Patriotism In The Heartland: Columbia MO Rallies To Shield A Fallen Soldier’s Family From Anti-Gay Zealots

wyatt sterling funeral westboro baptist churchSamuel Johnson once said that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel and ordinarily, I agree with him – but not today. I was driving through downtown Columbia, Missouri, and witnessed a remarkable demonstration of community solidarity and patriotism that caused me to pull over off of the town’s main street.

There were thousands of ordinary people dressed in red, many of them holding large American flags, forming a human wall of solidarity around a church where Sterling Wyatt, an American soldier killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan was about to be laid to rest.

The huge crowd was galvanized to action by a tiny group of anti-gay zealots from the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, who believe that our soldiers are fighting and dying in Afghanistan to promote gay rights at home. When word got out in Columbia and the surrounding region that the Westboro nuts, who run an appalling anti-gay website, planned to protest at Wyatt’s funeral, scores of people organized on Facebook and other sites to protect Wyatt’s family from having to encounter the protesters.sterling wyattAccording to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Wyatt was a music lover who held a black belt in taekwondo and had just received a promotion four days before his death. The fact that he died so young is a monumental tragedy and everyone in the town seemed to recognize that he deserved a dignified burial. But no one could have predicted that he and his family would receive the warm embrace that they did.

I didn’t actually see the small group of protesters, but we saw the thousands who turned out in red to support the Wyatt family and the spectacle moved my wife to tears. Seeing all the flags and the red-clad people choked me up as well and I couldn’t help but conclude that the incident underscored what I love about America’s heartland.

In the small and medium-sized towns, in what some derisively call fly-over country, values, community and patriotism are still paramount. The fact that thousands of people would turn out on a day when the temperatures were in the mid 90s, to express support not for the war, but for one local family suffering the loss of their 21-year-old son is remarkable.

sterling wyatt funeralI talked to a married couple outside the church that were decked out in St. Louis Cardinals attire and they said they were so appalled by the idea of anyone protesting at a funeral that they decided to turn out to show solidarity with the Wyatt family.

“We want them to know they’re not welcome here,” the man said, referring to the Westboro protesters. “Columbia is kind of a big, small town, and we support each other here.”

According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, the Wyatt family came out of the church at one point to greet and hug the red-clad supporters. I didn’t see that moment, nor did I see any of the Westboro protesters, who apparently only stuck around for about 45 minutes, but what I did see made me proud to be an American.

Sometimes it’s easy to conclude that the whole country is lost, hopelessly adrift – especially after the tragedy in Colorado. But on this day I saw a community rally around a family in the name of decency and honor. If that’s not what America’s all about, then I don’t know what is.

Meramec Caverns: The Coolest Attraction On Route 66


If you want to beat the heat this summer, there’s no better way to do that than to explore a cool and beautiful cave.

Missouri is one of the best states to see them. A combination of lots of limestone and plenty of water has honeycombed the state with some 6,000 caves, from tiny little crawl spaces to grand and glorious show caves. One of the most popular is Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, on Route 66.

Like many caves, it was first used by Native Americans. In the 18th century, French explorers mined the cave for saltpeter, an ingredient used in making gunpowder. Saltpeter Cave, as it was then known, became tactically important in the Civil War. Union troops were stationed there mining the saltpeter until 1864, when Confederate guerrillas attacked them, drove them off, and destroyed the works.

The cave didn’t become a public attraction until the 1890s, when dances were held in the main gallery, appropriately called “The Ballroom.” Showman Lester Dill bought it in 1933, renamed it Meramec Caverns after the nearby river, and opened it to the public. He systematically explored the cave and discovered several impressive chambers. Soon people were flocking to see the stalactites and stalagmites, and beautiful stone drapery that looks like giant curtains. The action of the water depositing minerals on the walls had created amazing shapes and contours on every spot.

%Gallery-158676%Dill decided to create some clever advertising by linking the cave to Jesse James. He claimed it was one of his gang’s hideouts, although James scholars dispute this. The Jesse James/Meramec Caverns legend got a shot in the arm when the public became aware of a man claiming to be the real Jesse James, still alive and spinning a tale about how he faked his own death. Actually this old coot was named J. Frank Dalton and had one time passed himself off as Billy the Kid.

Local booster Rudy Turilli brought “Jesse” to Meramec Caverns to celebrate his 103rd birthday on September 5, 1950. This brought in a huge amount of publicity and Turilli offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he didn’t have the real Jesse James. The James family took him to court and won. Turilli never paid the $10,000.

The tour and the nearby Jesse James Wax Museum explain this conspiracy theory in detail. The whole experience is fun and a bit cheesy, having the roadside appeal of The Thing? and South of the Border. There’s no denying the natural beauty of the cave itself, and beyond the showbusiness aspect of the place that’s its real appeal.

While you’re in Stanton also check out the Riverside Reptile Ranch to meet all sorts of creepy creatures, and take a ride on the Caveman Zipline.

Museum Month: Madness And Badness At Psychiatric And Crime Museums

michael myersIt’s no secret amongst my friends (and I suspect, most of my readers) that I’m obsessed with the more sordid aspects of humanity. Why? Hell if I know. As with most things, I blame my dad, the veterinarian. I’m pretty sure a childhood spent playing necropsy assistant has something to do with it.

My love of forensics is only the tip of the iceberg: psychiatry, taxidermy, eating weird shit and serial killers also make my list of fun things to read about or watch documentaries on when it’s time to relax. I know – I’m a total freak.

Obviously, I’m not alone (do a quick Google search of “forensic television shows” and you’ll see what I mean). There are also scads of museums and the like devoted to the seamier side of life, all across the U.S. My picks, after the jump.

P.S. If you find this reprehensible yet you’ve read this far, well, that makes you a bit of a voyeur, as well. Embrace it, and click away.nurse ratchedGlore Psychiatric Museum
A part of the St. Joseph Museum located in St. Joseph, Missouri, the Glore was once housed in “State Lunatic Asylum No. 2.” Founded by George Glore in 1903, the museum is essentially a history of the treatment of mental illness (including keepsakes from patients that include “items ingested” and contemporary artwork). There are also interactive exhibits, replicas and documents. Expect to see everything from lobotomy instruments to treatments for patients “possessed” by witchcraft or demons.

Glore worked for the Missouri Department of Mental Health for nearly 41 years, and despite the thematic content, his museum contains what’s considered the largest and most well curated exhibition of mental health care in the U.S. According to its website, Glore’s goal was to “reduce the stigma associated with psychiatric treatment for patients, their families and their communities.”

The Glore Psychiatric Museum is located at 3408 Frederick Avenue, and is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays 1 to 5 p.m. – closed on major holidays.
CSI
The National Museum of Crime and Punishment
Washington, D.C.‘s “Crime Museum” opened in the Penn Quarter neighborhood in 2008, and boasts 28,000 square feet packed with artifacts, interactive exhibits, including an FBI shooting range and high-speed police chase simulator, and forensic techniques ranging from ballistics analysis to facial reconstruction. There are also historical exhibits focused on colonial crime, pirates, the Wild West, the Mafia and serial killers, and law enforcement uniforms, firearms and other equipment.

Other educational offerings include public forensic workshops, CSI summer camps for teens (it’s never too early to become the next Marg Helgenberger, kids) and rotating exhibits. Don’t forget your night vision goggles.

The Crime Museum is located at 575 7th Street NW, Washington D.C, and is open seven days a week. Hours vary by season. Click here for details. If you’re traveling by Metro, take the Green, Yellow or Red lines, and get off at the Gallery Place/Chinatown station.

[Photo credits: Michael Myers, Flickr user Chepe Leña; Crime Museum, Wikipedia Commons]

Five Places To Anchor Yourself In Titanic History

“Titanic” 3D hit cinemas this week just in time to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the ship’s fateful voyage. But the box office isn’t the only place you can pay tribute to the ship. Two new Titanic museums are opening up just in time to celebrate the ship’s anniversary, and there are many other places that are keeping the ship and its passengers’ legacy afloat. Below are some places where stories of the Titanic live on.

Titanic Museum Attraction
Branson, Missouri
You can’t miss the Titanic Museum Attraction in Branson, Missouri mostly because of its massive size and shape (even among all of Branson’s other over-the-top attractions). The exterior is designed to replicate the ocean liner, complete with an iceberg at the museum entrance. Inside, guests receive a “passenger boarding ticket” with the name and story of an actual Titanic passenger (the idea is to find out if you survived or perished through the course of your stay). The museum also has displays about what each class looked like, as well as plenty of authentic Titanic memorabilia including lifejackets, deck chairs and letters. The museum will hold a special musical tribute to the Titanic on Saturday, April 14, the 100th anniversary of the night the ship fatally struck an iceberg. Descendants of actual Titanic passengers are expected to attend and there will be a lighting of an eternal flame during the tribute. The attraction also has a sister museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.Maritime Museum, Southampton
Southampton, England
The goal of this soon-to-be-debuted museum is to tell Southampton’s side of the Titanic story. One of England’s largest passenger ports, the Titanic left from Southampton on its maiden voyage and the city lost 500 residents when the ship sank. The museum will explore the lives of the working-class crew as well as the impact their tragedy had on families back home in Southampton. Visitors follow the careers of cooks, stewards and watchmen, and the tour culminates in a teary-eyed video featuring recordings from survivors.

Titanic Belfast
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Another newbie to the crop of museums is the Titanic Belfast Visitor Center opened last Saturday to celebrate the birthplace of the Titanic. The museum is located in the heart of Belfast on one of the slipways where the ship was built. Now the world’s largest museum dedicated to the Titanic, the $160-million center looks similar to the Sydney Opera House with four prows of the ship jutting out in different directions. The museum houses exhibits where visitors can learn about the construction of the ship as well as the rich story of Northern Ireland’s maritime heritage. At the time of writing, tickets were already sold out through April 16.

Titanic Historical Society Museum
Indian Orchard, Massachusetts
The oldest Titanic museum in the U.S. is the Titanic Historical Society Museum in Massachusetts. At the entrance of the museum visitors are greeted with a 9-foot model of the ship. Inside, Titanic fanatics will find artifacts from the ship and its passengers, many of which were donated by survivors. Highlights include the lifejacket of the wealthy John Jacob Astors, original blueprints of the ship, a rivet from the ship’s hull, a carved oak chair from the ship’s dining room and even the wireless message received by the Titanic that stated the location of the fatal iceberg (it never made it to the bridge of the ship).

The Jane Hotel
New York, New York
For a little slice of Titanic history that is closer to home for many of our readers, stop by the ballroom of the Jane Hotel. Known for small, ship cabin-esque rooms and discount prices, the hotel is actually anchored to the ship’s past. Back when it was known as the American Seaman’s Friend Society Sailors’ Home and Institute, the hotel put up surviving crew members after disaster struck. A private memorial was held in the hotel on April 19, 1912. Today it remains a respite for weary travelers. The hotel will be offering two signature cocktails that commemorate the Titanic anniversary in its ballroom: the Bourbon-based “Unsinkable Molly Brown,” in honor of the only woman to row a boat to safety after the tragedy, and the Champagne-based “ST-705,” named as such for the 705 passengers that survived.

Images (top to bottom) courtesy the Titanic Museum Attraction, Titanic Belfast and The Jane Hotel.

Peru’s Mysterious Animal-Shaped Mounds

Peru, effigy mound
It’s always an odd experience to see a familiar name in the news. Dr. Robert Benfer was a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia when I was getting my master’s in archaeology. I was studying the early medieval Europe while he taught about prehistoric Peru, so our paths didn’t cross much, but I did go to some of his lectures. I especially remember his skewering of the controversial book “The Bell Curve” for its shoddy use of statistics.

Dr. Benfer has announced that he has discovered several effigy mounds in Peru — artificial hills in the shapes of birds, including a giant condor, a 5,000-year-old orca, a duck and a caiman/puma monster.

“The mounds will draw tourists, one day,” Benfer said in a university press release. “Some of them are more than 4,000 years old. Compare that to the effigy mounds of North America, which date to between 400 and 1200 A.D. The oldest Peruvian mounds were being built at the same time as the pyramids in Egypt.”

An interesting aspect of this discovery is that it shows how science works, and occasionally doesn’t work. Because it was thought there were no effigy mounds in Peru, nobody looked for them. Benfer himself admits to not seeing one that was right in front of him. Once he noticed several animal-like patterns on Google Earth, however, he rethought his assumptions. He set out to survey six valleys and found effigy mounds in all of them. Another old theory is discarded in the face of new evidence.

Some of the mounds are more than 1,000 feet long and are only clearly visible from above, much like Peru’s famous Nazca Lines. Dr. Benfer suggests they may represent the Andean zodiac. Indeed, many appear to have astronomical alignments. A giant condor’s eye, for example, lines up with the Milky Way when observed from a nearby temple.

Dr. Benfer’s discovery has been published in the journal Antiquity and he is heading back to Peru this summer to look for more effigy mounds.

Photo courtesy Dr. Robert Benfer. More photos, including Google Earth images, can be seen here.