Monthly Archives: July 2015

On American History, “patched and piebald” of Independence:  John Adams – “patched and piebald” – stands at center, hand on hip…


Here’s a break in the action from my multi-volume Mid-summer Travelog.

I recently got some  much-needed cheering up on the political front.  I got cheered up by listening to two lectures on CD.  The one I just started is Brotherhood of the Revolution: How America’s Founders Forged a New Nation.  I started listening just a few days ago.

The other CD – actually an audiobook – was Chris Matthew’s Life’s a Campaign.   I talked about it on June 12, in “Great politicians sell hope.”  I noted the book gave me the sense that the most of the U.S. presidents of the past have been – overall, generally, and even the ones I didn’t like – “decent, honorable and capable.”  What’s more, the book gave me a sense that the same applies – in general – “to politicians today.  (Gasp!)”

I’ll write more on Campaign later, but for now I’ll focus on Brotherhood of the Revolution.

I got as far as Lecture 3 – Disc 2, Track 6 – where I felt moved to note the disconnect between history as it’s written – and taught – and as it actually happens. (How it’s actually lived through.)  John Adams – for one – preferred the more-accurate history as actually lived through, as opposed to the popular rose-colored glasses.  See Adams and American Mythology:

In elementary school, they told us that the Founding Fathers were Great Men.  They sat down in Philadelphia in 1776 with a mandate from God, and calmly and certainly wrote the Declaration of Independence.  Then they fought the British, and then they founded the first democracy ever, and then independence and democracy spread to the rest of the world.  They knew what they were doing.  They were carried by a sure and steady tide.

The American Mythology site said this mythos “became popular while Adams was still alive,” but it was a view of history he loathed.  That was followed by a statement of “nothing certain in what those ‘great men’ did in Philadelphia.”  Our American History – as lived through – was “improvised, patched together, made up from one moment to the next, with every outcome uncertain until it was safely past.”

1776 film poster.jpgThe site noted the musical 1776 – and film, shown at left – which had John Adams saying these words.  (Words that mirrored “almost exactly” what he wrote in a letter to Benjamin Rush in 1790):

I’ll not be in the history books.  Only Franklin.  Franklin did this, and Franklin did that, and Franklin did some other damn thing.  Franklin smote the ground, and out sprang General Washington, fully grown and on his horse.  Then Franklin electrified him with that miraculous lightning-rod of his, and the three of them – Franklin, Washington, and the horse – conducted the entire War for Independence all by themselves.

The article noted another book by Ellis, his 2002 Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.  See also Wikipedia, which described the “fractious disputes and hysterical rhetoric of these contentious nation-builders.” (Emphasis added.)

Wikipedia said these disputes might come across today as “hyperbolic pettiness.”  (Hyperbole is the use of “exaggeration as a rhetorical device.”)  But the article added that Founding Brothers showed the real issues, the “driving assumptions and riveting fears that animated Americans’ first encounter with the organized ideologies and interests we call parties.”  (And apparently that “hysterical rhetoric” isn’t limited to our times.)  Then came Adams:

As Adams remembered it… ‘all the great critical questions about men and measure from 1774 to 1778’ were desperately contested and highly problematic…   Nothing was clear, inevitable, or even comprehensible to the soldiers in the field at Saratoga or the statesmen in the corridors at Philadelphia:  ‘It was patched and piebald policy then, as it is now, ever was, and ever will be, world without end.’  The real drama of the American Revolution … was its inherent messiness.

(Emphasis added.)  Note that term, “inherent messiness.”

And incidentally, the term “piebald” usually refers to the spotting on a certain type of horse.  (As shown at right.)  But in a metaphoric sense it means “composed of incongruous parts.”  See for example piebald – Wikipedia, and Piebald … Merriam-Webster.

See also American Creation – Book Review, noting Ellis on Adams’ theory that – in the history of the Revolution as people lived it – “contingency played a large role in shaping the decisions of leaders who were often making it up as they went along, teetering on the edge of the abyss.”

Note that term too, “teetering on the edge of the abyss,” which also seems to apply today.

Which brings us back to Brotherhood of the Revolution.  As noted, I’ve gotten as far as Lecture Three.  Ellis said that in the process of studying Adams – living through the Revolution as he did – it was most fascinating to read his letters and diaries.  Those papers give “a sense of how confused and how incoherent and inchoate events seemed at the time.”  And this was especially true of the letters of Adams to his wife Abigail in the critical years 1775-1776.

Ellis noted the turmoil of those two years, engulfing the Colonies.  But during that key time in American History, John and Abigail wrote mostly about their children, and about the smallpox epidemic raging through America at the time.  See Siege of Boston – Wikipedia.  Their biggest fear was of losing their children.  (And so it likely is of all history “as it’s lived through.”)

Which Ellis said brought up the point that when we study history, we normally divide it into “segments.”  But history as it’s lived through – as it happens – “happens in a variety of different ways, all at the same time.”  Which brings up that key difference, between how Adams saw such developing history, and how a guy named Thomas Jefferson saw it.

In later years, Jefferson recalled the Revolution as “clear moral conflict between right and wrong.”  But Adams saw the Revolution as a chaotic event, a “concatenation, a tumbling, overlapping experience of turmoil.”  And that chaos – illustrated at left – swept up all Americans living at the time.  Adams rejected Jefferson’s view of American history.  He thought his patched and piebald memory of the war was more accurate:

“We didn’t know what we were doing.  We were improvising … always on the edge of catastrophe.”

Which brings us to today’s political gridlock.

Before I listened to Brotherhood, I felt that we too are living in a time of chaos.  See Gridlock in Congress?  It’s probably even worse than you think (Washington Post), Political gridlock: Unprecedentedly dysfunctional, (The Economist),  and Political Gridlock – Huffington Post.  (A list of articles on the current gridlock.)

But after listening to the CD, I came to think maybe today’s gridlock is more of a “Situation Normal.”  (Or as Adams would say, politics “as it is now, ever was, and ever will be, world without end.”)  Remember those terms, “improvised, patched together, made up from one moment to the next?”  “Hysterical rhetoric?”  “Teetering on the edge of the abyss?

As Churchill said, “No one pretends democracy is perfect or all wise.  Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried…

So cheer up.  At least we haven’t come to this!   (Not yet anyway…)


Congressman Brooks makes a point of order with Senator Sumner…

The upper image is courtesy of  The caption:  “50 men, most of them seated, are in a large meeting room. Most are focused on the five men standing in the center of the room.  The tallest of the five is laying a document on a table.”

See also The Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, and John Adams – Wikipedia, with the caption: “Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence depicts committee presenting draft Declaration of Independence to Congress.   Adams at center has hand on hip.”  Thus Trumbull showed “only” the presentation of the first draft of the Declaration, not the signing itself.

Re:  The views of Ellis – and Adams – on history as people actually live through it:  “What in retrospect has the look of a foreordained unfolding of God’s will was in reality an improvisational affair in which sheer chance” – not to mention pure luck – “determined the outcome.”  See also Trust and Caution – The New York Times, which noted:  “How to live in a tragic milieu and yet strive toward triumph … was a consuming concern for the founders.”  As it is even to this day

Re: 1775-1776.  The full cite in the text is American Revolution: Conflict and Revolution 1775-1776.

Re: Smallpox during the siege of Boston.  See The Siege of Boston & Smallpox – 1775 – 1776, and Colonial Germ Warfare : The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.  The latter especially noted the circumstantial evidence that the British engaged in a form of germ warfare against Americans during the siege.  The article noted most British troops had either been inoculated or had smallpox, and thus were immune.  Further, smallpox was endemic in Europe at the time – “almost always present” – so that nearly everyone had been exposed, and “most of the adult population had antibodies that protected it.”  On the other hand, most American soldiers were susceptible; at the time of the siege most Americans had never come in contact with the virus, and thus had no immunity.

As Ellis also noted in Brotherhood of the Revolution,  John Adams was a paradox, a “conservative revolutionary,” as shown by his defending the British soldiers after the “Boston Massacre.”  See The Boston Massacre Trials | John Adams Historical Society, and also Boston Massacre – Wikipedia:

The trial of the eight soldiers opened on November 27, 1770.  Adams told the jury to look beyond the fact the soldiers were British.  He argued that if the soldiers were endangered by the mob, which he called “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs [i.e. sailors],” they had the legal right to fight back, and so were innocent.  If they were provoked but not endangered, he argued, they were at most guilty of manslaughter.

Which raises the question:  Are there any such conservative revolutionaries today?

The chaos image is courtesy of Chaos theory – WikipediaThe caption:

Turbulence in the tip vortex from an airplane wing.  Studies of the critical point beyond which a system creates turbulence were important for chaos theory[, including] that fluid turbulence could develop through a strange attractor, a main concept of chaos theory.

The Churchill quote is from Winston Churchill’s Quote on Democracy : Papers – Free Essays.

The lower image is courtesy of Caning of Charles Sumner – Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaThe caption:  “Lithograph of Preston Brooks‘ 1856 attack on Sumner; the artist depicts the faceless assailant bludgeoning the learned martyr.”  See also 1851: Caning of Senator Charles Sumner – May 22, 1856 (Senate Archives), and Preston Brooks – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Note that Sumner recovered from the attack and returned to the Senate in 1859.  He served throughout the Civil War and beyond, until 1872, where he served much of the time as “powerful chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.”

Brooks on the other hand died less than a year later, “unexpectedly from croup in January 1857…   The official telegram announcing his death stated ‘He died a horrid death, and suffered intensely.'”




A mid-summer travelog – Part II

There in the quiet, [I] could finally come to think about what I had seen and try to arrange some pattern…  Maybe understanding is only possible after.  Years ago when I used to work in the woods it was said of lumber men that they did their logging in the whorehouse and their sex in the woods.

                                                                                                                                            –  “Travels with Charley”

And so it seems to have been with my recent road trip.

As noted in Part I, I love John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.  So I decided to model my recent two-week road trip after his.  (To make my travelog a microcosm of his.)  And I’m not alone:  See A “Travels With Charley” Timeline, which noted among other things that “’TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY’ MAKES A LOUSY MAP.”  (That criticism notwithstanding, it’s a pretty interesting read...)

One thing I remember is his saying lumberjacks did their whoring in the woods and their logging in the city – i.e., the bar and/or whorehouse.  Which is another way of saying that it’s only now that my trip is over that I can look back and relish the memories just lived through. kayaking across the Delaware River just below Wilmington (at left), or seeing Atlantic City from the 32d-floor penthouse of a swanky hotel, or hiking 17 miles in a day and a half on New york City’s hard concrete sidewalks.But more about that later.

To bring you up to speed, I started off by leaving the Atlanta area shortly after noon on Friday, June 26.  (Actually, after lunching with Mi Dulce at the Olive Garden near Conyers GA.)

A note:  When I first formulated my plan, I assumed I’d need to get around the Atlanta Beltway – always a challenge – before the traffic got really bad.  Then I further assumed I could get to Columbia SC by the end of the day.  That original plan also envisioned me camping on the way up, but that was when the spring weather was nice and cool.

It was also before I started reading the fine print about camping these days.

Steinbeck’s method of camping may have been feasible in 1960, but not today.

Motor homes and recreational vehicles swarm the highways, and most localities now have stringent regulations about such vehicles camping overnight, as Steinbeck did.  (On the other hand, some high-volume businesses welcome such RVs in their parking lots overnight, figuring the occupants will spend some money there.)  But the key difference is the cost of staying overnight in a campground, even if it’s a state park.

I figured to save some money on the way up to  Atlantic City – where I was to meet my brother and sister-in-law on Sunday night, June 28 – by taking along a tent.  But again – as I found out – the days of camping a la Steinbeck are no more.

Then there was the weather to consider.  (Steinbeck took his road trip after Labor Day.  I took mine in mid-summer, when the hordes of touristy-types were in full force.)  Meaning by the end of June the weather was a little too hot.  All of which meant that for just a tee-toncey bit more than the price of sweating out a summer’s eve in South Carolina or Virginia, I could sleep in a nice air-conditioned motel room.

Be that as it may, that first night I made Florence – farther than Columbia – and stayed at a Thunderbird Inn.  On Saturday June 27 I made my first sight-seeing stop, the Airborne and Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville NC, home of Fort Bragg.  (Not to be confused with Fort Bragg, California.)

That ASO Museum brought back memories of my younger days, like  when I too jumped out of perfectly good airplanes…  And it was well worth the price of admission.  I could say the same thing about downtown Fayetteville.  It’s a charming little downtown area, and not at all what I’d been led to expect.

But the drive up I-95 from there turned out to be trouble.  For one thing, I had to battle a long line of rain and thunderstorms all afternoon.  For another thing, the interstate was packed with tourist-traffic, so I had to keep getting off, taking back roads and eventually coming back to I-95.

I’d planned to take the back road to the Jamestown Ferry to Williamsburg, but eventually it got too late in the day for me to take that scenic interlude.  I ended up not getting to the Motel 6 in Williamsburg – where I’d made an online reservation – until 8:00.  Driving in through town I noticed the businesses in the area had no lights.  My thought was, “What?  Do they roll up the sidewalks at 7:00 around here?”  Then I spotted the motel and pulled in.  A whole bunch of people started cheering like mad, and I thought, “Geez, they’re really friendly here!

As it turned out, they’d had no power since 5:00, when the passing storms knocked it out.  So the power – and the lights – had just come back on as I pulled in.

The next morning – Sunday – I woke up early, at 5:30.  I got a McDonald’s senior coffee and walked through the touristy areas of Williamsburg while it was still quiet.  (I used to like Williamsburg a lot more.  Now it’s too much like Disney World, where you buy a too-expensive all-inclusive ticket, then try to figure out how to maximize your cost-benefits.  I guess a part of me is as grumpy as Steinbeck was, sometimes…)

From there I drove across the bridge from Hampton Roads to Norfolk, then down to Virginia Beach and up to where I supposed the First Landing State Park was.  (Noted below.)  I now know that I passed very close by it, but never did actually see it.  (The phone-map-app isn’t infallible after all, especially when you’re trying to drive while viewing it.)

Eventually I took the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – seen at right – and up to the Cape May Ferry.   In this way I planned an “end run” around the twin monsters of traffic around Baltimore and Washington D.C., not to mention the endless tolls on I-95.  That plan mirrored Steinbeck’s own end run through  Ontario, thus “bypassing not only Erie [PA] but Cleveland and Toledo.*”

His trick play ended in harassment and humiliation by U.S. Customs Officials.  Because of that he stayed that night in the most expensive auto court he could find, “a pleasure dome of ivory and apes and peacocks.”  There he ordered room service with all the trimmings:

I overtipped mercilessly.  Before I went to sleep I went over all the things I wished I had said to that immigration man, and some of them were incredibly clever and cutting.

My end run was marred only by my missing the 4:15 ferry by a hair.  Because of that I had to order a beer and sit around the Lewes, Delaware terminal, waiting for the 5:15 boat.

The point is I guess in some ways I am very much like Steinbeck.  (Notwithstanding my devotion to aerobic exercise on the road, as noted in Part I.)  I may take interstates to make good time, when necessary.  I despise “5:00 traffic,” and especially when it lasts from 7:00 to 10:00 in the morning and 3:00 to 7:00 in the evening, as it tends to do these days.

So anyway, my goal that fine Sunday was to reach Atlantic City and it’s famous Boardwalk.

To be continued…


The upper photo is courtesy of Walden – Wikipedia, on the “reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings” made famous by transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. The caption:  “Walden Pond discussed extensively in chapter, The Ponds.”

Re: Steinbeck’s book.  The quote about lumberjacks and whores is on page 109 of my 1980 Penguin Books edition.  The part about his proposed “end run” into Ontario runs from page 84 to 88.  And for a site with a number of TWC quotes see Travels With Charley – Route 99.

Re: The Atlanta Beltway, better known to locals as “the Perimeter” and/or the Bypass.  It has the honor of being “one of the most heavily traveled roadways in the United States, and portions of the highway slow, sometimes to a crawl, during rush hour.”  See Interstate 285 – Wikipedia.

The “airborne” photo is courtesy of Facebook: Airborne & Special Operations Museum Foundation.

Re: Chesapeake Bay Bridge image.  The caption: “view of the Virginia Beach entrance to the bridge.”

Re: “missing the 4:15 ferry by a hair.”  I would have made it, but got behind some knucklehead at the red light at the Highway 9 turn-off to the Lewes terminal.  This particular knucklehead didn’t know the rule about right on red, so he let six or seven cars turn left into the terminal, coming from the other direction.  I missed getting loaded on to the 4:15 ferry by two cars…

The lower image is courtesy of A Look Back at Atlantic City Boardwalk [VINTAGE PHOTOS].

*   *   *   *

Re: “camping a la Steinbeck.”  The notes below are another advantage of writing that Steinbeck didn’t have.  As noted, “I figured to save some money on the way up … by taking along a tent.”

The first night out I planned to pitch a tent at the Sesquicentennial State Park southeast of Columbia.  The price would have been from $19 to $27 for a night, with water and electricity.   Then the second night I figured I could reach First Landing State Park, between Norfolk and Virginia Beach.  I’d never been there, and prices were said to range from $24 to $32, “plus tax.”  According to the camping link at Park Fees – Virginia Department of Conservation, the “standard” fee for one night is $24, while a site with water and electric cost $35.

At first that $24 didn’t seem too bad.  At least when I did my original planning, back when the weather was still cool.  (At least half the cost of a Motel 6.)  But then I started reading the fine print.  The rate for First Landing was for Virginia residents.  For non-residents the cost was $28 for “standard,” and $41 for a site with water and electric.  Which brought to mind the days of my youth – circa 1965 – when my mother took at least three of us boys around the United States – twice.  She could only do it by tent-camping, because that was far less expensive.

But those days are no more.  The explanation may well be that our politicians may still be saying, “Read my lips: no new taxes.”  They may still be saying that, but instead of “taxing,” they’re nickel-and-diming us right and left.  One result is that tent-camping is no loner a feasible way to save some money on a road trip like mine.  It now costs almost as much as a motel…


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A Mid-summer Travelog


The One World Observatory, a highlight of my recent road trip


Assiduous readers will notice that I hadn’t done a blog-post since last June 20.  The reason:  I took a two-week-long road trip, to points north including Atlantic City and New York City.  (Also known as the Big Apple.)   As always, such a pilgrimage can be both instructive and enlightening – not to mention just plain fun.  There’s more on that below, but:

In the meantime:

One of my favorite books is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.  It’s about pilgrimages in general and driving pilgrimages especially.  (See also 12 miles offshore.)  So the theme of this post is to treat my recent road trip as a kind of Reader’s Digest condensed version – slash microcosm – of Steinbeck’s book and/or his travels.

In doing so I’ll note some drastic differences between highway travel in 1960 and 2015.

For one thing, for the price you pay to camp these days – as Steinbeck did – you can get a nice Motel 6 with AC.  (And that’s tent camping.  For what you pay for an RV or travel trailer, you can stay at a lot of Motel 6’s.)

For another thing, I didn’t pack hunting or fishing gear for my travels, as Steinbeck did. did pack – in my spandy-new 2015 Ford Escape – an 8-foot kayak, along with a stair-stepping stand and a 22-pound weight vest.  (To earn my aerobic points along the way.)  In that kayak – for one – I paddled across the Delaware River just below Wilmington.  (As seen at right, from the New Jersey side.)

I also paddled (some) up the Shenandoah River in Virginia, and through some backwater “meadows” southwest of Atlantic City.  Last but not least, I paddled for two hours on a little hideaway, Carvins Cove Reservoir.  (In Virginia, just outside Roanoke.)

A third difference:  I didn’t get lost as much or as easily as Steinbeck.  (Or as he said he did.)  Thanks mostly to my figuring out how to use the “map app” on my cell phone.

And I didn’t have to stop at a payphone. (Remember those?)  Steinbeck had to stop at a phone booth every third or fourth day, to have a three or four-minute conversation and re-establish contact with the family “back home.”  I had no need of that.  The three branches of the family meeting at the Swedesboro (NJ) cemetery on July 2 – the main reason for the get-together in the first place – could maintain constant contact via cell phone, including “instant texting.”

I did need to stop at local libraries, to use their computers. But only if I needed a secure connection, to check my bank accounts or – with the Ford being new – to make the first payment a few days into the trip.  (At the Hoboken Library.  Hoboken – across the Hudson – was the family base for visiting Manhattan, seen at left.)

And I wonder what John would have thought of cruise control?  (In either sense of the term…)

So , to set the stage:  Earlier this year my Utah brother sent an email saying he and his wife were visiting the Northeast in July, and would I like to join them?  Naturally I said yes, especially when another reason was added:  Laying our father’s ashes to rest in the family plot in Swedesboro, alongside those of his first wife – our mother – and our maternal grandmother and grandfather.  (And other of their offspring.)

The ashes had been left in the care of Dad’s second wife.  She in turn had died just last November 2014.  So in the months leading up to the road trip, discussion was had via email about the interment, along with getting headstones honoring their service in World War II.  (He was a navigator in the Army Air Corps.  She was an Army nurse in Memphis, where they met.)  And the memorial lent a certain gravitas to the whole “joint venture.”

Which makes this a good place to end the first installment.  Except to note that one place I wanted to visit – on the way home – was Reading PA, known in literary circles as “Brewer.”  This fictional Brewer is the setting of John Updike’s five books about “Rabbit” Angstrom, constituting an homage to each decade from 1960 to 2000.  See On RABBIT – and “60 is the new 30″ – (Part I).

Thus my trip emulated Steinbeck’s visit to Sauk Centre, Minnesota, “metaphoric setting of [Sinclair] Lewis’ satirical novel, Main Street.” (See On Oscar Wilde and “gross indecencies”.)

And one of Reading-Brewer’s notable landmarks is “the Pagoda,” seen below.  There’ll be more on that visit and others in the next installment.  (Like hiking 17 miles on the hard concrete sidewalks of lower Manhattan in our first day-and-a-half there.)

Panorama of the Pagoda area and nearby Reading

The Pagoda, on top of Mount Penn, with Reading PA (aka “Brewer”) in the background…


*  Not to be confused with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the comedy by William Shakespeare.  Written between 1590 and 1597, it’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular works, “widely performed across the world.” See Wikipedia, and also Travelogue | Definition … by Merriam-Webster.

The upper image is courtesy of  One World Observatory: Curbed NY.  It’s part of the article,  It’s Official: One World Observatory Will Open May 29.  On July 13, 2015, that was five articles down from Don’t Eat at One World Trade Center’s Sky-High Restaurants.  And it was true that the place was crowded, prices were high and seating was at a minimum.

Re:  Earning aerobic points along the way.  The term “aerobics” – along with the need for cardio-vascular exercise in general – didn’t enter into popular use until 1968, some eight years after Steinbeck’s road trip.  That was with the publication of Cooper’s ground-breaking AerobicsSee also Kenneth H. Cooper – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

The Delaware Bridge image is courtesy of, which is apparently the German-language edition.

The view-of-lower-Manhattan-and-Observatory is courtesy of

The bottom image is courtesy of Pagoda (Reading, Pennsylvania) – Wikipedia.  See also The Pagoda Reading, PA Home.