Posts Tagged ‘American history’
129 years ago today, on July 4th, 1886 my paternal grandmother, Gertrude (Smith) Brindle was born in England in Accrington, England. That’s her sitting In the chair.
As you can tell, she was the product of the Victorian Era. I don’t recall her as a particular warm person and she was a lousy cook but I do recall her cozy, old-fashioned kitchen with a big, black iron coal-fired stove and her attempts to make me happy.
However, I didn’t start writing this today to reminisce about my grandmother. Instead, what struck me was that only 60 years prior to her birth, on July 4th, 1826 both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50th anniversary of July 4th, 1776. (You’ve probably heard the “Jefferson Lives” story when Adams didn’t realize that his friend had already died).
To the kid in this picture, sixty years would have seemed like an eternity. To the man who he’s become, it doesn’t seem so long ago. Top put that in perspective, sixty years ago today was July 4th, 1955 when Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” and Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” were playing on the radio.
Understanding that my grandmother’s life wasn’t that far removed from those two Founding Fathers helps me feel a little bit less out of touch with American history.
Thanks, Grandma. Rest in peace.
November 22, 1963 was a Friday.
I was a typical shallow, self-possessed, care-free teenage male in the first couple months of my first year in high school at Mount Pleasant High in Providence, Rhode Island.
On Friday’s, my last class of the day was gym. In 1963, gym class for males was an active, athletic program to prepare young men for military service and which required students to develop skills on the parallel bars, pommel horse, horizontal high bar, still rings and for rope climbing. The gymnasium also served as the school’s basketball court, so the space was cavernous and the class was noisy. Consequently, we couldn’t hear messages being transmitted over the school’s loudspeaker system.
So, on that Friday, after I’d showered and walked along the typically noisy corridor to my locker, I was in a good mood and oblivious to what was going on around me.
I was in a good mood because that night was scheduled to be opening night for the Mount Pleasant High School Dionysiac Player’s production of Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town” and my theater debut as a member of the stage crew manning the main spotlight.
My original plan had been to try out for the football team but, at the last moment, I wisely changed my mind. The football coach was also my Geometry teacher and, for some reason, there was an unsettling level of antipathy between us.
So, instead, I decided to join the theater group at the urging of my friend, Mike Grace. It was a decision that, to this day, I’m glad I made.
Arriving at my locker and fetching my things for the bus ride home to Smithfield, I was blithely mocking the sweet young woman I’d befriended whose locker was to my right. She was emotional and, because I couldn’t hear what she was saying, my initial thoughts were that she was laughing. But then I realized that it wasn’t the sound of laughter but of grief that I was hearing.
When I asked her what was wrong, I presumed that she was reacting to a misunderstanding or breakup with her boyfriend. The usual stuff of adolescent drama. So, when she told me that the President was dead, it didn’t register. I laughed thinking that she was telling me some sort of sick joke. Then, I looked at her face…and I knew.
John F. Kennedy was a mythic figure in Southern New England. In 1963, Rhode Island’s population was heavily Roman Catholic Italian and, although JFK was Irish, he was one of our own. His was like a death in the family.
The first reaction I can recall was wondering how this tragic event might affect the play.
Our theater group had worked hard, rehearsed and devoted much of our lives for the previous two months in order to be ready for this moment. The school wouldn’t cancel opening night, would it?
Other than the moment when I was told about the assassination and the overarching sense of loss and sadness which enveloped the school, there are two incidents that I most vividly remember about that afternoon. The first involved one of the wise guys who, like me, was bused in from Smithfield and with whom I’d shared classes since elementary school. He started laughing and making jokes about Kennedy’s assassination. I was appalled and, frankly, embarrassed for him. Over the years, I’ve wondered if he sometimes stopped to consider how he’d reacted and, if he did, how that affected his life.
The second incident occurred when we discovered that the school administration had, indeed, canceled opening night for our production of “Our Town”. Of course, it was the appropriate decision under the circumstances. But, we were emotionally invested in our work and had difficulty accepting the decision. What shocked me was when the student who played George Webb, one of the play’s primary characters, lay down on the stage and while pounding his fist sobbed “Why did he have to go get killed on opening night?” I understood the kid’s angst but found his self-absorbed attitude embarrassing.
The Mount Pleasant High School Dionysiac Players production of “Our Town” did go on as scheduled on Saturday night. And, as I recall, the show was well-received by an audience which was probably affected more than usual by the play’s story of day-to-day life, youthful love, premature death, sorrow and grief. That play continues to touch me to this day.
On Sunday afternoon, while continuing wall-to-wall commercial-free live coverage of the weekend’s sad events were being broadcast on the existing three television networks (ABC, NBC, CBS), Mike Grace and I were doing a project for Mike’s aunt and uncle in the living room of their home when I happened to glance over at a TV and noticed the Dallas police escorting Lee Harvey Oswald down a corridor. It all seemed pretty mundane until, all of a sudden, a man in a black hat stepped out from the crowd, shoved his hand towards Oswald’s stomach and shot him. The black-and-white photo we’ve all seen over the intervening decades of Oswald crumbling in pain is still shocking. But, to see an actual murder occur live on a national TV broadcast as it happened was stunning. At first, it seemed unreal. And, thinking that I might be imagining it, I asked Mike if he’d just seen what I saw.
The 48 hours from the moment when JFK was killed on Dealey Plaza until the moment when Jack Ruby’s bullets ended Lee Harvey Oswald’s life, were surreal and shook America’s sense of order and complacency to its core. This was a time in American life when we lived daily on the brink of nuclear holocaust in our conflict with the Soviet Union. We were all subconsciously concerned that, at any moment, we might get word that the missiles were coming in.
Leading up to this anniversary, journalists have been focusing on how coverage of the events of that weekend changed news because it was on TV. I would argue that it changed America.
For the first time, we were able to not only hear but to see events as they happened. Radio had provided us with theater of the mind. With TV, we were there…watching Jackie grieve at her husband’s coffin, watching little John-John salute the passing caisson, seeing Lee Harvey Oswald murdered in cold blood.
On that weekend leading into Thanksgiving and the Christmas holidays, we were shaken to the core.
When World War I began, we got our news on time delay via newspapers.
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, we learned the news from radio.
John F. Kennedy’s assassination was the first calamitous event which we Americans shared communally through television.
It remained the most significant historical event of my lifetime through the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in the late 1960s, the Kent State Massacre, the murder of John Lennon and other tragic events which we experienced through the years.
For me, a change began to occur when I watched the Challenger disintegrate as Dan Rather was covering its launch live in 1986. It became obvious to me that I was going to continue to witness these occasional tragedies through my remaining days.
Then, of course, came September 11th.
The centennial of the Civil War was being commemorated in 1962. Nelson Rockefeller was New York’s governor. Racism was matter-of-fact for most white American, whether overt or unconscious. So it took a certain amount of political courage for the Republican governor to select a controversial African-American like Martin Luther King, Jr. to deliver Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
No one had heard Dr. King’s speech for more than 50 years until last Fall when staff members of the New York State Museum in Albany discovered a long forgotten reel-to-reel tape.
You can listen to it here http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/mlk/index.html
Writer Bill Bryson owns a house in the English countryside. While searching through his attic one day, he discovered a door which led to a small roof and a view of the surrounding area. The experience led Bryson to start thinking about the history of his new community and his new home. Those thoughts, in turn, led to his study of the various rooms in which we live, the contents of those rooms, and their origins. Here are a few of the insights which Bryson shards:
*The dining table was originally just a plain board which was put up at meal time. Eventually, the term “board” came to signify not only the table but also the meal itself. Thus, the expression “room & board”. Also, expressions such as “above board” meaning honest because ones hands were visible and “under the table” meaning dishonest.
*The creation of the fireplace changed everything. It enabled a building to have two stories which added more rooms and the opportunity for privacy.
*In 1884, just 128 years ago, a New England company introduced the concept of preserving food during ocean voyages by using ice from Wenham Lake in Massachusetts.
*Thomas Jefferson created the American French Fry.
*English clergymen preached against eating the potato because it grows underground (the domain of the Devil) and because the potato wasn’t specifically mentioned in the Bible.
*Ironically, people like Thomas Chippendale whom we no admire for their craftsmanship are also the people who created mass manufacturing.
*Christopher Columbus never set foot on the American continent. One significant accomplishment of Columbus’ voyages, however, was to introduce syphillis to the population of Europe.
*The Pacific Ocean was much bigger than Magellan anticipated. His crews ran out of food and were reduced to eating a mixture of rat droppings and wood shavings in order to stave off their hunger. (Yummy!) Only 18 members of Magellan’s original crew of 260 men survived the voyage. They became the first humans to circumvent the globe.
*60% of the world’s food varieties today originated in the Americas.
*The first coffee shop was created in London in a shed behind a church in 1652 (very pre-Starbucks!)
*In his diary entry for September 25, 1660 Samuel Peeps recorded the first known English language mention of tea.
*Bryson suggests that classes on the history of marketing begin with the story of how the British encouraged opium sales in China.
*If you flush a toilet with the seat up, germs linger in the air for up to 2 hours.
*During the early days of indoor plumbing, water closets were reserved for the servant class. The upper classes thought indoor toilets were demeaning and preferred outhouses.
*In 1716, Thomas Jefferson built Monticello on the edge of the known world. It’s telling that he faced the front of the house toward the wilderness rather than toward civilization.
*When Jefferson died on 7/4/1826, he was $ 100K in debt. His daughter tried to sell Monticello for
$ 70K but eventually sold it for only $ 7,000.
*Prior to the Revolutionary War, the British enforced a law which ordered that goods sold to America had to first pass through England. Consequently, something produced in Cuba would have to first travel across the Atlantic to England and then back to the American colonies.
*Falls from stairs rank as the 2nd most common cause of accidental death.
*Amazingly, we’ve had electricity and phones for as long as we’ve known that germs cause disease.
*The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, who lived in Massachusetts and was a Yale grad, increased the amount of slavery in the South. Prior to the cotton gin’s invention, slavery was on the decline. Its invention also turned child labor into a necessity because the kids were small enough to access problem areas and paved the way for the Civil War. (Talk about unintended consequences).
*Bryson makes Charles Darwin’s sometimes tragic story come alive in a way that I’ve never heard it told before.
*It takes the average citizen of Tajikistan a whole year to produce the same amount of carbon emissions as it does for the average European to produce in 2.5 days and for an average American to produce in just 28 hours.
These are just a few of the interesting insights which Bill Bryson brings to our attention about many of the things we take for granted in our daily lives. If you’re as fascinated about this stuff as I am, I think you’ll enjoy this book.
In closing, Bryson gives us something to think about: Is it possible that in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness that we’re creating a world that has neither?
Several years ago, I produced a half-hour public affairs program which aired on several different radio stations in New York State’s Capital Region on the Sunday night before Martin Luther King Day. While doing my research and listening to the speeches, I realized how much I didn’t know and appreciate about the man. Click on the picture below then click the play button to listen in.