Posted by: Don Bemis | August 9, 2017

A Toast to the Lager Beer Riot!

‘Tis time to raise a toast to the Lager Beer Riot of Chicago.

The 1845-1849 Irish Potato Famine resulted in Ireland losing a quarter of her population to starvation, disease, and emigration.  Many of them came to the United States and were made most unwelcome.  After all, they were poor and hungry, and their English, although English, was hard to understand.  Most of them also were Catholic, which didn’t sit well in a land largely ruled by Protestants.  What would they do if the Pope told them to do one thing, but the American government expected them to do otherwise?

Then there were the Germans.  Germany was modernizing and mechanizing, leaving traditional German farmers behind.  They, too, flocked to the United States, clustering in places like Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest.  They were mostly farmers, not barons of industry.  Sure, a lot of them were Lutherans or Anabaptists instead of Catholics, but they couldn’t speak English.  How could you know what they were saying?

But they could drink beer, and so did the Irish.  When people thought of Irishmen and Germans, they thought of beer.

That wasn’t all people thought of, though.  Immigrants were unpopular.  They took jobs away from good Americans; never mind that the jobs were available because good Americans didn’t want to do them.  “No Irish Need Apply” signs were posted right by the “Men Wanted” signs.  And the Germans were just thickheaded; fine if you needed something heavy moved from Point A to Point B, but nobody to lean on if finesse was called for.

Enter the American Party.  Founded in 1849, they had no use for foreigners and Catholics, who might be secretly plotting the takeover of the United States.  However, secrecy was okay if you were a member of the American Party.  It was a secret organization.  If members were questioned about it, they would reply, “I know nothing.”  That is where the party got its more common name: the “Know Nothings.”

Fade to Chicago, Illinois.  It was already an industrial powerhouse, hub of rail and shipping on the northern coast of America’s breadbasket.  The iron industry was beginning to take off.  Immigrants swarmed in.  They might not be popular, but there was plenty of work to be done.  That meant Irish, Germans, and Beer.  There was a law on the books prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sundays, but it was largely unenforced.  One could discuss the merits of the law over a pint at pretty much any liquor establishment in the city on any Sunday afternoon.

In 1855, Chicago elected a new Mayor:  Dr. Levi Boone, great-nephew of Daniel Boone, veteran of the Black Hawk War (on the winning side), father of eleven, graduate of Transylvania University in Kentucky, and Know-Nothing.  Seven Know-Nothing aldermen also were elected.  Unsurprisingly, they had run on an anti-immigrant platform and prevailed with 53% of the vote.  There was some suspicion that votes from German neighborhoods weren’t counted, but who knows?

Mayor Boone reorganized the Chicago police and gave them uniforms.  Foreign-born persons need not apply.  There was no such thing as the Irish beat cop.  Not in Chicago.

One of the police department’s first tasks was enforcement of the Sunday closing law.  One day of the week, Chicago’s good citizens wouldn’t have to look at inebriated foreigners.

The City Council raised the annual price of a liquor license from $50 to $300.  That would be tidy revenue from an untidy business.  The licenses would only run for three months at a time, so problem establishments and their unruly clientele could be more quickly shut down.  For some reason, people perceived a slight against the Germans in particular and the Irish by extension.

On April 21, 1855, the police arrested a number of tavern keepers for being open on Sunday.  It was a Saturday, but maybe the idea was that the 22nd would be more sober.  Other tavern keepers might take the hint.

The clientele was miffed.  A mob of miffed clientele stormed toward downtown Chicago to express their displeasure, and Mayor Boone ordered the bridges opened so they couldn’t get into town.  At that time, the river bridges were mostly swing bridges, not the bascule bridges that grace the Chicago River today.  This left a number of people stranded on the bridges.  Somebody on the Clark Street bridge shot a policeman in the arm.  This wasn’t terribly bright, since the shooter wouldn’t be going anywhere, and the cops also had guns.  The shooter lost his life, and the policeman lost his arm.

No other lives were lost.  Mayor Boone didn’t run for a second term.  The Irish, Germans, and everybody else are still drinking, even on Sundays.

It wasn’t the end of anti-immigrant sentiment, though.  Sixteen years later, the Great Chicago Fire began in or near the barn of an Irish immigrant named Catherine O’Leary.  A Chicago Tribune reporter claimed that her cow had kicked over a lantern while it was being milked.  (The cow, not the lantern.)  He eventually admitted fabricating the story, but the damage was done.  The fire was variously blamed on a drunken Mrs. O’Leary, her tavern keeper son playing craps with friends in the barn, or an Irishman stealing milk, among other things.  The reality was that Chicago was built almost entirely of wood, even the sidewalks, there was a severe drought, there already had been other fires, and the fire department reported to the wrong address after the first alarm.

Fast forward 89 years.  An Irish-American runs for President.  His father had done well in the importing business during Prohibition.  Some fear that the son will listen too much to the Pope.  The son is elected anyway, in a squeaker that hinged on the Chicago Democratic machine and its Irish-American Mayor.

Fast forward another 56 years.  The grandson of a German immigrant is elected President, in large part due to his opposition to immigrants.

Maybe we should all celebrate the Lager Beer Riot next April 21.  Take the day off work.  It’ll be a Saturday.

(Full disclosure notice:  I have plenty of German and Irish blood myself.)

Posted by: Don Bemis | February 10, 2017

A True Tale

I write fiction for fun.  Profit would be nice, too, but no dice.  Fiction involves something that seems like it could be true, but isn’t.  A phone company did the opposite to me this week.

I received a “large withdrawal” alert from our credit union two days ago, so I asked Lois that evening if she had spent $336.21.  No.  When I called the next morning, they found that the transfer was to a large communications company with whom we have never done business.  I’ll use a fictional name referring to imaginary call centers in Albania, Trinidad, and Tobago.

The credit union asked me to contact the company to see if the problem could be resolved from that end.  Thus began two hours of frustration.

I finally managed to get through the “please press or say” maze, which is harder if you can’t punch in an account number.  The representative was nice, but apologetic.  They couldn’t investigate my case because I didn’t have an account with them.  If I would go to the local Albania Trinidad & Tobago store and open an account, then they could investigate.  And they have some really good offers right now.  Thank you, said I, but no.

I told this to the credit union representative, who asked if there was an e-mail or other address so they could send a report.

Back through the maze, more hold time with bad music, and finally a real person.  You would think I had asked for the CEO’s Social Security number.  “I’m not authorized to give out that information!”  She wouldn’t even take down my routing information so they could track down the problem.  “We can’t give out people’s account information!  We value our customers’ privacy.”

“I don’t WANT anybody’s account information!  I want to give information to track a problem!”

“But you said you wanted information.”

“I want an address that my credit union can contact, not somebody’s account information!”

“So you do want information.  I can’t give information.  It’s your bank’s responsibility to correct the problem, not ours.”

“You are taking money that I have not authorized you to take!  Connect me with the fraud department!”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”

She finally relented enough to give the main Albania Trinidad & Tobago number, and I fought my way through another maze and more wretched music.  (Side note:  Is there a science to making music so bad people will hang up?)

“Fraud,” said a detective-sounding voice.

“I want to report an unauthorized transfer of my money to your company.”

“You have the wrong department.”  Before I could argue, he switched me to Accounts Receivable.

So I got to tell the umpteenth person that I didn’t have an account number and never had an account with  Albania Trinidad & Tobago, and …



“Not ever?”


“A landline?”


“Cell phone?”




“Cable TV?”

“I don’t HAVE a TV!”

That stopped her.  What sort of weirdo was I?  Finally she suggested, “We have a good cable offer going on right now.”

She really said that.

That’s when I said a few things about interstate commerce and federal regulators, and hung up.  Then I called the credit union again.  The lady asked, “Can you hold for a couple of minutes?”  A little later, she returned and said they had confirmed the phone company had the  wrong tracking number.  They credited my account and cancelled the transaction.

Yesterday evening, I got another $336.21 alert, but the money stayed put.  The credit union told me this morning that they had put a stop payment order on our friends.  They cautioned me, though, that if our friends changed the transaction number by even a little bit (and some do this), the stop payment wouldn’t notice it.  They recommended closing that checking account, and we have done so.

Full disclosure statement:  Some of the quotes may be off by a few words, but they are otherwise 100% accurate.  After all, this involved close to ten people (I never got the same one twice), it went on over two hours, and I wasn’t recording.  They said they might record, for training purposes.  Maybe I should ask them for copies.


Posted by: Don Bemis | August 6, 2016

My political diatribe (the last, I hope)

Dr. James Dobson is a respected Christian child psychologist.  I am a Christian who usually (but not always) votes Republican.  I don’t feel compelled to vote for Donald Trump, even if Dr. Dobson and a host of others endorse him.

Christianity, Islam, atheism, and all other religions are afforded equal protection under our Constitution – on paper.  The reality is that liberties Christians have enjoyed are being taken away.  The erosion has accelerated over the last several years, but Republicans are not immune to the same temptations as Democrats.  Mr. Trump proposes to deny entry and religious protections to Muslims.  Christians can expect the same treatment as soon as our concerns irritate him.

A Democratic Presidency can only continue past practices if Congress allows it.  If Republican Senatorial and House candidates can demonstrate integrity to oppose their party’s choice for President, they may yet hold Congress.  They were not chosen by the Republican Convention.  If Clinton wins the election, a Republican Congress could continue to restrain Presidential excesses to some degree.  If Trump wins, he will see to it that opposition in his own party is removed, as shown by his stance on Ryan, Kasich, and McCain.  There will be no stopping him.  Ditto for the Democrats, if they take both the Presidency and Congress.

Adolf Hitler ran on a platform of morality, “making Germany great again”, xenophobia, and fear.  Does this sound familiar?  Although some Christians supported him, Christianity was repressed shortly after he was elected.  There still were some churches, but they were forced to support the government.  Dissidents were removed, jailed, or worse.  To this day, the story of Christian resistance is papered over by memories of the acquiescent “churches” that Hitler ruled.

If there still are free elections in the United States in 2020, a disastrous experience with the Trump administration could backfire not only on conservatism and the Republican Party, but Christianity.  France, maybe the most secular nation in Europe, is an example.  The Catholic Church and the Monarchy were so intertwined that the French Revolution swept one away with the other.  (Mexican church-state relations are not much different from France, for the same reasons.) 

Political parties are not Constitutional entities.  The dismal choices that both major parties made this year cry out for reform in the selection of candidates.  Be sure, though, that leaders of both parties will fight for the status quo.

Finally, Christians, remember who we are.  We are ruled by the Triune, Eternal God of the Universe, regardless of whom is President at any given time.  The Bible says nothing about “Conservative values” or “Progressive values”.  The early Church flourished in the face of gross sin and murderous hostility.  Even if the Church were outlawed tomorrow and we were threatened with extermination, the Lord still would prevail.  He has promised.

Posted by: Don Bemis | December 10, 2015

View from Room 19149


I have six days off.  Last week, as we were taking Lois’s mom back to the airport, Lois asked me, “Do you have any plans for next week?”

“Not really.  We could spend a night at the Palmer House.”

“That sounds good.”

There were 22 people in our house for Thanksgiving.  We had a great time, but a bit of quiet sounded like a good idea afterward.

The Palmer House is the second largest hotel in Chicago, in the Loop near the Art Institute, Orchestra Hall, and Millennium Park.  The original Palmer House opened thirteen days before the Great Chicago Fire and lasted for thirteen days.  It was rebuilt shortly afterward.  The “modern” version was constructed during the Roaring Twenties.  The vaulted lobby ceiling is painted with classical scenes, naked ladies, and other ladies with wardrobe difficulties.  Bertha Palmer, the first owner’s wife, believed romance was good for business.  There’s a sculpture of Romeo and Juliet (clothed) inside the main entrance for that reason.  Bertha probably had the romance in mind, not associated poisonings and stabbings.

Bertha also invented the chocolate brownie.

Famous entertainers – most of them dead now – performed in the Empire Room.  It’s still there, and we peeked in, but there were no famous entertainers living or dead.

On Tuesday morning, we drove ten miles to Bangor, ate breakfast at the train station, and boarded about 7:40 Michigan time.  We arrived in Union Station about 9:30 Chicago time.  We walked eight blocks to the hotel, dropped off our backpacks, and ambled three blocks to Marshall Fields.  The owners think it’s a Macy’s since they bought it, but it’ll always be Marshall Fields in Chicago.  It’s like the Willis Tower, which we all know is really the Sears Tower.

I had selected the room online after checking Google Earth for the best potential view at our price.  Room 19149 is a corner room with windows on two sides, facing away from the lake.  We got kind of a reflection of the sky over the lake.  Thanks to taller high rises, you can’t see the lake from the hotel.

We had a noontime dinner at Russian Tea Time, a block from the hotel.  The food was great, as always.  They have really good vegetarian dishes, but we were feeling carnivorous.  Lois had Moldavian meatballs, and I had pork strudel with kielbasa.  We both got beets, of course, and tea. And more tea.  If your cup goes down an inch, a waiter swoops in to top it off.

After we slept off the lunch, we wandered to Millennium Park to see the Christmas tree and the Bean.

On Wednesday, we mostly skipped breakfast and had a big lunch at Lockwoods in the hotel.  The return train would leave at 6:30, so there would be no time for a leisurely dinner.  Then we walked back to Union Station, stopping off now and again at a tea shop, bookstore, or clothing store.  We also visited a hundred foot tall baseball bat sculpture in front of the Social Security building.

But first, we bought a rolling duffel in Target, where Carson-Pirie-Scott used to be.  The things we had acquired were getting a bit heavy for an eight block hike.

The weather was perfect.  It was a good thing, because we walked about five miles all told.

We got back home about 10 Wednesday night.  We’re already thinking about what we would like to visit next time.

Posted by: Don Bemis | November 30, 2015

The Refrigerator Carol

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge in a pear tree.


On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge sandwich ‘neath a pear tree.


On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge salad with a pear vinaigrette.


On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge casserole with a pear slice.


On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge quiche with a pear glaze.


On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge loaf with a pear sauce.


On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge soufflé with a pear dressing.


On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge pudding with a pear gravy.


On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge and pear smoothie.


On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A partridge ice cream with pear topping.


On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A pair of partridge bone toothpicks.


On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me

A gift card for Mister Steak.

Posted by: Don Bemis | October 11, 2015

Michigan Midges

It was such a beautiful day that Lois and I walked to the lake and then downtown for lunch.  Bugs were the only problem.

On nice, breezy days (which this was), Michigan midges swarm the beaches.  They aren’t everybody else’s wimpy little insects, but man-eaters.  Shortly after I took this picture, the uppermost midge snapped a person right off the North Pier.

20151011_135121 (2)

Posted by: Don Bemis | June 8, 2015

What do you get when you cross a beaver and a giraffe?


Posted by: Don Bemis | May 31, 2015

Michigan Fauna Update

I took down the raccoon demoralizer an hour ago, but first I jiggled a string to test it.  It would have scared me if I were a raccoon: crashing buckets and lots of water, not to mention a spider web of strings.

We shouldn’t complain too much about the raccoon.  It could be worse.  A bear recently mistook bird feeders for bear feeders a couple of miles from town (they sound sort of the same if you’re hungry enough), and a security camera thirty miles south filmed a cougar dragging a deceased deer. We don’t know if it plans to mount the antlers or not.

And the mermoles bagged their first mole of the season last night.

Posted by: Don Bemis | May 30, 2015

Revenge of the Moles

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my Raccoon Behavior Modification Kit.  Nothing has happened since then.  Maybe it worked.  The best I can figure, the raccoon watched me build it, laughed, and said to itself, “Silly human!”

Eventually I will take it down, and the raccoon will reclaim our deck as a toilet.  Unless, of course, it decided to find a more convenient facility.  From what we heard the night it went up the wall, that spindly ivy ladder was not an easy climb.  You can sympathize if you’ve ever been stuck in a traffic jam while your kidneys are working overtime.

We still have a raccoon, but it’s gone on to bigger crimes.  That’s where the moles come in.

Several moles and a vole came to a watery end last year in the fishpond, presumably enticed by shimmery golden mermoles.  Late last fall, we brought both mermoles (a.k.a. goldfish) inside so they wouldn’t freeze, and they spent the winter in the library.  Sort of a fish Florida.  Fish are sociable creatures, and they’re willing to accept people as funny looking fish as long as we feed them.  Whenever I sat in front of the computer, they’d bang their heads against the nearest wall of the tank to shame me into feeding them again.  It generally worked.

Now it’s spring.  Squirrels skitter, birds chirp, and mosquitoes spawn.  We got the pond pump running and took our finny friends outside.  All of the mosquito wrigglers were gone in three days.

Then tragedy struck.

Lois and I went out yesterday morning to say hi to the fish, but there were no fish!  The pond was empty except for a few inches of sludge and dead leaves in the bottom.  The growling pump was slurping air.  The top of the fountain was knocked sideways, and virtually all of the water in the pond had been pumped over the edge.  A tiny golden glimmer in the muck revealed the resting place of one mermole. The other was missing entirely.  The best we could tell, a raccoon had gone fishing.

How do you get attached to a fish?  It happens.  I ran a couple of inches of water into the sludge pit so I could clean it out later.  Then I headed into the basement for some leftover cement to make the fountain untippable.  If we did not repair the damage and get new fish, mosquitoes would carry us away.

Half an hour later, I went back out, and a fish was swimming back and forth.  So I added more water.  It was city water right out of the hose, and the chlorine might be a problem, but chlorinated water is better than no water at all if you’re a fish.

Then I pulled the pump from the muck and started scooping with a kid’s beach shovel.  One scoopful wiggled.  It was the other fish.

Today it is raining.  Hard.  They say we may have flooding.  The fish think it’s great.

Here is what I think happened:

As soon as the moles discovered that the mermoles were back, they contracted a raccoon to take them out.  While he was at it, he could empty the pool.  Life would be happy for everybody but the mermoles.

It was a failure.  Mermoles are tough to kill.

Posted by: Don Bemis | May 25, 2015


(I entered this story in a writing contest for a fund-raiser to restore the South Haven south pier head light.  The story didn’t win first place, but it was published anyway.  Here it is, slightly altered.  That’s the trouble with stories; they’re never quite finished.)


(c) 2015 by Don Bemis

It was a perfect day for a sunset.  Scattered purple clouds trimmed with red and gold drifted high above sparkling waves.  Vapor trails streaked the bright August sky like comets bound to and from Chicago.  If one looked closely, one might see the flash of reflected sunlight from an airplane at the point of a stripe.

Cruisers and sailboats dotted the lake.  The Friends Goodwill presided over them, its puffed sails and flapping pennants dark against the sky.  The long, low line of the pier, topped by black filigree of an iron catwalk, directed eyes from shore to the red South Pier Light.  On shore, photographers lined the bluff and the beach forty feet below.

Clusters of sightseers ambled westward on both the North and South Piers, drawn like moths toward the setting sun.

I was a moth that day.  Family friends, up from the Southwest, had to see the lake.  We walked out the South Pier, grownups to the right along the channel rail, and kids chugging like a train down the middle beneath the catwalk arches.  Fishermen sat along the left edge, casting out and reeling in, but rarely catching anything.  Ducks in the channel congregated below anybody willing to toss food.

We finally reached the pier’s end.  Seventy miles to Chicago, ninety to Milwaukee, and nothing in between but water.  To the left, more water.  To the right, the river channel, North Pier, and water.  Half a mile behind, South Haven.  Looming over us, the light.  A hundred or so strangers milled about, conversing in multiple languages.  Garb ranged from barely legal to Old World All-Encompassing.  Irrespective of dress, arms waved cellphones like amulets, catching pictures.

“Where do all these people come from?” our she-friend asked.

“Kalamazoo.  Indiana.  But Chicago, mostly,” I replied.


“For this.  This, blueberries, and ice cream.”

She wasn’t convinced.  “You can’t get blueberries and ice cream in Chicago?  They could watch a sunrise from Navy Pier for a lot less money.”

“True, but our sunsets come at a more sensible hour.”

The sensible hour arrived.  The solar orb flattened on the bottom, as if it didn’t want to get wet.  Finally, though, it touched the line of the horizon.  Slowly, but perceptibly, it began to sink from view.  One almost expected to see steam.

Halfway point.  The sky was changing color, especially the clouds. The Friends Goodwill sailed directly between sun and pier.  A hundred cameras clicked.

The sun was down to a sliver.  Anybody with a camera was hard at work, trying to capture a sensation that really couldn’t be captured.  A few folk without cameras watched the real show instead of three inches of screen.  The fishermen, paying no attention, cast and reeled, cast and reeled.

The crowd quieted.  The sun, so reluctant to get its feet wet, was even less willing to disappear.  Finally, there was only a yellow slit on the horizon, and it popped out of view.

The audience applauded.

The he-friend was incredulous.  “Are you kidding?” he asked.

“No, they do it every time there’s a decent sunset, but it doesn’t do any good.  There’s never an encore.”

“I suppose not.  What happens next?”

“Nothing. The show’s over.”

We started back toward town, but we didn’t get there.  Not yet.  A shout from the end of the pier stopped us.  We turned to see what had happened.

A brilliant yellow stripe glowed on the horizon, right where the sun had set.  It broadened and brightened until it no longer was a stripe, but the top of a shining arc.  The sun slowly rose from the lake, just as it had descended.  Minutes later, it cleared the horizon entirely.  The light and catwalk again cast sharp shadows toward shore.

Everybody was silent.  Nearly everybody stood stock still gaping at the sight.  All but the fishermen, who cast and reeled, cast and reeled.

The sun shook itself dry like a wet dog, flinging streamers of clouds across the sky.  Shadows jiggled in the bouncing light.

The shaking stopped.  The sun again started down.  First it flattened, then it dipped, and finally it winked from sight.

There was no applause this time.  People were afraid to invite another appearance.

There also were no pictures.  The stunned audience was so caught up in the event that nobody thought to take any.

And that is why nobody believes us.


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