Hmong Appreciation

Even if you weren’t around at the time, you probably know about the Vietnam War, or think you do. The secret war in Laos is remembered not so much. To counter North Vietnamese soldiers who had slipped across the border, the C.I.A. oversaw a fifteen-year covert war in Laos. (“Covert” meaning to keep news of it away from Americans who were already fed up with the Vietnam War.) U.S. aircraft dropped more bombs on Laos than they did on Japan in WWII.

The C.I.A. recruited thousands of Hmongs to fight on the ground against the communist forces so Americans wouldn’t have to. The Hmong ethnic group had a historically contentious relationship with the Laotian rulers. An estimated 100,000 Hmongs died – compared to 58,000 U.S. deaths in Vietnam. The C.I.A.’s official version makes only a single incidental mention of ethnic-Hmong participation. The U.S. left Laos and Vietnam in 1975, the communists took control and 250,000 Hmong refugees fled to Thailand. You would expect a grateful U.S. to welcome them into our country. Of course you would be wrong.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul area is home to a Hmong population of 40,000; nearly 25,000 reside in the Fresno area of California’s Central Valley. The current administration in Washington D.C. thinks that’s too many. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (U.S.C.I.S.) has begun efforts to denaturalize and deport naturalized citizens. The Laos government still holds a fifty-year grudge. Deporting a Hmong person to Laos puts that person into mortal danger. That would include the children and relatives of Hmong guerrillas who were recruited by the C.I.A. and fought on the U.S. side. As translators and interpreters in Iraq and the Middle East are learning, loyalty to the U.S. is a one-way path.

Columbia River Crossing

IKEA opened a big, shiny new store in Portland a couple years ago. It anchors the Cascade Station shopping center that also includes Target, Nordstrom Rack and Home Goods among its retail businesses. Cascade Station sits near Portland International Airport, strategically positioned at the south end of the I-205 Glenn Jackson Bridge that connects east Portland with Vancouver, Washington. The shopping destination’s parking lot is filled with autos displaying Washington license plates. The location is strategic because shoppers pay a 8.4% sales tax in Vancouver compared to the Oregon sales tax rate… oh, there is no Oregon sales tax.

Property taxes in Clark County (Vancouver) Washington are lower than Multnomah County (Portland) Oregon. The good-paying jobs, however, are on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, in Portland. Every workday Vancouver commuters clog I-5 and I-205 and their respective bridges across the Columbia. The city of Portland is infested with Washington drivers and their endearing motoring habits.

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Potato Scraps

I first saw them on a menu at a McMenamins outpost somewhere in Portland. I thought, Wow, just like Mom used to make heat up in the oven. And they were offered with the option of ranch dressing, not just ketchup. How sophisticated. “Tater Tots,” with capital “T”s, a registered trademark, has become almost a generic term, like “kleenex” or “coke.” Now they’re everywhere. Food writers in cities around the country write up their “10 Best Tots” lists. It’s now hip to eat oldsters’ childhood memories.

Like me, Tater Tots were born in Oregon. Ore-Ida foods, a processor of frozen corn and potatoes in eastern Oregon, hated sending the potato detritus resulting from slicing French fries out for livestock feed. They came up with the idea of chopping the scraps, mixing in a little flour and seasoning, then pushing the mush through an extruder and cutting into bite-sized pieces. Deep fried, then frozen, they arrived in grocery store freezers in 1956.

Tater Tots was a poor seller. Ore-Ida implemented the marketing strategy later employed by Starbucks and others. They raised the price. Consumers decided if they cost that much, they must be good. Sales took off.

H. J. Heinz purchased Ore-Ida in 1965. Americans ate nearly 4 billion of the potato gems in 2017; that’s 70 million pounds.

Building a New Presidential Library

As we all know, the current occupant of the White House does not read. Aides and lackeys make sure that any written material is brief – only a few bullet points – because of his notoriously short attention span. He will not accept anything that is not admiring of him.

Regardless of when or under what circumstances he exits the White House, the current president will no doubt want a monument to himself, with his name in giant gold letters – all capitals – on the outside façade of the building, bigger and more gaudy than the libraries of his predecessors. The problem is how does one fill up a library with written documents no longer than 140 characters?

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Those Other Nashville Cats

Nashville Tennessee is the self-proclaimed “Home of Country Music.” The theme park-ish Opryland – operated by Marriott – is miles from the Grand Ole Opry’s previous home, the storied Ryman Auditorium and light years from the atmosphere of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, where Opry performers used to hang out. Today, Nashville churns out formulaic music described by Tom Petty as “like bad rock with a fiddle.”

Nashville’s country-music image is white. Charley Pride broke the Nashville color line in 1966, the first African-American artist to hit the country-music record charts. Five decades later, Darius Rucker is the current non-white face in country music. But the city’s memoir, music and otherwise, includes an unsettled racial history.

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