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Alexander Mitchell Palmer Day. Weeds,2/22/12

February 29, 2012 - Randy Krzmarzick
You might notice a group of people walking around today with dark smudges on their foreheads. Relax; they do not portend some sort of advance guard of zombies. This is Ash Wednesday.

Two guys are working together today, and the one with a black mark on his brow is saying, “We need to keep an eye on the south gathering machine…might have a bearing going out.” Meanwhile his co-worker doesn’t hear a word he said, thinking, “You have a smudge on your forehead.”

It’s a Catholic thing. Those are burnt palms mixed with holy water, and a priest has rubbed them on our forehead, making the sign of the cross, and saying, "Remember, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return." Not the most uplifting thought. Still, it pretty much sums up our time here on Earth.

Thus begins Lent, and six weeks of fasting and deprivation. This all sounds like a real downer. And it would be if it weren’t followed by Easter. Catholics and other Christians think in terms of our “Lenten journey,” as we try to clean out the cobwebs in the corners of our life.

A sinner like me really should be repenting outside the city gates in sackcloth, sitting in ashes like Job did. But I dumb it down a bit; I’m not sure where to get sackcloth anyway. Herbergers? I do fast on Fridays during Lent and try to spend time praying daily. And I give up beer.

Gasp. I know. Many beer drinkers would choose sackcloth and ashes. I understand; I love beer. Beer and I have been friends for a long time. Beer’s been there for some of my best times, and it’s been there in the bad times. But sometimes, things get a little too intense between us, and we need some time apart. We each need our own space for a while. Lent comes around at a good time for such a break.

When I started this, I went to God and told Him about my idea. I thought He’d be pleased. Then I asked if I could make a couple teensy, weensy exceptions. I asked if it’d be OK if I have a few “days of absolution” where I could break my fast for special events. Like my fantasy baseball draft. C’mon, God understands that. He did invent baseball. (“In the big inning…”) So we worked it out that I allow myself a couple days each Lent to backslide. God works with us where we’re at; He’s pretty cool that way.

One of my “free” days is March 3. That is when some friends have taken to celebrating Alexander Mitchell Palmer Day. Palmer is not widely known today, but he belongs in the pantheon of great American heroes, at least to beer aficionados. In one of the darkest moments in beer history, Palmer stood up for the little man. Well, the little man with the big beer belly.

Who was Alexander Mitchell Palmer? He served as a congressman from Pennsylvania from 1909 to 1915. A progressive Democrat, he was most known for bills lowering tariffs. Tariffs were a huge issue in those days; today kids probably think a tariff is a type of scarf.

Palmer came to work in Woodrow Wilson’s administration, and in 1919 was appointed Attorney General. He was labeled "young, militant, progressive and fearless," and his term came to be filled with controversy. This was a time of great fomenting, with fear of violence and even revolution by anarchists and “Bolsheviks.” Palmer authorized several search and seizure operations which came to be known as the Palmer Raids.

In the midst of all this, Prohibition became the law in 1920. As if life weren’t hard enough! Hard to believe now, but the banning of alcohol was considered the key to eliminating crime. Quite the opposite, it financed a whole new class of criminals, but that’s another topic. The 18th Amendment authorizing Prohibition allowed the use of alcohol for medical purposes. Opponents of Prohibition noted that exception and began a campaign for “medicinal beer.” This was debated with extreme claims for beer’s health benefits on one side and its poisonous qualities on the other. Our man, Alexander Mitchell Palmer, found himself in the middle of this storm.

And on March 3, 1921 Attorney General Palmer issued an opinion declaring that the 18th Amendment entitled doctors to prescribe “medicinal beer” at any time, under any circumstances and in any amount they saw fit. Beer drinkers rejoiced, breweries rushed back into production, and drug stores prepared to line walls with their new “prescriptions.”

Prohibitionists were furious. Within months, Congress took up the “Beer Emergency bill” banning beer for any purpose. It passed, and it would be 12 long years before a legal sip of beer would be drunk in America. In 1932, at the Democratic National Convention, our guy Palmer was involved in creating the strategy for overturning Prohibition.

It seems that Palmer’s gallant efforts to save beer deserve recognition. Hence, Alexander Mitchell Palmer Day, this year on a Saturday! My contract with the Journal requires me to periodically serve some public good for New Ulm. I checked the city calendar, and there appears to be a tiny gap in the festival calendar in the City of Festivals. I suggest Terry from the Chamber, Ted from Shell’s, the Narren, and other Festivites convene to organize the launching of Alexander Mitchell Palmer Day!

For my part in this, how about a six-pack of Firebrick? Could you hold that till after Easter?


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