Category Archives: History

To Think in Solitude and to Remember

As soon as I silently intoned “Well, I’ll be damned,” the memories came back. Memories of white French plantation owners who, after the world’s only successful slave revolt, came to the United States by the shipload with their families, domestic slaves, African mistresses and children of color. Of a slave woman who had to choose between freedom with her lover or leaving with her master and keeping “her” children, one of which was fathered by her master and one the child of her master and his wife. Of how masters and slaves struggled for power amidst consuming fear on both sides, but sometimes also amidst love and mutual dependency.

I had just walked through the door of the Monocacy National Battlefield Visitor Center outside Frederick, Maryland, where I was expecting to learn of the battle that saved Washington, DC during our Civil War. But as soon as I entered I was met with an exhibit detailing news about the recent discovery, supported by an archaeological dig just last summer, that one of the Park’s six farms had been one of the largest slave habitations in the mid-Atlantic region. That “…from 1794 until 1827, the present Best Farm was …a plantation known as L’Hermitage. L’Hermitage was established by the Vincendieres, a family of French planters who came to Maryland from the colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti). In 1800, as many as 90 enslaved laborers toiled at L’Hermitage, making the Vincendieres family among the largest slave holders in the state.”

Best Farm at Monocacy National Battlefield Park

Here’s the thing. On the drive up I had been listening to Isabel Allende’s “Island Beneath the Sea,” a deeply researched historical novel. The first half of the book is about relations between slaves and masters in Haiti during the time leading up to the 1791 slave revolt that evolved into the successful Haitian Revolution. The latter half of the book picks up the story in New Orleans, where thousands of French planters fleeing Haiti with their households and human property landed as refugees. But, apparently, they did not all go to New Orleans. Many went to other places, including Charleston, Savannah, Baltimore – and even Frederick, Maryland. And, to my surprise, the story had just come to me in a tangible way on a lazy Sunday afternoon drive with my dog. First it was in my ears. Then it was in my mind. Then it was in my memories.

I drove from the Visitor Center to the Best Farm site.

Now it was under my feet. No one was there except for me and Dusa Dog. No matter where I walked at this historic site, I felt I was intersecting a path made by a real-life character similar to those portrayed fictitiously in the book. Yes, I felt it. Feelings are real, no matter what the catalyst.

I was awe-struck with the interconnectedness of human history.

Now I will go there from time to time to think in solitude and to remember.

Note: To read more about the archaeological dig at Best Farm, read this Washington Post article.

The Astronomically Low Probability That You Would Be You

Each of us is all the sums he has not yet counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.”  Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

“Here we go again.” These are the words you should be thinking when attending a wedding. Or looking into the face of your newborn child. Or maybe even when you stare across a crowded room and lock eyes with one particular member of the opposite sex.

We are the sum of all the men and women we are descended from.

The author's great-great-grandfather, who had to survive the Civil War for there to be this author

In every generation for as far back as humans have existed, those men and women had to survive, sometimes against tremendous odds. They had to meet. The had to be available in geography and in time. They had to copulate. And someone had to sustain their offspring to maturity to keep the cycle going.

Had the soldier not survived the war. Had the trolley car not been missed. Had the college not been selected. Had the job not been offered. Had another guy asked your mother to dance first. Had “Match.com” selected different matches. Had the teenaged girl been supervised in the afternoons. Had the mother successfully avoided unwanted intercourse. Had birth control been used. Whatever might have prevented that particular man, your biological father, and that particular woman, your biological mother, from bringing together their 64+ trillion unique combinations of genes, would have resulted in there not being the you that you are.

There, but for the grace of God, go I? Not entirely true. As an old proverb says, “Breed is stronger than pasture.”

Think about your ancestors. Subtract yourself into nakedness. Do it…

Spirits in the Mist at Sailor’s Creek Civil War Battlefield

The Sailor's Creek Battlefield as it appeared on my visit

Last night, just before dark, I took a detour down a narrow back road to visit Sailor’s Creek Battlefield Historical State Park, not too far from Appomattox, Virginia. A misty rain, suspended in the air, dampened my uncovered hands and face as I walked my dog and thought about where I was and the ground I was standing on. We were the only ones there, Dusa and I, although you might imagine we were surrounded by the spirits of the past.

Thousands died on this ground at the very end of the Civil War on April 6, 1865. The battle was basically a bloody and futile holding action. The war would end not too much farther down the road when General Lee surrendered all the troops then under his command and caught inside General Grant’s trap. More about the italicized part later.

Sailor’s Creek was fairly unique in that many who fought on the Confederate side were Richmond desk jockeys and others who had found ways to avoid military service, even though the South, like the North, was drafting men as fast as they could track them down. For the most part, these men might have continued avoiding, but they didn’t – and that’s the interesting part.

Everybody knew the war was lost for the South. My speculation is that these men knew this was the last chance they’d have to win self-respect for the image they would see in the mirror for the rest of their lives – if they survived. They didn’t suddenly decide to fight for a cause which was already lost and which they might not have agreed with anyway, but they did feel they owed something to those they viewed as their fellow countrymen and to their homes and families. (Note: I did a video shoot of a reenactment here several years ago and the reenactors did a great job of portraying the former deskjockeys.)

Now about the italicized text. Some Southern cavalry broke through the Northern encirclement just before Lee surrendered. These men figured , therefore, that they weren’t surrendered and they rode on to Lynchburg, Virginia. There they were told by a high-ranking officer to go to their homes, that the war was over. It appears that my great-great-grandfather was among them, in the 3rd Virginia Cavalry.  If only he wasn’t just a spirit in the mist, I would truly love to talk with him…

– As written quickly at the Muse Coffee Company in Lynchburg, Virginia on the morning of November 20, 2009.

Soldier by the Playground Poem

Note: After reading, check out my film at http://bit.ly/3H9GIv

The early autumn evening sun defended against the chill,

When I left the struggle on the soccer field and climbed the amber hill.

I made my way past the parking lot, the picnic table and then,

The white picket gate swung open and reverently I stepped in.

Gray tombstones at crazy angles stabbed at retreating light,

The earth was soft and spongy, the weeds had conquered height.

I scarce could know that evening, to another century I was bound,

When at first I did encounter, the Soldier by the Playground.

“Samuel C., son of Daniel and Isabella …, who fell at …Gettysburg … July 2, 1863,

In the twenty-second year of his age, striking for home and liberty.”

Gettysburg! Long ago, far off, brought home for me to find!

Now sounds of the soccer field, trailing off, merged with battle sounds in my mind.

And then I wondered, pondered, questioned which flag he would prefer,

If he could return to join us and with history confer.

Did he fight to save the Union or for the South his life forego?

Here, in the border state of Maryland, I’d possibly never know.

Twenty Previously Untold Particulars About Berlin During The Cold War

On November 9, 2009 there will be a giant street party at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin attended by hundreds of thousands of revellers. This will be the culmination of a year of speeches, special events, exhibits and celebrations in Germany to mark the fall of the Wall in 1989. For those too young to have experienced the real Wall, there will be a fake one constructed on the site of the original. It will be toppled just before the party.

Some say the Berlin Wall fell because the East German and Russian governments lost their will to crack down on growing numbers of protesters. Some say it was because President John F. Kennedy

The author stands just to the right of the American flag in this June 26,1963 photo showing President Kennedy during his visit to West Berlin. It was taken by an official USAF photographer.

went to DEFCON 2 (Defense Readiness Condition Two, on the brink of nuclear war) over the Cuban Missile Crisis, thereby convincing the Russians that the U.S. would stand up to them if they made a military move against West Berlin. Others say it was because President Ronald Reagan proceeded with the inter-ballistic missile shield project, nicknamed Star Wars, and the Russians couldn’t keep up with it financially. For an encore, President Reagan famously commanded, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this Wall!” And, of course, there is Mikhail Gorbachev himself, with his notion of perestroika, or restructuring of society in the former USSR and its relations with the West.

Actually, at the very end, the Berlin Wall fell because an East German bureaucrat made some fateful misstatements at a press conference that gave the Western media the impression people would be able to pass freely through the Wall. When East Berliners saw this on West Berlin television, thousands went to the Wall and the situation got so out of control that the confused East German border guards let them through. Humpty Dumpty could not be put back together again. (Here is a link to the actual, incredible event http://bit.ly/2o569X .)

Of course, the British, American and French forces who served in Berlin deserve some credit, too. They held the ground in West Berlin from 1945 to 1989, knowing they wouldn’t have a chance if a shooting war started because they were 110 miles inside enemy lines and the other side had them surrounded in vastly overwhelming numbers. At the time, no one could have guessed that it would all end peacefully.

So, with this broad canvas as background, here are 20 untold particulars of Berlin during the Cold War that you won’t find anywhere else:

  • Respectable Germans crossed the street to avoid walking by GI bars. The Germans would have preferred that we didn’t have to be there, but they didn’t want us to leave, either.
  • It was well known that GI bars were patronized by East German female spies.
  • The Russians occasionally dropped metal chaff to create radar blind spots and disrupt air traffic into West Berlin.
  • Russian jet fighters buzzed West Berlin and the US helplessly protested.
  • Powerful spotlights were used by the East to harass aircraft landing at West Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport.
  • The Tempelhof Air Traffic Control Tower, equipped with powerful binoculars to search for arriving aircraft, had an unobstructed view of apartments across the street from the airport.
  • For security reasons, an electronic counter-counter measures simulator in Berlin Air Route Traffic Control Center, manned by the United States Air Force, was referred to only as “the Coke machine.”
  • On completion of routine radio checks, made during shift changes, air traffic controllers could hear “ghost” microphone clicks, possibly coming from all the spooks on all sides who would be listening in and could not do their own verbal radio checks.
  • British soldiers regularly and ceremoniously relieved themselves in a public fountain in their sector of Berlin. It was a tradition.
  • US Army helicopters flying along the border between West Berlin and East Germany, referred to as the sector-zonal border, enjoyed a view of a nudist colony on the western side.
  • A U.S. airman at Tempelhof Airbase was killed in a freak accident when a plywood board he was carrying caught under his chin in a paternoster. A paternoster is an elevator the size of a closet that is open at the front and doesn’t stop, so you have to get off while it is moving.
  • A Polish Air Force major flew under the radar and landed at West Berlin’s Tempelhof Central Airport in 1963 with his wife and two children.
  • Mysterious guys who looked like German civilians with long hair picked up mail in the Tempelhof Airbase mail room. When a USAF T-39 aircraft “strayed” into East German territory and was shot down by a Russian MiG-21 in January 1964, these same men showed up in uniform with fresh GI haircuts and became part of the team that went into East Germany to retrieve the bodies of three crewmen.
  • There were numerous alerts in the middle of the night, but the average GI could not be sure they were only alerts until they were over. The most disturbing item of required equipment was a gas mask.
  • Many GIs visited German orphanages during Christmas. Many of the orphans were fathered by Allied military personnel who had rotated out.
  • A dispute between a taxi driver and a GI became a near riot when the taxi driver radioed for taxi driver reinforcements and GIs poured out of nearby bars to help his passenger.
  • A five hundred pound unexploded World War II British incendiary bomb was found buried near the Ground Controlled Approach radar unit located alongside the Tempelhof runway where the author worked.
  • French military personnel were the best behaved, but U.S. and British soldiers said the French soldiers were not the best soldiers on joint maneuvers.
  • Teenagers who were probably just angry with their parents and managed to escape from the East became celebrated freedom fighters in the Western press.
  • U.S. Army Special Services took uniformed military personnel visiting from bases in West Germany on tours through the Wall into East Berlin in an Army-green Mercedes Benz bus. If there were no actual military tourists, troops stationed in West Berlin were put on the bus because the real purpose of the tours was to exercise U.S. rights to enter East Berlin under post World War Two agreements with the Russians.

On the day of the actual reunification of Germany into a single nation, October 3, 1990, in a telephone call between German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President George H. W. Bush, Chancellor Kohl said:

Things are going very, very well. I am in Berlin. There were one million people here last night at the very spot where the Wall used to stand–and where President [Ronald] Reagan called on Mr. [Mikhail] Gorbachev to open this gate. Words can’t describe the feeling. The weather is very nice and warm, fortunately. There were large crowds of young people. Eighty percent were under thirty. It was fantastic. A short time ago there was enormous applause when our President said that our gratitude was owed especially to our Allied friends and above all our American friends.”

Amid the din and roar of events at that time, the words of the President of a reunified Germany mentioned by Chancellor Kohl were little noted by the public at large – except for those who had actual experience of the thousands of untold particulars about Berlin during the Cold War.

Note to Readers: The author served as a United States Air Force air traffic controller in a unit that was in support of Strategic Air Command during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and was stationed at Tempelhof Air Base in West Berlin from March 1963 to June 1965.

The Invisible, Definable, Horizontal Tunnel of Space

Amtrak doesn’t specifically state that lacrosse sticks must be checked as baggage. Ski equipment, snowboards, golf clubs and bicycles are specifically excluded from being carried on, but 72 inch long lacrosse sticks, helmets and large gloves that look like they’re made for a robot are not. I was comforted by this thought as I took my younger son, carrying his lacrosse stick in a bag that could have held skis, to the Amtrak station for his return to Lynchburg College, in Lynchburg, Virginia.

 

Riding the rails on Amtrak, my son would make a stop in Washington, DC, then cross the Potomac River into Virginia, stopping at Alexandria, Manassas, Culpeper, Charlottesville and, finally, Lynchburg.

 

It occurred to me that I had once traveled on the same tracks, but had gone all the way to Biloxi, Mississippi. I was about my son’s age, in the Air Force, and returning from my first leave over the Thanksgiving holidays. Headed for Keesler Air Force Base, I traveled in uniform because in those days servicemen traveling in uniform got a pretty good discount. Plus, as long as you had enough money for one drink in the club car, the World War II vets, now businessmen and traveling salesmen, would offer to buy you a drink, or several if it was a long ride. Most of them were still in their thirties at the time and they knew how to ride trains. (For historical references about this period and consumption of adult beverages, consult AMC’s cable series Mad Men.) Also, there were, even then, plenty of college kids riding on that route, and I found myself sitting in a coach car full of coeds. Unfortunately, they all got off in Virginia.

 

Something I didn’t know then is that ninety-nine years earlier some other young guys who lived in our general neighborhood rode in an old steam locomotive train over some of the same route that I had traveled – and that my son would travel. They were Daniel, Samuel and Joseph Duvall, three brothers from a farm in Crownsville, Maryland who had joined the Confederate Army and were being transported from Richmond to Staunton, Virginia, from whence they would ultimately march to Winchester, Virginia and on to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Of the three, only Daniel would survive the war. It is lamentable that in September of 1862 they couldn’t meet the coeds of 1961, now the grandmothers of 2009, as I did. (Note: The exact part of the route the Duvall brothers and I traveled on, and that my son would travel on, is the stretch in Virginia from Gordonsville to Charlottesville.)

 

Here’s what I think about. The steel rails, spikes and ties have probably been replaced, but the railbed is pretty much in exactly the same place. We, the subjects of this piece, are separated in time, but with a certainty we all traveled over the same narrow passage – that invisible, definable, horizontal tunnel of space linking past and present. Somehow, we are connected, if only in a state of mind, and I wonder if we left a trace of ourselves there that’s untouchable and unseeable.

 

At the moment, however, I am no longer thinking of history. I am thinking, “Did the lacrosse stick get there?” Oh, yeah and my son?