Thomas Jefferson: Architect of American Liberty

This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

John F. Kennedy, during a 1962 Nobel Prize dinner

The title above is a biography by John B. Boles that I just finished. Normally I’d do a book review, but the subject himself is so fascinating I’d rather just riff on Jefferson than critique the book. Buckle your seat belts.

Suffice to say, Boles’s book is a good one-volume treatment of Jefferson.  It’s easy to read and well-sourced.  Fairly comprehensive. Maybe a bit too adulatory, but at least honest.

Before discussing Jefferson, I have to say I was somewhat surprised by what I learned about several other “Founders,” or sub-Founders.  Although popular today because of that Broadway play, I had no idea that Federalist and Jefferson nemesis Alexander Hamilton was such an outright bastard.  His poisonous lies and relentless invective make Trump look like a Cub Scout.  (Okay, maybe not.)

I also had no idea that the man who killed Hamilton in a duel, Aaron Burr (Jefferson’s first-term vice-president), was such a self-centered, scheming treasonist.

And I especially didn’t know that Jefferson hated fellow Virginian Patrick Henry.  Although a great orator (“Give me Liberty or give me Death!”), Henry evidently didn’t read books and wasn’t very smart.  He actually proposed imposing a dictatorship when the American Revolution began going badly.  For years, Jefferson ridiculed him mercilessly at the dinner table.

Aaron Burr (left) and Alexander Hamilton (right)

But back to the dinner topic at hand…there are some things most of us know, or should know, about Thomas Jefferson.  He was the third American president and a Founding Father chosen to author the United States Declaration of Independence, the iconic written diatribe against King George III detailing why American colonists chose to break from England to form their own country, and which was signed by 55 other congressional delegates from the 13 colonies.

More than any other Founder, Jefferson exalted the ideas of democracy and individual conscience. Along with fellow Democrat-Republican and protégé James Madison, he conceived the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and which separates religion from all levels of government. (Government-imposed religion was an absolute given in the Old Country.) He modeled it after the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which he’d also authored three years earlier as Governor of that colony.

As for his own religion, although considering himself a Christian, Jefferson was a deist who felt the Christian faith had become corrupted by disciples after Jesus’s death. Jefferson was a leading light of the Age of Enlightenment, an admirer of philosophers John Locke and Thomas Paine (Common Sense, The Age of Reason).  Throughout his life he was fascinated by science and adhered to reason and rationality over superstition.  He considered Jesus the most moral philosopher the world has known, but did not believe in his divinity.  He created his own Jefferson Bible by excising everything supernatural from the New Testament.  (Printings of his bible are available at a bookstore near you.)

Jefferson lived at a plantation he called Monticello, which he carved out of a mountain outside Charlottesville, Virginia using slave labor. He developed it over a period of 40 years.  (Monticello is pictured on the U.S. nickel, the flip side of Jefferson’s profile.)  Here, he established a 1,000-foot-long terraced vegetable garden that grew 330 varieties of vegetables and 170 varieties of fruits.  As a politician he championed the small farmer, was a pioneer of sustainable agriculture, and was one of the country’s great epicures.

As president, Jefferson doubled the size of America by overseeing the purchase of the western Louisiana territory from Napoleon Bonaparte of France.  It cost the U.S. all of four cents an acre.  He then organized a successful exploration of the unknown lands by his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, exponentially increasing America’s knowledge of Western geography, archaeology, flora, fauna, and Indian tribes.

Meriwether Lewis

After the Library of Congress was burnt by invading British during the War of 1812, Jefferson sold his personal collection of 6,487 volumes to restart the library.  They replaced the collection that Jefferson had earlier recommended the library acquire.

Just before his death in 1826, Jefferson conceived, founded, was principal architect for, and chose the curriculum and faculty for one of America’s most respected public universities, the University of Virginia.  He was “convinced that the people (white males) are the sole depositories of their own liberty, & that they are not safe unless enlightened to a certain degree.” (I tried to gain entrance to UVA in 1977 but was rejected.  In 2005 I visited Monticello, and revisited the campus while our daughter was touring colleges.  Everyone at both places politely referred to him as “Mister Jefferson,” as if he was still alive.)

Along with designing the university, Jefferson also oversaw the layout for the nation’s new capitol grounds at Washington D.C., and his neoclassical architectural designs set the precedent for future U.S. federal structures.

Jefferson was probably the most intelligent and worldly of all the Founding Fathers. (Benjamin Franklin is up there, too.)  Although ambitious, his patience, even-temperedness, humility, and knowledge were renowned amongst his political peers, including George Washington, who made him Secretary of State and often consulted him.  Like so many in the 18th and 19th centuries, he experienced profound death and tragedy, losing his wife Martha at a young age, along with children and grandchildren.

Jefferson lived 83 years, dying the same day as his onetime rival but beloved friend, second President John Adams. It was 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He wrote his own epitaph.  It was simple and reflected his humble public persona, stipulating what he was most proud of: Author of the Declaration of Independence (and) of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.  Of his being president for two terms and his presidential accomplishments…nothing.

Monticello

As exceptional a human being as Jefferson was, his enlightenment was tempered by his place and time.  Even during his lifetime rumors swirled of a slave concubine (in today’s parlance, “sex toy”) known as “Black Sal” or “Dusky Sally.”

For 200 years historians have grappled with whether slaveholder Jefferson fathered children with a quadroon “servant” named Sally Hemings.  A DNA study in 1998 concluded there was a high probability he was the father of at least one of Hemings’s six children.  However, that study also said Jefferson “can neither be definitely excluded nor solely implicated…”

Presently, most Jefferson scholars and historians, including the Thomas Jefferson Foundation—through combining the DNA findings with written evidence—conclude he did father children by her (not surprisingly, Hemings descendants do as well). Biographer Boles goes further to suggest their “relationship” was “founded on shared tenderness and love” and that “the sexual attraction between Jefferson and Hemings was likely mutual…” 

I find Boles’s suggestion of romantic love between master and slave plausible, but unnerving, and it’s one of the few criticisms I have of his book [in addition to some qualified language such as “Jefferson rarely (sold slaves),” “he made an effort (not to separate mothers from their children),” he “(only sold his slaves) out of economic necessity,” and “Jefferson’s theoretical opposition to (whipping)”].

It was in Paris between 1787 and 1789 while Jefferson was American minister to France that their (probable) intimacies probably began.  Hemings was a teenager who was acting as companion to Jefferson’s younger daughter, Maria.  By several contemporary accounts, Hemings was extremely beautiful, with “very light skin; long, straight black hair.”

Slavery had been illegal in France since Louis X in 1315. Was Hemings technically free while on French soil despite being owned by an American? If so, did Jefferson think this mitigated a middle-aged widower like himself having sex with a young, uneducated, recent ex-slave? Did love blossom either before or after she agreed to return to the states with him? Can love even exist between a master and servant/slave, or is it always rape?

Soap opera aside, bottom line is Jefferson owned people. Any additional moral crimes stem from that original sin.

Sally Hemings was born in 1773. Her white father, John Wayles, was Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law. She died in 1835 and there are no photos or drawings of her. This is a detail from a Monticello “Farm Book,” displaying her four children: Harriet, Madison, Eston, and Beverley. Notably, all were named after friends or relatives of Jefferson (Madison after James Madison).

In his meager defense, Jefferson successfully banned American importation of Africans. And despite unenlightened views on racial equality/inequality, he opposed slavery throughout his life and, at least at the start of his political career, tried to abolish it through state and federal legislation.  Of course, his efforts were fruitless, primarily due to violently intransigent southern politicians who, two generations later, would finally have their apocalypse. Of the roughly 200 slaves owned by Jefferson during his life, he freed only two.  He freed five more in his will.  Three more left Monticello with Jefferson’s consent.  All except two were domestic help and part of the Hemings family.

As I expected, while Boles justifiably devotes extensive print to slavery and Jefferson’s immersion in it, his coverage of Jefferson’s American Indian policies and affairs, including their removal, is woefully inadequate. So I’ll offer a few paragraphs on that subject.

Jefferson the amateur anthropologist admired Indians and believed they were superior to blacks physically, intellectually, and culturally, and also that they might eventually become ingratiated into white agrarian society as equals.  But even here there was a great hypocrisy.  He stipulated to Meriwether Lewis that the Corps of Discovery restrain from any acts of hostility toward Indians they might encounter…but he also hungered for the land they inhabited. 

In an 1803 letter to William Henry Harrison, who was then the territorial governor of Indiana, President Jefferson outlined a devious policy of using government trading posts to drive Indians into debt so they would more easily “lop (the debts) off by a cession of lands.”

And when a patronizing Jefferson addressed a delegation of Shawnee and other Indian tribes in 1809, hoping to win them over from the British, he threatened that “the tribe which shall begin an unprovoked war against us, we will extirpate (exterminate) from the earth or drive to such a distance as they shall never again be able to strike us.”

Then, as now, enlightenment only goes so far.

Indian Head nickel and Jefferson nickel: opposing views of Liberty

Originally, I ended my post with the pithy statement above. Then I thought, who am I? Thomas Jefferson deserves better. After rereading the Introduction in Boles’s book, I landed on this excellent paragraph, which perfectly summarizes how I feel. Anyway…thanks for taking time to read all of this. Peace.

We should not expect (Jefferson) to have embraced the values of a cosmopolitan, progressive person of the twenty-first century. How could he have possibly done so? Instead, we should try to understand the constraints—legal, financial, personal, intellectual—under which he lived. To understand certainly does not mean to approve or even forgive; rather, it means to comprehend why Jefferson made the kinds of decisions he made and saw the world as he did. He was a gentle, well-educated, idealistic man who sought—by his lights—to do right. Yet at times he acted in ways we now find abhorrent. Appreciating how this can be so is the task of the Jefferson scholar, the student of history, and perhaps every American citizen.

“A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam”—Book Review

Fifty years ago this June 9, John Vann died when the helicopter he was riding in crashed in central Vietnam.

The anniversary coincides with my reading Neil Sheehan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book (published 1988) about Vann and the Vietnam War.  This monumental work is 800 pages-worth of small print.  As with after my reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (click here), I figure all that labor deserves to bear some fruit, even if only a few dried raisins on WordPress.  Thus, my review.

Who was John Paul Vann?  He was a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who arrived in Vietnam in 1962 soon after the Kennedy administration began sending military “advisors” there.  Vann was one of a handful who early on criticized U.S. strategy.  He left the army in cloudy circumstances but returned to ‘Nam in 1965 as a civilian U.S. Operations Mission (USOM) director right when Gen. William Westmoreland and the Johnson administration began ramping up America’s failed war with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

John Vann

Vann tried to convince Washington that the U.S.-built Diem regime in South Vietnam was corrupt; that Diem’s army (the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, or ARVN) was afraid of confrontation; that the American-backed Strategic Hamlet Program (isolating Vietnamese hamlets with barbed wire to repel the Viet Cong) was counterintuitive; that U.S. commanders were fudging the numbers; and that America’s war-of-attrition strategy would ultimately fail.

Neil Sheehan was one of the first American reporters in Vietnam.  He covered the war for its duration, first as a UPI correspondent, then as a reporter for The New York Times.  Sheehan and other Vietnam journalists, like David Halberstam and Peter Arnett, admired Vann.  Vann didn’t bullshit the reporters.  He told it like he saw it, warts and all, despite the career risk.  He exhibited a professional courage unusual for most Vietnam-era military and civilian protagonists.

Before writing this book, Sheehan was most known for obtaining the Pentagon Papers from RAND Corporation “whiz-kid” and a former protégé of Vann’s, Daniel Ellsberg.  Publication of a portion of the Papers in the Times revealed among other things that four presidential administrations, primarily Johnson’s, had systematically lied to and misled the American public about their intentions in Vietnam.  The Pentagon Papers became a First Amendment cause célèbre.  Sheehan died January 7, 2021.

____________________

Sheehan writes in a direct, declarative style undoubtedly honed by his years as a wire reporter and war correspondent.  He doesn’t succumb to the temptation of hyperbole.  There are no exclamation points or sarcasms, despite the black-comic nature of what he observed in Vietnam.  Because he was there, he occasionally uses first-person narration.

Neil Sheehan (photo Frédérick Reglain/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Once—in an exchange so staggering it beggars belief— Sheehan managed to discuss the war with Westmoreland, the second of three commanding generals. He politely asked the general about the extraordinary number of civilian casualties.  The civilians—South Vietnamese peasants, including women and children—were ostensibly those whom the U.S. was trying to save from Communism.  They were being killed, maimed, and made homeless by U.S. bombs and artillery shelling.

Westmoreland responded: “Yes, Neil, it is a problem…but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?”

Vann’s story parallels the war’s history.  He’s the human focal point of the book; however, he’s far from a choirboy.  He was a philanderer who exploited his family-man status to burnish his own résumé.  He manipulated people and lied to them, even young and vulnerable girls, victims of Vann’s pathological sexual hunger.  Vann amply contributed to a familiar by-product of the war: illegitimate pregnancies, abortions, and child abandonment. Sheehan uncovers more than one dark secret about Vann’s past.  The “bright shining lie” of the book title, taken from a direct quote by Vann about the war, has a double meaning.

Sheehan weaves Vann in and out of the larger story of America in Vietnam. He touches on a chilling capture and imprisonment of Vann’s partner Doug Ramsey, buried in the jungle for seven years.  He covers the significant Vietnam War battles: Ap Bac, Ia Drang, Khe Sanh, and the Tet and Easter Offensives. Vann tried to direct the first major confrontation at Ap Bac as an advisor to the incompetent ARVN.  It backfired.

When it became clear that full American intervention was required (total withdrawal was rejected, of course), the military strategy proved stupid and unnecessarily brutal. Westmoreland convinced the Johnson administration that a war of attrition would prevail, rather than Vann’s policy of South Vietnamese pacification (winning rural ”hearts and minds” through security, arms, training, and social reform). It was a “stomp-them-to-death” policy of bludgeoning the enemy with relentless matériel and manpower from the air and in the jungles, and it was a total cul-de-sac. After the war crescendoed with the 1968 Tet Offensive, President Richard M. Nixon continued these bludgeoning tactics by invading Cambodia (secretly in 1969, not-so-secretly in 1970) and with the 1972 “Christmas Bombings.”

Ho Chi Minh, 1946

The U.S. mistakenly tried to transfer WWII tactics to the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. There was little attempt to understand Vietnam history, culture, or Vietnamese soldiers’ perfection of guerrilla warfare for over 1,000 years. (The French had failed here, too.) Additionally, due to its monomaniacal hatred of Communism, the U.S. could not recognize that Ho Chi Minh and his followers were Nationalists first and Communists only second.

By the second decade after World War II, the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the U.S. armed forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination, and moral and intellectual insensitivity…American society had become a victim of its own achievement.  The elite of America had become stupefied by too much money, too many material resources, too much power, and too much success.

“A Bright Shining Lie,” page 285

Vann didn’t waver from his position on how the war should be fought.  Like everyone else in those innocent years of the early 1960s, including reporters like Sheehan and Halberstam, he believed that America had a moral obligation to “stem the Red tide” in Southeast Asia.  But while Halberstam, Ellsberg, ex-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and much of the rest of the world eventually recognized the folly of that tragic conflict (McNamara secretly), Vann clung to it like one of his many sex partners, and still believed, at least publicly, that it could be won.

A one-time dirt-poor Southern cracker, in Vietnam Vann transformed himself into ”The Most Interesting Man in the World.” He embraced President Richard M. Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization (gradually transferring combat roles back to South Vietnam), which incorporated Vann’s pacification ideas. Nixon in turn gave him smiles and pats on the back. He both finagled and earned stars to put on his résumé. His fighting instincts and courage were beyond reproach. He found a home in that land of atrocities and waste. Reading this book, one gets the impression he’d have been content if the war continued forever.

____________________

Vann’s June 1972 burial at Arlington National Cemetery was a who’s who of principal players in the conflict, civilian and military.  Sheehan was there.  When he looked around and saw the faces, it struck him how Vann’s scarred life and tragic death were a metaphor for the war itself.  Vann’s funeral, in fact, was the genesis for Sheehan’s book.

William Westmoreland

(Spoiler Alert)…Vann’s discarded family was at the funeral, too.  Afterwards, they met with Nixon in the Oval Office.  Nixon was to award Vann a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Vann’s second of four sons, Jesse, had just been drafted.  Earlier that day he’d torn his draft card in two and placed one half on his father’s casket.  He intended to hand the other half to Nixon.  He was talked out of doing this only at the last second.

The president had been alerted to what Jesse might do.  After Jesse reluctantly shook hands with Nixon, the president offered a muffled “Thanks.”  He’d been saved from embarrassment.

The image of an uncomfortable Nixon greeting a 21-year-old boy whom he’d tried to send to Vietnam—a boy whose father had just been wasted by the war Nixon was prolonging—is hard to stomach.  But it happened.  There’s a photo of the Vann family with Nixon in the Oval Office.

Of the eleven people lined up for that photo, Nixon is the only one smiling.

A Salty Side Trip to Key West

Some places are more “salty” than others. Not surprisingly, they all have a close relationship with water…with the fringes. Key West, Florida, U.S.A. is one of them.

Key West is the southernmost island in the chain of islands that dangles like a string of pearls off the southern tip of Florida.  My wife Lynn and I visited last month while scouting retirement locations on the mainland (see previous post).

Residents call their tiny speck in the ocean the “Conch Republic.”  (Conchs are small, meaty, edible monstrosities that find homes in those shells you hold to your ear to hear the ocean.)  In 1982, after a stress-inducing U.S. Border Patrol roadblock, locals became angry and seceded from the United States.  Sort of. It was a mock secession, but residents use the incident now to boost tourism.  Key West even flies its own micro-nation flag. These folks obviously have a great sense of humor.

For such a small place, Key West has a lot going for it.  Here’s a quick tour:

L to R: Dave, Robin, Lynn, Anonymous

We stayed with friends Dave and Robin at the condo they rent every year.  I met this super-friendly retired couple while hiking the Appalachian Trail last year.  (Their permanent home is in the mountain village of Hiawassee, Georgia.)  Although we only had a brief meeting on trail, we hit it off. They invited us to stay with them, and now we’re like old friends.

The first night the four of us ate at Half Shell Raw Bar, where I satisfied my craving for seafood with raw oysters and conch fritters.  The following morning, Dave and I hiked around the island for several hours while Robin and Lynn hung out at the condo.

Then Lynn and I embarked on a whirlwind (hurricane) tour of tourist spots.  First we saw the Harry S. Truman Little White House where, beginning in 1946, President Harry Truman spent 175 days of his presidency.  His famous desk plaque that says “The Buck Stops Here” is on one of the desks.  Other presidents, dating to William Howard Taft, have also stayed here…some, like 45, who pass the buck more than others.

Truman Little White House

Next, we had nachos and Key lime pie (a KW essential) at the original Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville on Duval Street, which ranks with Bourbon Street, Times Square, and Court Street at my alma mater (Ohio University) for party spirit.  Although I’m closer to Deadhead than Parrothead, food is what mattered at this moment, and Buffett’s came through for us (largest pile of nachos—a veritable food castle—I’d ever seen).  Also, friendly service by an actual lifetime resident…a Conch, not a recently arrived Freshwater Conch.

(NOTE: authentic Key lime pie is always pale yellow, never green.  Don’t get the wrong color!)

The next stop was the Southernmost Point of the Continental U.S.A.  We actually hit this place by accident while strolling around.  The spot is identified by a large, concrete, buoy-type structure painted an ugly red, black, and yellow.  (The structure was vandalized this past New Year’s Eve by two drunken tourists who couldn’t get laid).

Musician Jimmy Buffett…
…and Margaritaville. Anyone seen a shaker of salt?

It’s important to know that this is not the southernmost point of the U.S., merely the contiguous U.S.  (The true southernmost location in the U.S. is the south tip of the island of Hawaii.)  It’s also worth noting that the concrete buoy is designed merely for tourist purposes.  (The actual southern tip of Key West is a half mile west at the Naval Air Station.)  Also, while advertised as only “90 miles from Cuba,” the distance is actually 94 miles; four miles is a lot of ocean to dog-paddle.

Tourists lining up at false southernmost point

As John Lennon sang, “Just gimme some truth.”

But I guess a lot of people choose to ignore truth, because they dutifully line up in sweltering heat to have their photo taken while posing next to this large, ugly, recently vandalized, painted cement buoy.

Continuing on, we passed the Key West AIDS Memorial at White Street and Atlantic Boulevard near Higgs Beach (one of two sand beaches on the island).  Key West has long been known as a community sympathetic to gays, and the memorial has engraved names of 1,240 people in the Florida Keys who died from complications of AIDS.  It was the first municipal tribute to AIDS victims in the world.

Speaking of profound tragedies, further down is a memorial to Africans who in 1860 were rescued by the U.S. Navy from a Cuban-bound slave ship, the Wildfire.  Despite their rescue, over 300 died from disease and malnourishment and were buried in a mass grave beneath the sand.

I found these last two memorials more interesting than the Southernmost Point. And, of course, there were fewer people.

***

The following day, Dave joined me in a jaunt to the Ernest Hemingway House on Whitehead Street.  Here’s where one of America’s greatest writers lived from 1931-39.  “Papa” wrote several long and short works here, including his popular short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

“You might as well take my last cent,” a disgusted Hemingway said as he thrust a penny at his second wife, Pauline.  She’d recently built a pool that was two-and-a-half times the cost of the property.  (Guess she thought this was cute, because she preserved the penny in concrete.)  And lazing and prowling around the property are dozens of six- and seven-toed (polydactyl) cats.  It’s still speculative that the felines are descended from a Hemingway cat named “Snowball.”

A writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.

Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway study. He wrote in a separate annex.

Southern-Gothic playwright Tennessee Williams (The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) also lived in Key West, though we missed a visit to his house.  We also need to someday submerge ourselves in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum.  Fisher was an American treasure hunter who, in 1973, discovered the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had sunk in Florida waters in 1622.

That’s about it, mainlanders.  Hope you enjoyed the tour, and next time you eat Key lime pie, make sure it’s not green.

Coastal scene, Key West

Searching for Bobby Fischer and American Sanity

(Photo: David Attie/Getty Images)

Our son Nick recently visited us for the holidays.  We both like to play chess, so we had a couple friendly competitions in the family room.  Now that my brain is atrophying due to age and excessive amounts of social media, he destroyed me.

But it got me to thinking about a guy who was once a sort of chess-playing pop star: Bobby Fischer.  Bobby was an American chess grandmaster who won the U.S. championship in 1956 at the cheeky age of 14.  Overall, he won eight U.S. championships, including a rare 11-0 victory in 1963-64, the only perfect score in the tournament’s history. He’s mainly known for his Cold War rivalry with a Russian named Boris Spassky.  In 1972 he defeated Spassky to become World Chess Champion.

Fischer had his title revoked in 1975 after making outrageous demands prior to a match with Anatoly Karpov.  Some think he did it deliberately because his chess skills were so far beyond anyone else, and he had nothing else to prove.

I didn’t learn chess until I was 15, but I competed for my high school chess team, and wore out the book Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess.  These days, since my wife refuses to learn the game, the only time I drag out the chessboard is when Nick visits.

Fischer died of kidney failure in 2013.  I already vaguely knew of certain “personality quirks” of his.  Wikipedia filled in the details.  They’re not pretty:

  • Although his mother was Jewish, Fischer was a vehement anti-Semite and Holocaust denier
  • Fischer believed in an international Jewish conspiracy
  • He agreed with Nietzsche that religion was used to dull the senses of the people, but then joined the evangelical Worldwide Church of God in the mid-1960s
  • Fischer believed that the world would soon come to an end
  • He became Catholic at the end of his life and believed “the only hope for the world is through Catholicism”
  • Fischer got along well with Jewish chess players, but at the same time wrote that “It’s time to start randomly killing Jews”
  • After 911, Fischer applauded the attacks and said “What goes around, comes around”
  • Fischer openly hoped for a military coup d’état and execution of Jews in the United States

Fischer was never formally diagnosed, but some people have speculated on his sanity.

Check.

***

Last night I watched news coverage and analysis of last year’s January 6 insurrection against the U.S. Capitol, and it struck me that Fischer might fit in well with a lot of people in America today.  Not so much because of his anti-Semitism and religious obsessions—which are bad enough—but because of his anti-rationalism and conspiracy obsessions.

Today, America has an entire political party—the Republican Party—that has hitched its wagon to an autocratic demagogue who continues to spread a Big Lie about an election result.  Not to mention who once ridiculed the coronavirus threat as being a Democratic conspiracy (and views man-made climate change as a worldwide liberal conspiracy).

The PBS show Frontline just aired a documentary that reveals conspiracy theorists and right-wing extremism have only gotten worse since a year ago.

And House Republican Liz Cheney was unseated earlier this year from her conference chair because she condemned Trump for instigating the January 6 riot and implored her fellow Republicans to stand up to him and his catacomb of lies. (Obviously, they haven’t.)

Cheney’s father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the most conservative Republicans during the Bush II era (and called “Darth Vader” by critics for his hawkishness and advocacy of torture as policy), was quoted as saying today’s Republican leaders don’t resemble “any of the folks I knew.”

The two Cheneys were surrounded by Democrats and the only Republicans present in the House during a moment of silence yesterday.

***

One would think things couldn’t get much worse than January 6, 2021.  But according to George Packer, staff writer at The Atlantic and part of a panel on PBS Newshour yesterday, the insurrection is probably just a harbinger, a “warning shot”:

How can one overreact to a mortal threat to American democracy, the first in my lifetime that actually seems to be on a road toward making it impossible for the popular will to be respected at the ballot box?

That’s been the goal of all these bills passed or debated across legislatures in Georgia, in Arizona, in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, which are not just about restricting access to the ballot, but are about putting elections in the hands of reliable partisans, so that, next time around, we will have states that claim that the election was somehow wrongly held, and that it’s thrown into the hands of a partisan legislature, which sends its own electors to Congress to choose the next president.

When you have a compelling but divisive leader, and a political party that falls in behind him, and you can convince enough people to believe in unfounded conspiracies…anything can happen.  Witness 1930s Germany. Witness 2022 America.

While you can’t formally diagnose a nation, some people (like myself) have speculated on America’s sanity. 

Checkmate.

The First Thanksgiving (Re-Post)

(Note: I first published this back in 2012 not long after I began longitudes. Since I’m now feeling lethargic after too many piña coladas while visiting the Caribbean, and therefore don’t feel like writing, and it’s Thanksgiving once again, I’m re-posting this golden oldie with a few light dustings. I hope you enjoy and, as always, feel free to comment.)

This Thursday, Americans will get together with family and friends to celebrate a national holiday: Thanksgiving.  (Certain other countries celebrate their own Thanksgiving at different times.) It’s a day associated with a feast of roast turkey, breaded stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and assorted other culinary delights.  Some Americans indulge in televised football games.  And American schoolchildren will learn about the Pilgrims: peace-loving religious dissenters from England who landed at “Plymouth Rock” in 1620 and who ate turkey with friendly, benevolent Indians.

Thanksgiving is many Americans’ favorite holiday, because it’s mainly about family, food, and football (not necessarily in that order).  But there are not surprisingly a lot of myths about the Plymouth colonists and the original day of thanks, in 1621.

Unless it’s Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, longitudes strives for truth. So below is my feeble attempt to demolish a few long-held myths.  My sources are the book “The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony” by James and Patricia Deetz; a smattering of well-sourced Wikipedia info; and a 1621 letter written by Mayflower passenger Edward Winslow to a friend in England, known as Mourt’s Relation.  His letter is the only contemporary eyewitness description of what took place that first Thanksgiving. (Plymouth Governor William Bradford reflected on the colony many years later in Of Plymouth Plantation}:

  • Although the colonists originally came from England, most had been living in religiously tolerant Leiden, Holland for twelve years before arriving in the New World on the Mayflower.
  • The Mayflower first landed on the sandy northern tip of what is now Cape Cod in November 1620.  The passengers didn’t transfer to the mainland (Plymouth) until a month later.
  • There is no mention of a “Plymouth Rock” in Of Plymouth Plantation or Mourt’s Relation.
  • The original feast took place over three days, probably during harvest time, which would have been September or early October at the latest.
  • Over ninety Wampanoag Indians and about fifty English attended the feast, including Chief Massasoit, Winslow, and Bradford. (Most depictions of the feast show roughly a dozen colonists and half that many Indians.)
  • Turkey was undoubtedly not the main course.  It was more likely ducks or geese killed by the Pilgrims, and later on venison shared by the natives.
  • There is no evidence in Winslow’s account that the Pilgrims offered a formal thanks.  He merely mentions that “by the goodness of God” they were “far from want.”  The feast was more likely continuation of an English custom of celebrating harvest time.
  • The descriptor “pilgrim” for the colonists was first used in a sermon delivered in Plymouth in the 1790s.  And until the early 20th century, the term was used in a generic sense and spelled with a lowercase “p.”  The Plymouth settlers called themselves “Separatists” or “Saints” (religious dissenters), “Strangers” (those unmotivated by religion but seeking a new life), “Old Comers,” “Old Planters,” and “Planters.”
  • Modern Thanksgiving as a holiday for all American states wasn’t established until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln designated the final Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.  In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress changed this to the fourth Thursday of the month.
  • The Plymouth colonists, although they established the first English colony in what is now known as New England, were not the first English to permanently settle in the New World.  That would be the Jamestown, Virginia settlers of 1607, who were driven here by mercantilism rather than religion.
  • The Christians of Plymouth Colony were not immune to those vices quite familiar to modern-day Americans. Rape, incest, buggery, bigamy, domestic abuse, adultery, and murder are described in detail in original colonial records.
  • Violence between English and Indian had occurred even before the feast. On August 14, 1621 military leader Myles Standish preemptively attacked the village (Nemasket) of a rival sachem of Massasoit’s. His brashness was a harbinger of King Philip’s War of 1675-1678, a conflict between English colonists and their Indian allies and Chief Massasoit’s son, Metacom. It remains the bloodiest per-capita conflict on American soil.

And speaking of violence, it’s important to note that the colonists did not watch American football on television during that first Thanksgiving.  If they had, however, they would have certainly cheered for Detroit to win and Dallas to lose.

Have a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

200th Blog Post

…And the timing couldn’t be better, since I cannot think of anything to write about!

So, I’ll do what I did for the 100 milestone back in 2016 and list some links to essays that I’m still fairly comfortable with.

I’ll keep the bullshit canned and go straight to the list, but not without saying “Thank you” to you readers, followers, commenters, and “likers” who have stuck with longitudes, even after my periodic silences.

The Night Watchman

Adolescence is a difficult and confusing time, and maybe more so when you attend a traditional, single-sex boarding school. My school was way out in rural western Pennsylvania. We wore coats and ties, shared formal meals, had strict study hours, and were required to play sports. A lot of boys struggled. Some were there one day, then gone the next. I made it until graduation, and I think what helped me glide over the waves was finding little chunks of floating driftwood to cling to. This brief, long-ago, personal drama was one of them.

Fascism for Beginners, Part 4: American Ambivalence

In 2017 I read William Shirer’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It really affected me, and it was no coincidence that I read it soon after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. It became clear to me that a lot of the tactics Trump used to gain and consolidate power (and still uses, with the assistance of his party) were on full display in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s: attacks on the press, demonization of critics, far-right nationalism, sloganeering, authoritarian rhetoric, racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry, the “Big Lie,” etcetera, etcetera. So to deal with my disgust, I wrote a four-part series on Nazism before the U.S. entered WWII. This link takes you to my summarization, in the last part.

No, I’m not calling Trump a Nazi. But you’d have to either be willfully ignorant or a blind and deaf pig farmer in Patagonia not to recognize the parallels.

The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Longitudes loves talking about music and movies. Here’s a link to a review of the music featured in Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s seven-part PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. [I also critiqued the documentary itself (click here), but it’s a shade more hard-hitting.] I’m still disappointed that Ken (“Mister America”) never solicited my input before choosing songs for his soundtrack. I think my two cents would have enhanced his project immeasurably. Then again, I could be overestimating my musical acumen. After all, I would never have picked Ringo to replace Pete Best.

Marching for Our Lives

Like “The Night Watchman,” this one is autobiographical. It describes my involvement in a march in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio to protest government inaction on gun control. Those of you reading from outside the U.S.A. probably shake your heads at the strange fascination America has with firearms. Well, some of us inside the country are doing the same thing. The march was precipitated by a horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 that killed 17 students and injured 17 others. The killer had known mental health issues, but at 18 years was able to legally purchase an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle from a local gun store. The massacre surpassed Littleton, Colorado as the deadliest high-school shooting in the country’s history…so far.

Both the march and a rally afterwards were significant for including a number of local children and students. When young people have to take to the streets to try and fix problems their parents helped create, your country’s in bad shape.

“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Justice Fascism:” A Comedy-Drama in Four Acts

(A different face of fascism.) Lillian Gish was a silent-film actress who extended her career into talkies and made over 100 films in her 99 years. She’s been called “The First Lady of American Cinema” and was a “pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques” (AllMovie Guide). She’s also from my home state of Ohio. In 1976 Bowling Green State University honored her and her actress-sister Dorothy by naming its theatre and film department after them. But in 2019 the college’s Black Student Union petitioned to rename the department, because in 1915 Lillian had acted in The Birth of a Nation, producer D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking yet controversial film that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. (Gish was only 22 and had appeared in the film at the behest of Griffith, her film mentor.) University trustees unanimously voted to remove the Gish name.

This is my attempt to make a black-humor statement (note the Kubrick reference in the essay title) about a phenomenon of the 21st century known by its critics as “Cancel Culture.” Should we remove or tarnish someone’s name due to a single incident in their youth, or should we weigh their indiscretions against the context of their times and the full measure of their lives? And what does wiping out a name solve, anyway?

This one didn’t get a lot of “likes.” (Not that I use “likes” to influence what I write about.) Maybe I should have provided more backstory. Maybe most readers agreed with the name-changing. Maybe my attempt at dark humor was too acidic. Or maybe it just went over people’s heads. No matter. I like it, so here it is again.

Doris Day: On the Sunny Side of the Street

The legendary singer/actress died on May 13, 2019 at age 97. I’ve never been a huge fan, but for some reason her passing hit me hard. It might have been because she was one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” She also symbolized a simpler time in America that required societal role-playing and which a lot of people now pine for…and not necessarily for the best reasons. I’m sure some of it had to do with the fact that on the day she died I visited her childhood home here in Cincinnati. There was something melancholy and palpable about being the only person there on that grey, blasé day.

So I did what I usually do in those situations. I wrote it all down.

Appalachian Trail Solo Thru-Hike Odyssey – Chapter 4

Writing from Mountain Home B&B in Front Royal, Virginia. An easygoing, somewhat quaint, vaguely progressive town, ironically where Stonewall Jackson won a significant battle in 1862.

Just exited Shenandoah National Park and only a few days from a new state (West Virginia) and historic town of Harpers Ferry, which is the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conference (THE governing body of the trail). I look forward to meeting those responsible for turning me into a Sisyphus and carrying me over a sea of jagged rocks. And look forward to revisiting where John Brown became a martyr, albeit a shortsighted one.

Sunset in Shenandoah

I’m at mile 972 of 2,190 miles…almost at the halfway point and nearly back “home,” in the North, where the Union won a war to end slavery and keep the states glued together. Gettysburg and Antietam are in my sights. I’ve visited these battlefield locations many times, but this time I’m marching by foot. Thank God I don’t have to trudge barefoot or eat maggot-riddled hardtack. How did those soldiers do it?

Can you tell I’m excited about these links with U.S. history? These kinds of milestones help keep me going. Later, I plan to revisit Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where the author of “Omoo” later wrote “Moby-Dick.” Also, Williams College, where my great-grandfather graduated Magna Cum Laude, and the small village of Stamford, Vermont, settled by my g-g-g-g-g-grandfather Josiah “Rock” Raymond when he camped against a boulder (damn those rocks) in the mid-18th century.

Copperhead snake. Note his cocked head and blank-looking orange eye. I stepped on his head accidentally while trudging up Apple Orchard Mountain. We were both a bit shaken.

And it will also be interesting to train into Manhattan, subway to the Upper East Side, and walk down Lexington Avenue, full backpack and greasy beard, and ring the buzzer of my uncle’s eighth-floor apartment, where he’s lived since…wait for it…1960.

The word “surreal” is an understatement.

Thanks for traveling with me…

Omoo

The new Omoo at Mountain Home hostel: clean-shaven, locks shorn, smiling with banana split on mind. And possible turntable action. Trail towns are nice.

The Long, Downward Slide of the Republican Party

On January 28, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made a trip to Florida to meet with ex-president Trump.  The intent was to advertise to all that “We’re still with you.”  Reports are that McCarthy wanted to also “apologize” to Trump.  It’s still unclear what he wanted to apologize for.

A recent Politico poll shows 72 percent of Republicans think the recent U.S. presidential election was fraudulent.  Now, think about this: almost three-fourths of one of the two major political parties in the U.S. subscribe to a cockamamie conspiracy theory and support a former leader who, through his irresponsible and incendiary oratory, inspired an insurrection by white supremacists against the U.S. Capitol.

This in addition to four years of incessant bloviating, insults, lies, and just plain bad policy that has turned America into the wealthiest banana republic in the world.

I don’t know what these people are thinking.  Do they think?  But the black comedy we’re experiencing now, where GOP congressmen actively promote a political tactic the German National Socialist (Nazi) Party perfected called the Big Lie, refuse to publicly wear facemasks during a deadly pandemic, refuse to hold hearings on Supreme Court nominees (Merrick Garland, in January 2016), or who set off alarms by bursting through congressional metal detectors installed to protect legislators, has to begin somewhere.  When and how did this horror show begin?

To be fair, Democrats have also shifted from the middle in the last forty years or so.  However, most political observers agree that the shift is much more pronounced on the right side of the aisle and is less about policy than behavior.  Part of it is due to a powerful conservative-biased media that erupted during the Clinton presidency and is now a regular news/propaganda source for many Republican voters.  Columnist and GOP’er David Brooks recently observed that “a lot of these Trumpy Republicans, they run for office so they can get on FOX News, not to pass (legislation).”  That’s a lot of power—dangerous power— for a news network to wield, and it’s a major contributor to the gridlock we now see in Washington.  And FOX News is just one of many conservative outlets…shockingly, one of the more benign ones.

Another reason why the Republican Party has abdicated its responsibility as a guardrail of democracy is existential fear.  Authors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, in their book How Democracies Die, trace this fear to a changing demographic precipitated by civil rights legislation in the 1960s.  The historically dominant white male demographic is shrinking, due to civil and equal rights, immigration, and an overall more tolerant and diverse secular and non-secular landscape in America.

No group wants to be squatting on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder.  But white males, who predominate in the Republican Party, see themselves slipping downward.  This existential fear encourages extremism, embodied by, at best, election-year attempts at character assassination, and ever-increasing racist and xenophobic behaviors at worst.  And now, Big Lie tactics.

The slide began a long time ago: GOP strategist Lee Atwater’s self-admitted “naked cruelty” against Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-MA) before the 1988 presidential election; Republican politicians’ incessant attempts to scandalize Bill Clinton during the 1990s (Travelgate, Filegate, Whitewater, then the pearly gate of Monica Lewinsky, which resulted in the partisan weapon of impeachment for lying about sex); the now-discredited “Swift Boat” smears of 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry; GOP accusations that Barack Obama was a Muslim, or that he wasn’t born in the U.S. (which Trump spearheaded, quite successfully, before his own presidential run); the 2016 refrains of “Lock Her Up,” led by GOP leaders, including Trump, despite zero evidence of criminal wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.  And most recently, Trump’s attempt to smear Joe Biden through enlistment of a foreign power in digging up dirt on his political rival’s son (and which Trump was justifiably impeached for, despite Senate Republicans’ refusal to convict).

Maybe the slide began with the illegal activities of the Nixon re-election campaign committee (CREEP) that resulted in the Watergate scandal.

***

So far in 2021 it’s clear that the Republican Party is still the party of Trump, with all the poison that such an association brings to American democracy.  Unless moderate Republicans (those few that are left) have the chutzpah to pull their party back to reality and decency—and if world history is any lesson—there are even darker days ahead for the U.S. than what occurred on January 6.

NEWSFLASH: a recently-elected GOP congresswoman from Georgia named Marjorie Taylor Greene posted on Facebook in 2018 that a Jewish-run banking firm deliberately fired a space laser to start a California wildfire in an effort to manipulate the stock market and benefit itself.  Ms. Greene is a QAnon supporter with a history promoting wacky anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. She also posted and liked Facebook comments advocating execution of Democrats. Despite this, Republican leaders, including fellow conspiracy-theorist and House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (see above) have so far done nothing.

An Ohio Yankee Visits Liverpool, England

cilla

[An Apology: in my last post, I wanted to humorously discuss absurdity and pettiness in the office. (For you young people, it happens more often than you might think.)  Sort of a Dilbert-styled satire with a casual nod to the classic short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”  But my wife, who reads my stuff occasionally when she has the stomach for it, characteristically sidestepped the gist of my essay and, instead, took exception to my reference to urinals.  Also, my friend Tad politely noted some double entendres that were—believe me—entirely unintentional.  Anyway, I’m sorry if I offended anyone, and I promise today’s post will go nowhere near porcelain fixtures.  No guarantees about double entendres, though.]

When I decided to fly to Glasgow to visit my daughter’s family, one of my first actions was to open my world atlas and check the distance from Glasgow to Liverpool, England. In 1964, my friend John Hire and I became fans of an exciting musical group from Liverpool. I think this was concurrent to John instructing me about his older sister’s body parts.

I’ve been marveling at and studying The Beatles’ music…and the physical attributes of the opposite sex…ever since.

But in addition to visiting the home of The Beatles, I was also curious about Liverpool as a famed seaport city. During the 19th century, Liverpool was a thriving port for American merchant ships delivering cotton to textile factories in northern England, and also a busy departure city for immigrants. In the 20th century, U.S. naval sailors took shore leave in the city and sold their blues and early rock ‘n’ roll records to working-class English youth hungry for anything with a backbeat.

American writer Herman Melville (“Bartleby,” Moby-Dick) was a young merchant sailor who visited Liverpool in 1839 and wrote stirringly, in his book Redburn, about the profound poverty of this mecca of the Industrial Revolution:

Every variety of want and suffering here met the eye, and every vice showed here its victims…Old women, rather mummies, drying up with slow starving and age; young girls, incurably sick, who ought to have been in the hospital; sturdy men, with the gallows in their eyes, and a whining lie in their mouths; young boys, hollow-eyed and decrepit; and puny mothers, holding up puny babes in the glare of the sun, formed the main features of the scene…But these were diversified by instances of peculiar suffering, vice, or art in attracting charity, which, to me at least, who had never seen such things before, seemed to the last degree uncommon and monstrous.

Ferry Cross the Mersey

Ohio Yankee, looking for ferries on the Mersey

“Uncommon and monstrous.” Hard to believe it’s the same city. Liverpool in 2019 barely resembles the city of Melville’s time, or even when the Fab Four were growing up. The dock that existed in 1839 is now below ground about 200 yards inland from the River Mersey, the water having been “reclaimed” by land. In 2008 Liverpool was recognized a European Capital of Culture by the European Union (EU), which helped encourage urban renewal, exemplified by Liverpool ONE shopping complex. Liverpool is now a top tourist destination in the UK.

Since I had a limited amount of time in Liverpool, I listed my top priorities. John Lennon’s boyhood home at Mendips, Menlove Avenue, Woolton was the bullseye. If you don’t know who John Lennon is, he’s famous for being the only person to have his name on a major British airport.

Second to this was the Cavern Club, where The Beatles first made a name in 1961-63 while playing an astonishing 292 dates (little wonder that ensemble was so tight). Third was the location of Old Dock. Fourth was St. Peter’s Church in Woolton Village, where John and Paul McCartney first met at a garden fete on July 6, 1957. And if I had time, Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, and Paul’s boyhood home in Allerton.

st. george's

St. George’s Hall, from Lime Street station

I exited Lime Street Railway station and was confronted by the neoclassical splendor of St. George’s Hall and a sea of people and buses.  I poked around Liverpool City Centre toward what I hoped would be the Mersey. It took me a while, but I eventually found Albert Dock and Merseyside Maritime Museum. The museum receptionist told me about the reclaiming that turned Mersey water into land, and that the only way to see the original 1716 Thomas Steers’ dock, the world’s first commercial wet dock (later called Old Dock), was to take an underground tour. I didn’t have the time or inclination, but I did manage to get a peep at history through a viewing window on a plaza near the Hilton Hotel.

Staring through a glass capsule in the middle of a hotel plaza while a musician absentmindedly played Beatles songs on a cheesy organ, it was a minor struggle envisioning 20-year-old Melville squeezing his way through emaciated beggars and cripples in 1839 after disembarking his vessel St. Lawrence. But for a fleeting second, I was there.

Old Liverpool Dock

Old Dock…buried under the edifice of a luxury hotel

Close to Old Dock is Mathew Street, where the Cavern Club is located, although I didn’t immediately know it. I just wandered through streets and alleyways until stumbling upon a small crowd in a curving pedestrian alley. Then…boom. There was John Lennon, lounging against a wall.

Or, at least, a life-sized statue of him. It was positioned next to a sign indicating this was the CAVERN PUB. Not to be confused with Cavern Club…but so many businesses in this area try to link themselves with The Beatles, the proprietors may want you to be confused, just to get your business. There was also a wall of bricks with numerous band names inscribed on them, some famous, some unknown. Each band had performed at one time at the Cavern Club, which existed from 1957 till 1973.

I saw a man gazing at the wall for a long time. He appeared somewhat misty-eyed. I asked if he wanted me to take his photo.  He thanked me but declined. After chatting with him a little, I learned his name was Ken, and he was looking for his band’s brick. He said he was once in a group called the Heartbeats, and it had performed at the Cavern Club on three occasions in 1966.

Liverpool Ken of the Heartbeats

Ken the Heartbeat, in front of Mathew Street Wall of Fame

Ken let me snap his photo with my own camera.  After he left, I spent a good ten minutes looking for his brick myself, but with no luck. Ken was very nice, and I really wanted to find his brick.  But it must have tumbled through the cracks of time.  (NOTE: a Manchester band called the Heartbeats did exist in the Sixties, and they later became Herman’s Hermits. But Ken never said anything about being a pre-Hermit.)

Getting back to the Cavern Club…the Club, not Pub, is actually across the alley and downwind about a hundred feet. Or, at least, a facsimile of the original club. Believe it or not, the Liverpool home of The Beatles was demolished in 1973 to make room for a proposed underground (subway) air shaft, which never materialized. The basement club was later resurrected, but with a different entrance location, interior, and stage.

I don’t consider many things sacred, but on the stupidity scale, a demolition project like this ranks with a construction project on the U.S.-Mexican border.

The original entrance is marked by a black-and-white mural with photos and a club history. Another statue is here: Cilla Black (1943-2015), who was a Cavern Club hat-check girl, then began jumping onstage to sing, then became friends with The Beatles, then forged a very successful recording and television career.

While near Mathew Street, I tried to locate the site of the record store which genius Beatles manager Brian Epstein (1934-1967) owned when he first heard about the group. It was on busy Whitechapel Street. I asked a few people, but all appeared under the age of 75 and didn’t know anything. (Some, sadly, didn’t even know the name Brian Epstein.) As for the store, it may have been swallowed by a London or U.S. land shark wearing designer clothing.

epstein

Brian Epstein

Well, if I’m gonna visit Johnny L. at Mendips, I’d better get scooting. I made one more trip to Albert Dock, to the office of the “Magical Mystery Tour” (which conducts a guided bus tour) to get a map of Beatle sites. The price of the map was typically outrageous, and the tour folks typically tried to sell me a tour ticket, since “It’s really the only way to properly see all the sites.” I smiled and told them You say ‘Yes’ but I say ‘No,’ then headed to the city bus station for my own ticket to ride.

But not before dropping into the spanking new Museum of Liverpool. As if on cue, the museum was at that moment hosting a limited-run exhibit devoted to John and Yoko. I spent about a half hour here. Yoko had a big hand in the presentation, much of which was devoted to her and John’s social activism, which I was already fairly knowledgeable about (bagism, hairism, bedism, and other peace-isms).

What really hit me was coming off the elevator, turning the corner, and hearing “Imagine” at the moment I stepped up to the photo below.

Though a deserved classic, “Imagine” isn’t one of my favorite Lennon songs. But I must say, I got a little choked up. (I kept my tears in check, though, as I didn’t want the security guard embracing me.)

There was also a large wall with upwards of a hundred handwritten notes. A pencil and a pile of blank pieces of white paper were on a small table with a sign encouraging people to scribble anything about Lennon, The Beatles, the world, universe, jelly babies, or anything one had a mind to. All the notes would eventually be delivered to Yoko.

I kept it simple and just told Yoko that her late husband’s group has been a bright piece of an Ohio boy’s life since 1964, when he lived on 142 Sherbrook Road.

Then I walked toward the elevator.  I descended, left the museum, and made my way…a sentimental old man in a foreign city, haunted by memories…to 251 Menlove Avenue.

 

John and Yoko exhibit, Liverpool 2

 

An Ohio Yankee in Sir Walter Scott’s Court…Still Bumbling Along

edinburgh

Our dubious hero was last seen peeking through the windows of The “Oxford” Bar on self-effacing Young Street in Edinburgh. No sign of James Bond. (Click here.)

But, let’s follow our hero back to ground zero: the Royal Mile, near Edinburgh Castle, where non-locals go to eat, tilt Scottish whiskies, and hear the same bagpipe song at each intersection.

My blogging friend, Neil (Yeah, Another Blogger) had earlier visited Edinburgh and recommended Deacon Brodie’s Tavern for lunch. Brodie’s is located at maybe the busiest corner in Edinburgh, on Lawnmarket and Bank Streets. I stepped inside, but the place was as crowded as a New England sports bar on Super Bowl Sunday, so I continued downhill along Lawnmarket until it turned into High Street. Neil also recommended Whiski Bar and Restaurant, and this joint was ideal: cool, dark-paneled, and tourist-free (except for me). I took his advice and ordered a Brewdog Punk IPA, along with a shot of whisky and a dish of haggis.

Normally, I dislike sharing photos of the food I consume. Word descriptions are one thing, but there’s something tacky about posted photos of one’s meals. But haggis is uniquely Scottish, and rarely found elsewhere, so forgive me for breaking my self-imposed restriction.

Haggis and Brewdog Punk IPA

Haggis, at least as prepared at Whiski, is a small globe of mashed potatoes with bits of ground beef, ladled with a smooth gravy sauce, probably made with sheep guts. My dish had a rounded wafer of some sort piercing the potatoes like circular buzz saw.  It was a little flag that said “Eat me!” So, I obeyed. I lean toward more spicy cuisine, but this Whiski haggis was a unique experience, quite tasty, and perfect light lunch fare.

Oh, I almost forgot: the Brewdog Punk. Maybe I’m losing my taste for IPAs, but Neil, this Brewdog tasted a bit too “hoppy.” Next time I’ll go with your other IPA suggestion of Stewart First World Problems.  Maybe it hops around less.

While sipping my whisky at Whiski, I had a short conversation with a pretty waitress who told me that she was the only native Edinburgher employed there. This confirmed some suspicions I’d had of Edinburgh.

For dessert, I ambled across the street to Mimi’s Little Bakehouse (another Neil recommendation) for a cheese and chive scone. (I’m glad you were around, Neil, as Graham Kerr was nowhere to be seen. Anyone remember him?). Scones are fat, flaky muffins, usually wheat or oatmeal based. Brits often nibble on them with their afternoon tea. My scone was as big as a cake, and helped soak up a lot of the booze from the Whiski. Best scone I ever had. And, I might add, the only one I’ve ever had.

Leaving Mimi’s, I started seeing narrow brick-lined alleys with interesting names like “Tweeddale Close.” The alleys led to cozy courtyards with dwellings and businesses punctuating the perimeter. Curious, I wandered down Tweeddale Close.

After squeezing through a pack of dazed-looking sightseers wearing nametags and tethered to a tour guide, I entered one doorway, climbed the stairs to the third floor, and barged into the offices of a local leisure magazine. Brewdog Punk on my breath, scone crumbs at the corners of my mouth, I asked one of the employees about this “Close” phenomenon. She explained it’s an exclusive Edinburgh term meaning…well, an alley with a courtyard.

Gee, and I thought there was something deeply meaningful about a Close. Thanks for the info, Fiona! (Burp.)

Back on High Street, I saw several more Closes. My favorite was World’s End Close. Okay, but please, how much time do I have? I really wanted to investigate this one. But I was afraid I might tumble into one of Calcutta’s black holes, or into a one-way celestial omnibus, or worse, spontaneously combust. So I fought my curiosity. Like heaven, hell, and the appeal of the Republican Party, some things are intended to be a mystery.

World's End Close

World’s End Close is the stone entrance on the left. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Before hopping my train back to the Glasgow suburbs, I visited a few more monolithic hunks of rock in beautiful Edinburgh: Calton Hill, with its towering monument to English naval hero Lord Nelson, the highest point in the city, and where I could scan all of Edinburgh, along with the placid waters of the Firth of Forth; Old Calton Cemetery, where the bones of Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume are honored with a large tomb; and skyscraping Melville Monument, erected to a guy who was impeached in 1806 for misappropriation of public money, the last public official to be impeached in the United Kingdom (thus far).

Just as in the states, massive stone memorials to dead people seem really important to some folks. I don’t know, but I continue to scratch my head on that one.

I think it was German writer Bertolt Brecht who said not to pity those nations without heroes. Pity instead those that need them.

(Next time I’ll be stepping onto the West Highland Way trail to visit the natural carvings of the Scottish Highlands. Stay tuned!)

 

nelsonhume2dundas