The Door Stop at the Eisenhower National Historical Site

When you go to Gettysburg, you go because you think you will hear about Abraham Lincoln. You do not go because you think you will hear about Dwight D. Eisenhower—he is 80 years removed from the Civil War battle that made the town famous. But hear of him you do, because he bought his first and only house adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefield, now a National Park Historic Museum.

Should you doubt that you are adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefield, all you need to is glance a couple hundred yards away at the observation tower built to survey where the troops once fought. Eisenhower’s secret service attachment had conniptions over that tower, and pressed Eisenhower to remove it. He refused. If it was for the public’s edification of important history, who was he to take it down? So they bought him a book on the subject of what assassins with high-powered rifles could do. ‘Take it down,’ he said.

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Of course, by the time you spot the tower, you will be in no doubt as to the Musuem’s proximity, because it is only by shuttle bus from the Museum that access to the Eisenhower ranch is gained. It is itself a National Historical Park Site.

On the grounds that came with the farmhouse, Ike used to putz around on a golf-cart type of vehicle. Dignitaries that he would invite away from the congestion of Washington would putz around with him, and Ike would show them the Angus cattle that he raised. Khrushchev was one who rode with him. If the Soviet leader was fond of railing about the materialism of the West, he would have been hard pressed to make his point here. The farmhouse has more rooms than is typical, but otherwise it is no different than any farmhouse of the era. The extra bedrooms are not large. Some of them are downright tiny.

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The farmhouse was not a budget-buster in itself, but the rehab work proved astronomical, the equivalent of two million dollars today. The brick facade proved to be just that—the covering on a log frame that was rotting away. He should have had an inspector look the place over for him before signing on the dotted line. After Ike was done, he bought a car (hard to photograph because it was in the closed-off garage) for his wife (he did not drive himself) and told her that they were now broke. It is about that time that he figured he had better begin writing his memoirs.

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The elderly docent who greeted us in the living room apologized for sitting as he did so, but he had reached the age where standing was too hard on his feet. He did not seem to know how to silence his phone calling pre-recorded to remind him of a doctor’s appointment—he told it to “shut up” once or twice before at length shutting it off. He had once been a building facilities specialist in the military and had at that time been granted Top Secret clearance. People would call him for help even after retirement, and he tried to avoid them because, after all, he was retired—ask the new guy—but he could usually be prevailed upon to tell how to adjust the air conditioning up or down—nothing is straightforward when it has government overtones.

I learned all this because after his speech, While others were roaming the house, I asked him whether he had ever seen the movie ‘Guarding Tess.’ (He had not.) The reason that I asked him that was because he had related before the group grapevine reports that Mamie, Ike’s wife, would make the secret service take notes on her soap operas whenever she was not able to watch them in person, just the sort of thing that Tess, the fictional former First Lady of the movie would have done—though otherwise there appears no similarity at all—do not think I am suggesting that the movie was modeled after the Eisenhowers.

Eisenhower, a recent West Point graduate, had wanted to see action during World War I, but they stuck him in Gettysburg instead in order to head up Camp Colt, a training ground for the Army’s new Tank Corps. He trained his untested volunteers so well—their first task had been to get over the flu they all came down with—that, by the time World War II came about, he vaulted over many more well-known prospects to eventually become Supreme Commander, not just of American forces, but to all Allied Troops.

In his almost embarrassingly modest back enclosed porch (for a president), he liked to watch Westerns as the day wound down. Gunsmoke was a favorite. In this he was just like my Dad, who also liked all Westerns, but would reliably emerge from his den like clockwork only when he heard the Gunsmoke theme music that heralded Matt blowing away yet another miscreant in the street who had drawn his gun first—they always did, the louts—and Matt always outdrew them, saving Dodge City once again.

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An odd and unusual door stop caught my wife’s attention before it did mine. It was metalwork—a statue of Jacob wrestling with the angel, about 8 inches tall.  Maybe his Jehovah’s Witness mom had given it to him with the note ‘Do you remember?’ I entertained for a split second, but dismissed it immediately. Of course he remembered it—the biblical scene has for centuries been fair game for painters and sculptors alike. Or maybe he didn’t remember—or if he did, he was not swept off his feet with appreciation for it. I mean—come on!—a door stop is not an especially honored place for a work of art. It beats weighing down the toilet handle so the water doesn’t run, but still...

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I decided I would ask about that statue, because the subject had come up recently in another connection. Did the ranger (not the one in the living room) know where it came from? No, she said, she did not, but she then dove into the task of discovery with surprising gusto. There is a master log of every single item in the room, if not the entire house. She led me to it and we combed through the pages together.

Ah - here it is. It was a gift presented to the President in 1955 by the Swedish artist Carl Mille, and he used the biblical story to symbolize the present struggle for world piece. How much do you want to bet that before he came calling—hopefully, he didn’t just drop in—Mamie Eisenhower (who kept everything, the docent stated) retrieved it from the humble spot she probably put it in to begin with, spiffed it up, and displayed it prominently on the mantelpiece. I learned that trick with regard to my in-laws ages ago.

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Ike really didn’t get as much use out of his house as he would have liked. No sooner had he bought it, at the conclusion of the war, then Truman asked him to become leader of NATO, which meant living in Europe. Afterwards, elected President of the United States, he would have spent more time in Washington than his Gettysburg home. He willed his home to the National Park Service. After that, he lived but a few years until heart trouble—he had been drinking 25 cups of coffee per day—confined him to nursing facilities. The Park Service granted Mamie permanent occupancy until her health, too, failed. At that time David Eisenhower, the son, told family members to remove the keepsake items they wanted from the home—but make it sparing—and from that time on the farm home and surrounding ranch became the haunts of Park Rangers and docents. The view is spectacular—no wonder the Eisenhower’s liked it. The entire Gettysburg area is gently undulating landscape—the perfect spot for the epic battle of the Civil War 80 years before he and Mamie moved there. It is what went through our minds as we took the shuttle bus back.

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Why Isn’t THAT in Your Museum, National Historic Park Service - Eisenhower’s Mom

They wanted to make him king? And he declined?

“Therefore Jesus, knowing they were about to come and seize him to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain all alone.” (John 6:15)

Few who have read the verse will have had that same offer, much less the experience of accepting it. But Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the few. The victorious general gets to be president—it worked for George Washington, then Andrew Jackson, then Zachary Taylor, then Ulysses Grant. And it worked for Dwight D. Eisenhower, elected “king” in 1952. He had served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II.

At the Eisenhower National Historic Site in Pennsylvania, the ranger almost immediately made a mistake. Ike and his siblings were raised in the Mennonite religion, she said. I knew it was wrong. They were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses—‘Bible Students’ was the name back then. Yet even when I had one-on-one time with the ranger, I did not challenge her because 1) I had forgotten about it, and 2) the reason I had forgotten about it is that I had initially told myself that maybe his parents were Mennonites longer than they were Witnesses, or maybe they were not Witnesses during their childrens’ formative years. However, I checked later. They were. She was wrong—amazingly wrong, because the National Historical Park Service is not wrong about anything.

The most authoritative source will be this entry of the Kansas Historical Society. If I recalled the name of that ranger, I would contact her first. Alas—like most of the ‘Aha!’ moments of life, it occurs to me too late to act upon it.

If a Mennonite background might sink you as a Presidential candidate in 1952, God help you if were found to have a Jehovah’s Witness background. The Eisenhower children and their handlers kept that background very very secret, so as not to hurt Ike’s political career. Pundits would have destroyed him. I have to admit, even I would have enjoyed a crack at it—there would be my cartoon of Ike and his wife doing street work in front of the White House, holding aloft the Watchtower and Awake, the cover emblazoned: ‘Can Presidents Bring Peace?’ Oh yeah, they would have had a field day with it.

No U.S. religious group was more unpopular during World War II than Jehovah’s Witnesses, who not only refused military service, but also refused to salute the flag—Witnesses do not salute any flag anywhere. Often Witness youths refusing the military draft were sentenced with considerable emotion. Like this example: “I sentence you to five years in a federal prison to be approved by the Attorney General. My only regret, you yellow coward, is that I cannot give you twenty five years!” [from the book ‘Oer the Ramparts They Watched’ - by Victor V Blackwell, an attorney who represented many of them]

Mob violence was common following a 1940 decision of the Supreme Court that school pupils could be compelled to salute the flag. Mobs formed, waving the flag, demanding Witnesses salute it. When they would not, they were attacked and beaten, even into unconsciousness. Their homes, automobiles and meeting places were torched. In small towns, some were rounded up and jailed without charge. In four years, over 2500 mob-related incidents occurred.

The Solicitor General of the United States took to the airwaves: “Jehovah's Witnesses have repeatedly been set upon and beaten. They have committed no crime; but the mob adjudged that they had, and meted out punishment The Attorney General has ordered an immediate investigation of these outrages...The people must be alert and watchful, and above all, cool and sane. Since mob violence will make the government's task infinitely more difficult, it will not be tolerated. We shall not defeat the Nazi evil by emulating its methods.”

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt echoed the plea of the Attorney General. The ACLU also spoke out: “It is high time we came to our senses regarding this matter of flag-saluting. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not disloyal Americans…They are not given to law-breaking in general, but lead decent, orderly lives, contributing their share to the common good.” The High Court reversed its decision three years later, partly because they were aghast at what they had unleashed.

A question might be asked: Why didn’t Ike defend them? If not he, (for he was at the time fully immersed as brigadier general overseas) then why not one of his several siblings, who were in position to clarify that declining the flag salute had nothing to do with lack of patriotism, but of respecting the 2nd of the Ten Commandments. They would also have been in ideal position to explain that non-participation in war was completely in harmony with Bible standards. Instead, it was left to the ACLU to explain that “Jehovah’s Witnesses are not disloyal Americans…They are not given to law-breaking in general, but lead decent, orderly lives, contributing their share to the common good.” Ike’s kin might have done it, if not for their former faith itself, then for the sake of dear ol Mom, who held faithfully to it.

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s service to his country, and even the world, will be the trump card for most persons. Had he not been appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, maybe someone less capable would have botched the job. Even for Jehovah’s Witnesses, this will likely be the trump card—for he did liberate the German concentration camps where many of them were, after all, and that must have made Mom proud.

Yet the Eisenhower sibling’s service to the cause of faith is not so stellar. When the Word states that Christians will be hated in all the nations on account of Jesus’ name [“Then people will hand you over to tribulation and will kill you, and you will be hated by all the nations on account of my name.” - Matthew 24:9], is it because those nations will say that they hate God? No. They will say that they love God, but there will be some hot-button issues—in this case, refusal to salute the national flag or engage in military service—that will enrage them, be the matter biblically supported or not.

In fact, a third reason that Jehovah’s Witnesses were reviled is that they called out the major churches for their enthusiastic war cheerleading on both sides of both World Wars. Had even one of the major churches in Germany renounced war participation, Hitler might never have become the world threatening menace that he did become. If you are not going to stand up for peace during time of war, just when do you stand up for it?

Eisenhower’s kin could have explained it all, even if not going along with it themselves. They didn’t. One can only conclude that they were deeply embarrassed, if not ashamed, of their Jehovah’s Witness mother, and to this day wish to keep it a deeply held secret—and that even the National Historic Park Service, who seldom miss the slightest detail, acquiesces to their desire to keep this worst of all worst disgraces out of the public eye. Look, nobody cares—the Watchtower organization is certainly not outraged by it—they don’t do celebrities over there. However, the fact that nobody cares can be said of most details of history. It is history, and history is the National Historical Park Service’s reason for existence. They ought to get it right!

In the mid-seventies, Modern Maturity magazine ran this quote from Melvin Eisenhower, Ike's brother:Mother and Father knew the Bible from one end to the other. In fact, Mother was her own concordance: Without using one, she could turn to the particular scriptural passage she wanted. . . . We had an ideal home for I never heard an unkind word between Father and Mother. They lived by the cardinal concepts of the Judaic-Christian religion.” Really? Well what “Judaic-Christian religion” was it? Alas, it must never be told, for fear of dropping in the eyes of others.

From a Bible standpoint, it is not good. “Everyone, then, who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father who is in the heavens.  But whoever disowns me before men, I will also disown him before my Father who is in the heavens,” says Jesus at Matthew 10:32-33. Should a literal observing of his words be treated as a dirty little secret that must never see the light of day for the sake of preserving popular social approval? “How can you believe,” Jesus spoke again, “when you are accepting glory from one another and you are not seeking the glory that is from the only God?” (John 5:44)

The October 15, 1980 Watchtower tells of a World War II American soldier who became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses while enlisted. Efforts to speak with his superiors about his new-found neutrality went nowhere. So the fellow wrote, not to General Eisenhower, but to his mom! Sometimes you have to do that. Do you want President Trump to do something for you? You can’t write him – he’s busy. You have to write his mom, who will nag him into doing what you want.

One testy exchange between this new Witness and his superiors turned around quickly: “As I entered the headquarters tent, where all the ‘top brass’ had gathered, I didn’t salute.”

One of the officers said: “Don’t you salute your superiors?”

“No, Sir.”

“Why not?”

The soldier gave his reasons, based on his new and incomplete understanding of the Bible. At that the officer said: “General Eisenhower ought to line you Jehovah’s Witnesses up and shoot you all!”

“Do you think he would shoot his own mother, Sir?’ The soldier asked. He then produced the reply that he had just received from Eisenhower’s mom. The senior officer read the letter, and the other officers also gathered around to look at it. He then replied: “Get back to ranks. I don’t want to get mixed up with the General’s mother.”

Why isn’t THAT in your museum, you who miss no detail of Ike’s life? The letter is reproduced below:

 

Abilene, Kansas - August-20-’44.

Mr. Richard Boeckel.

 

Dear Sir: A friend returning from the United Announcers Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, informs me of meeting you there. I rejoice with you in your privilege of attending such convention.

It has been my good fortune many times in the years gone by to attend these meetings of those faithfully proclaiming the name of Jehovah and his glorious Kingdom which shortly now will pour out its rich blessings over all the earth.

My friend informs me of your desire to have a word from General Eisenhower’s mother whom you have been told is one of the witnesses of Jehovah. I am indeed such and what a glorious privilege it has been in association with those of the present time and with those on back through the annals of Biblical history even to Abel.

Generally I have refused such requests because of my desire to avoid all publicity. However, because you are a person of good will towards Jehovah God and his glorious Theocracy I am very happy to write you.

I have been blessed with seven sons of which five are living, all being very good to their mother and I am constrained to believe are very fine in the eyes of those who have learned to know them.

It was always my desire and my effort to raise my boys in the knowledge of and to reverence their Creator. My prayer is that they all may anchor their hope in the New World, the central feature of which is the Kingdom for which all good people have been praying the past two thousand years.

I feel that Dwight my third son will always strive to do his duty with integrity as he sees such duty. I mention him in particular because of your expressed interest in him.

And so as the mother of General Eisenhower and as a witness of and for the Great Jehovah of Hosts (I have been such the past 49 years) I am pleased to write you and to urge you to faithfulness as a companion of and servant with those who “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus”.

There can be no doubt that what is now called the post-war period is the “one hour” mentioned at Revelation chapters 17 and 18. Ten here being a symbol not of just ten nations but rather of the whole number or all of the nations, then if we have a real League of Nations acting efficiently as a super guide to the nations of earth at the close of this war that should be ample proof.

Surely this portends that very soon the glorious Theocracy, the long promised Kingdom of Jehovah the Great God and of his Son the everlasting King will rule the entire earth and pour out manifold blessings upon all peoples who are of good will towards Him. All others will be removed.

Again may I urge your ever faithfulness to these the “Higher Powers” and to the New World now so very near.

Respectfully yours in hope of and as a fighter for the New World,

Ida E. Eisenhower

 

See also the chapter ‘Enemies’ of my ebook ‘Tom Irregardless and Me.’

And ‘The Military-Industrial Complex and Jehovah’s Witnesses’

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See overall post of our visit to the Eisenhower National Historical Site here.

 

 

 

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At the Hershey Chocolate Story Museum

No bad things will be said about Milton Hershey at the Hershey Story Museum. Almost no bad things will be said at all.

“Trouble ensues” when Milton’s father appears on the scene, but that trouble is only hinted at, even though it caused the son’s bankruptcy. No matter. Through “hard work” he got on his feet again to find success. He did not build his factory near his birthplace because Lancaster doubled his taxes after he declined to support a local politician. No. He moved so as to be close to his neighbors—industrious workers, and the farmers who would supply his burgeoning chocolate factory with fresh wholesome milk, along with the railroads.

All exhibits will feature nothing but praise of Milton Hershey—almost always called ‘Mr. Hershey.’ “I have always worked hard, lived rather simply, and tried to give every man a square deal,” [1938] is about as controversial as it gets at the museum. “I am trying to build a place where people can live in pleasant surroundings,” is another shocker. [1927] A teenaged docent seemed surprised that there could be any bad things to say. “He built this beautiful town that I live in,” she explained. Hershey, Pennsylvania, is billed as “the sweetest place on earth” and the street lights are in the shape of Hershey Kisses. Eight million of the chocolate Kisses are made each day.

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Perhaps there are no bad things to say and even modern pundits would abandon the search to find some. A headline of November 9, 1923, tells that he transferred his entire then-wealth of $60,000,000 to an orphanage he’d established years earlier, and managed to keep the deed hidden for five years. It is the highest-profile example that comes to mind of Jesus’ words—“When you make gifts of mercy, do not blow a trumpet ahead of you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be glorified by men....[Instead], do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your gifts of mercy may be in secret. Then your Father who looks on in secret will repay you.”

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He is the founder of a company town, with housing that workers were encouraged to own. He was energetic in providing for cultural resources, parks, and education. Placard after placard informs that: “Mr Hershey knew that workers needed....” and one may gaze about the city and see that whatever thing they needed was planted in seedling form and is now a massive forest seemingly employing all the teenagers in the region—no wonder they like him. “But if you want to see Mr. Hershey’s extraordinary legacy, step outside and look around you,” says a poster. Schools, an amusement park, a zoo [ZooAmerica, which I took at first to mean that it was huge, but it actually means that it is a “rescue zoo” and all animals are native to America], sports arenas, floral gardens and an arboretum.

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In fact, he is the founder of two such towns, for there was also a Hershey, Cuba (sugar cane source during WWI, when it became scarce) that was sold in 1946, 14 years before communism could confiscate it.

“To reduce unemployment [during the Great Depression] in his Pennsylvania town, Mr. Hershey embarked on a ten year “Great Building Program.” Amenities such as Hotel Hershey [it is the building to the background of the next picture], Hershey Stadium, and Hershey Theatre were constructed,” says one placard. “My workers are not my partners, so they don’t have to share my loss,” he explains in another. Another placard explains that he donated $20,000 apiece to the area churches to stay them through the hard times.

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Still, labor unions were gathering steam during those tough years. Though there were no layoffs, there were shrinking paychecks. 400 workers staged a sit-down strike in 1937. After 5 days, local farmers and workers not disgruntled stormed the factory and beat them. Wikipedia attributes some of the tension to the nationality differences of supervisors and workers.

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Milton meets his bride to be in Jamestown NY and his animated eyes take the shape of hearts that bulge outwards. But within a few posters, we read the couple is touring the world in futile search for her incurable illness, and then that he is a widow after just 17 years of marriage. Just what her illness was is unknown to this day, another placard down the row briefly states.

Only at the rose garden he planted for her—now expanded to 23 acres—did my wife discover that her unknown illness was one causing slow paralysis and that, unable to sense cold or heat, she had told the chauffeur to drive fast so as to feel the wind in her face. It was cold March wind and she died of pneumonia.

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At the museum, the teenaged guides have little to do other than stand around and look friendly, and one of them was completely immersed in her smart phone—always a major temptation. Nothing is free at Hersheyworld, another teenaged attendant told us, but there is a single exception—the ChocoWorld tour that loads people into cocoa-bean cars and rides them through a simulated factory. Hershey recoups the funds, probably, because the ride empties out onto the largest retail candy shop (with gift shop) that I have ever seen, not to mention the huge amusement park just outside. The queue on top is for the ChocoWorld tour. Most visitors probably saw the town in reverse order than did we and many would never even have gotten around to the museum.

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But the ones that started with the museum, like we did, might even get around to visiting the Wilbur Chocolate store, in nearby Lilitz—it is not as though Milton was the only candy maker of this time. We bought a package of ‘Wilbur Buds,’ essentially ‘Hershey Kisses’ minus any patent infringement, and they tasted just as good. The defunct Wilbur chocolate factory is just across the street and is now being converted to upscale lofts and restaurants, and entire town is dubbed one of the coolest small towns around. It is a designation that is not especially hard to come by. It is marketing, mostly. Still, a fuddy-daddy town will not get one.

Trust Wikipedia to tell the bad news that will not be read at the museum:

“In September 2006, ABC News reported that several Hershey chocolate products were reformulated to replace cocoa butter with vegetable oil as an emulsifier. According to the company, this change was made to reduce the costs of producing the products instead of raising their prices or decreasing the sizes. Some consumers complained that the taste was different, but the company stated that in the company-sponsored blind taste tests, about half of consumers preferred the new versions. As the new versions no longer met the FDA’s official definition of "milk chocolate", the changed items were relabeled from stating they were "milk chocolate" and "made with chocolate" to "chocolate candy" and "chocolaty." [I thought the taste was different, but it is very subtle and might be my imagination.]

However, Wikipedia also reports some good news: “A 2016 attempt to sell Hershey to Mondelez International was scuttled because of objections by the Hershey Trust.”

Good. A new monster buyer would come in with efficiency spreadsheets and productivity software. They would search out that teen engrossed in her smartphone and fire her. Somehow the museum needs her.

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At the Erie Canal Museum - Syracuse NY

I had known that Erie Blvd east and west, stretching as though the wide brim of a top hat over downtown Syracuse to the south, had been named after the old Erie Canal. What I did not know was that it WAS the old Erie Canal - filled in and paved over.

Then:

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Now:

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The men of New York State wanted to put interstate 690 directly over Erie Boulevard, formerly the Erie Canal. The women of the City of Syracuse wouldn’t let them do it and today the the elevated highway runs parallel and just north of the old canal.

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We had seen this before. The leading men of Savannah, Georgia, were perfectly willing to demolish 200-year old buildings for the sake of parking garages—if it interferes with making a buck, what good is it? It was the leading women—often their wives—who banded together into historical societies to thwart them. They wield tremendous power today and you cannot make an unapproved interior change on your own home if it has been designated an historical landmark. Trim one of the ancient oak trees on your own property in Charleston, the guide told us, and it will cost you a ten thousand dollar fine.

The Erie Canal Museum would be a go-to destination even without the many touches that make it a truly special visit in an overall compact package—the museum is not large. Take the elevator to the 2nd floor and it is as though entering a canal boat.

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Descend the stairs and the mural on your right is the descending elevations the canal traverses from Buffalo to Albany.

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Navigating a mini-maze of interpretive posters lining the walls, one comes at last—if you’ve taken the time to read them as you should—to the original weighlock building—where canal boats were weighed and tolls were accessed. Tolls were an integral part of how the canal was to be financed. They were discontinued in 1883 when they had served their purpose and there were railroads to compete with. This stands in contrast to the New York State Thruway, which was also to be funded only temporarily by tolls. However, the time for the tolls to be phased out came and went—the State decided that they liked the idea of tolls—and the oldsters who remember how it was supposed to be have just about died out.

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The weighlock building is circa 1850 and it is the only remaining one in New York State. Enter through a side opening, leave through the canal-side door and lo! there is a full-scale boat to climb aboard and into. As you do you find yourself immersed in the chatter and sounds of the times and I had to remind myself that it wasn’t real—it was broadcast from some unknown source but there was no way—or desire—to track it down—better not to resist and just immerse oneself in the air of the time.

Here is the view from the stern. They don’t let you climb the stairs, though passengers on the actual boats could.

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Some vessels were even dedicated to passengers:


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Here is a view from the bow:

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As long as you didn’t get in the crew’s way, you could fish or do any other thing atop deck.

Since the proposed Erie Canal would open the infant United States to westward expansion, and that could have been seen from the start, it is surprising that Thomas Jefferson did not get behind it, even though the idea intrigued him. It would be built (and funded) by New Yorkers. Maybe the project was seen as too audacious. Such a feat had never been attempted—not even close. Mockers called the underway project “[Governor DeWitt] Clinton’s ditch.” Some had thought it impossible to complete within their lifetimes, but it took only seven years—and the labor of thousands of workers.

The engineers rounded up for the project had no experience in such an undertaking—they had only done a bit of surveying—and they figured out things as they went. Aqueducts were built to carry the the canal over marshes, such as in the Montezuma swamps, where workers toiled in two-foot deep water, and over the Genesee River. To traverse low-lying areas like the Irondequoit Valley, raised embankments were created for the canal to flow between. “What they did not understand, they conquered by diligent study unfettered zeal, and sound common sense,” wrote the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1890. Benjamin Wright and James Geddes were two of the lead engineers and there is a major thoroughfare though Syracuse named after Geddes. As for Wright, the name is too common to tell what is named after him. More likely any such street would be for those two who invented the airplane.

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The first segment of the canal, from Rome to Utica, opened in 1819, which must have somewhat silenced the doubters. The canal when completed was an immediate success. Within ten years it was widened, which threatened structures that had been built to close to it. Much later, it was expanded again into the Barge Canal. Spur canals connected the main one to nearby lakes—in order of length, the Champlain Canal, the Oswego Canal, and the Seneca-Cayuga Canal.

“Surely the waters of this canal must be the most fertilizing of all fluids, for it causes towns—with their masses of brick and stone, ...with their churches and theaters, their business and hubbub, their luxury and refinement, their gay dames [No, not that kind of gay] and polished gents, to spring up, till in time, the wondrous steam may flow between two continuous lines of buildings, through one thronged street, from Buffalo to Albany,” wrote Nathanial Hawthorne in 1835. However he must have been unusually chipper that day—his completed vision would take awhile—for the next year he bemoaned “the dismal swamps and unimpressive scenery that could be found between the Great Lakes and the sea coast.” (1836)

Mules were the method of moving freight during the 1800s. They were intelligent and more sure-footed than horses. Accordingly, the 2nd floor of the canal museum features a poster exhibit on mules, their habits and history. Canallers —that’s what those who made their living in that transport mode were called, and they developed a separate culture often looked down upon by the communities they serviced—grew very fond of their mules.

Their idiosyncrasies were noted: “A mule will labor ten years, willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once,” said William Faulkner.

And also their value: During the Civil War, the Confederate Army captured a U. S. Army general, along with 40 mules. President Abraham Lincoln, who almost lost the Civil War for want of a competent general, reportedly said: “I am sorry to lose those mules” when he was told of the loss.

Though Pete Seeger and others sung it “fifteen miles on the Erie Canal” (leading to the misconception that that is as far as a mule went on any given shift) the song was actually “fifteen years on the Erie Canal.” The songster had been on the job for only 15 years and was looking at his way of life being phased out by the Barge Canal, which would be open to new-fangled motorized traffic. It is yet another of the things that I learned at the Erie Canal Museum.

Outside the museum is a statue of a tow path mule and driver—who was often a teenaged boy—before the elevated superhighway that the women shoved to the north so it wouldn’t obliterate the canal site.

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Traveling - A Day in the Life of the Florida Sun

There were at least 12 pots of coffee on the Seven Eleven burners at 6 AM and I said that it was too much. The clerk—maybe it was too early for him or maybe he was not all that bright—took my remark as chastisement. I hadn’t meant it that way. I meant it the way it was said to my 4-year old son, after he completed a presentation at the door years ago and the householder had said: “You’re too much!” He hadn’t understood it, either. “Why did that lady say that there was too much of me?” he asked.

On the contrary, I told the clerk that he had done it just right—doubtless he would pour out every drop of the stuff and have to make some more. What was too much was that it should be necessary. There was barely a sign of life at the moment, but very soon the floodgates would open and everyone would want their cup or two.

We grabbed ours and headed out to the island turnoff to watch the sunrise over the bay, due at 6:51. Let’s see, how does this work? Land heats up quicker than water so the air over it also heats up quicker so it rises which means air over the cooler water rushes in to take its place; in the summer there is always a cooling breeze from the water. Check. That was happening. There was a good stiff breeze. During winter the situation reverses.

Mike and his crew came along presently. I had thought he would. When vacationing in this part of Florida, which he does every year, he so dependably rousts himself to watch the sunrise that I assigned him the task last year of putting the blazing ball up, much as the custodian might be assigned the job of running up the flag each day. On cloudy days I would glance over his way at the timeshare pool and frown, as though to reproach him for not doing it right.

The egrets that had been flitting about settled in for the show.

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Mike scrutinized the horizon and ventured that the upcoming sunrise would only be so-so, not so spectacular as yesterday’s. There were low clouds on the horizon, or maybe it was just a blanket of thick atmosphere viewed sideways. Better if it wasn’t there. There would be but a pink glow until the sun scaled over them, but the instant it did—just the tiniest peak of the orb was blinding. You wouldn’t look directly at it. Maybe your gaze would fall on its reflection coming straight at you over the waters. Brothers at the Kingdom Hall probably overuse it as a talk illustration, but it really is true that you never see a sunrise or setset and say: “god, that was ugly!”

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Job done, the disk launched, Mike and crew declared they would make their way to Ft Myers Beach pier—parking is free until 9 AM—and we decided to meet him there. Soon enough we spotted him and his wife chatting up whoever was at hand. Pelicans dived unpredictably for food. Dolphins rummaged about as well and you waited for them to break surface, which, as mammals, they must do. Manatees are rarely found this time of year, the grizzled and stocky old guy said to my wife. He hadn’t cut his hair in years, and his head was topped with a sailor’s hat, giving him the appearance of a jaunty old salt native, but it turned out that he was only ten years here after 30 in Illinois. It almost seems that you meet more out-of-state people than in-state.

As for the manatees, they gather around during winter months in the warm waters just outside a shoreside power station, but in the warmer months they are dispersed in the Gulf and all the way up to South Carolina—so said the transported Illinois man. “Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die,” he added when commenting at how wildlife is greatly diminished from the past and it is no doubt due to overbuilding on account of the “almighty dollar.” The expression didn’t really make any sense as he applied it, but it came close enough that I knew where he was coming from. It was a refrain heard elsewhere—that wildlife was more plentiful just a few short years ago, and absolutely overwhelming a few decades ago.

Bright pastel colors form the motif for the area. Even the bridge to the mainland is colorful. Exactly how that came to be I do not know, but in Charleston the guide said it evolved so that drunken sailors could find their way back to quarters.

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It is too early in the day to be concerned with sunscreen, and if you are not fair-skinned, you may forsake it even later. People are sauntering, walking, and even jogging along the shore, but the swimmers flitting between the water and the baking sand have not yet made their appearance. Later when they are in the water, dolphins and such will swim right past and even brush against them, unafraid of their presence. Pretty women in swimware, some outfits quite skimpy, will soon appear, too. Of course, I instantly blush and avert my eyes upon spotting one, but it is not easy because they are everywhere and you just turn away from one to see another.

If you are fair-skinned, you do not ignore sunscreen as the day heats up. Sometimes you will spy some newbie bright red as a lobster and it occurs to you to warn him, but you know it is already too late. Besides, there are some people who just will not learn, like Gary from years ago who the first week of camping would be cavorting shirtless in the blazing sun on the volleyball court and his wife would plead with him to put on a shirt—remember last year—and he would ignore her all day long. 24 hours later he would groan and almost cry in agony. “Never, never never again!” But the next year it would be just the same.

I swore that I would never return to this god-forsaken place after that sun broiled me years ago and furthermore that I would saw the state off at the Georgia line and shove it off into the sea, but I relented. It had sort of been my own fault. Our stay had only been three days, and sunscreen hadn’t been handy. Why buy some for just a few spritz’s. Staying in the shade would suffice. But the sun is a crafty devil and it is able to ricochet its rays off the sand and around corners to fry you no matter where you are. Family members own a time share in the area and the allure of an economical vacation is not easily resisted. But it hadn’t helped that on the return trip to reasonable-climated New York, when I just wanted to get home and the quicker the better, the connect flight to Rochester was canceled for some stupid reason and we had to wait for one to Syracuse, and from there catch some silly little puddle-jumper to Rochester. It wasn’t even large enough to run entry ramp to! We had to walk over the tarmac, just like barbarians, and climb the makeshift steps, assisted by a crew member who looked like Tarzan.

At day’s end, I crossed the road from the timeshare, walked the pathway, skirted the estuary to walk along the western gulf shore, and there Mike was again! hobnobbing with another chum—he’s been coming here forever and he knows everyone. He apprised me that sunset wouldn’t be much tonight, just as sunrise had not earlier on. It had turned heavily overcast and there was even occasional lightning way off in the other direction. I walked the shore, expecting no more than the dull pink that he had pointed to behind an oppressive layer of cloud. At the last moment, however, the disk broke free, just long enough to show its entirety before sinking into the sea. Half of you expects the sea to sizzle when it does that, but the other half finds you reminding yourself that it is really the same sun that broiled you just a few hours before. It’s power was clearly spent and you could gaze at it directly without strain. Carl Jung wrote about that once—how it is full of promise at the start, establishes its reign, but then begins its slow descent and ultimate disappearance—and he thought it was a good metaphor for individual life.

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Built on the Backs of Slaves

A bit south on Meeting Street in Charleston, we came across the Nathanial Russell home. It was a National Historic Registry Site and there were tours advertised, so I was fooled—I should have known better—into thinking National Historic Park rangers would be acting as guides, just like they did at the Taft home and the Van Buren home. I didn’t know who Russell, but I figured he probably had something to do with the founding of the country, in this historic part of South Carolina. My bad. He wasn’t a founding father at all. He was an enormously successful merchant, one of the upper echelon of wealthy merchants, the guide deferentially told us, as we toured the restored Federalist style house.

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He made his fortune irrespective to who ruled the colonies. He made it prior to the formation of the United States, and a portrait of him in a first floor room has him looking decidedly British. He did nothing but add to his fortune after the founding of the United States, and a portrait of him hanging upstairs, (the portrait, not the man) painted twenty years later, has him looking decidedly American. He was one of the most prosperous merchants of his time—anywhere.

It took a while to realize just what he was a merchant in. It wasn’t that it was hidden. The guide plainly stated more than once that the man’s stupendous 6500 square feet house “was built on the backs of slaves.” It is not the house’s fault that it was built that way, and it’s the house, not the man behind it, that accounts for its being on the historic landmark registry list, with Landmark Society volunteers and not National Historic Park rangers conducting the tours.

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How much does the person taint the building? In time, he turned his attention to gobbling up real estate and increasing his wealth thereby. So he never actually did anything noble in making his fortune, though he did in the distribution of it. Allowing that he was a “complex” man, “multi-faceted,”—were those her exact words or did she use synonyms?—the guide went so far as to call him a “feminist” because he agreed to a pre-nup with his second wife, unusual for the time, and giving her sole control of her portion of the prize. It was not a marriage of love, the guide pointed out, and she indisputably is remembered for philanthropy though the nature of that philanthropy was not specified and I didn’t think to ask.

“There’s no nice way to spin” his history, the guide stated, even as she gushed over his influence and power, the magnificence of his home, and there was a point at which I wished she had observed that the man is now just as dead as his slaves. (To my surprise, I discovered, via poster in the museum part of the house, that the slave trade to the southern states was but a small part of the whole.)

I distrust this oohing and ahhing over social prominence, and there is a part of me that invokes, admittedly on too little evidence, Jesus observation about the Pharisees, who loudly decried how they never would have acted as wickedly as their forefathers. ‘You would have done worse,’ he told them.

(Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the graves of the prophets and decorate the memorial tombs of the righteous ones, and you say, ‘If we were in the days of our forefathers, we would not be sharers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you are bearing witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Well, then, fill up the measure of your forefathers. - Matthew 23:29-32)

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” said Upton Sinclair. Russell probably never did understand it. The civic leaders of his Rhode Island and Charleston residencies didn’t understand it—he built much of the latter town—and do they understand it even now? Few are the written references to just what sort of a merchant he was, and the ones that exist are but footnotes. Others, however, uprooted from their homeland and separated from their loved ones, understood it quite well.

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You Always Use the Tongs in the Cafeteria

Playing the discontent card, like Bruce the timeshare salesperson did, does not work with me or with anyone who has learned the secret of the apostle—how to be content with much and with little. The line “My kids do not stay at the Hampton” is likely to evoke even an wiseacre response, and when we arrived back at our hotel I texted to him a selfie of my wife and I in the long Hampton corridor—window and exit sign in the rear—and captioned it “Livin the good life.” I attached a smiley sign so that he would know it was simply a good-natured quip and not mockery.

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He would not have taken it wrong anyway, I don’t think. Introducing himself with many particulars, so that we would do the same and thus reveal how he might best sell us, he said that he was a retired detective from the Bronx. ‘This is a perfect job for a retired detective,’ I thought, and when I jokingly brought up his former occupation once again, he said “You think I’m not reading you right now?” I did think that. I liked this guy. Of course any experienced Witness ought to be able to do the same.

I asked him whether real detectives rolled their eyes when they watched the TV detectives and he said that they did not. The show writers have real detectives for consultants and they mostly just spiff up actual cases to make them suitable for television—make the policewomen drop-dead gorgeous, for example. NYPD and Hill Street Blues were his favorites, he said.

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The shows are so ubiquitous that it will be hard never to have seen one, but they were never staples for me, with the exception of when I worked with Gwen overnights at the group home and it turned out that she loved those shows, and the TV was in the central room like a shrine, virtually unavoidable, and so at length I figured ‘why be righteous overmuch?’ and I joined her in watching some. The joke became that the reason God created bad people was so he could have them killed on TV.

 

The red wood rocking chairs are placed just outside the shops at Harbortown and the nearby lighthouse on television yesterday because the Heritage golf tournament was then being played on Hilton Head Island, and this is where all the fancy people hang out. Of the chairs, my wife said that it was no doubt done so that the men could there cool their heels while the women shopped, perhaps taking a cue from the statue of the kid reading.

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It was a good theory that I wanted to buy into, but it wasn’t confirmed by what I saw. As I gazed upon the moored yachts it occurred to me that, like snowflakes, no two are alike. It next occurred to me that my first occurrence was ridiculous—it must be possible to pick out models, same as with cars. In time, I managed to do so. The accessories and accoutrements were different, of course, but the basic boat was recognizable.

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At the next hotel, this time a Clarion in Savannah, as I was reaching for bread to make toast, I heard a tapping. I looked up and it was the matronly breakfast attendant, who glanced at the tongs I had not used, and all but said: “Your mama raised you better than that!”—even though I had had a clear shot at the bread and was (probably) going to be touching only the slice I was after. She was right. My mama had taught me better. And she would have given me the same scolding, only not so gently. That is something that’s not going to happen in your snooty timeshare, is it, Bruce?

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The next day we hunted up a Kingdom Hall and in attendance I sat behind a teenager who looked like he might not be paying rapt attention. So after the meeting, I broke the ice by apologizing to him. See, I was sitting right behind him, so he must have caught my singing full blast and that had to have been a trying experience. I asked him if I would be happy moving to Savannah, as some had suggested, but he said ‘Nah. It’s not all that great here.’ Trying to diffuse any tension that might have arisen by my being so much older, I told him how the hotel lunchlady had chastened me. He said that it was my own fault—I should have known better—you never reach for things with your fingers. You’re supposed to use the tongs. His mama had taught him that.

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There was not undue pressure on the timeshare tour, assuming one is not averse to sales. There only one rude moment, and that only for an instant, when the third closer abruptly wished us a good day and vanished, as though turning down her final reasonable offer was so gauche and unappreciative that it was really all a sensitive person could take, and perhaps knowing we had caused her offense and were about to let the deal of the lifetime slip through our fingers we would quickly call her back. We didn’t. I wasn’t scared of her at all. It was the lunchlady in Savannah that I was scared of.

 

 

 

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The 22 Town Squares of Savannah

A cotton grower in the 1800s had to wait 6 months to get paid. Export markets were in Europe, sailing ships were slow, and few growers could afford to wait so long as 6 months. A handful of financiers who came to be known as the ‘cotton factors’ loaned the money to tie them over, and took their cut from the final purchase price. For a time, those men were the richest persons in the world.

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They perched atop the foot bridges and peered at the product in wagons below. Based upon what they saw, they made payment. They effectively set the worldwide price for cotton. Today it is Dubai that sets the price.

The back—or is it the front?—of the above buildings face the Savannah River and they were once warehouses for cotton. Today there are restaurants and shops, and tourism is the city’s #2 industry.

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Original Savannah is laid out in a grid pattern featuring 22 public squares, named after local or even national heroes. Washington Square is named after President George Washington. Madison Square is named after President James Madison.

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Lincoln Ave, however, is not named after Abraham Lincoln—nothing in the south is named after Abraham Lincoln, the guide told us—it is named after Benjamin Lincoln, Washington’s Secretary of War (sanitized to ‘Secretary of Defense’ today). Gnarly 400-year-old oak trees in the squares radiate limbs in a corkscrew pattern. Draped with Spanish Moss, it contributes to an eerie atmosphere at night.

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Calhoun Square is named after John C Calhoun, who never was president, but did serve as Vice-President to both Andrew Jackson and John Quincey Adams. It is unique among the squares in that, if you were to remove all cars crawling around it, the scene would be exactly the same as two centuries ago—that’s how well Savannah preserves its old homes. There were several other squares—even most of them, actually—that seemed to share that attribute to the untrained eye; Washington Square, for example, with a Federal style home dating to the early 1800s on one side of the square and an exact replica (dated 1989) on the other side.

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The statue of Stanilov Casmir, for some strange reason, is not in Casmir Square, but in Monterrey Square.

Colonial Cemetery might, at first glance, seem one of the squares, though a much enlarged one, but it is not counted as one. It has not even been a complete cemetery since Civil War times, because the Union soldiers camping out one cold overnight took to burrowing into the tombs for warmth and threw all the remains outside.

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Savannah has been the setting for many battles through the years. It is described somewhere as a “necropolis”—a city built over the dead. The guide told us of one church in which the preacher preached long to the Confederate troops, and then the following Sunday, the very same sermon to the Union troops who had killed off the Confederate ones during the intervening week.

Take a trolley tour if that is in the budget. You learn much that way, and can visit individual attractions later. The day after we toured Savannah, Tiger Woods won the Masters in neighboring Augusta—a very good thing since everyone loves a story of redemption. The next day, however, Notre Dame Cathedral burned and its tall spire collapsed into the main structure—a very bad thing, since it had stood for 1100 years.

 

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Owning Your Own Pew - in Charleston and Savannah

Attending church back in the day at St Philip’s in Charleston, you wouldn’t sit just anywhere. You would sit in your box pew—you and your family. Nobody else would ever sit in your pew. It was yours. Once a year you paid a fee for that pew. The closer it was to the front, the more expensive it was. Your name was in brass on the door to your pew, and the door, like all walls, extended completely to the floor, so as to eliminate drafts in the unheated hall of worship.*

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The church has pewter silver utensils donated by King George II—not King George III, who lost the colonies to independence, but his father. It was founded in 1681, the structure relocated and rebuilt 42 years later after a hurricane damaged it, (later-mentioned St Michael’s was built on that original site), destroyed again, this time by fire, in 1835, and built again the next year. The present-day congregation has 2,000 members, but with about 500 actually in attendance on any given Sunday. It gets a fair number of visitors and one suspects a sense of historical preservation drives many of them, besides a sense of worship.

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If you missed church on any given Sunday back then, everyone at once knew it because there was zero chance that you were sitting anywhere other than your box pew. Surely, this bit of social peer pressure to “control” people would send the anti-cultists of today into conniptions. However, if you told John C. Calhoun, the congregation’s most famous member, that he belonged to a ‘controlling cult,’ as might be spun today, he might just run you through with a sword. His road to Vice President began with a stint as War Secretary under President Monroe, and he later served as Vice President to, not one, but two presidents, Andrew Jackson and John Quincey Adams. He vehemently argued for slavery as an institution beneficial to both races, in contrast to some, like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that it was destructive to both.

Calhoun’s tomb is in the cemetery across the road from the St Phillip’s church. Whenever possible, however, deceased members were buried immediately outside the main building, as here at St Michael’s, just a block or two away, built on the original St Phillip’s site.

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*Congregation members also owned pews to the south in Mickve Israel Temple, founded in 1733, the oldest group of reformed Jews in Georgia. They had arrived by ship in Savannah just 5 months after the founding of that original planned city. They would have found little welcome—Jews were not to be allowed in James Oglethorpe’s outpost colony, along with Catholics, lawyers, and slaves, but for the fact that the colonist’s original doctor had been the first to die of a yellow fever epidemic. The Jews came with a doctor to take his place. Dr Rubiero treated the colonists, stopped the epidemic, and became Georgia’s first pubic hero. Note the grateful letter from Oglethorpe acknowledging good doctor’s care, on display in the synagogue’s museum. (‘Temple’ and ‘synagogue’ are synonymous in the parlance of reformed Jews, the docent told me.)

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Pew owners held deeds that could be passed on to future generations, and the docent told us of a modern-day member carrying on about how it is the only inheritance of his that costs him money, since annual fees are also assessed. See, by the way, use of the Divine Name, on the historical sign just outside the building.

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30% of Charleston is land reclaimed from the sea. The entire region, stretching all the way to Savannah, is called the ‘lowcountry.’ During our stay, the Charleston mayor was talking up his plans to stop the sea from again encroaching, citing research from someone that sea level was to rise two feet by 2050. That is a threat unlike those that faced the old churches. An earthquake of 1886 (in Charleston!) destroyed the vestibule of St Michael’s and severely damaged yet another ancient church, the 1731 First Presbyterian Church. See placard below:

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Owning your own pew. It is not as good as owning your own house, vine and fig tree, with no one to make you worry about keeping them, as in Isaiah 65:21-23, but it is something. And it could be passed down to your kids:

They will build houses and live in them, And they will plant vineyards and eat their fruitage. They will not build for someone else to inhabit, Nor will they plant for others to eat....They will not toil for nothing, Nor will they bear children for distress, Because they are the offspring made up of those blessed by Jehovah. They will not build for someone else to inhabit, Nor will they plant for others to eat. For the days of my people will be like the days of a tree, And the work of their hands my chosen ones will enjoy to the full.”

 

 

 

 

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Traversing the Tug Hill Plateau

From Boonville New York, we pressed on toward Lowville, through the Tug Hill Plateau. I told the man at the co-op that I had never before been in Lowville, saying it with a long ‘o’ immediately before hearing the radio announcer say it with a short ‘o.’ T

hey never seem to get around to changing the signs in the small towns. With patience you can still find Texaco signs and Esso signs. Here is the iconic Maytag repairman sign. The poor fellow is bored out of his mind because the machines are so reliable that he has nothing to do. Unfortunately, he is breaking his back these days because the company was subsequently sold and the current products are no different than anyone else's.

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Does the Tug Hill plateau area resemble a plateau because I already know the name, or does it actually resemble a plateau? It is a hardscrabble place that looks mighty wind-beaten. Many homes exposed to the elements are the worse for wear. The name Tug Hill pops up from time to time whenever local weatherman points out that, once again, the area has been buried in snow, and aren't you glad you don’t live there. The westerly wintery winds traverse the lake lengthwise and those living on the plateau at the eastern end haven’t a snowball's chance in tug hell. 

Where does that name come from anyhow – Tug Hill? It is a strange one, to say the least. Somehow it is not surprising to encounter more than the usual number of windmills on the roads from Lowville to Pulaski. They are generating power, and as such, they are good, I guess, but they sure do evoke an image from War of the Worlds. The land is not good for farming and it is not even a true plateau. It is a cuesta, composed of sedimentary rock that tips up on one edge, rising from 350 feet on the west to 2000 feet on the east. Winter snowfalls have been described as among “the most intense storms in the world,” per a Syracuse.com source. 

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There is a State Park just south of Lowville, the Whetstone Gulf State Park. I had never heard of this one, and although it was closed for the season, we drove the road just to see what we had missed. There is a creek that rounds a bend and a beach for swimming is on its outer bank. And there are a few hiking trails, the kiosk sign informing that no one is to start on them after 3PM. This is a warning I have not seen elsewhere, and it was as though to say that the untamed Tug Hill might easily swallow one alive and it would be far too dangerous to send in a rescue party after dusk.

As darkness fell, we lost interest in exploring. We had to get back to Rochester that evening to pick up the dog from my daughter’s friends who were watching it. We grabbed a meal at a fajita restaurant while passing through Oswego, dining with the college kids, and when we arrived home, the dogsitters told us the mutt had grabbed half a banana bread perched high on the counter, but not high enough, and had devoured it, tin foil and all.

 

 

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