It’s called “initiative” (on the failure of compulsory education, welfare, and just about everything else)(also: Peyton climbed a tree)


President Murkey Muffley to Prime Minister Dimitri Kissoff: “Dimitri! Dimitri, I’m sorry they’re jamming your radar and flying so low, but they’re trained to do it. You know, it’s … it’s… it’s called “initiative!” From “Dr. Strangelove: or, How I stopped worrying, and came to love the bomb”, January 1964, Stanley Kubrick & Peter Sellers (originally scheduled for release on November 22, 1963—cancelled due to other events that day in Dallas, Texas).

Kathy Lawson just called from Palm Beach suggesting that we try to arrange to testify regarding state-licensed marriage, marital law, and dissolution before the Florida legislature next session.  I said I would be delighted.

I have had a horrible “summer cold” or upper respiratory tract infection of some sort or other this week.  But the work keeps piling up from all over and at least some of it must be done immediately or at least slightly on time.  And so, last night, when Peyton and I were up all night at Jerry’s Famous Deli on Beverly Boulevard working on filings in Texas, I was spaced out, dizzy, especially towards the end of our work session, and somehow lost the keys to my Westwood apartment.  The normal option would be to sleep on Theodore’s couch—where I always fall asleep anyhow, or down the street in Peyton’s spare bedroom, waiting until morning to get a replacement key from the Condo management.  But I suggested we stop by (at 4:30 a.m., to see whether any neighbors were awake to let me in—none were).  But Peyton saw the gigantic vine covered tree that led up to my balcony, asked me whether I locked my balcony sliding door (I don’t—never considered a five story apartment balcony to be much of a security risk or target) and within five minutes Peyton had brachiated from tree trunk to building ledge several times and let me in, a five story building being nothing to this chap half my age (I might have been able to do that at 27, but I’m not sure I would have made it look quite as effortless as Peyton did).  This is a tribute not only to Peyton’s youthful health and agility but also to something I see so very little of in anyone these days: it’s called “Initiative.”

The great dearth of initiative has been illustrated to me in my search for another assistant, paralegal, because we just have too much work for Peyton to carry the load all by himself.  I was interviewing a reasonably well-qualified woman in Brentwood the other night and she reacted in horror at the idea that she might have to do searches on Westlaw unsupervised, or have to review the Rules of Civil Procedure on her own to answer certain questions.  “I’m used to just going down the hall and asking questions every fifteen minutes.”  This is called the complete absence of initiative.

While convalescing from whatever it is that ails me, I have been reading Soldiers, Scoundrels, Poets, & Priests: stories of the men & women behind the Missions of California by David J. McLaughlin.  2004, Scottsdale, Az: Pentacle Press).

Chapter 13 of this book concerns Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (founder of Rancho Petaluma and, indirectly, “Godfather” of the Northern California/Sonoma wine industry).   His father Ignatio Vallejo was apparently a wildly philandering sergeant in the Royal Spanish Army, born in Jalisco, New Spain/Mexico, who accompanied the troops who accompanied Fray Junipero Serra in building the early California Missions 1769-1985.  Sergeant Ignacio was at one stage compelled to marry a girl because she was of quasi-noble or at least “creole” (one generation from “Peninsular”) birth, even if she showed some gypsy-like behavior in running away with this Sergeant.  As I read I couldn’t help but wonder if this several-times jailed Sergeant (“Brigardier”) weren’t model for Don Jose in Carmen, but I suppose there could have been many like him…  Sergeant Vallejo’s conduct was apparently so reprehensible that the Padres of several missions tried to control him, to no avail, and, like Don Jose in Carmen,

In a West Coast version of the Horatio Alger Story, aka “the American Dream” the Spanish Army Sergeant’s son at age 29 became “Commandante General” of California in the Mexican and 17 years later of the “Bear Flag” Republic of California Armies.  During the short-lived California Republic, Vallejo commanded Sutter’s Fort, near Sacramento, just a few months before Gold was discovered—changing California history forever.

General Vallejo’s life was clearly a frontier life, legendary from and perhaps unique to the “Wild West” driven by his own incredible intelligence and personal initiative at every stage.  Long before he was a General, a revolutionary advocating admission to the United States, and even before he started viticulture at Rancho Petaluma in Sonoma, in 1834, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was personal secretary to the Governor of California at age 15, whose duties included keeping track of all state business.  In this capacity, Vallejo personally executed and recorded in his own handwriting (there being no typewriters or even government printing presses in Alta California back then the transfer of allegiance of that Governor [and all of Alta California] from Spain to Mexico in 1822).

However, I was actually struck by [and inspired to report here] a rather obscure footnote in this history—Vallejo’s Tutor.  A man of Vallejo’s stature could be compared to a Western American “Alexander the Great” and one could imagine that his tutor was an “Aristotle” of La Nueva Espana, or at least a dedicated Padre of the Spanish missions who might have seen some potential in the bright son of a rather rapscallious sleep-around sergeant.

But no, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s tutor was an English “hide and tallow trader” by the name of William Hartnell, who taught Vallejo “English, French, and Latin.”  This must have been quite an accomplishment, done entirely from memory, on the part of Hartnell.  The book says that in the 1850s, Vallejo purchased his old Tutor’s papers from his Tutor’s widow “when no one else would buy them.”  Now, even if this “hide and tallow trader” carried a hundred  books with him on his journeys, which I would rather sincerely doubt he did, it is doubtful that he brought with him any instructional grammar books or dictionaries in any of these languages, so in the second decade of the 19th century, we have evidence of this man Hartnell, not engaged in any particularly “noble” trade, knowing at least four languages sufficiently to teach them to a young boy who would later serve (at 11-12 as Hartnell’s own clerk) and then by 15 be appointed as secretary to the Governor.

One wonders what child-labor advocates would say about all this.  Was Vallejo the beneficiary or the victim of being put to work at age 10 as a clerk?

Because there were no “welfare” laws—no prohibitions against child labor—Vallejo had the opportunity to distinguish himself as an early age.  There were no “public schools” in California during the years when he was growing up.  There are very few (if any!) graduates of California public schools today who would claim to be fluent in English, French, Spanish, and Latin.  If there are any such graduates—I wish they’d write to me because THEY are showing “initiative” to conquer the limits imposed by a welfare-oriented government and compulsory education.

I contemplate the lives of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and his tutor William Hartnell and I wonder if the likes of them exist anywhere in California or America today, and if not, why not?

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