Remembering the past

I visited Civil War battle sites on my honeymoon:  Antietam, Harper’s Ferry, Gettysburg.  It was early May and they were beautiful places.  Lush fields, trees, wild flowers – and graves.  Hundreds and hundreds of men had died there fighting for both sides.  I doubt that many were particularly political.  They were recruited into adventure or a sense of honor.  Perhaps someone they admired was building a company from the small town where they lived.  Most New England towns have a Civil War monument.  I’ve seen them in Ohio and Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia.  Oh, certainly the politicians and some of the men at the top – the generals – believed in the cause.  That is their job.  But the ordinary soldiers went because someone asked them or because all their friends were going or they got paid to enlist and the family needed the money.

The current desire in a lot of places, Richmond and New Orleans to name two of them, is to remove the statues of the generals and politicians.  I lived for many years just blocks from Monument Avenue in Richmond.  The large monuments stand in circles that can be difficult to get to depending on the traffic:  Jeb Stuart, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson.  Plus the explorer Matthew Maury and tennis great and local hero, Arthur Ashe.  (Ashe was added after a great deal of controversy.)  Most Richmonders probably couldn’t name all the statues and likely don’t know who any of these men are.

The Boston Globe had a feature story on July 4th.

Ana Edwards stood on Monument Avenue, one of America’s most elegant boulevards, and stared with disbelief at the inscription on the 67-foot-tall memorial to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate government that was based here during the Civil War.

“Exponent of Constitutional Principles,” the inscription said about Davis. “Defender of the Rights of States.” There were no words explaining Davis’s role in the enslavement of hundreds of thousands, no hint that much of the nation’s slave trade was conducted here in Richmond, at a time when black lives plainly didn’t matter to many, except as human chattel to be exploited or sold.

Instead, emblazoned in stone, was Davis’s assertion that he acted “not in hostility to others.”

Edwards had never read the description and I hadn’t either.  And neither had the Mayor of Richmond, Dwight Jones.  But unlike many in Richmond and other places across the South, I don’t think the statues should be moved or put in museums or crowded together in a kind of Confederate History Park.  I believe they need to be used as teaching tools.

Earlier this spring, my husband and I were in Annapolis where there is a prominent statue of Roger Taney on the grounds of the State House.  Taney was the Chief Justice of the United State Supreme Court and wrote the infamous decision in the Dred Scott case declaring slaves were not citizens and couldn’t sue in federal court.  Instead of removing the statue, there are signs that explain who Taney was, who Dred Scott was, and why the decision mattered.  I like this approach much more than taking down the statues and putting someplace where most people will not see them.  Annapolis also has a new memorial to Kunte Kinte (subject of Alex Haley’s Roots) on the City Docks where he landed as a slave.

The controversy over Monument Avenue comes at a time when there is a fight to prevent development in Shockoe Bottom where there were a number of slave jails and auctions.  I wrote about the preservation effort back in April.

dividedrichmond1

Slavery is an ugly part of our past and the men who believed in it, the Jefferson Davis’ and Roger Taneys need to be remembered.  We can’t forget who they were and what they did, any more than we should forget the slave auctions.  Richmond, and other parts of the south have a prime opportunity to educate.  Put up some markers, publish some informational materials.  Make sure that all those bicyclists and spectators at the big race in Richmond in the fall know who Jefferson Davis was and what he did, but leave the statue.  Leave the statue as a reminder of our dark past.  Leave the statue so we don’t forget.  And make sure they, and other visitors to the City know about Shockoe Bottom.

We can’t always be proud of our history, but we do need to remember it.

 

Remembering slavery and our history: saving Shockoe Bottom

Many of us don’t want to think about the past, especially the unpleasant and embarrassing parts of the past.  Not wanting to remember also applies to thinking about history.  I was reminded of this the other day when I came across Maurie D. McInnes’ essay in the New York Times “Disunion” series. 

We don’t know exactly when the last sale of enslaved persons occurred in Richmond, Va., known as “the great slave market of the South,” but it must have taken place before April 3, 1865. On the previous day, the order had come to evacuate in advance of the arrival of Union troops who liberated the city.

Amid the chaos, a slave trader named Robert Lumpkin still had a jail full of people he was hoping to sell. According to the journalist Charles Carleton Coffin, who was there to witness the fall of Richmond, after learning of the order to evacuate, Lumpkin “quickly handcuffed his human chattels,” about 50 men, women and children, and marched them four blocks south to the Danville-Richmond Railroad depot on the banks of the James River. He was hoping to whisk them away, and find buyers for them in another city.

When they arrived, however, “there was no room for them on the train which whirled the Confederate Government from the capital. Soldiers with fixed bayonets forced them back. It was the last slave gang seen in this Western world.” Lumpkin was angry, but there was nothing he could do. So, “with oaths and curses loud and deep,” Coffin reported, Lumpkin was forced “to unlock their handcuffs and allow them to go free.” These 50 people were worth about $50,000, according to Coffin, “but on that Sunday morning were of less value than the mule and the wagon which had drawn the slave-trader’s trunk to the station.”

Richmond was a major slave trading hub and Robert Lumpkin, one of the most prominent traders.  His jail and auction house were located in Shockoe Bottom, a low point along the James River.  Abigail Tucker wrote about the archeology of the site and Lumpkin in a 2009 Smithsonian Magazine article, “Digging up the past at a Richmond jail”.  She writes

Lumpkin, a “bully trader” known as a man with a flair for cruelty, fathered five children with a black woman named Mary, who was a former slave and who eventually acted as his wife and took his name. Mary had at least some contact with the unfortunates her husband kept in chains, on one occasion smuggling a hymnal into the prison for an escaped slave named Anthony Burns.

The slave trade was important to the economics of both North and South before the Civil War.  McInnes reminds us

The economic engine of the slave trade helped to fuel America’s prosperity. The profits from the trade in enslaved people flowed to many places. Traders were not the only ones to profit from America’s internal slave trade. Slave owners in the Upper South profited because they received cash for the people they sold. Slave owners in the Lower South profited because the people they purchased were forced to labor in the immensely productive cotton and sugar fields. The merchants who supplied clothing and food to the slave traders profited, as did steamboat, railroad and shipowners who carried enslaved people.

Capitalists in the North profited by investing in banks that handled the exchange of money for people, or in insurance companies that provided insurance for the owners’ investments in enslaved people. So did foreign investors in Southern securities, some of which were issued on mortgaged slaves. The hotbed of American abolitionism — New England — was also the home of America’s cotton textile industry, which grew rich on the backs of the enslaved people forced to pick cotton. The story of America’s domestic slave trade is not just a story about Richmond or New Orleans, but about America.

When I read McInnes’ column the current controversy about preserving the site of Lumpkin’s jail and auction house came immediately to mind.  The National Trust for Historic Preservation explains

Today, Shockoe Bottom is an urban archaeological site imminently threatened by “Revitalize RVA,” the controversial plan to construct a minor league baseball stadium, a Hyatt hotel, a Kroger grocery store, and residential and commercial office space at the site. The ill-considered stadium project, which is heavily promoted by the mayor of Richmond, members of the City Council, and influential real estate developers, threatens to destroy the remarkable archaeological remains which survive below the asphalt.

ShockoeBottom_Douglas_5.24.1866_crPreservationVirginia

The cruelty of slave traders like Robert Lumpkin, the wealth America enjoys, and the stories of the men and women held in the jail and sold at Shockoe Bottom deserve to be remembered.

I can’t remember another time I have used this blog to urge readers to take action, but I hope you will go the the National Trust link and sign on to save Shockoe Bottom.

 

Reproduction of Douglass note from Preservation Virginia.

A proposed new state motto for Vermont

Today, March 4, 1791, Vermont became the 14th state.  It seems appropriate to write about a piece of legislation I hope will pass this year.  One of my state Senators, Jeannette White, wrote a column about it last week in the Brattleboro Reformer.

State flag of Vermont

State flag of Vermont

Vermont, like most states, has the state tree (sugar maple), bird (hermit thrush), and motto  “Freedom and Unity”, but unlike many other states, has no motto in Latin.  I’ll let Senator White explain

…[the] Senate Government Operations Committee, which I chair, has broad enough authority that it can address many of these [smaller] issues. One of them was a proposal to adopt a state Latin motto. This began last session when an 8th-grade Latin student, Angela Kubicke, discovered we are one of a few states that do not have one. It was late in the session and there simply wasn’t time to take it up. So the Government Operations Committee gave her some advice and suggested she come back at the beginning of this session. She did her homework and it paid off. She organized Latin students around the state, developed a motto that made sense for Vermont, got a bill sponsor, brought it to us and on Feb. 11 our Committee heard the testimony before a room full of about 70 Latin students from around the state, their teachers, three classics professors from UVM [University of Vermont], and other interested people.

I love the fact that the young woman didn’t get discourage and give up.  Instead she organized.

The motto is Stella quarta decima fulgeat — May the 14th star shine brightly. The number 14 has some significance in Vermont: there are 14 counties and we were an independent republic for 14 years. But even more important was that, during those 14 years as a republic, Vermonters worked very hard to become the 14th state — the 14th star on the flag. And during those years as a republic, there was a mint in Ruppert that minted Vermont coins. On the back was this motto.

At least twenty other states have Latin mottos and the proposed “Stella quarta decima fulgeat” would not replace “Freedom and Unity”.  So what happened when word got out that an additional Latin motto was being considered by the Vermont legislature?

WCAX did a small story about it that immediately riled bloggers. The comments ranged from “Stop wasting time on this” to “Latin motto? They should learn to read English” to “If we have a Latin motto it will open the flood gates for illegal aliens coming over the Mexican border (in case this is lost on anyone — apparently many Vermonters feel that Latinos speak Latin)” to “Send Joe Benning (sponsor of the bill) and Obama back to Mexico.”

I have to say, however that all the comments I saw on the WCAX  page were not negative and I think several comments were posted by some college students – who do do not go to school in Vermont – as an attempt at humor.  But some, like the ones quoted by Senator White, were just nasty and ignorant.

This being my first Vermont legislative session I hope I have this right.  We are having town meeting week and the legislature is not meeting. But Angela Kubicke’s bill is going to the House when they reconvene.  Hope it passes.  Stella quarta decima fulgeat.

Extremists and history

Last week I caught a snippet of news about a state legislator in Oklahoma who wanted to redo the Advance Placement History syllabus to emphasize the speeches of Ronald Reagan.  I gather he was also not interested in any multicultural aspects of our history.  And he also didn’t understand that changing AP history would keep students from getting college credit for the class – one of the reasons kids take AP classes.  According to CNN, Oklahoma is only one state that doesn’t like the new framework for history under the Common Core.  I don’t think that everyone will ever agree on what should be included in our history class.  For example, the internment of the Japanese Americans into camps during World War II was never taught in my high school history class.  I took care of that by doing a report on my grandparents.  History is such a huge subject and these classes are designed to touch on a few highlights.  And a framework is just that, a framework.  Students and teachers can hang a lot of information within that framework.

What frightens me is that some of the same people who think they know better than historians what should be taught in high school history are the same people who are also religious fundamentalists.  Many in our fundamentalist Christian movement want to make Christianity the state religion.  Forget that the U.S. Constitution prohibits establishment of a state religion. These folks like to carry around pocket-sized copies of the Constitution, but I don’t think they have actually read it.  Will their next fight be to teach only about Christianity and not other religions and cultures?

Destruction

There is sickening news out of Iraq and Syria.  This is the part of the world that we learned about in world history class as the “Cradle of Civilization”.  Yes, it was mostly Western Civ, but the Mesopotamian influence was far-reaching.  I was watching MSNBC when they ran the video of men taking sledge hammers and drills to 7th century B.C. statues destroying them forever.  The New York Times wrote this

The limestone sculptures, statues and reliefs smashed by militants in northern Iraq provided valuable historical insights into kingdoms that flourished thousands of years ago and were crucial in the formation of early Arab identity, experts say. The destruction took place in Mosul, in one of the most important museums in the Middle East.

On Friday, archaeologists and historians in Iraq and around the world studied a video posted by the Islamic State showing millenniums-old artifacts being smashed by sledgehammers, seeking to come to terms with what artistic and historical riches had been lost in an exercise clearly meant to promote the militants’ extreme beliefs and project their power.

As with all news programs and video, the pictures ran again and again.  I could only watch once.

The World Post (from the Huffington Post) quotes one of the destroyers

The region under IS control in Iraq has nearly 1,800 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites and the militants appear to be out to cleanse it of any non-Islamic ideas, including library books, archaeological relics, and even Islamic sites considered idolatrous.

“Oh Muslims, these artifacts that are behind me were idols and gods worshipped by people who lived centuries ago instead of Allah,” a bearded man tells the camera as he stands in front of the partially demolished winged-bull.

“The so-called Assyrians and Akkadians and others looked to gods for war, agriculture and rain to whom they offered sacrifices,” he added, referring to groups that that left their mark on Mesopotamia for more than 5,000 years in what is now Iraq, eastern Syria and southern Turkey.

“Our prophet ordered us to remove all these statues as his followers did when they conquered nations,” the man in the video adds. The video bore the logo of the IS group’s media arm and was posted on a Twitter account used by the group.

But this is only the most recent destruction of history.

In January, Islamic State militants ransacked the Central Library of Mosul, smashing the locks and taking around 2,000 books — leaving only Islamic texts. Days later, militants broke into University of Mosul’s library. They made a bonfire out of hundreds of books on science and culture, destroying them in front of students.

The day after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops in April 2003, looters burst into the Iraqi National Museum in the Iraqi capital, making off with scores of priceless artifacts and leaving the floor littered with shattered pottery. The U.S. was widely criticized at the time for failing to protect the site.

Yes, we are also complicit in failing to protect world heritage.

But it is the ransacking of the library and the burning of the books that leads me to a comparison to the fundamentalist Christians in this country.  They have in common with ISIS a tunnel vision that allow only for one point of view.  One religion.  One way of thinking.  It seems to me that all fundamentalists have a common root:  To destroy that which is other or different.  I am not comparing that Oklahoma legislator to an ISIS terrorist, let me be clear about that.  What I am saying is that while the manifestation of their beliefs may be different, they share a desire to make everyone adhere to what they know is best.  It is done through terror and killing in Syria, Iraq, and Africa and stupid legislation in the United States, but the end goals seem to me to be the same.

Photograph:  AP

History and war

I have to admit that my knowledge of the Second World War in Europe is limited to what I know from high school history class, some novels and movies.  I can name some of the famous battles and tell you that the all Japanese American 442nd fought in Italy, but my ignorance is pretty shocking.  So I have started reading the Rick Atkinson Liberation Trilogy starting with “An Army at Dawn” about North Africa.

But it seems that I am not the only one with a need to know some history.  Sunday’s New York Times had a long story about young Japanese students going to Guadalcanal to look for remains and learn history.

Using a trowel to dig into the shadowy floor of the rain forest, pausing only to wipe away sweat and malaria-carrying mosquitoes, Atsushi Maeda holds up what he has traveled so far, to this South Pacific island, to find: a human bone, turned orange-brown with age.

Mr. Maeda, 21, was looking for the remains of missing Japanese soldiers at the site of one of World War II’s most ferocious battles. Others have done this work before him, mostly aging veterans or bereaved relatives. But he was with a group of mostly university students and young professionals, nearly all of them under 40 and without a direct connection to the soldiers killed here.

A Japanese vessel was partly submerged off Guadalcanal in 1942 after being hit by American forces. The battle helped turn the Pacific war in favor of the United States and its allies. Some 7,000 Japanese were reported missing on Guadalcanal

A Japanese vessel was partly submerged off Guadalcanal in 1942 after being hit by American forces. The battle helped turn the Pacific war in favor of the United States and its allies. Some 7,000 Japanese were reported missing on Guadalcanal

As I understand it, the Japanese talk even less about WWII than Americans.  I had two uncles who were in Japan with the American occupying forces but it wasn’t until a few years before they both died that I knew anything about what they actually did. Ostensibly translators, they worked in support roles for the American army – mostly in supply.  My uncles didn’t talk much about the war because, like many vets, they were raised to accept the experience and move on.  In Japan, however, it has been almost national policy not to talk about the war they lost.

As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, there has been a surge in interest among young Japanese about the disastrous war that their nation has long tried to forget.

It is a phenomenon that crosses political lines, encompassing progressives who preach the futility of war as well as conservatives who question the historical record of Japan’s wartime atrocities. What these young people have in common is an urgent sense that they learned too little about the war, both from school, where classes focus on earlier Japanese history, and from tight-lipped family members, who prefer not to revisit a painful time remains strong in Japan.

I found it interesting that most of the Japanese students are several generations younger than I am but that we are both driven by the need to know more.  200 pages into Atkinson’s story of North Africa, I keep reading about familiar names:  Tunis, Casablanca,  Marrakesh, Algeria – names of places that have been romanticized but where hundreds died.  North Africa is where there is an on-going struggle for democracy complicated by terrorism and tribalism.  (Think Benghazi)  We American invaders during WWII didn’t understand the local population or make a lot of effort to do so.  A mistake we still make today.

Kankoh Sakitsu, 42, the head priest of a Buddhist temple in Tokyo who organizes expeditions to Guadalcanal, has seen interest among young people grow after his first trip here in 2008. Since then, he has arranged three other journeys for groups of Japanese, including this one in September.

Mr. Sakitsu originally went to Guadalcanal to pray at the battle sites out of a sense of contrition because he feels Japanese Buddhism failed to oppose the war in the 1930s and 1940s, and so shares responsibility for it.

The story ends with a note of caution from a Japanese Guadalcanal veteran.

Mr. Sakitsu, the leader, said the September group was special because it was joined for the first time by one of the last surviving Japanese veterans from the battle, Junshiro Kanaizumi. Mr. Kanaizumi, 95, was an army engineer who helped build roads in the jungle. Now bent and frail with age, shuffling to the edge of the jungle with the help of a walking stick, Mr. Kanaizumi wore the same khaki jumpsuit with a Japanese flag on one shoulder as the other members.

Peering into one of the leaf-wrapped bundles, Mr. Kanaizumi said it was possible he once knew the man now reduced to a pile of crumbling bones.

“I hope they learn the miserable reality of war,” he said. “Once I am gone, who will be around to tell them that the only lesson from war is to never do it again?”

I think when I finish reading about Europe, I’ll have to move to the Pacific theater.

Photograph:   US Navy/Getty Images

Remembering Anne Frank

For anyone expecting a rant about Tuesday’s election, this is not it.  I think I may still be in a state of denial but I can’t write about it yet.  My secret hope is that the Republicans will be so busy squabbling amongst themselves that they won’t be able to pass anything major – just talk about it.  And they will be caught up in nominating a Presidential candidate, too.  Whatever.  For right now, i choose to think about Anne Frank.

I was 11 or 12 when I first read her diary, and like millions of girls around the world was inspired to start my own.  I went on to read the play, see the movie and to purchase a large annotated edition which restored parts that her father had edited out.  I don’t know if young girls still read her, but if they don’t they should.  It was through Anne that I began to learn about the Holocaust.

Sunday, November 9 marks another anniversary of Kristallnacht, the progrom of 1938 that many believe marks the beginning of open prosecution of German Jews.  The New York Times had a recent story about the anniversary and Anne Frank.

…People are fascinated or moved by the slimmest morsel of information about her. When watershed Holocaust dates come up on the calendar, like the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom in Germany and Austria on Nov. 9 and 10 in 1938, Anne’s surviving relatives and friends are invited to share tidbits as well as tell their own often harrowing stories.

Survivors who knew Anne retain the sacred mystique of ancient scrolls — touchstones to someone whose story helped cheat Hitler of his delusion of erasing Jews from the world’s collective conscience. And organizations appreciate these relatives not just because they give life to statistics like the six million Jews killed but because the stories underscore their missions and serve as a draw for raising funds.

Anne Frank, in 1941. Her diary has sold over 35 million copies.

Anne Frank, in 1941. Her diary has sold over 35 million copies.

One of her playmates remember her.

Eva Schloss, a playmate of Anne Frank’s in Amsterdam whose mother later married Anne’s father, recalls an 11-year-old who hopscotched, shot marbles, gossiped and talked so much her friends nicknamed her “Miss Quack Quack.”

Anne also had an intense interest in clothing, boys and Hollywood stars like Deanna Durbin.

A cousin who now lives in New York recalled

Anne was a lively girl who could be something of “a busybody,” Monica Smith said about her young second cousin — and she often had ink stains on her slender fingers.

“She was a writer,” said Mrs. Smith, who also remembered that Anne had a generous streak: “She would bring me peanuts. We were not choosy in those days.”

As with anything, there is controversy.  Who deserves to be considered a relative is a matter of much debate but

The personal stories relatives and friends tell are compelling, and not just when they intersect with Anne’s.

Monica Smith was born Dorothee Wurzburger in Stuttgart on May 10, 1923, six years before Anne, who was raised in Frankfurt. Her father was a manufacturer of steel used in Mercedes-Benz cars and was so important that the Nazis let him out of Dachau so he could continue conducting business. Mrs. Smith first saw Anne as a child of 3 when both went to visit grandparents in Aachen. Mrs. Smith’s grandmother and Anne’s grandfather were siblings, and their mothers were first cousins.

The memories grow clearer after Kristallnacht. Mrs. Smith’s parents put her on the Kindertransport to Holland that rescued 2,000 German-Jewish children, though one-third did not survive the Nazi occupation. Mrs. Smith, who was about 15, spent weeks quarantined in a barracks sleeping on a mattress on the floor, was taken to a more rural camp, and then to the Burgerweeshuis, an orphanage housing 75 refugee children.

Anne and her father, by then living in Amsterdam, visited the orphanage a dozen times, sometimes bringing treats. Mrs. Smith also saw Anne’s older sister, Margot, who was “totally different” — quiet and demure. Mrs. Smith remembers staying in the Franks’ modern apartment block on the Merwedeplein square and visiting Otto Frank’s spice-company offices on Prinsengracht — where he was to arrange for “the secret annex” that his family hid in for two years. And she remembers how engaged Anne and her father were with each other.

“The two of them were very close,” she said.

Mrs. Smith, a tall slender woman with a trace of a German accent, left Amsterdam a few days before the Germans marched in, reuniting with her parents in London, and immigrating with them to the United States. Adopting the nickname Monica, she scrubbed floors in the Bronx and worked as a saleswoman and clothing model at stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. She married a Czech refugee, Francis Smith, and they had a son, Tony, who died at 4, and a daughter, Nicole Smith-Brody. Legally blind and hard of hearing, Mrs. Smith is filled with sadness when she thinks back to those days.

“What can be done to human beings!” she said.

What indeed?

No matter how you feel about using Anne Frank as a symbol for fundraising.  No matter the arguments as who might be a “true” relative,  the young girl who kept a diary and died just before she could have been liberated remains a touchstone at least for women of my generation.  She is the one who taught us about man’s inhumanity to man.  She was a girl who could have been one of us.

Photograph:  Anne Frank Fonds, via European Pressphoto Agency

The People’s House

Julia Pierson, head of the Secret Service, testified before Congress yesterday on the security lapses that resulted in a fence jumper making it into the White House and then into the East Room.  But Omar Gonzalez in just one in a long line of uninvited guests.  Anyone remember the couple that got through security into a state dinner?  Peter Baker had a nice history of the uninvited in the New York Times.

Long before the latest fence jumper captured international attention by getting as far as the East Room, the history of White House security breaches was vast and varied. One intruder in a white karate outfit carried in a knife hidden in a Bible. A stranger slipped in to watch a movie with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. And a pilot crashed his Cessna into the mansion.

Theodore Roosevelt once agreed to see a man who identified himself as “Mr. John Smith” and insisted he had an appointment, even though the president did not recognize him. But after talking with him for a bit, Mr. Roosevelt quickly changed his mind. “Take this crank out of here,” he ordered an usher. In the man’s back pocket, it turned out, was a large-caliber pistol.

Pierson herself pointed out

…that before the most recent incident, 16 people had jumped the White House fence over the last five years, six of them this year alone. Many of them do not seem intent on harming the president, but are eager to draw attention to some issue or cause. One this year was a toddler who had slipped through the fence.

We seen to want the impossible.  We want our President and his family to be safe, but accessible.  And for much of our history, the President and the White House have been much more accessible than they are today.

During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt had just finished watching a movie when the lights came on and he discovered a stranger standing nearby. His predecessor, Herbert Hoover, came downstairs for dinner one night to find a man in the Blue Room who said he was just a sightseer. On another occasion, Mr. Hoover was having dinner with a movie producer in the State Dining Room when an intruder marched up, demanding an appointment.

During Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, a man followed the Marine Band into the White House and wandered around for 15 minutes before being discovered. And of course, President Obama found himself with a couple of extra guests for a State Dinner in 2009, when the party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi managed to get past White House aides and the Secret Service even though they were not on an invitation list.

There have been shots fired (so far without hitting anyone) and President Tyler had stones thrown at him by an intruder in the White House garden.  But more disturbing are the aircraft that manage to penetrate the White House airspace.

A helicopter stolen from nearby Fort Meade by an Army private landed on the South Lawn of the White House in 1974.

A helicopter stolen from nearby Fort Meade by an Army private landed on the South Lawn of the White House in 1974.

With all the ground protection, several men have tried to pierce the White House perimeter by air. An Army private stole a helicopter from Fort Meade in 1974 and flew it to the White House, where he landed on the South Lawn, took off again and then returned. Secret Service officers eventually opened fire on the chopper, forcing it down. The private survived and was sentenced to a year in prison. That same year, a failed businessman tried to hijack a Delta passenger jet at Baltimore-Washington International Airport with a plan to crash it into the White House, but was shot by the police while in the cockpit before takeoff.

In 1994, an unlicensed pilot who had spent an evening drinking and smoking crack cocaine stole a Cessna 150L and crashed it on the South Lawn in the middle of the night. The plane skidded across the ground, smashed into a magnolia tree and eventually came to a halt against the wall of the mansion. The pilot was killed, but the building was not seriously damaged and Mr. Clinton was not at home at the time.

President Andrew Jackson famously called the White House “the People’s House” but in the current climate, protection and screening would seem to be most important.  Perhaps President Obama should take satirist Andy Borowitz seriously.

President Barack Obama has decided to move his family into a full-service doorman building in Washington, D.C., saying that “it just makes more sense right now.”

“It really will work better for us,” Obama said in a press conference Tuesday morning. “In addition to the doorman, there’s a guy at the front desk, and, if anyone comes to see you, the desk guy will call up to your apartment first to make sure it’s O.K.”

 Photograph:  Charles Tasnadi/Associated Press

Thinking about knots

I have to admit that I generally don’t read those fancy magazines that often come with the Sunday New York Times.  I may flip though them and look at some of the ads – I like reading about fancy $60 million penthouses with views of the Hudson or palatial estates with zillions of bedrooms – but I rarely read any of the articles.  But this morning I was leafing though the magazine that came yesterday and saw the article by Jody Rosen about knots.  Yes, knots.

Knot enthusiasts like to say that civilization is held together by knots. It sounds like a wisecrack — but if you take a look around, you may begin to see the truth behind the quip. You could start by scrutinizing your shoes. They’re tied, undoubtedly, with the first knot that you ever learned, the famous shoelace knot, or bowknot, or as some knot experts prefer to call it, the double-slipped reef knot: a knot that combines a simple half-hitch with those two bunny-eared loops to create an ingenious little mechanism, taut enough to keep your feet snugly sheathed but with a built-in quick-release that can free them in an instant, with a single tug on a string. Glance in the mirror and you may find more knots: the one in your necktie, perhaps, or the one made by the elastic band that is wound around to hold your hair in place. Your hair itself might be plaited into a braid: another knot.

Now consider the clothing you’re wearing. What is your cable-knit sweater but a whole lot of knotting? Your shirt, your pants, your socks, your underwear: These sewn or knitted or woven garments are likely held together by knots, and what’s more, the materials from which they’re made — cotton or wool or acrylic or what have you — are themselves glorified knots, fibers that have been twisted together to form stronger tensile strands. Knots, it seems, are the only thing standing between you and an indecent-exposure charge.

And that’s just the beginning. There may well be a knot in the cinnamon bun on your breakfast table. There were definitely knots in the fishing net that caught the halibut on your dinner plate. Doctors staunch the bleeding in an open wound with tourniquets bound by knots, and they employ knots when stitching up a body after surgery. Knots are used in the construction of houses and skyscrapers; the cables supporting suspension bridges extend time-honored principles of cordage and knotting to “ropes” of galvanized steel wire.

There are even knots on the Mars Rover.

I learned about knots as a Girl Scout when we had to learn a particular number as a requirement for one of the badges.  I even learned to splice rope from my father when he was preparing the lines for one of our sailboats.  And, pre-frozen shoulder, I used to knit all the time.  I want to learn to braid bread dough.  So, like most people, knots are part of my life.  One just doesn’t think of them very often.

In other words, knots are ubiquitous — so threaded, as it were, into the fabric of everyday life that they are easily overlooked, hidden in plain sight. In certain quarters, though, knots command center stage. One such place is a house that sits along a well-trafficked residential through street a couple of hundred yards from the River Orwell in the town of Ipswich, in Suffolk, southeast England. It is a modest two-story brick building of Edwardian vintage, distinguished from neighboring houses only by a telling detail: a forged iron door knocker in the shape of knotted rope. Use that door knocker and you will be greeted by Des Pawson, a vibrant 67-year-old man with large round eyeglasses, a white beard worthy of a biblical patriarch and hair that stretches down nearly to his shoulders. Pawson’s mane is partially concealed beneath a red Kangol cap. “I’m a socialist, of a sort,” Pawson says. “I want the rope makers, I want the riggers, I want the sailmakers to be recognized for their contributions. They are a huge part of the story of knots.”

Pawson is one of the world’s foremost knot experts, a co-founder of the International Guild of Knot Tyers, and a prolific author of knotting books. His home, which he shares with his wife, Liz, is a shrine to knots. In a sun-flooded library on the ground floor, there are pieces of rope and fish netting dangling from timber beams, dozens of nautical paintings and artifacts, and rows of old bottles of Stockholm tar, also known as pine tar, a substance used to weatherproof rope. The bookshelves that line all four walls are packed with what may be the world’s largest private collection of knot literature. There are 19th-century knot treatises and multiple copies of the knotter’s bible, “The Ashley Book of Knots” (1944), a monumental work of history, reference and how-to, written and illustrated by the American Clifford W. Ashley. There are also copies of books written by Pawson himself, which include basic knotting handbooks as well as more specialized monographs: “Sailors’ Rope Mats From Yarn, Strands and Sennit,” “Some Notes on the Rogue’s Yarn,” ” ‘Tom Bowling’ and the Book of Knots: A Bibliography and Commentary, Together With a Solution to the Mystery.”

Who knew there was an organization for knot tyers?

nside Pawson's Museum of Knots and Sailors' Ropework in Suffolk, England

nside Pawson’s Museum of Knots and Sailors’ Ropework in Suffolk, England

Pawson also has a museum which has limited public access, but is described in loving detail in the article.  Among the treasures in his collection is

…an improbably chunky piece of age-blackened rope, more than two feet in circumference, as thick and gnarled as a tree trunk. It is a part of the anchor cable from the H.M.S. Victory, the ship that Lord Nelson commanded, and died aboard, in the Battle of Trafalagar.

There are other knots that aren’t necessarily physical ones.  Like marriage – tying the knot.

Of course, you don’t need to be a satellite engineer or an artisan to be a knotter: We all tie knots. If you pause for a moment the next time you’re lacing up your boots, you might glimpse what Pawson and other devotees see in knot-tying: an exercise in physics and in metaphysics, a homely everyday activity that can also be a science experiment, a work of art and something along the lines of a spiritual practice. In “The Ashley Book of Knots,” Clifford Ashley wrote: “[The] simple act of tying a knot is an adventure in unlimited space … an excursion that is limited only by the scope of our own imagery and the length of the rope maker’s coil.” To which one might also add: Knots are damn useful. “Where would we be,” Pawson says, “without a knot in the pajama cord?”

So now I’m going to be super aware of knots when I tie my shoes or the belt to my bathrobe.  I may even try to take up knitting again.

Photograph:  Tobias Harvey

Time capsules

There are stories about kids burying treasures and then forgetting where exactly they dug the hole and never digging it up.  But I remember one from an old episode of “NCIS” when the best friend of Gibbs’ deceased daughter tells him about a box they buried.  Gibbs digs it up and finds a picture and some childhood treasures.  And how many stories have you read about time capsules put in corner stones or in monuments and then forgotten?  But when one is actually found it is exciting.

I’ve looked at the gold statues on top of the Old State House in Boston for 20 years.  The last 8 years I was working I probably looked up at them every day.  I had no idea that one of them held a time capsule.  This morning I saw this story in the Boston Globe.

It’s confirmed, Boston. A time capsule has been found in the head of the lion statue that has been sitting atop the Old State House for more than a century.

An iconic statue of a lion atop the Old State House on Washington Street in Boston was hoisted down from its rooftop perch for restoration.

An iconic statue of a lion atop the Old State House on Washington Street in Boston was hoisted down from its rooftop perch for restoration.

This time capsule had also been forgotten.

Rumors swirled last week about the possibility of the long-forgotten time capsule, which was reported in a Globe story from 1901.

“We [the Bostonian Society] didn’t know about the Globe article until several years ago,” [Heather] Leet said.

A descendant of one of the statues’ original sculptors found a letter that revealed the existence of the capsule and listed its contents. It was after the society saw the letter that it did research that turned up the 113-year-old Globe story.

The question now for statue restorer, Robert Shure, is how to remove the capsule without damaging the statue.

On Monday, Shure used a fiber optic camera to detect the capsule, which is in a sealed copper box about the size of a shoe box and secured to the sculpture with copper straps, Leet said. According to the Globe story, the capsule contains photographs, autographs, and sealed letters from politicians and prominent Bostonians of the time, along with old newspaper clippings.

Leet said Shure hopes to find a way to retrieve the time capsule with minimal damage to the lion by the end of the week. It is hoped that by next week, the Bostonian Society can have a small ceremony at the Woburn sculpture studio to extract the box.

There are plans to replace the old capsule with a new one.  I trust that its presence will be fully documented.

Globe story by Kiera Blessing

Photograph: DINA RUDICK

 

 

 

A guide to talking about race

With the Michael Brown shooting leading the news and talk about possible ISIS attacks in the United States, racial and ethnic profiling is in the spotlight once again.  And you hear people saying that we need to have a conversation about race.  We keep talking about having one and somehow it never happens.  This is why I was interested to see Charles Blow’s recent column in the New York Times titled “Constructing a Conversation on Race.”

Let’s start with understanding what a racial conversation shouldn’t look like. It shouldn’t be an insulated, circular, intra-racial dialogue only among people who feel aggrieved.

A true racial dialogue is not intra-racial but interracial. It is not one-directional — from minorities to majorities — but multidirectional. Data must be presented. Experiences must be explored. Histories and systems must be laid bare. Biases, fears, stereotype and mistrust must be examined. Personal — as well as societal and cultural — responsibility must be taken.

And privileges and oppressions must be acknowledged. We must acknowledge how each of us is, in myriad ways, materially and spiritually affected by a society in which bias has been widely documented to exist and in which individuals also acknowledge that it exists

We all carry our own baggage:  an encounter with someone of a different race or background that didn’t go well; a perceived slight; or feeling passed over for someone for what we felt were racial reasons.  We may talk about these things within our own circles which are often made up of people just like us.  I am usually one of the very few Asian Americans in any group and it was only when I moved to Boston that I could be on the street or even in a meeting that was predominantly Asian.  And now I’ve moved to Vermont which is one of the whitest states and where my sister and I have already been confused because we have the same last name.  I have been referred to as “white” which somehow offends me but I think it is meant as a kind of compliment.  Race can be a no win thing.

Blow continues

I often tell people that while I know well that things aren’t fair or equal, we still have to decide how we are going to deal with that reality, today. The clock on life is ticking. If you wait for life to be fair you may be waiting until life is over. I urge people to fight on two fronts: Work to dismantle as much systematic bias as you can, as much for posterity as for the present, and make the best choice you can under the circumstances to counteract the effects of these injustices on your life right now.

He also advises that we should think about what we mean by race.

Next, understand that race is a weaponized social construct used to divide and deny.

According to a policy statement on race by the American Anthropological Association, “human populations are not unambiguous, clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups” and “there is greater variation within ‘racial’ groups than between them.”

The statement continues:

“How people have been accepted and treated within the context of a given society or culture has a direct impact on how they perform in that society. The ‘racial’ worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth. The tragedy in the United States has been that the policies and practices stemming from this worldview succeeded all too well in constructing unequal populations among Europeans, Native Americans, and peoples of African descent.”

It ends:

“We conclude that present-day inequalities between so-called ‘racial’ groups are not consequences of their biological inheritance but products of historical and contemporary social, economic, educational, and political circumstances.”

We need to think hard about why race and ethnicity are among the first things we recognize about someone and what we see is often not how the person thinks of herself.  One thing seems clear.   We need to talk and think about race a great deal more constructively that most current conversations where the parties can never get past their anger.  Maybe we can start the discussion by talking about Mr Blow’s column,