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December 18, 2008

5 Stories, 4 Heroes: Elbert Hubbard, Ida Straus, Lt. Rowan, John Pruitt

I'm not thoughtful by nature, I'm more of a feral child than a Social Compact man, but I enjoy reading good advice in a good story, particularly if it's stood the test of time.

I have known for some time about A Message to Garcia, a short exhortation written in 1899 by Elbert Hubbard. This isn't just one great story, there are really several great stories bundled together.

The short piece A Message to Garcia (AM2G) praises the virtues of initiative and resourcefulness, and bemoans the absence of these in too many people. It tells the wartime story of a special mission behind enemy lines. (how cool is that?) The President needs a message delivered to General Garcia, conditions call for a special man, and the man is found and he accomplishes the mission (through initiative and resoucefulness).

AM2G's Lieutenant Rowan was a Get Things Done (GTD) guy before his time. No dithering, no procrastination, he got right on task, one action item after another.

The second great tale in this package is the story of how this article spread around the world. Elbert Hubbard himself tells the story of how the narrative moved around: a Russian railroad executive travelling in the US read the original letter, and had it translated into Russian. Upon his return to Russia,
"he had the matter translated into Russian, and a copy of the booklet given to every railroad employee in Russia.

Other countries then took it up, and from Russia it passed into Germany, France, Spain, Turkey, Hindustan and China. During the war between Russia and Japan, every Russian soldier who went to the front was given a copy of A Message To Garcia. The Japanese, finding the booklets in possession of the Russian prisoners, concluded it must be a good thing, and accordingly translated it into Japanese.

And on an order of the Mikado, a copy was given to every man in the employ of the Japanese Government, soldier or civilian."
(This is an excellent demonstration of the epidemeological distribution of memes.)

The third remarkable thread in this bundle is about Ida Straus, co-owner of the Macy's department store chain. Ida Strauss was on board the Titanic when it struck the iceberg, and refused to leave her husband Isidor to go into the lifeboats, saying, "We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go." Her words were witnessed by those already in Lifeboat No. 8 as well as many others who were on the boat deck at the time. Isidor and Ida Straus were last seen alive sitting together quietly on deck chairs on Titanic's boat deck.

Hubbard dramatised the story of Ida Strauss in a speech, saying "One thing is sure, there are just two respectable ways to die. One is of old age, and the other is by accident. All disease is indecent. Suicide is atrocious. But to pass out as did Mr. and Mrs. Isador Straus is glorious. Few have such a privilege. Happy lovers, both. In life they were never separated and in death they are not divided." Remarkably, Hubbard was to have a chance to walk his talk; he and his own wife were aboard the Lusitania when she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in 1915. Hubbard and his wife followed the courageous example of Ida Straus. It's easy to write these things, it's hard to live these things, but Hubbard actually died in the manner he recommended:
Ernest C. Cowper, a survivor of the Lusitania, wrote of their death in a letter to Hubbard's son: "They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, 'What are you going to do?' and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, 'There does not seem to be anything to do.'

The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.

It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water."

The fourth great story is the truth, (finally, the truth!), the true story of how Lt. Rowan carried AM2G. In How I Carried The Message To Garcia, Colonel Andrew Summers Rowan provides the report from his memoirs, and the true story surpasses the public legend. It's an interesting read, and what struck me is that Rowan did not blindly follow his orders to the letter, instead improvising and using judgement in the face of change and chaos.


Finally, the fifth great story here is about John Pruitt. I had occasion this week to present A Message to Garcia to two younger folks who were visiting for training. I gave them the story about initiative and resoucefulness and then waited and observed, hoping to see a response. They each read it and gave positive comments, but nothing more. I was a bit disappointed because I hoped that they would look into it, do some research, find Rowan's memoirs - in short, treat the story with the initiative that it extols. But there was no spark and I was disappointed in a minor way. When you set bait, sometimes you catch a fish, sometimes you don't.

My disappointment was lifted by John Pruitt, who was not the intended audience for AM2G but who found the article where one of the two recipients had left it, and John Pruitt's serendipitious response was everything I could have hoped for - he'd researched Rowan, examined the relationship between Hubbard and his son (which some believe was the real reason for the original article), he read Rowan's memoirs - in short, John Pruitt had responded to the story in the same spirit in which Lt. Rowan responded to his mission. At the end of my week, I am grateful for John Pruitt, and if we continue to have men like him we will do well.

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