A Valentine to our home

I love Indiana. I really do. The swelteringly hot, humid summers. The freezing cold, icy winters. I love it all.

And let me tell you, it really grinds my gears when people put Indiana down. Even my own beloved, massive Random House Dictionary of the English Language (I call him “Mr. Dictionary”) defines “Hoosier” not only as a resident of Indiana, but as “any awkward, unsophisticated person, especially a rustic.”

Ouch.

Sure, we may fall near the bottom of the list when it comes to various state rankings, but let me tell you this: Statistics lie and liars are statisticians, or whatever. So get up off your couch, turn off your TV and stand up for Indiana — the greatest of all the 50 states!

We’re not fat, we’re big-boned

Indiana consistently ranks as one of America’s fattest states. Currently, we are the fifth fattest in the nation. Also, the self-righteous magazine called, appropriately, Self, claims that Indianapolis is among the country’s 10 worst cities for “healthy eating habits.”

What a load! We Hoosiers are big people because we come from hardy, hard-working pioneer stock. You have to be big and strong to till the fields and man the assembly lines. In olden times, a big belly was a sure sign of prosperity. So yes, call us “old school.” Let’s just say that you won’t see Indiana at the top of the “Most Puny and Scrawny States” list any time soon!

The edjukation state

I’m not going to bore you with the so-called “facts” and “statistics” that put Indiana at the bottom of the pile when it comes to education. Like that we’re No. 47 out of 50 states when it comes to college degrees, or that only 46 percent of Indianapolis Public School students graduate from high school on time. (At my own alma mater, Pike High School, almost three out of 10 students do not earn a degree: Using the Dewey decimal system, that equals the ninth percentile, or “pi.”)

Instead, let me remind you of a not-particularly-good student from the pages of Hoosier history. A scrappy, corn-fed young lad who grew up playing basketball and almost flunked out of Milan High School, but then went on to study at Purdue and ultimately discovered the Theory of Relativity. His name was Albert Einstein. Without him, we wouldn’t have what we now call television.

A little bit of crime never hurt anybody

Folks, I was born in the former murder capitol of America: Detroit, Mich. Detroit is also the Automotive Capitol of the World, home to Motown Records and, in general, one funky and exciting city. Washington, D.C., the nation’s actual capital, finally surpassed Detroit in terms of per capita killings. Recently, my adopted hometown of Indianapolis has started to climb the homicide and violent crime ladder.

Welcome to the big time, baby! My point is this: If you’re going to make an omelet, you’re going to have to break a few eggs. Gunfire and criminal violence is an American tradition, like in the days of the Wild West, which everyone remembers with fondness and nostalgic pride. New York City used to be a haven for thugs, crime and fatal shootings — now look at it. It may as well be Des Moines, Iowa!

Now consider Indiana, with our city and rural gangs, our thriving crack cocaine market and guns galore. In no time, we could be No. 1 with a bullet!

Friend to industrial and agricultural piggies

Forbes Magazine claims that Indiana is 49th out of 50 when it comes to our state’s “greenness.” An “Earth Day” report lists Indianapolis as one of the most toxic cities in the nation. So-called environmentalists whine about pollution in our air and water from factories and large-scale farming operations.

Poppycock! All one has to do is gaze into the crystal clear waters of Indy’s downtown canal to appreciate the clean, sparkling goodness that flows throughout our entire state. Sure, pregnant women, the sick, the elderly and children are cautioned not to eat any of the fish that swim in our rivers and streams, but that’s merely an unheeded precaution suggested by our overly-caring, motherly state government.

Agriculture (and more recently, super animal mega-farms) keeps us Hoosiers fat and happy (and by “fat,” I mean “robust”). Right now, there are more than 3,000 pork farms in operation throughout the state, with more than 6 million hogs currently residing in Indiana. With a statewide human population of about 6 and a half million, that’s a pig in every pot! Sure, there’s a certain amount of poisonous chemical run-off and a nauseating, far-reaching stench from these uber-farms — that’s what I like to call the sweet smell of success!

One sexy state

A few short years ago, Marion County was the Syphilis Capital of America. Today, there’s still plenty of STDs to go around. Even country folk can get in on the fun. So-called “risky” behavior rises directly in proportion to the availability of methamphetamine, and meth labs spring up in our rural counties like mushrooms popping up through the wet floor of a Hoosier forest.

And people here in Indiana aren’t just having sex, they’re making babies. Despite our reputation as prudish Puritans, about 40 percent of newborns in Indiana are born to unwed mothers, and this figure is almost double for black women. Hoosier daddy, indeed! 

Yes, the elitist snobs on the East Coast and the hipper-than-thou trendsetters out in California may think that they’re the sexy states, but we’re gettin’ plenty of action here in Indiana. Hot, risky, unprotected sex. Oh, we’re a naughty, dirty little state. Spank us!

Charity begins at home

Every U.S. economist knows that most Americans don’t save enough money. Well, count us thrifty Hoosiers as among the most frugal in the nation! This past year we were ranked fifth lowest in “charitability.” In 2006, we held the No. 2 lowest spot. Are we really that stingy and uncaring? No. We’re pragmatic realists who look out for No. 1. And speaking of No. 1, if we really try, maybe we can top the list of least charitable states in 2008!

Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette

If ever there were a patron saint of cigarette smoking, it would be our own native Hoosier legend, James Dean. Born in Marion, Ind., and immortalized in Hollywood, Dean will forever be remembered as the rebel in a leather jacket with a lit ciggie dangling dangerously from his lips. Nothing says, “I’m cool — I’m not even afraid of cancer,” like a smoldering cigarette.

Unfortunately, Indiana has recently been slipping in terms of our cigarette-smoking coolness. With 27.4 percent of Hoosiers still puffing away, we are now the 15th biggest per capita smokers in the U.S. Our arch-nemesis Kentucky leads the pack (so to speak), and the Mormons and health freaks out in Utah are dead last, with less than 18 percent smokers.

C’mon, fellow Hoosiers, let’s get back up in the cool, smoky stratosphere with Kentucky and West Virginia. To paraphrase our governor’s oft-repeated health motto, “Light up, Indiana!” 

Famous five from Hoosier history! 

Illustrations by Shelby Kelley

There’s a lot more to Indiana than the glamour and acclaim that comes from being the state that produced both Michael Jackson AND Florence Henderson.

Hoosier history is chock-full of colorful characters! People who helped our state become what it is today. Many of these folks were born right here, others simply became Hoosiers in their hearts.

Let’s take a stroll down the dusty farm roads and busy city streets of Indiana’s past and celebrate some of our state’s most famous residents.

John Dillinger

John Herbert Dillinger — the original “O.G.” — was born right here in Indianapolis in 1903 and was raised in nearby Mooresville. Of all the Depression-era bank robbers and murderers, John Dillinger was by far the slickest and most handsome. Though J. Edgar Hoover hated him (or did he?), many ordinary citizens viewed Dillinger as a modern-day Robin Hood.

Like a shooting star that blazes briefly overhead in the dark Hoosier sky, Johnny D. had a short but impressive criminal career. In just over a year, he and his gangs were credited with robbing a dozen banks and stealing more than $300,000 — quite a pretty penny during the Depression. Ultimately, he was betrayed by a non-Hoosier, native Romanian Anna Sage (known as the “Lady in Red”), and was gunned down by FBI agents outside the Biograph Theatre in Chicago. Ironically, the handsome heist-master had just watched Manhattan Melodrama, a gangster film.

FUN FACT: People who have paid tribute to John Dillinger by adopting his name include rapper Daz Dillinger and drum and bass producer Dillinja.

D.C. Stephenson

What a go-getter! Under the leadership of this former Indiana Ku Klux Klan grand dragon, statewide Klan membership during the early 1920s grew to nearly 300,000. Stephenson was a ranting recruiter for racism, a Hoosier Hitler of hate!

David Curtis Stephenson was born in Texas in 1891. In 1920 he moved to Evansville, Ind., and joined the KKK. Within a few short years, D.C. was made grand dragon of Indiana and 22 other Northern states. He is famously quoted as having said, “I am the law in Indiana,” and is credited with the still relevant and hilarious joke, “Everything is fine in politics as long as you don’t get caught in bed with a live man or a dead woman.” What a comedian!

In 1925 Stephenson was convicted of second-degree murder in relation to the brutal rape and eventual death of a woman who was an advocate for literacy. He spent much of the rest of his life in prison and died at 74.

FUN FACT: D.C. Stephenson, who was fickle with his political affiliations, can be searched for on the Web by looking for articles on: American rapists; Americans convicted of murder; Ku Klux Klan members; history of Indiana; U.S. Republicans; U.S. Democrats; U.S. Socialists.

Gertrude Baniszewski

When it comes to female torturer/murderers, Gertrude Baniszewski is right at the top of the list. This is one Hoosier gal that would give even the most sadistic Abu Ghraib prison guard nightmares.

She makes Dick Cheney look like a cuddly little puppy. Even Satan won’t return her calls!

Born in Indiana in 1929, Baniszewski wound up a depressed, drug-addicted divorcee raising several of her own children in a poor neighborhood in Indianapolis in the early 1960s. It was in 1965 that traveling carnival workers Lester and Betty Likens arranged to have Baniszewski look after their two daughters, Sylvia and Jenny.

Over the course of several months, Baniszewski viciously abused and tortured 16-year-old Sylvia, often inviting her own children or kids from the neighborhood to participate. Ultimately, Sylvia was killed, and in 1966 Baniszewski was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. The incident was referred to as “the single worst crime perpetrated against an individual in Indiana’s history.”

Baniszewski was paroled in 1985 and lived in Iowa as Nadine van Fossan (her maiden surname) until her death from lung cancer in 1990.

FUN FACT: Not one, but two movies were released in 2007 based on the Sylvia Likens murder: An American Crime and The Girl Next Door. Though both films received positive reviews, neither became the “feel good hit” of the year.

Tony Kiritsis

America is built upon a foundation of justice for all and protection of the rights of individuals. This is no doubt what Tony Kiritsis had in mind when, in 1977, he wired a shotgun to the back of his mortgage broker’s head and paraded him in front of live television cameras in downtown Indianapolis.

Kiritsis had fallen behind on payments for a parcel of land. His mortgage broker, Richard O. Hall, refused to give him additional time to pay. Fearing that his property would be taken by Hall and sold for a profit, Kiritsis did what any patriotic, slightly paranoid and delusional American would do: He took the law into his own hands.

Kiritsis went to Hall’s office and used wire to attach a shotgun to the back of his head. First of all, it must be said that this was a masterful wiring. Not only was the shotgun wired to the back of Hall’s head, the other end of the wire was connected to the trigger, and then to Kiritsis’ own neck. This “dead man’s line” meant that if a police officer shot Kiritsis, his falling would pull the trigger. Same if Hall tried to run away. Talk about homemade Hoosier ingenuity!

After leading Richard Hall through downtown Indianapolis (where live-TV newsmen were concerned that they might be televising an actual murder), Kiritsis took him back to his apartment. From there he spoke frequently over the phone to local radio broadcaster Fred Heckman. After 63 hours, Hall was released. Kiritsis was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was confined to an Indiana mental hospital until 1988. He died in 2005.

FUN FACT: My mother got to know Tony Kiritsis when she was director of nursing at Central State Mental Hospital. She says, “Tony was one of the most charming men I’ve ever met, especially with female patients. I think he had a personality disorder, but I did not think he met the definition of mentally insane.”

James Warren “Jim” Jones

The state of North Carolina is the birthplace of the legendary Rev. Billy Graham. Oklahoma can lay claim to mega-preacher Oral Roberts. Well, Indiana is responsible for producing the “Rev.” Jim Jones, messianic maniac and leader of the People’s Temple.

Jones was born in Crete, Ind., in 1931. He graduated from Richmond High School, got a bachelor’s degree at Butler University and a post-graduate degree from IU. But this Hoosier scholar’s true calling was religion.

fter being ordained in a mainstream Christian faith in 1964, Jones formed his own church based on what he called “apostolic socialism.” The People’s Temple first opened their doors right here in Indianapolis.

In 1977, Jones and some 900 of his followers moved to Guyana. There, the man who styled his hair like Elvis and had at times claimed to be an incarnation of Jesus, Buddha and Lenin formed his own religiously-based agricultural commune, modestly naming this new, utopian society “Jonestown.”

After stateside family members complained of abuse at the settlement, Congressman Leo Ryan and a media crew traveled to Jonestown to investigate. On the third day there, a man tried to kill Ryan with a knife, and the group decided to leave as quickly as possible. As they were boarding their two planes, a truckload of Jones’ supporters drove up and opened fire, killing the congressman and five others. After the survivors escaped, the 900 residents of Jonestown were told by Jones over a loudspeaker to drink a cyanide-laced, fruit-flavored concoction in order to commit “revolutionary suicide.” Most did, though some were shot. Jones died of a gunshot wound to the head, though it is unclear if he pulled the trigger himself.

FUN FACT: Many believe that the cyanide-poisoned drink gulped downed by residents of Jonestown was not, as commonly thought, Kool-Aid, but rather a grape-flavored product called Flavor Aid.

BONUS FUN FACT: As a young man, Jim Jones went door-to-door selling organ grinder-type pet monkeys to raise money for his own church.

New Indiana quarter proposed 

Indiana’s current quarter features a race car. C’mon, Hoosiers! We can do better than that! One of the options under consideration for a new quarter design was suggested by Harry Cheese and realized by illustrator Shelby Kelley. 

Cheer up! 

OK, we know there are plenty o’ doom-and-gloomers out there. One of the most obvious examples of this pernicious negativity is the Alliance for Democracy’s “So You Want to Move to Indy” www.moving2indy.com.

Here you’ll find all the usual suspect nabobs in action. The site exists, they say, “to point out the serious unmet needs our city and state face.” Jeez Louise, it’s “unmet needs” that keep us striving for more!

These Hoosier haters go on to say that Web sites put up by the state, city and Chamber of Commerce fail to mention the problems. “We intend to correct that.”

In your dreams.

Nobody wants to hear how much the new stadium is going to cost taxpayers (according to happy-talking Moving2Indy: “$1.8 billion, including interest”) or how Indy has “3.7 miles of dedicated cycling lanes” while Philadelphia has “175 miles” or how “Indy ranks 99 out of 100 for clean drinking water.”

Dude, who drinks the water when there’s all this tasty pop and beer to consume! We think these folks could use a few quaffs off the tap so maybe things wouldn’t seem so dire.

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