A Puff of Smoke
Sometimes it’s hard to understand how things use to be. One time I went and saw the great historical author HW Brands talk about Andrew Jackson at a local college. At the end of his lecture he had a question and answer session. Someone asked what he thought about the recent uprising about removal of statues.
Brands began his answer by stating the facts he had learned on writing his book about Andrew Jackson. Jackson was an unapologetic slave holder and since most of the outcry was about statues of confederates or slave holders, he sensed the tone was to get him trapped in that controversy. He did not shy away from an answer though.
Brands continued that ranking the Presidents with polls was a rather recent, in terms of our overall history, hobby of those in the academic or political world. I believe he said it wasn’t until the 1930s that polling started happening. He said he had to take a different approach with Jackson because there really weren’t any “polls” in which to determine a President’s popularity with the public.
Brands said the method he used was to count the number of places (towns, streets, etc.) that were name after Presidents. I can’t remember if he said George Washington finished first, but by far the next most popular President, at least by places being named after them, was Andrew Jackson. He said there were far more places named after him than even Abraham Lincoln. He said that he doubted if you took a poll today that Andrew Jackson’s name would even appear in the top ten.
Brands said he didn’t believe in statues coming down because they were reminders, good or bad, of our history. He went on to hint that Americans are very fickle in what they believe determines greatness. What may be popular today may very well be a bad thing tomorrow. He thought it was important not to wipe something off the map of our history just because we don’t like it now.
One of the greatest stories of our own history reflects the dramatic swings of what was once considered good and is now considered very evil by most people. My own personal life has seen the popularity and downfall of this great product that really helped our nation grow. The product’s formal name is Nicotiana. It is from the Solanaceae family.
Before the first European ever set foot on what was to become American soil, this was a great product. It was, at times, a currency, a token of health, a religious addition and an offering that could encourage peace.
When Christopher Columbus arrived in North America he was given some as a good will, peace gift. When the Spanish arrived they would take some back with them to the town of Toledo. In a part of that town called “Los Cigarrales” the product would thrive.
In the colonial days, this product really thrived. It was found that, where other crops could not grow, this crop loved thin, starved soil. It was even used as collateral on loans we acquired to finance the Revolutionary War.
The product or crop was tobacco. In addition to growing in some of the worst soil conditions, there are about 300,000 seeds in an ounce sample. It worked perfectly for our country.
I personally remember this product because my Dad was a chain smoker. Once, I believe he must have been in the car by himself, he flicked his cigarette butt out the window. It came back into the back seat and burnt a three inch hole in the back seat. The reason I remember it was that when he went to trade that 1960 Ford Falcon in, he made one of us kids sit in front of the hole so the salesman wouldn’t devalue the car because of the hole.
In the 1950s there was more and more evidence that cigarette smoking contributed greatly to lung cancer. The tobacco industry responded by making “safer” cigarettes with such features as filters and low tar products.
In 1964, the Surgeon General noted the dangers smoking had on our health and asked that the government allow it to regulate the rules on advertising and selling cigarettes. In 1965, warning labels were added to cigarette labels stating that they “may be” harmful to your health. In 1971, cigarette ads were taken off the air. By the 1980s, the cigarette labels were changed from “may be” to listing of health issues they do cause. The 1980s also saw the introduction of smoking being banned in public places.
The phase of smoking being “politically incorrect” came upon us. The tobacco companies responded by diversifying and switching their tobacco campaigns to developing countries in Asia. To offset lost revenue, companies like RJ Reynolds, a huge tobacco company, got involved in aluminum (have you ever heard of Reynold’s Wrap), buying Nabisco (oh, and I love Oreos) and changing their name to RJR/Nabisco. Phillip Morris, another huge tobacco company, acquired General Foods (including my Oscar Mayer Hot Dogs) and Kraft (no meat sandwich is complete without Kraft American Cheese).
I believe most families have weak branches, or at least weak branches in the eyes of some of the other branches. Presidential families are no different. Our Presidential story today talks about one of those Presidential family divides.
Claes was an immigrant from the Netherlands. Although no records exist that show he was from royalty, his name suggests, at the very least, he thought of himself as royalty. He settled in New Amsterdam which is now called New York City somewhere between 1638 and 1649. He purchased a 48 acre farm and today, on part of that land, sits the Empire State Building.
You might say our story really started with Claes’ son Nicholas and Nicholas’ two sons Johannes and Jacobus. Although our Presidents were still several generations away, it is a little amazing that the same clan could produce two totally different trains of thought. Despite those huge differences, the two sides put up with each other because, after all, they were still family.
Both lines of the family would enjoy lives free of the financial stress most of us encounter. If one were to look at either of the two Presidents they might be a little surprised that neither President really looked after the “rich.”
It had been a long three month journey for this Biblical adventure. Talk about wild roller coaster rides, this one had a little bit of everything. At times there was singing and at other times there were tears. Sometimes they thought they would go undefeated and at other times their defeat seemed to be at hand. One thing about it, it was never boring.
This was one of those moments where their leader felt so good. Their problems seemed to be behind them and now he wanted to take a moment to thank the one who made it all possible. He pumped his people up and they, too, were ready to praise the Lord.
This Bible story is much like our own lives. We want to hear from God. We want to be in His presence. We want to be showered with His blessings. We want to know what it is He wants us to do. We want to understand why things are going the way they are going in our lives.
When things are good, our prayers are filled with praise. When things aren’t going so good we demand an answer as to why our distress levels are so high. We want a one-on-one with God. We want to hear it for ourselves.
Such was the case for our Biblical group. They believed their lives were on God’s path and they wanted to be right there with him, a face-to-face if you will. They were ready and they felt deserving.
Five generations from Johannes came our first President out of Claes’ bloodline. And when I said came, he just didn’t slip into the Presidency quietly, he came roaring in. Even though he became President on the death of another President, he definitely put his own personal stamp on the Presidency.
Claes’ first Presidential descendant was a man who was filled with much gusto. Self-confidence was never lacking. His can-do spirit and “nobody is going to pick on me” attitude earned the respect of the whole country. He would produce a daughter named Alice, who may have been the most popular first child ever. She would even earn the nickname “Princess Alice” because people would travel the world over to see her even long after her father’s death.
In addition to Princess Alice’s almost royal treatment, she was probably the highlighter marking the two family lines of difference. She made sure everyone knew that she was from the best, most intelligent side of that tree. To her, her views were the most American and the other side were more on the power grabbing side. She thought the other side was more interested in becoming king than looking to extend the nation’s democratic principles.
The second of Claes’ Presidential descendant was seven generations down from Jacobus. The funny thing was that he pretty much took the same route to the Presidency as his distant cousin. An odder twist came when he married the first President’s niece.
But some of the two Presidents’ differences were glaring. The first one was a Republican. The second one was a Democrat. The first one wanted to show American muscle. The second one had to guide a reluctant America to use that muscle. One would take over for a President who died in office. The other would die in office.
Two of the first President’s children would lead the charge of disappointment against the other side of the family. The second President’s wife would lead the charge of disappointment that side had with the other. Yet, through it all, they were always civil to each other’s faces.
After a three month journey, Moses had the Jews at the base of Mount Sinai. The Egyptians seemed to have stopped following them. Their freedom now seemed guaranteed. They stood at the base of Mount Sinai facing the Mount.
Moses had climbed the mountain and came back to the people with the Word of God. The people were so excited. They shouted, “Whatever it is that God wants us to do, we will do it!” Moses said, “Great! I’ll get back with God and let you know what He says.”
Moses came back and said God wanted them to meet Him. The crowd was excited. Moses said they weren’t ready to meet God. He said they needed to clean up a little bit first. In fact, he said they were so dirty it was going to take two whole days for them to clean up. Moses told them to clean up and on the third day God would come down to them.
The people must have been excited because they started cleaning themselves up. They were ready for that third day. They were ready to have that one-on-one. They probably had all their questions and demands ready.
The third day came. It was a little more than they expected. Smoke came from the top of the mountain. The mountain started to shake. The ground they stood on started to shake. Loud sounds like trumpet blasts filled the air.
Moses was so excited about the meeting, but when he came down the mountain to encourage the crowd, well, let’s just say, they lost most of their enthusiasm for the meet and greet. They told Moses, “Well, we’ve been thinking about this little meeting. Maybe we just aren’t ready to talk to God face-to-face. I tell you what, why don’t you just tell us what He wants to say.” A disappointed Moses went to the Lord with the bad news.
When the first President’s son ran for governor of New York, the second President’s wife campaigned hard against his election. When the second President was elected President, Alice and her half-brother did everything they could do to undermine all his efforts, including stabbing him the back with their comments every chance they had.
Yet, Alice was the Princess of the United States and everyone in the world wanted an audience with her. She could not be ignored. Alice also loved all that attention that being Princess brought her. So Alice, even with their great differences, was a regular guest at the second President’s White House.
One of the things that Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy Roosevelt’s oldest child, may be least remembered for was a gift she gave her distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt. If you look carefully in several pictures of Franklin you will notice him with Alice’s gift.
Alice also lent her voice to a radio advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Using a scripted text, Alice and an announcer would promote the cigarettes on the “Lucky Strike Hit Parade.” The winner would get “a prize of fifty fine-tasting Lucky Strike Cigarettes.”
Alice would even explain why so many congressmen smoked Luckies: “All the speaking that goes with their careers means a continuous strain on their voices and throats – they really need a cigarette that is considerate of their throats – a light smoke.” Alice admitted that she used them “off and on,” too.
The gift Alice gave FDR? It is the long cigarette holder which was one of his trademarks. I guess that ruins anyone’s thinking that their differences were breaking up their family and sending it up in a puff of smoke.
Often, I believe, we think our lives demand God’s attention. We want that one-on-one meeting so He can hear us out. Most of the time, I don’t think we really care what God thinks nor do we have enough faith to believe that He knows what He is doing. No, all we see is our pain or the pain someone else is having, and we just want that pain to go away. We don’t “have God’s back” because we know what’s best. We don’t want to disrupt our, or anyone else’s, lives with what He thinks is best. No, the world revolves around us and we are going to tell God how to run the show. And if that doesn’t work we will pout or get depressed.
Then the smoke comes from the mountain. The ground starts to shake. Our nerve to meet God changes rather quickly. Maybe someone else can stand up to Him for me. Maybe I’ll just mumble behind His back how unfair He is and how He doesn’t listen to me. Meet Him face to face? Not me.
We will find, like the popularity of cigarettes, that when we do find the nerve to meet God face-to-face, we change, not our situations. Our faith goes from needing proof to trusting that He knows what He is doing. We find we are no longer scared of the smoke, the shaking ground and the loud trumpet blasts. Instead, we just jump right in there and shout His praises louder than those trumpet blasts. Our dancing to His rhythm has better moves than the shaky ground we stand on. We find that His smoke doesn’t fill our lungs with harmful chemicals but fills our hearts with joy and confidence.
Prayer: Dear Mighty Father, Sometimes my world is filled with troubles. I often look to You to confirm my instructions for their destruction. Let me, instead, listen and trust in You. Let me always be in awe of Your presence, but never scared to enter into it. Amen.