

In early 1964 father was ordered to move his operation from Salisbury to Cairo. Since he entered the Foreign Service, he’d been assigned to administer capital projects to upgrade diplomatic facilities throughout Africa. This had been ongoing since the early fifties. When first assigned, he was one of eight Foreign Service officers so tasked. In 1964, with much of the work complete, he was the only one left.

As there wasn’t room within the Embassy compound, office space was leased in a building immediately adjacent thereto. Father employed two people, the twin sister of one of the Embassy administrative aides to serve as receptionist and a local architect. From the office windows we could see into the compound below. To the south was the Embassy building proper set in a lush garden, appropriate since that part of Cairo is named “Garden City”. At the east end of the compound was an ornate palatial residence that housed the USIS Library (during the year we resided in Egypt students would be incited to burn it down). Immediately to our east was the Marine guard quarters that were hard not to notice since the Marines were given to loudly playing volley ball at what seemed like all hours of the day (and night).

That summer was noteworthy as it was the last one I experienced before my hormones decided to kick in. That was the summer I became a teenager. The year or so before males enter puberty is perhaps the last time we get to have some control over our mental faculties. Once the hormones kick in reason is shut out of the mix and things become much more complicated.

As it was summer, I was not yet in school. Later that year I would enter the eighth grade in Cairo American College. But for the time being, it was summer and since I’d little to do, I helped out in father’s office. Basically this obliged me to periodically fetch the mail from the communications suite and purchase the occasional hot dog from the Embassy canteen. I learned to hand draft and was set to work making ink on Mylar tracings of embassy and consulate plans.

The communications suite itself was strictly off limits as within it was an array of secretive communications gear. There was a wall of lockers that served the same function as would a bank of post office boxes. I would simply go down the hall to the locker assigned, insert the key and retrieve whatever had been placed within. Though there was at least one daily world brief, none of this stuff was classified. Whenever something classified did arrive, a card was placed in the locker that obliged father to come down and sign for whatever it was in person. This didn’t happen often.

But there was an interesting stretch of days when there were several world briefs. That was during the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. As was usually the case, I ventured down to the Embassy around 10:00 AM. There was the usual pile of teletype messages neatly arranged within a folder held shut by a piece of string wrapped around two plastic buttons. There were few envelopes and the latest copy of “ENR” (Engineering News Report). What set this bundle of messages apart was its thickness. Once the folder was opened it became apparent why. The daily world brief, normally a page of two in length, was at least ten pages long. It was that long because if gave a detailed account of what had happened earlier that day in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Over the next three days, these briefs were replaced by what seemed like hourly SITREPs (Situation Reports). Most of us recall what happened. A US Navy cruiser named the Turner Joy, on patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin, reported that it was under attack by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. Most of are also now aware that there may have been little substance to the basis for the “Incident”. Some speculate that LBJ wanted to show himself to be more hawkish so that he could win the November election. At that time however, the story told by that series of SITREPs was to me quite riveting. In retrospect I’d have to say that the story these SITREPs told was just a bit too tidy to not be told according to some prewritten script. But at the time, it seemed as though the “Good Guys” had been tested and had prevailed.

Collatio Tomi

Since first posting this, something occurred to me. On the second morning there were numerous SITREPs, perhaps one an hour. I remember that in at least two of them it was reported that flotillas of North Vietnamese torpedo boats were launched in what were alleged to be attacks on the Turner Joy. When this happened weapons were deployed to destroy the boats. Except for a few that managed to return to port towing other disabled boats, all were reported sunk.

There are other similar maritime patterns. When fishing fleets put out to sea they often do so in what could appear to a radar operator miles out at sea as a flotilla of torpedo boats. What if the first of these flotillas was actually a fishing fleet? That might explain why the first flotilla seemed to put up so little resistance. When a second flotilla put out to sea it reportedly attempted to assist the first flotilla. That second flotilla was also engaged and most of its vessels sunk. Perhaps the second flotilla was sent out to rescue those stricken from the first flotilla and no hostile actions was intended? Since most were sunk and most of the crew members now departed, we’ll probably never know. I wonder if the official US record still describes these flotillas as torpedo boats.

Written by GW Abert

June 22, 2015 at 16:27

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Our Extended Holiday in South Africa – Part 1

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durban_rickshaw_drivers

In late 1963 my sister came to visit us while we were living in Rhodesia. At the time she was working for a bank and enjoyed the company of an influential circle of friends. She drove a Porsche and apparently was doing rather well, well enough to take three weeks off of work to visit Africa.

Father decided to take us all on a grand tour that started with a run through Mozambique, an extended visit to the Kruger Game Park, the Natal Coast, Pretoria, Johannesburg and Cape Town. The return trip took us to East London and Port Elizabeth.

Lourenço Marques

Normally when traveling to South Africa we would have crossed the border at Beit Bridge, a small town just an hour or two south of Bulawayo, itself then a small town that served as market town and rail head for the European farmers who had settled in the region. This time we drove down to Beira, the larger of the two port cities in Mozambique, and then down the coast to Lourenço Marques (now known as Maputo).

I remember that it rained for most of the trip down the coast to Lourenço Marques. We were in for a bit of a treat when we got to Lourenço Marques. The city was host to a road rally. There were all manner of hussied up sports cars and the teams that supported them. The cars all had these cables that connected the front wheels to instruments attached to the dashboard. The teams consisted of the drivers and their navigators. The hotels were chuck full of Europeans who were either part of the rally teams or avid fans. Despite the continued rain, it was a very festive atmosphere. What’s more, my sister who was engaged to a race car driver at the time, had a very keen interest in road rallies. She knew the lingo having participated in rallies herself. Understandably, she got along very well with the other guests in the hotel where we stayed.

At my sister’s insistence, we stayed in Lourenço Marques for an extra day so that she could watch the rally and hob knob with the team members. While there, somebody turned her on to some kind of “special” local cigarette. Despite its special nature, it was perfectly legal and readily available. I don’t remember the brand or the color of the packaging, but she managed to buy a few packs prior to our departure.

After she started smoking these cigarettes, she was given to unusual behavior, the most obvious (to me) being her choice of cuisine at dinner. The last evening in Lourenço Marques the menu offered Curried Monkey Brains. I remember that she ordered and savored that dish.

Lourenço Marques was then and still is a very picturesque city. The hotel was located in an older quarter that featured a network of intimately scaled streets and Portuguese colonial edifices interlaced with wide formal avenues lined with what I’ve since learned are acacia trees. Even at the age of eleven I was left with the impression that the older colonial era buildings were especially well proportioned.

After leaving Lourenço Marques we headed to the Kruger Game Park where we spent one or two days before driving on to Durban. Whenever my sister was puffing away on these cigarettes she seemed unusually happy. Years later she would tell me that after she smoked one of these I would be transformed from an obnoxious eleven year old into a quite agreeable cartoon.

Durban (& the Natal Coast)

And then, just as we were arriving in Durban, she ran out of those special cigarettes. That’s when she started to become somewhat disagreeable and unusually short-tempered. Years later, based upon my own experiences, I’m able to speculate that whatever the active ingredient in these cigarettes was, it was either some form of cannabis or possibly narcotic in nature. So, while the rest of us thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in Durban, sister moped about in the spacious suite father booked in an ocean-front hotel.

That part of Durban actually didn’t have any ocean-front hotels per se, rather there was a Corniche with beach parks on the ocean-side and hotels on the opposite side. At one point we hired some elaborately attired Zulu tribesmen (pictured above) to cart us around on rickshaws. It wasn’t tourist season so we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

But sister still wanted some more of those Mozambican cigarettes. So she went down to the front desk and asked where they could be purchased. At first nobody knew what she was asking for but eventually one of their employees who was from Mozambique did. No, they weren’t available in Durban. By the time we left Durban for the drive up to Pretoria and Johannesburg she was getting very difficult to be around.

When we got to Pretoria we stopped by the US Embassy to see if anyone there knew how to get ahold of these cigarettes. Not only were they not sold in South Africa, although not specifically outlawed, they were frowned upon. Since my sister was quite insistent, father persuaded somebody on the Embassy staff to have somebody on the US Consulate staff in Lourenço Marques go out and purchase a carton or two and send them up in the diplomatic pouch.

Only years later did sister relate that father had been reluctant to have this done and was quite embarrassed at the time. All I can remember was that she had enough of those cigarettes to remain reasonably agreeable for the duration of her stay in Africa.

Post Script.

More recently while employed in the Emirate of Sharjah, I enjoyed the company of a coworker named Paulo who was born and raised in Lourenço Marques. As he is considerably younger than I, he refers to that city as Maputo. He carries with him a collection of photos of some of the more recent edifices, including some of the outstanding modernist works of Pancho Guedes. Paulo presently resides in the UK where he’s slogging through the Part 2 requirements to become an architect. He reports that though there are opportunities in the UK, the weather is dismal. He misses Mozambique where, using his words, the people are poor but everybody wears a smile. Before writing this piece, I asked him if he knew of those special cigarettes my sister had warmed to. He didn’t know and neither did his mother. It’s a pity I couldn’t remember much about them. It appears they’ve been lost to history.

Written by GW Abert

May 4, 2015 at 14:14

Ginger Ale?

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schweppes

This story ought to be at the end of my Africa tales since we were residing in Egypt at the time but there’s no need to start at the beginning. It’s very short. It’s raining here which means that there’s precious little Internet connectivity so there may not be enough time in a session to upload anything longer.

We’d been living in Egypt for almost a year when father got word that he was supposed to meet with another US diplomat on a ship that was scheduled to traverse the Suez Canal. The afternoon prior to the meeting we drove from Cairo to Port Said to await the ship’s arrival.

The next day we could make out the ship from the balcony of the hotel where we spent the night. As the harbor master flagged them in, the awaiting ships moved up to form the next convoy. Once settled in, it was possible for those ashore and those aboard to transfer via a harbor lighter. We took the lighter to reach the ship.

It was an English vessel although I cannot remember its name. Given the large number of Union Castle vessels then serving the east coast of Africa, I’d venture to guess that it was of that line. Once aboard we were ushered to vast sitting room within which was a lavishly stocked bar. The individual that father was to meet with appeared soon thereafter.

While there we ordered drinks and possible a bite to eat. Something impressed father about the ginger ale they served and he asked if he might purchase a case. “Certainly sir!” came the response. As we left the vessel, under father’s arm was tucked a case containing 24 small cans of Schweppes ginger ale.

Upon return to Cairo some of the cans were placed in the refrigerator to cool. Then, after waiting an appropriate period, we had some. We have ginger ale in the US but not like this. In fact the US version of Schweppes isn’t the same as the English variety. It wasn’t uncommon for kids to drink ginger ale in the US, but I suspect that kids in the UK didn’t consume the version produced there.

First off, it really had a punch! There was no doubting that you were drinking something that had some serious ginger in it. And one other thing: there was far less sugar. In short the US version was and continues to be light on the ginger and heavy on the sugar.

Written by GW Abert

April 20, 2015 at 08:31

Posted in Uncategorized