Jan. 10, 2014

Reading the Letters of the Dead

by Jennifer Michael Hecht

Why were the dead so timid while
they lived? In mind, they step in

groans; toes en pointe to test the sand.
Despite traversing seas and rushing

gold—they still seem cautious
to a madness. Why did they not act

more like us? I kid. Still, why were
the dead so timid while they lived?

"Reading the Letters of the Dead" by Jennifer Michael Hecht, from Who Said. © Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1901 that the first oil gusher in the United States erupted at Spindletop, just outside Beaumont, Texas. It was considered the beginning of the oil age or petroleum age.

In 1901, all of America's oil came from the East, mostly from Pennsylvania, and the experts were sure that Pennsylvania was the future of the nation's oil. The president of Standard Oil, John Archbold, was amused when someone told him in 1885 that they had discovered oil in Oklahoma — he said, "I'll drink every gallon of oil produced west of the Mississippi!" Ten years later, Texas had started producing respectable amounts of oil, and some oil tycoons sent in people to drill. But the results were small compared to Pennsylvania, and they quickly gave up and left. At this point, Standard Oil controlled more than 80 percent of the oil in the country.

Not everyone was surprised that there was oil in Spindletop, which most people from Beaumont called the Big Hill. Native Americans had been using it medicinally for centuries. Spanish explorers used it to waterproof their boots. And one man who lived near Spindletop was convinced that there was enough oil there to shift the focus from Pennsylvania to Texas, and even to replace coal as the primary energy source. His name was Patillo Higgins, and most people thought he was crazy. He was a determined, wiry man who had lost one arm in a gunfight. He finally convinced some local entrepreneurs to invest by promising them millions, but when he tried to drill, he came up totally dry. After that, townspeople sarcastically called him "the millionaire" and stopped taking him seriously. So Higgins ran an ad in a trade journal in New York City, promising the same thing. He only got one response, but that was all he needed. The Croatian-born oil explorer Anthony Lucas signed on, and they started drilling in late 1900. Finally, on this day in 1901, they hit a depth of about 1,200 feet, and natural gas started shooting out of the ground, followed by crude oil.

The oil gusher reached a height of 200 feet straight up in the air, and produced about 4.2 million gallons of oil every day for nine days. Over the course of those nine days, about 50,000 people observed the gusher. Within the year, the town of Beaumont went from 8,000 people to 60,000. That first Spindletop well produced as much oil as 37,000 Eastern wells combined, and by the end of 1910 there were more than 100 wells on Spindletop. Before 1901, oil and petroleum had been mostly for lamps — suddenly, it was the cheapest fuel, just three cents a barrel.

In all the political maneuvering that happened, Patillo Higgins got squeezed out by more powerful players, and Anthony Lucas usually gets most of the credit for discovering the Texas oil wells. Higgins ended up moving away, but until he was 90 years old he would regularly head out into the middle of nowhere with a pick and shovel and try to find more oil.

Bryan Burrough wrote a book called The Big Rich: The Rise and Fall of the Greatest Texas Oil Fortunes (2009), and he wrote about the big oil families: "In time their salad days dissolved into a sordid litany of debauchery, family feuds, scandals, and murder, until collapsing in a tangle of rancorous bankruptcies. Some survived, others didn't. A few count their millions today. As the movies say about almost every story set in Texas, theirs is a big, sprawling American epic, marked by exhilarating highs and crashing lows, and it all began, sort of, with a queer character named Patillo Higgins and that odd hump of dirt they called the Big Hill. History would know it as Spindletop."

It was on this day in 49 B.C. that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and launched a civil war.

At the time of Caesar's birth, in 100 B.C., the Roman Republic was falling into political chaos. It had only nominal control of its provinces, which were really under the command of their powerful governors. A few wealthy individuals were becoming increasingly corrupt, and they found it easier to settle political issues with the military than to try and honor Roman law. Caesar was born into a wealthy and well-known family, but one without much political clout. Caesar became the head of his family at the age of 16 after his father died, and he worked his way up quickly through various official positions and appointments — he was an assistant to the consul, a chief priest, a governor of Spain, and then consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic. He formed the "first triumvirate" with Pompey and Crassus — Pompey was a military hero who was frustrated with the politics of the Republic, and Crassus was one of the richest people in the Republic, and is still considered one of the wealthiest people who has ever lived. Even though Pompey and Crassus hated each other, Caesar convinced them that it was worth getting over their differences, because the power and wealth that the three men had together made them hugely influential. The Triumvirate was secured when Pompey married Caesar's daughter, Julia.

Caesar was appointed governor of Gaul — what is now France and Belgium, but at that point was part of the Roman Republic. There, he recruited soldiers and conquered most of Western Europe, all the way to Britain. But back in Rome, his political alliances were falling apart. Crassus was killed in battle, hating Pompey until the end. Pompey turned against Caesar, and after Julia died, Pompey got remarried to the daughter of one of Caesar's enemies. Pompey had been appointed the temporary leader of the Senate and was turning the Senate against Caesar, declaring him an enemy of state.

In 50 B.C., the Senate announced that Caesar's term as a governor had ended, and demanded that he disband his army and return to Rome. According to Roman law, if a general was accompanied by a standing army when he entered the official Roman Republic from one of the Roman provinces, he would be considered a traitor. Caesar was afraid that if he obeyed Pompey's orders and disbanded his army, he would be prosecuted by the Senate for abusing power in the past, and would have no one to defend him.

The Rubicon River formed the border between Gaul and the Roman Republic. According to legend, even when Caesar got to the river with his army, he had still not made up his mind about what he would do. With the famous phrase Alea iacta est, or "the die is cast," he decided to cross.

The historian Suetonius was born around 70 A.D., more than a century after Caesar crossed the Rubicon. He published a history of 12 Roman emperors, beginning with Caesar. Suetonius wrote: "Overtaking his cohorts at the river Rubicon, which was the boundary of his province, he paused for a while, and realizing what a step he was taking, he turned to those about him and said: 'Even yet we may draw back; but once cross yon little bridge, and the whole issue is with the sword.' As he stood in doubt, this sign was given him. On a sudden there appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed; and when not only the shepherds flocked to hear him, but many of the soldiers left their posts, and among them some of the trumpeters, the apparition snatched a trumpet from one of them, rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank. Then Caesar cried: 'Take we the course which the signs of the gods and the false dealing of our foes point out. The die is cast,' said he. Accordingly, crossing with his army, and welcoming the tribunes of the commons, who had come to him after being driven from Rome, he harangued the soldiers with tears, and rending his robe from his breast besought their faithful service."

With Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon, the Roman Republic was thrown into civil war. Eventually, Caesar defeated Pompey and his allies and emerged as the winner. As emperor, he made some radical changes in government. He decreased the power of the provinces, and centralized power in Rome. He eliminated much of the government's debt, disbanded powerful guilds, and rewarded people for having children in an effort to increase Rome's population. He set a term limit on governors, launched a huge rebuilding effort, established a police force, and modified the calendar. He made himself incredibly powerful and demanded that everyone revere him as part-deity.

Despite all he did and his huge legacy, Caesar's reign as emperor was short. He crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C., and he was assassinated in 44 B.C.

Because of Caesar, the phrase "crossing the Rubicon" has entered popular culture, meaning "past the point of no return." And it is used in all sorts of contexts. In various articles written last fall, Google was "crossing the Rubicon" for the online shopping industry by making it possible for shoppers to see which local stores carry the products they want, in their store, at that very moment; Subaru was "crossing the Rubicon to sedan-hood" with its switch away from a hatchback for one of its models; Joe Biden said, "I crossed the Rubicon about not being president and being vice president when I decided to take this office." Rubicon is the name of a recently terminated conspiracy thriller TV show, and Crossing the Rubicon is the title of an album by the Swedish band The Sounds. The Supreme Court justice Anthony Kennedy said, "Sometimes you don't know if you're Caesar about to cross the Rubicon or Captain Queeg cutting your own tow line."

It's the birthday of best-selling historian Stephen Ambrose (books by this author), born in Lovington, Illinois (1936). Ambrose's father was a Navy doctor during World War II, and the family followed him from post to post around the country until he was shipped overseas. The war ended, Ambrose's father came home and took up a private practice in Wisconsin, and Ambrose decided he'd take over when he grew up.

A pre-med student, he was annoyed when his state university requirements compelled him to take an American history class the second semester of his sophomore year. It was called, "Representative Americans," and was based on biographies of individuals throughout the country's history; the first class focused on George Washington. The professor said that the students would be completing their own biography of an unknown Wisconsinite, which they would have to use primary research from the state historical society to write. The result, the professor promised, would add to the sum of the world's knowledge.

"And that just hit me like a sledgehammer," Ambrose later said. "It had never before occurred to me that I could add to the sum of the world's knowledge." He changed his major to history, and at the end of the term wrote a 10-page biography of a Civil War-era one-term Wisconsin Congressman named Charles Billinghurst. Ambrose marveled that he was now the world's leading expert on Charles Billinghurst. "Now what I soon learned was, the reason for that was that nobody else cared about Charles A. Billinghurst," Ambrose laughed. But his next epiphany was what transformed him from a historian to a world-class storyteller: "But I can make 'em care if I tell the story right."

He became the biographer of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, he wrote a best-selling book about the Lewis & Clark expedition titled Undaunted Courage (1996), and wrote multiple books on WWII, like Citizen Soldiers (1997) and Band of Brothers (1992).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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