How Could We?

Monday, July 30, 2012

Two stops on our vacation were stark reminders of the time in American history when white men and women regarded our black brothers and sisters as property, like dogs and horses. Except dogs and horses were sometimes treated better.

How could we? But would I have been any different if I'd lived then? I'll probably never know.

The first picture shows the old slave market in Charleston, South Carolina. It is now a museum, dedicated to educating visitors on how people bought and sold other people. Even when it split families apart.

The second picture shows John Brown's Fort at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It was really a fire station, but Brown chose it for his fortress when his raid failed.

John Brown was a white abolitionist who planned to seize the armory at Harpers Ferry, arm the slaves, and induce a slave revolt. This was in 1859, before the Civil War started.

When the raid went wrong, Brown and his men retreated to the "fort" and tried to hold off the U.S. Marines. Failing, they were captured and hung.

Although few people today deny the justice of John Brown's cause, some question the wisdom of his actions. Still, John Brown's Fort reminds us that some white men were willing to put their lives on the line for their black brothers.

But it shouldn't have been necessary.

Manse Beginnings

Monday, July 23, 2012

I'm jealous of Woodrow Wilson. We both grew up in Presbyterian manses, but the ones he lived in were much nicer than the ones I lived in.

For the uninitiated among you, "manse" is the Presbyterian word for "parsonage."

The first picture shows Wilson's birthplace at Staunton, Virginia. Roland and I toured it on our vacation.

The second picture is the manse my family lived in when I was born. My father took the picture several years after we moved away. I'm standing in front with my mother and brothers.

Not that either Woodrow or I have any memories of our first manse. We both moved before we were old enough to remember anything.

Most of the houses I do remember were small and drafty. The guide at Wilson's birthplace said his next home was even grander than his first.

When I mentioned that Wilson's birthplace wasn't like the manses I grew up in, the guide said that the Presbyterians liked to have nice buildings to show their status in the community. According to the guide, the richer the church, the nicer the manse, and Rev. Wilson was adept at finding the rich congregations.

My father didn't even try. He preferred small churches in small towns or out in the country. And I'm okay with that. Now.

Growing up as a Presbyterian minister's child isn't the only similarity between my life and Woodrow Wilson's. We both went to law school and became lawyers. The main difference is that I was successful at it.

Of course, Woodrow later became President of the United States. Something I'm not the least jealous about.

I'm glad to be living my life rather than his.

But I would have loved to live in a manse like his.

Thomas Jefferson Slept Here

Monday, July 16, 2012

George Washington wasn't the only president who slept around. And no, I don't mean with other women.

Most people think of Thomas Jefferson as the drafter of the Declaration of Independence or the third president of the United States. But he was also a land owner who liked grand vistas.

The first picture isn't Jefferson's main residence at Monticello. It is Poplar Forest near Forest, Virginia, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jefferson built Poplar Forest as a retreat from the crowds of tourists who visited Monticello during his lifetime. Now tourists visit Poplar Forest, too, and Roland and I were among them. Fortunately for Jefferson, we didn't disturb him during our visit.

Before visiting Poplar Forest, our vacation took us to Natural Bridge, Virginia. That is the bridge in the second picture. You can see how tall it is by looking at the people on the path below.

Thomas Jefferson was so enamored by the formation that he purchased the land from King George III in 1774. Jefferson called Natural Bridge "the most sublime of nature's works" and built a two-room log cabin (long gone) at the top. One room of the cabin was reserved for guests. It is said that Jefferson even hooked up a basket for lowering people to the bottom, turning the site into his own version of an amusement park for travelers and artists from around the world.

Thomas Jefferson was also impressed by places he didn't own. Roland and I started our vacation in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers converge. When Thomas Jefferson visited in 1783, he recorded his observations with his ever-ready pen. In his words, "The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature." And this after seeing and owning Natural Bridge.

The scenery has changed a bit since then, but the third picture gives a rough idea of what Jefferson saw. Without the church and the bridge, of course.

Yes, Jefferson like to sleep around. But he saw some great places that way.

Valleys Get a Bad Rap

Monday, July 9, 2012

The high points of our lives are often referred to as "mountain-top experiences," and the low points are called valleys. The analogy does make some sense, and I've used it myself. Still, I think valleys get a bad rap.

I took this picture of Roanoke Valley from an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which wends its way through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Roland and I drove most of the Parkway during our vacation last month, but much of our sightseeing occurred in towns nestled in the nearby valleys.

That's because the mountains provide breathtaking views but poor living conditions. Try eking a living out of the mountains when the land isn't level enough to plant large fields. Or try establishing a community where there are few flat places to build houses on. Both are possible, but they aren't easy.

Compare that to the valleys. Although it's hard to tell from the picture, 300,000 people live in Roanoke Valley, including almost 100,000 in the city of the same name. The valley is also home to colleges and farms and wineries and an airport serviced by several major airlines.

Valleys are where more of life happens, so they are also where most of the history is. And because Roland and I like visiting historical places, much of our sightseeing occurred in the valleys.

It's nice to get away to the mountains occasionally, but most people can't live there.

So I thank God for the valleys.

In Harm's Way

Monday, July 2, 2012

In 1915, Great Britain and her European allies were at war with Germany. The United States was a declared neutral, although its sympathies were with the British. When a German submarine sank the Lusitania on May 7, this country's official position didn't change.* But the intensity of its feelings did.

The Lusitania sank before the other two ships covered in this blog series, but I saved it until now because of its patriotic implications. With July 4 coming up, this is a good time to look back on how a shipwreck inflamed America and moved it closer to war.

The Lusitania left New York on May 1, 1915 and was due to arrive in Liverpool on May 8.** Its passengers were traveling to England for various reasons, some connected with the war and some not. Oliver Bernard was hoping to enlist. Dorothy Connor was a Red Cross volunteer heading for France. Alfred Vanderbilt (son of Cornelius) was on his way to attend a London board meeting of the International Horse Show Association. Stewart and Lesley Mason were on their honeymoon. Third-class passenger Elizabeth Duckworth was simply homesick.

A number of passengers were aware of a notice that had appeared in the New York City newspapers that morning, but others were not. The notice, which had been placed by the German embassy, warned potential passengers that "vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in [waters adjacent to the British Isles] and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk." With or without knowledge of the notice, many passengers were worried about German submarines, but others were sure the Lusitania could outrun them.

That may have been true, but first it had to know the submarine was there. The initial sightings of the U-20's periscope coincided with the launching of the torpedo. By then it was too late.

The torpedo blew a hole in the ship's side, taking out the electrical system and steering controls. With the Lusitania continuing at a high rate of speed (a body in motion stays in motion) and no way to stop it, lowering the life boats into the water became a dangerous endeavor even when they were lowered correctly. But many were not. When untrained sailors used the outdated launching equipment, one end of the boat frequently dropped faster than the other and spilled its inhabitants into the water--often while they were still many feet above it.

Then there were the non-existent demonstrations on how to wear life jackets. The instructions were posted prominently in each cabin, but few passengers read them. Many deaths resulted from putting on life jackets backwards or upside down, both of which forced the wearer's face into the water.

The Lusitania sank about 12 miles off the coast of Ireland, but it was impossible for other boats to reach it in time. About a half hour passed from the torpedo's impact to the ship's last sigh before slipping under the surface. When the rescuers arrived, they found some life boats, but they also saw people clinging to wooden deck chairs and storage boxes and other debris. Of the almost 2,000 people on board, less than 800 survived.

For those of you interested in the people mentioned earlier, Oliver Bernard, Dorothy Connor, and Elizabeth Duckworth were among the survivors. Alfred Vanderbilt and Steward and Lesley Mason were not.

Subsequent inquiries blamed the disaster solely on the German torpedo. The Germans claimed that the Lusitania was armed and carrying Canadian troops, but those claims have been debunked. Then there is the conspiracy theory that Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty at the time) set the passenger ship up for destruction as a way to force the United States into the war, but that doesn't seem to fit the facts, either.

The Lusitania was a British ship, so why did her sinking create such an outcry in America?

There were 159 Americans on board, and 124 of them perished. And regardless of the victims' nationalities, many people were outraged at the large number of innocent civilians killed, including dozens of babies.

Contrary to popular belief, the sinking of the Lusitania did not propel the United States into World War I. That would not happen for another two years. Still, it was clearly a contributing factor--a strong link in a chain of events that convinced the United States to join the conflict.

And Germany would discover--as the Japanese did after Pearl Harbor--that it isn't safe to anger the United States.


* I recommend The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, by A.A. Hoehling and Mary Hoehling, which is a quick and easy read. For those who want the broader historical context, I suggest Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, by Diana Preston.

** The photo of the Lusitania is part of a panoramic picture taken by N.W. Penfield in 1907.