Born on the 24th of July

Let me start by saying that I have the utmost respect for the Mormon Pioneers who trudged across the plains and established something that very closely resembles a civilization, here in the uninhabitable wasteland full of sagebrush and Idahoans. I certainly could not have done it. I can barely go two days without my cell phone, let alone without food. I dislike walking to the point that I scoot around the office on my rolling chair, and even then I’ll get someone to push me if I can. And if I were the guy who had to count the wagon wheel revolutions to determine how far we’d traveled, I would go insane. (“Well, we’re not there yet,” I would say, “so we must have traveled approximately NOT FAR ENOUGH!”)

No sir, I would not have lasted two days on the trek before I would have turned back and become a Reorganized Mormon (their rules are a lot easier, anyway). I am grateful to have been born in a day when the West is already established, when Mormons are as welcome in Illinois as they are anywhere, and when you can go your whole life without even knowing what all those square-shaped states between Illinois and Utah ARE, let alone walking through them.

My beef is not with the pioneers, who would have been too easy a target anyway, considering most of them are dead now. My beef is with Pioneer Day festivities — fireworks, parades, flag-waving — all of which were ripped off from the Fourth of July, just because they’re close to each other on the calendar. If the pioneers had gotten here in December, we’d celebrate it by giving gifts and decorating trees. If they’d arrived in October, we’d all dress up like pioneers and go door-to-door asking for rations of flour. Frankly, when it comes to thinking up original holiday-celebrating ideas, we suck.

And then, when we let our stolen activities overshadow the holiday we stole them from, well, that takes some nerve. And that’s what happens here. In the midst of all the religious fervor and outdoor festivities, we have made Pioneer Day more important than Independence Day. Sure, we do all the Fourth of July stuff on July 4 (or July 3, if July 4 irreligiously falls on a Sunday). But in the backs of our minds, we’re really just looking forward to the BIG holiday, three weeks later.

This is wrong. Is it presumptuous to say that the founding of this nation is more significant than when the Mormons arrived in Salt Lake? I’ve arrived in Salt Lake a number of times myself, and while it was a fairly big deal, what with the comically unfinished freeway making it virtually impossible to get there, it was not more important than starting a whole country, which I have not done even once.

I wish the pioneers had gotten here 20 days sooner, so that Independence Day and Pioneer Day could be combined into one Day, and we wouldn’t have to spend the whole month going to parades and watching fireworks. It would also mean one less day in the year that someone tries to get me to stand outside in 90-degree weather and eat 90-degree potato salad.

My final beef (this is a three-beef column) is with pioneer re-enactments, which were all the rage during the Sesquicentennial three years ago. To these I say: What’s up with THAT? I suspect the pioneers would not re-enact their trek. I suspect they think we’re a little bit stupid, re-doing something they did, when they whole reason they did it, in the grand scheme of things, was so that we wouldn’t have to. Doesn’t doing it ourselves diminish their accomplishments, as if to say, “See, I could have done this. I don’t know what those pioneers were complaining about in all those chicken-scratch journals they wrote in.” And it’s even worse when we only do it half-heartedly, walking for a while during the day, but sleeping in RVs at night and not having to even worry about the whole “shallow grave in the frozen earth” thing. What are we saying? “Hey, pioneers, we want to remember you by enduring some of the hardships you had. Only ‘cept we don’t actually want to ENDURE them; we just want to drive along paved roads in our air-conditioned minivans and look at the places where YOU endured them. Then we’ll have a picnic. Hurrah!”

Let’s remember the pioneers, sure. But let’s not let their accomplishments overshadow other, more far-reaching achievements. And for heaven’s sake, let’s not make a mockery of them by sort-of pretending we can do what they did. And for CRYING out loud, let’s lay off on the fireworks, OK? Some of us are trying to sleep.

Next week: Excerpts from the angry letters I’m going to get from people who mistakenly thought I was making fun of the pioneers, even though I made it clear I was not.

I am well aware that I sound like a cranky old man in this column. I'm comfortable with that. I can already feel myself slipping into a cardigan sweater and sitting on the porch, except that I own neither a cardigan sweater nor a porch.

This was the first week that "Snide Remarks" appeared on the front page of The Daily Herald's "Getaway Friday" entertainment section. You'll recall that when it began, in August 1999, it was on page A-2. Then it was moved to page 2 of Getaway Friday. Then we decided to move it "out front," as we say in the business. Previously, a series of entertainment-related briefs ran down the left-hand column of the front of Getaway Friday. After only two years of doing this every week, we realized that most of these briefs were merely repetitions of stories that appeared, in more detail, elsewhere in the section. Seeking to avoid repetition -- and because the managing editor really liked "Snide Remarks" -- we dumped the briefs and put my column there instead.

And quite a week we picked to start doing this! It meant more visibility, obviously, and this week was a doozy. Right next to "Snide Remarks" appeared a story listing all of the many Pioneer Day activities that were planned for the following Monday. The irony could not have been lost on the readers: Here I was, editor of the section, decrying the over-abundance of Pioneer Day activities, while allowing a story about those very activities to run on the same page. (If only they'd known the behind-the-scenes story: that I didn't want to run a Pioneer Day story at all, partly because I didn't feel it belonged in the entertainment section, and partly because I would rather have given greater prominence to a story I'd written about the "Beauty and the Beast" touring company that was about to make a stop in Salt Lake City. I felt, as you might imagine, that the touring company of a Broadway show stopping in town was more significant than listing all the parades and fireworks that are the same every year anyway. But I was over-ridden by my superiors.)

For those who are not LDS, Pioneer Day is an official Utah state holiday, held on July 24. It commemorates the pioneers' arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, led by Brigham Young, on July 24, 1847. Mormons outside of Utah are generally aware of the date, and will sometimes address it in church meetings on the Sunday closest to it, but only in Utah is it a major festivity. ("Only in Utah" is something you can start a lot of statements with.)

William Clayton, official record-keeper during the Mormons' trek west (and also author of the famed Mormon hymn "Come, Come, Ye Saints"), actually counted wagon-wheel revolutions for the first few days out of Winter Quarters, Iowa, to keep track of how far they'd traveled. They figured this would be important information for future groups who would travel the same route. After probably starting to go a little crazy, watching a wagon wheel all day long, he proposed a mechanical odometer for the job, which scientific-minded Orson Pratt designed and skilled woodworker Appleton Harmon built. It could count 10 miles before starting over; a 1,000-mile odometer was later built, and it successfully measured the entire distance from the Salt Lake Valley to Winter Quarters.

I expected some negative responses to the column, and we got some. The first call to my editor the morning it was published was from a man who wanted to know if I had to work on Pioneer Day: He figured that must be why I was so bitter about the holiday, having to work when others had it off.

I personally got a call from a woman who sounded very Relief Society-ish, who said that fireworks are a way of "lighting the sky with our enthusiasm," which I couldn't exactly disagree with. She was very friendly and nice.

I also had three phone calls and an e-mail from people who whole-heartedly agreed with me. One of the callers was a direct descendant of Brigham Young, and she compared pioneer re-enactments to the crazy people in South America who nail themselves to crosses in order to experience what Jesus did -- a comparison I thought of but did not dare make in the column.

But back to the disagreers. The first negative e-mail we received surprised me in that it had nothing to do with what I was saying in the column. (This shouldn't surprise me anymore, but it does.) Please enjoy:

In the Herald's July 21, 2000 issue, Mr. Eric D Snider in his column "Snide Remarks" fourth paragraph says the following: " ideas we s***." [Uh, that word was "suck," before you get any other ideas] Is Mr. Snider so devoid of vocabulary as to have to call upon gutter language which is offensive, vulgar, and obscene?

I expect my hometown newspaper to be more sensitive to its readers and engage those columnists who can express themselves without assaulting our eyes with such trash

S. Reed Nixon

Now, I will admit that "suck" is a mildly vulgar slang term. But obscene? I don't know. It reminds me of the incident in which an ancient Orem resident had a phobia of the word "urinate."

The day after Pioneer Day, I returned to the office to find this letter having arrived by U.S. Mail. It bore all the markings of a crackpot: no return address, no signature, and typed in all-capital letters. Its content merely confirmed this (I have de-capitalized it for easier reading):
Dearest Eric,

I know that you were not making fun of the pioneers, but I do know that you were making fun of us who honor the pioneers. You were slamming those of us who take a day and celebrate what they did for us. [Here I have learned something: If I spell out specifically what I am NOT making fun of, I need to spell out EVERYTHING I'm not making fun of. In this case, I wasn't "slamming" the idea of celebrating the pioneers; I was just saying that Utahns over-do it.] How grateful I am to have special days, even though I appreciate them all year long.

[Apparently, I came across as anti-holiday altogether, because listen to this paragraph:] So, whatever you say I will continue to visit my parents grave on Memorial Day. I will continue to honor those I love on Valentines Day. I will continue to celebrate birthdays with cake and balloons and parties. I will always wave a flag on the Fourth of July for our freedom. [I believe I specifically mentioned THAT holiday as one I was in favor of] I will always attend Pilgrim plays and give thanks on Thanksgiving. I will continue to give gifts in honor of my Savior's birth. I will still make green pancakes on St. Patrick Day to honor my Irish heritage. I will even blow a born and throw confetti on the first day of every year. Oh yes, and by the way, I will still honor you on 'Totally Stupid Day.'

I hereby declare Aug. 26 -- my birthday -- as "Totally Stupid Day." It is a day to honor me and all other people deemed "stupid" by those who misunderstood them. Celebrate stupidity on Aug. 26! Totally Stupid Day will totally rule!

But we're not finished yet, Hector. Just a day or two after the "suck" e-mail came this one, which I considered sending to the "suck" guy just to make him mad:
I think your take on the 24th of July celebration sucks big time!! I wonder if we will see the same treatment when the Gay Pride (oxymoron) Parade comes to town, or the St. Patrick's Day parade? [I'd guess those occasions are even easier to make fun of than Pioneer Day, so, yeah, probably.] In case you haven't noticed most celebrations take on many of the same characteristics, that is how we celebrate!! Most of you article was insulting . Oh by the way, the reason that the pioneers came here in the first place was because other people and the government that were supposed to be protecting us, let mobsters rape, plunder, and murder us into exile. So piss-off if you don't care for our celebration, go back to whatever rock you must have crawled out from under!! I only wish I had more time to tell you what I really think of that piece of crap you call an article, but I have wasted more time on you than is called for. [And I thank you for it.]

Interesting how he/she takes care to point out that the pioneers were not fans of the U.S. government, because of the bad treatment they'd gotten. If anything, Pioneer Day is a non-patriotic holiday -- the government seriously let them down, after all -- and yet people in Utah celebrate it by flying U.S. flags, more than they do on the Fourth of July. Again, evidence that we're celebrating just for the sake of celebrating, and not thinking too hard about it.