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Hernando de Soto
A Savage Quest in the Americas
By David Ewing Duncan

Chapter One : Soto is Born

We start by imagining a wiry, muscular boy of perhaps eleven, riding a lean Andalusian stallion fast across a low, rugged range of mountains in south-central Spain--a hot, desolate place of rocks, gnarled oaks, sheep, goats, deer, rabbits, snakes, and the occasional mountain lion. Abruptly, the boy draws his sword and hacks viciously at a nearby sapling, neatly slicing off a branch. Turning again, he makes another cut, and another, slashing at the tree and shouting as loudly as he can a battle paean to St. James, a mythical hero of the Moorish wars and patron saint to Spanish warriors." Santiago! Cierra Espana!" Soto screams. "St. James! Close in, Spain!"

Unfortunately, this conjured depiction of Hernando de Soto at eleven is all we have, given the lack of records to tell us what he was really doing as a boy. Nor do we know much about his birth, upbringing, family life, dreams, fears, favorite foods, best friends, length of hair, and other pertinent or impertinent details about the fourteen or so years he spent in Spain, from birth to early manhood--fully a third of his lifetime. However, because he was born the son of a Spanish hidalgo-a cross between a medieval knight and a country squire--and because of his later wealth and fame, enough information was jotted down here and there to construct a bare-bones outline of Soto's birth and childhood, and to trace back the modestly illustrious lineage of his family.

Soto himself told us when he was born, though he shared his century's nonchalance about dates, giving two different years at different times. In 1535, just after resigning as the first military governor of Cuzco, he testified in a legal document that he was "thirty-five years old, more or less." A year later, in Spain, he described himself as "about forty." This suggests he was born in either 1496 or 1500, or sometime in between. I lean toward the later date, since a birth in the range of 1499 or 1500 makes him roughly fourteen years old when he left home for the Indies, the typical age when a boy became a man in sixteenth-century Spain, and when basic decisions were made by his family about his future. Particularly if he were, like Soto, a second-born son, who would not inherit any of his father's meager property; his family could not all ford to keep him any longer than necessary. Another reason I advocate the later date is Soto's reputation as a fast learner, and the abundant evidence of his meteoric rise once he bursts into the history books as a young Captain of the Horse in Panama. As early as 151 8-19 he emerges fully formed as a mounted fighter, literally dashing about and savagely hacking off the limbs (and heads, noses, and arms) of real people--namely, the Indians of Central America. A final piece of evidence for a birth in or near 1500 is a line written by Soto's sixteenth-century biographer, Garcilaso de la Vega. He firmly states that Soto was forty-two years old when he died on May 21, 1542--a contention that, if true, supports a birth year sometime around 1500.

Soto's birthplace has likewise been confused by contradictory claims, though in this case the matter is more easily resolved. Soto was not born in Villanueva de Barcarrota, a tiny pueblo eleven miles from Jerez de los Caballeros, as Garcilaso de la Vega claims, with no proof whatsoever. Nor is it likely he was born in Badajoz, capital of southern Extremadura and the hometown of Soto's mother, as others have insisted. In the absence of an actual birth certificate or other definitive documentation, the available evidence overwhelmingly suggests Hernando de Soto was a natural, or native, of Jerez de los Caballeros, a fortified market town with a population of some eight thousand people in the early sixteenth century, situated seventy miles north-northwest of Seville. Soto himself affirmed that Jerez, his father's hometown, was his place of origin. So did several friends of his family. And if this is not enough, we have the word of at least three La Florida expedition survivors, including Gonzalo Vazquez, himself a native of Villanueva de Barcarrota. "Soto," Vazquez says emphatically, "was a native of Jerez, situated four leagues from this village of Barcarrota."

As for Soto's family, we know little more than the names of his parents and siblings, and the genealogy of the House of Soto. The bloodline was founded by a certain Mendez Sorred, a Burgos squire and captain under Alfonso IV, king of Leon in the early tenth century, about whom nothing more is known. Undoubtedly he gained the rank of hidalgo by performing some signal service for the Crown, perhaps during a raid or battle against the Moors, or some other enemy.

After Mendez Sorred, Soto's ancestors spread out from Leon into Castile, Andalusia, and Extremadura, all the while serving as middle-level captains and commanders to kings, occasionally rising to the status of a high noble-a caballero or a grandee. Soto's most famous ancestor was Pedro Ruiz de Soto, a Knight of Santiago who served as King Ferdinand III's captain general in the mid-thirteenth century. He led the campaign that captured Seville from the Moors, a legendary victory the young Hernando undoubtedly grew up hearing about repeatedly from storytellers in his family. Otherwise, the Soto clan appears to have been of middling importance, one of thousands of small-time, petty elites who had accomplished very little in the centuries after their progenitor's elevation.

This seems to be the case with Soto's father, Francisco Mendez de Soto. Apparently, he inherited the Soto flair for not drawing attention to himself, at least in terms of written records. Everything we know about Francisco is summed up in the comments of a longtime friend of the Soto family, who described him in 1538 as a "hidalgo and son of hidalgos " with "a commonly known reputation . . . and has no blood of Jews, no Conversos, no Moors, no peasants." This was merely the formulaic legal definition of a hidalgo at the time, however, and tells us nothing about the man who fathered the would-be conqueror of North America.

It seems likely that Francisco was not rich, his family's modest hidalgo wealth having long ago succumbed to the harsh climate and infertility of the region. The youthful Soto is said to have arrived in Panama not with the slaves, horses, and wardrobe of a wealthy and prominent hidalgo, but penniless, bringing with him, according to someone who later met him, "nothing else his own except for a sword and shield." This observation is suspect because it was written by a Soto chronicler in La Florida who did not know Soto in Panama, though the notion that Soto's family was less than prominent is further backed by a near-complete dearth of archival material mentioning the Mendez de Sotos in Jerez de los Caballeros during the early sixteenth century. Had they been well-off, records of contracts, sales, and other legal documents would have been deposited in the archives. The apparent invisibility of Soto's father in the record books means he was either dead when Soto was a boy, or lived a life of mediocrity.

Slightly more is known about Soto's mother, Leonor Arias Tinoco--including the fact that the Tinocos were more prominent in Badajoz than the Sotos were in Jerez. For centuries, they were considered an important hidalgo family among the class who served as lawyers, administrators, and military officers in the provincial capital. We also know the names of Leonor's parents--Hernan Gutierrez de Cardenosa and Juana Gonzalez Tinoco--whose stature in Badajoz was such that when Soto needed character witnesses to vouch for him many years later, when he sought to join the Knights of Santiago, he went to Badajoz, not Jerez, to ask prominent friends of his mother's family to testify on his behalf One of these witnesses says he saw the marriage of Soto's parents in Badajoz in the 14905. Several others verified that Leonor Arias Tinoco was descended from a "line of noble hidalgos in the city of Badajoz."

Soto had at least three siblings, including an older brother, Juan Mendez de Soto, heir to the family properties, such as they were. Nothing, however, is heard from this brother until 1537, when he received an undisclosed monetary grant from King Charles I, possibly arranged by his then-famous little brother as compensation for money the Crown borrowed from Soto after he returned from Peru with his thousand pounds of gold. Two years later, in 1539, we hear again of Juan Mendez when Soto in his will designates him an executor of his estate. in 1543, Juan Mendez de Soto was elected a regidor member of the town council in Jerez, a position he may also have obtained because of his association with his brother. Soto's other known siblings were sisters--Catalina de Soto, whose young son, Pedro de Soto, accompanied Soto to Cuba; and Maria de Soto, who married the prefect of Badajoz, Don Alonso Enriquez.

After leaving home at the age of fourteen in 1514, Soto spent no more than a few weeks in Jerez de los Caballeros during the remainder of his life. Yet his strong attachment to hometown and family--a common trait among conquistadors of this period--was proven in 1539, when Soto ordered in his will that two thousand ducats be spent constructing a lavish chapel and tomb in Jerez's church of San Miguel. His body, according to his instructions, was to be laid to rest inside an ornate sepulcher, with his mother and father buried beside him. Writing with an obvious relish that this son of middling hidalgos was to be laid out like a great noble, he directed his executors to place his body in the center of the chapel "in such a manner that the foot of the sepulcher adjoins the footstone of the altar; and thereon I order to be placed a tomb covered over by a fine black broadcloth, in the middle of which be put a red cross of the Commandery of the Order of the Knights of Santiago, that shall be for use on weekdays, and another pall of black velvet, with the same cross in the midst, with four escutcheons of brocade, bearing my arms; which escutcheons I wish and order to be likewise placed on the chapel, altarpiece, and railing, and vestments in such a manner to the patron and executors shall appear most becoming."

Soto's executors were unable to follow these lavish instructions. This is because when he died, Soto was far away from Jerez de los Caballeros, bivouacked on the banks of the Mississippi River, and claiming to be a god to the local Indians. This forced his men to secretly stuff their governor's corpse into a hollow log (or in a blanket, depending on whose version one believes) and dump it during the night in the swirling, muddy waters of the great river, to avoid an awkward situation should the Indians discover this "god" had died. Soto's parents, remains, which briefly stood a chance of being preserved in grandiose style, are now lost, the bones long ago having turned to dust and dissolved into the bare, hardscrabble earth of Extremadura.

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These are the facts as we know them about Soto's early life, his hometown and family--a sparse outline that hardly begins to assuage our curiosity about that black-haired boy riding fast across the mountains of Extremadura. Yet even if we will never know more specifics, we still can learn a great deal about Soto by delving into the culture and society that shaped him as a boy.

First and foremost, the young Hernando was influenced by his region, Extremadura. Called the Cradle of the Conquistadors in tourist brochures, this desolate province in southwest Spain produced not only Soto, but Hernan Cortes, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Francisco Pizarro and his brothers, and many, many others. Fully one in six of all Spaniards who sailed to the Indies in the sixteenth century came from Extremadura, including nearly half of Soto's six hundred to seven hundred men in La Florida.

One need only stand on Jerez de los Caballeros, battlements, perched high on a mountain crag above the city, to understand why they left. For miles around, you see only rocky hills and brown, parched fields and pastures, stony canyons, and slopes of twisted scrub oak and cork trees. It is a place where sudden floods in the spring and winter erode away entire fields, houses, hamlets, sheep, and the occasional human being, and where extremes in temperatures between summer and winter bring to mind the old Spanish quip: "nine months, winter, and three months, hell." Though hauntingly beautiful in its immense silence and desolation, it is hard to imagine anyone prospering here, even now. indeed, it is hardly surprising Extremadura produced such tough, no-nonsense men and women four and a half centuries ago, who not only survived when they traveled to America, but thrived amidst the hardships of the conquista. Even today, extremenos are a hardscrabble people--small, wiry, practical, and tenacious, representing the same extremes of Spanish poverty and vitality they did in Soto's era.

Survival of the fittest in Soto's world began at birth. Half of all children born in Renaissance Europe died before the age of five, most often within minutes or hours of leaving the womb. Millions more died of disease cholera, typhoid, dysentery, diphtheria, measles, mumps, smallpox, and plague--aided and sometimes caused by the filth and cramped conditions Soto and every other child in Europe grew up in during the sixteenth century. Indeed, Jerez de los Caballeros was not the pleasant town of whitewashed houses and scrubbed-clean streets one sees today, but a barely tolerable place where eight thousand people squeezed inside a walled area less than a tenth of one square mile. Here Soto and the citizens of Jerez lived amidst a maze of narrow streets reeking of garbage and excrement, where one sometimes had to step carefully to avoid sewage running down troughs in the lanes and alleys, left open in part so that edible refuse could be thrown in and eaten by dogs, chickens, and goats. Houses likewise were tiny and cramped, with all but the very rich living in small, cavelike town houses where bedrooms were barely big enough for beds, and dining rooms were not much larger--leading most people to spend their time in small gardens, or in one of the city's three open public plazas, the largest one facing the church of San Miguel, Soto's own parish church.

Why the people of Jerez tolerated such extreme discomfort was simple. It was far more dangerous outside the city walls. In Soto's day, the countryside of Spain and most of Europe was virtually lawless, a place where uninhabited thickets and forests predominated over pastures and cultivated helds, and bandits, renegade bands of soldiers, and wild animals made even daylight travel hazardous. During the era of Soto's birth and early life, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel were making significant inroads toward mitigating this rural anarchy. Yet nearly every person in Spain remained instinctively fearful of the countryside, making sure they were safely inside their city walls by nightfall. This meant peasants ventured out to work their fields only during daylight hours, and wealthier people left their towns and cities only when properly armed, or accompanied by a guard. The rest of the time, the Sotos, like most hidalgos, stayed in town, sleeping in their tiny town house inside Jerez's cocoon of stone and mortar, hiring an overseer and perhaps armed watchmen to guard and manage their pastures, wineries, olive groves, or whatever else they owned, properties that Francisco Mendez de Soto and his sons would have visited only a few times a year.

This also was a time of frequent drought and famine, which struck Spain and Europe with appalling regularity, and sometimes killed hundreds of thousands as they spread across a continent then populated by some eighty million people. Those who survived were either lucky, or over the centuries had built up a genetic fortitude for enduring starvation and disease that at least begins to explain how men such as Soto endured so much in the Americas. Twice during Hernando de Soto's boyhood, in the winters of 1502-3 and 1502-3, spring and summer droughts led to devastating famines in southern Spain, where witnesses describe thousands dead and refugees wandering "down the roads carrying their children, dead of hunger, on their backs." During the 1507 famine, widespread hunger was also accompanied in Andalusia--and possibly as far north as Jerez de los Caballeros--by a fresh outbreak of bubonic plague, which swept through the squalid streets of Seville, killing fifteen hundred people in one parish alone, during a single week in May. in the early sixteenth century, Seville was the largest city in Spain, numbering about thirty-five thousand people.

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One can easily overstate the miseries of sixteenth-century life. For Extremenos in Soto's day had moments of pleasure and even happiness, particularly when they put aside their work and indulged in frequently held entertainments and ceremonies--weddings, religious festivals, tournaments, bullfights, and funerals. Jerez, as a regional trading center, also attracted a steady flow of wandering troubadours and musicians, appearing on market days each week to sing songs, lead dances, tell stories, play flutes and drums, and strum the vihuela, an instrument halfway between a lute and a guitar. It's easy to picture the youthful Soto wandering around the cluttered Jerez market, wearing a sword and a dark cloak, and strutting with his hidalgo friends as they stop off to hear a rendition of a cantares de gesta, an epic poem-song, sung by a brightly clad trovador on a makeshift platform. While stirring and often beautiful, these bloody and violent stories, glorifying combat, plundering, camaraderie, and faith in God, undoubtedly fired the imagination of the young Soto, who would later become famous as both a fighter and a dreamer as he eagerly sought out golden cities and great empires to conquer and rule.

Imagine the scene: a crowded, smoky square in Jerez, smelling of dung and perspiration, where Soto and his friends are standing below a tiny stage, listening to a storyteller recite lines from El Poema de Mio Cid "La sena sacan fuera, de Valencia dieron salto, " the trovador shouts with great dramatic emphasis, leaning toward the audience, and speaking low to draw them into his story. "They left Valencia with their standard carried in front."

"Quatro mill menos treinta con Mio Cid van a cabo," he continues, theatrically raising his voice, "a los cinquaenta mill van los ferir de grado!"--"Four thousand all but thirty forming the Cid's company, going eagerly to the attack of fifty thousand Moors!"

"Mio Cid enpleo la lanca, al espada metio mano, " he continues, strutting onstage like a knight heading off to battle, "atantos mata de moros que non fueron contados, por el cobdo ayuso la sangre destellando"--"The Cid first used his lance and then wielded his sword, killing countless Moors while the blood dripped down to his elbow." He then goes on, reciting the poem in verse:

"Toda esta ganancia en su mano a rrastado.

Los cinquaenta mill por cuenta fuero[n] notados,

non escaparon mas de ciento e quatro.

Mesnadas de Mio Cid rrobado an el campo, entre oro e plata fallaron tres mill marcos, las otras ganancias non avia rrecabdo. Alegre era Mio Cid e todos sos vassallos que Dios les ovo merced que vencieron el campo. "

"All that booty fell to the Cid, and of the fifty thousand Moors they counted not more than one hundred and four as having escaped. The Cid's vassals plundered the field and found three thousand gold and silver marks and enormous quantities of other spoils. The Cid and his vassals were overjoyed that by God's favor they had won the day."

Other forms of storytelling were less gruesome. For instance, there were villancios, or songbooks, that celebrated love, beauty, and daily life--subjects in which the young Soto probably had less interest than the epics, though the villancios could become quite lewd in their overt sexual references. The original oral renditions Soto would have heard in Jerez have been long forgotten, though musicians of the day wrote down sanitized versions for retelling at the royal court. One of these songs, the Song of the Sybil Cassandra, was first performed at the court of Ferdinand and Isabel in 1513, when Soto was twelve or thirteen--a polished version of a villancio already well-known in the Spanish countryside, which may have been performed in Jerez when Soto was a boy.

For this song, the trovador would have been accompanied by a drum and flute as he started his performance by seeking out a beautiful young woman in the audience. He sings to her:

"How charming the girl is! How lovely and beautiful!"

The woman blushes, which makes the crowd laugh as the trovador searches the throng for a knight or a gentleman, easily recognizable by his rich cloak, jewelry, and sword.

"Tell me, knight, you who carry arms, if the horse or the arms or the war are as beautiful "

The woman and the crowd again react as the singer points out a shepherd in town for market day:

"Tell me, shepherd, you who guard the flocks, if the flocks or the valleys or the mountains are as beautiful "

And on it went, verse after verse, getting cruder and more lively as the music and lyrics grew louder, and the audience drank wine and danced to flute and drums.

Nothing the trovadors could offer, however, matched the greatest solace and diversion of all in Soto's day--the church. Providing not only hope for the miserable, and justification for the rich, this all-pervasive entity also alleviated the monotony of medieval life with an astonishing variety of saintly cults, prayers, admonitions, sacraments, festivals, ritualized tortures, heretic burnings, and the daily Mass.

It is impossible to know how much the church influenced the young Hernando de Soto. Yet if his later life is any indication, he was not overly devout, following the protocol of the day when he mentions Cod in his letters and reports, and claims to be fulfilling the Crown's orders to evangelize the Indians. Indeed, though he brought at least eight priests with him to La Florida, and possibly twelve, they seldom appear in the narratives, and seemed to have little, if any, influence over Soto or the expedition. This is not to say that Soto himself never discussed religion with the Indians, because he frequently did. But it was always in the context of power, and of Soto's attempts to manipulate, the Spanish God typically being mentioned in the same breath as demands to succumb to Spanish steel.

Soto's Machiavellian improbity about Christian ideals, however, does not mean the Spanish religion made no deep impression. For in sixteenth-century Spain, the church was more than a set of ideas, or even a way of life. It was an all-embracing entity that excited great fervor among a people who had been fighting a war for centuries to defend the Christian faith, and had just won a shattering victory over the Moors at Granada in 1492--capping off a reconquest of Iberia begun in the eighth century. In fact, little in Soto's youth would have mattered more than this great triumph of a nation that passionately believed they were the chosen people of God, and that He had made them not only invincible against their enemies, but had bequeathed to them the cunning, manial skills, and courage to seize the day--and whatever booty was available--whether it be in America, Italy, Africa, or France. This passion for the Spanish God--who was more a god of war to Soto and his ilk than one of love or humanity--is why the crowds at religious festivals worked themselves up into a frenzy that frightened cooler heads and visiting dignitaries, and why few countries could match sixteenth-century Spain's ferocity and violence in worshiping and defending their version of God, a deity as paradoxical as Spain itself--composed of fire and blood, love and hate, life and death, and, most of all, an intensity of purpose that drove men like Soto across the Ocean Sea to conquer half a hemisphere in the space of a single generation.

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The final ingredient in young Soto's upbringing was his formal education, another blank that can only be hinted at around the edges. Because he was frequently called a "good hidalgo," a "man of truth," and a "man of worth," we can assume he acquired the basic skills and learning expected of his class. This included at least a functional knowledge of reading and writing, and a rudimentary introduction to subjects ranging from Latin and theology to mathematics, which hidalgos learned from members of their family, priests in local churches, and, in wealthier villages, from maestros hired by the town council.

Book learning, however, was only a small part of a young hidalgo's education. Given Soto's later reputation as an expert horseman and fighter, he obviously devoted much more time as a boy to mastering the skills of a knight and warrior, and to learning the basics of how to wage battles and to maintain horses, weapons, and a fighting edge. I imagine him being a serious, determined boy who woke up each day before dawn to start a full day of training with swords and lances, in his free time leading other boys in hunting expeditions, or in games of mock warfare, the future governor-general of La Florida already showing a capacity for command. On special occasions, he and his friends would have competed as youths in tournaments, demonstrating their skills in children's competitions while older knights jousted, dueled, fought on horseback with bulls and other animals, and played a dangerous game of mock combat called juego de canas.

Soto's education as a hidalgo, however, was more than practicing ripostes, thrusts, and skirmishes, or the fundamentals of scholarship. For more than anything, hidalguia was an attitude, a system of beliefs and practices developed over the centuries by a warrior caste created to fight the far-flung reconquista against the Moors. Originally, they formed an elite of independent, highly mobile citizen-knights on call at all times, their ongoing mission being to defend their local territory, and to join the king in offensive thrusts. In exchange, hidalgos were legally exempted from paying taxes, provided with their small estates and, sometimes, with vassals. They also were given permission to take on the trappings of nobility--that is, to bear a coat of arms, wear the plumes and headgear of a noble, attend the fetes and tournaments of the aristocracy, and to wear fine clothes otherwise banned by the church's sumptuary laws.

Not surprisingly, these barely noble gentlemen clung to their prerogatives with the determination of any group relegated to the lowest rung of an elite society. This in part explains why the hidalgos--and why Soto--developed reputations for exceptional haughtiness and pretentiousness, holding fast to a strict code of conduct that not only forbade performing manual labor (el deshonor de trabajo, "the dishonor of work"), but also any dealings in commerce, even if it meant starving their families. To be a hidalgo meant never to leave home without a weapon, preferably the most ornate and flashy Toledo blade available; to answer any insult with a grim challenge of a duel to the death, and a clash of swords; and to uphold certain chivalric values summed up in the term "point of honor"--courage, loyalty to comrades, the sanctity of one's word, cruelty toward enemies, and a deep respect for family, country, and one's own name. The name hidalgo literally means "son of someone"--an indicator of why Soto and his class had no greater aspiration than to be elevated to a status of high nobility, and to receive titles, land, and recognition.

By Soto's day, however, this citizen-warrior caste organized to reclaim and guard frontiers within Spain was giving way to the professional soldier fighting foreign wars, and would soon become superfluous. Yet the country remained saturated with petty hidalgos whose sons inherited the family name, privileges, and a horror of el deshonor de trabajo, but little more. Just a generation after Soto's death, the hidalgo would be reduced to absurdity by Miguel de Cervantes, whose Don Quixote is the epitome of the impoverished, vainglorious hidalgo, a farcical remnant of an anachronistic fighting class whose "stallion" is a broken-down nag with "cracked hoofs and . . . blemishes," and whose "helmet" is half steel and half pasteboard. Yet Quixote's fantastic aspirations were every bit as real to him as Soto's ambitions in America. Indeed, in Soto's time, before the Spanish became jaded by wealth and the inevitable disillusionment of an empire past its formative stages, war and conquest remained a glorious occupation. With Granada fresh in every Spaniard's mind, and ongoing campaigns in Italy, North Africa, and the Americas, organized violence remained vital to the life of every aspiring young hidalgo. It offered a chance at plunder, to restore the family fortune, and to alleviate the boredom of being a frontier warrior without a frontier to defend.

But most of all, the foreign wars, and particularly America, offered a final coda to the Middle Ages, the Golden Age of the hidalgo. Poised on the edge of change not only in Spain, but in the rest of Europe, where the medieval knight was fast being replaced by Renaissance infantry armed with rifles and waves of lightly armored cavalry, these young men could still imagine themselves as El Cid--in this case, riding off to America to make their fortunes and kill Indians (i.e., Moors). Yet Soto was not an exclusively medieval creation. Nor are the ideals of the hidalgo entirely an anachronism even today, when pride, a sense of entitlement, and the yearning for glory can be as volatile a mixture as it has ever been. indeed, one has to keep in mind that these medieval figures dashing about in the jungles of ancient America, donned in armor and quoting El Cid, were among the most adept of their era at utilizing the new high technology of the Renaissance--the weapons, ships, instruments, know-how, and spirit of the fledgling modern age.

© 1995 David Ewing Duncan


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