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River Views

It’s Boxing Day, the day for servants and the working class to receive presents from their employers. That centuries-old tradition sounds a lot like the 1% vs. 99% divide we face in the present. Boxing Day is a remnant of the British Empire. It is still celebrated in many countries that were once British colonies. Since most of my maternal ancestors stem from the interior of Galway County, Ireland, I’m happy to report that upon gaining independence, the Republic of Ireland abandoned the official Boxing Day holiday of the bloody Brits.

December 26th also marks St. Stephen’s Day; St. Stephen being the first Christian martyr after the crucifixion of Jesus. Saint Stephen was stoned to death in Jerusalem ca. A.D. 35. The mob that killed him may have included Saul of Tarsus, before his conversion on the road to Damascus. In his own later writings, the man who would become Saint Paul mentioned being present at Stephen’s death. It is a comfort to know that there is some historical documentation for parts of the Bible story.

December 26th also marks the day in 1776 when troops under the command of General George Washington crossed from Pennsylvania into New Jersey in boats on the icy Delaware River then marched about nine miles to Trenton where they surprised the British and their Hessian mercenaries before they had a chance to exchange boxes.

The most intriguing historical aspect about December 26th involves the fiction writer and journalist Ambrose Bierce. Bierce gained renown for realistic stories about his Civil War experiences as well as ghosty tales and The Devil’s Dictionary. At the age of seventy-one Bierce departed Washington D.C. in October, 1913; traveling through the then half century old sites of battlefields he’d been on during the War Between the States, walking as much as fifteen miles in a day. By December he made his way to Texas, where he crossed the Rio Grande and made his way into Mexico, at least as far as Chihuahua. Reportedly on the 26th he posted his final letter back to the states, though it may have been written earlier.

No one knows what became of Bierce thereafter. He may have joined Pancho Villa’s rebel army. He may have been executed by government soldiers. Many claims have been made as to what happened to Ambrose Bierce after Boxing Day, 1913, perhaps the most intriguing is that he assumed the identity B. Traven, under which he authored The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. That appears farfetched, though Traven’s own true identity is also a fascinating mystery trail through revolution and deception.

The words of Bierce’s purported last letter are fascinating enough on their own: “Civilization be dinged! It is the mountains and desert for me. Good-by. If you hear of me being set up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia!”

As for this columnist, I don’t have plans to go into Mexico any time soon. My foolish plans extend no further than snowshoeing in the Sierra Nevada this winter. If the Maya calendar doesn’t run out first, I will continue to tromp the trails beside the Albion and surrounding environs in the New Year, reporting back to you on things long gone by and warnings of corporate ills yet to come; hopefully, in a voice that remains a step or two outside the box.

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