Thursday, October 29, 2009

Points of View


Thus Sprach der Great Communicator...

In what amounted to his valedictory address at the 1988 Republican National Convention, retiring President Ronald Reagan counseled the adoring throngs, "Facts are stupid things."  The quote is remarkable, for a couple of reasons: First, it is a deliberate misquote, and succinct rebuttal, of John Adam's famous line, "Facts are stubborn things."  Second, it perfectly encompases the American mindset, as we stumble, Magoo-like, in the myopia of our own hubris.  At the close of the 18th century, we understood that whatever our biases, whatever our personal ambitions and desires, we couldn't alter Truth.  We could bash against facts all we want, attempt to bend and shape them to our own designs, but they would remain, steadfast and unassailable, demanding that we mold our designs to them.

At the close of the 20th century, we started singing a new song.  Facts are mute, and mutable: they dance to the tune we set.  They're "stupid things," speed bumps we bounce over on the way to where we want to be.  There is no need for conformity, or compromise, or humility: what we believe is what we believe, and what we believe is the only "fact" we require.

I am participating, for the first time in my life and with no small degree of reluctance, in a school board election.  My involvement in supporting one slate of candidates over another is driven by the actions of a group of people who are disciples of the "facts are stupid things" school of public discourse, piling lie on top of lie until Truth isn't merely silenced, it's suffocated.  

When I was seventeen, I spent a year interning in the office of a US Congressman, representing a district in upstate New York.  My internship overlapped the 1980 elections, and for a time, it was put on hold, and I worked on the congressman's re-election campaign.  (The congressman was scrupulous about election laws.  The congressional office was kept isolated from campaign business, and while working on the campaign, I wasn't even allowed to set foot in the congressional office.) 

I learned two things that summer: I love the constituent services a congressional office provides, love helping people, love working with people in need.  And I hate Hate HATE politics.  Working on this campaign, even in the small and peripheral way that I have, has reminded me of how uncomfortable I am in the political arena.  Sometimes, we need to do what's uncomfortable.  Sometimes, we need to swallow our fear, or our distaste, or even our laziness, and we need to stand up to those who would distort the facts for their own selfish purposes.

Sometimes, we need to be as stubborn as the facts are.



Dick and Doris Grapes are legends in my hometown, and in my home ward
 
A few weeks ago, I wrote about Formidable Mormon Women.  Today, the planet spins with one fewer of those wonderful ladies.  Doris Grapes, the women who first got me interested in family history research, died yesterday morning, at age eighty-four.

Sister Grapes helped me to understand, at a very young age, that devotion to Christ meant service to others.  She was a tireless worker, whether she was compiling her enormous, impeccably kept volumes of family history documents, or teaching a class in water color painting at a Relief Society meeting, or leading the singing in sacrament meeting, where she had no qualms about warning the slackers that those who didn't sing with gusto would be made to sing solos.  A formidable, indefatigable, unforgettable woman.

Godspeed, Sister Grapes.     

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Lonesome Death of Eugene Pearce, Part Three



 General Ulysses Grant
Ulysses Grant was not a butcher.  He was a keen strategist, a gifted writer, a deeply intelligent and sensitive man.  He is also partly responsible for three of the bloodiest battles in American history -- The Wilderness, Spotsylvania, and Cold Harbor -- battles that have resonated throughout military history, battles where the lives of soldiers became just another commodity, something to stockpile, then spend in the war effort.

On 2 June, after an exhausting forced march, the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac was massed several hundred yards from a Confederate force led by John C. Breckinridge, Colonel Porter's cousin by marriage.  The Rebels were located at the edge of a large, slightly sloping field, their position fortified by breastworks built of massed earth and timber.  At 4:30 on the morning of 3 June, a heavy fog blanketing the field, the Union forces were commanded to march.

The men of the 8th, hardly battle seasoned, were unprepared for what was to come.  The other members of 2nd Corps, hardened by months of heavy fighting, knew exactly what to expect.  They had seen what Rebel gunfire could do to a man's body, and they had seen what the Virginia sun did to the dead.  These men appeared to not fear death -- they seemed resigned to its inevitability -- but they could not stand the thought of dying unknown, consigned to a mass grave on some battlefield far away from home.  They pinned scraps of paper inside their tunics, noting name, company, and hometown.  When the battle was over, this would be the only means of identifying the dead.  There is a report, dismissed as apocryphal by many historians, that after the battle, a bloodstained diary was found on the body of one Union solider, bearing the final, fatalistic entry: "June 3.  Cold Harbor.  I was killed."

It had rained all night, leaving the ground between the Union encampments and the Confederate barricades a swampy mire.  The 2nd Corps, including the men of the 8th Heavy Artillery, were ordered to fix bayonets, and "at the double quickstep" advance on the enemy.
The first casualties fell just twenty feet into their advance.  Robert Gibson, a Private from the town of Alabama in Genessee County, wrote an account of the advance, which was published in the Batavia Republican Advocate on June 21, 1864:



During that night the rain fell heavily. The morning was chilly, cloudy and dark. We were awakened and had just time to sling on our things, when the order for "charge" came, and the 8th... instantly, bravely, and freely mounted and were over our works, with arms at a trail, bayonets fixed, and on the "double quickstep." Order was tolerably persevered, but in our company there was a tendency to crowd to the right, and it was more like a crowd or rabble (being sometimes six or eight deep) than two ranks as there should have been. 

Braver hearts never rushed to battle, and never was a charge more deadly and of so little avail. We had orders in no case to fire until the command was given, and we all knew it would be useless to do so until we mounted their works. The moment we mounted our works a deadly, sweeping fire was opened upon us from thousands of muskets, as well as a few batteries. The men began to fall before we got twenty feet from our works, and there was two hundred rods to pass over before we got to their works, and almost all the way we would be exposed. On, on we went - the double-quick turned into a run. This kept up until we were too tired to go faster than a brisk step; for the distance was so great, and the ground so uneven and muddy, that we soon tired out. 

We kept on at the same pace, until some of the most advanced reached the rebel parapet; but of all that started not more than one third reached there. And what could they do? Nothing but die, and those who had not fallen took refuge in rifle-pits. - This was the maneuver of our company and I think the others were similar, and the casualties about the same. Dead and wounded lie from the pits we left to the rebel works, but at the works they were almost heaped in places.    

The carnage sickened even the most jaded observers.  One Confederate officer writes that what happened at Cold Harbor was not war, but murder."  In twenty minutes, two hundred members of the 8th Heavy Artillery were killed, close to five hundred were wounded.  Union forces had improbably breached the left side of the Confederate embankments, but were quickly repulsed by a cannonade of grapeshot.  Those who had managed to avoid injury were pinned down by Rebel guns, taking refuge in hastily dug rifle pits and hiding among the wounded and the dead.  

And it was barely morning.

Thousands of Union soldiers lay dead and dying.  Others, terrified, crouched and prayed that they would not be targeted by the Rebel sharpshooters.  The overnight rains gave way to the full force of the Virginia sun, and the battlefield baked and festered.  The dead began to bloat and blacken; the wounded begged for water, for relief.  And the unharmed, both Union and Confederate, were tortured by the smells and the screams.
Colonel Porter, the man who had so gallantly vowed to stay with his men until the end of their service, was among the dead.  Porter had been shot, fell, then rose to rally his men.  He was hit five more times, one bullet entering his heart.  His body lay on the ground for thirty-six hours before it was recovered.  Among the wounded was Eugene Pearce.

I have found no record of the nature or extent of Eugene's wounds.  There is a single entry, a casualty list in the 23 June 1864 edition of the Republican Advocate, listing "E. Pierce" among the wounded members of F Company.  He certainly lay on that field, was certainly a witness to that madness.  
When night came, those who were able crawled back behind the Union lines.  Rebel guns fired sporadically throughout the night, shooting at any moving shadows.  The dead and the most seriously wounded remained on the battlefield.  General Lee would not allow the Union army to recover its casualties, unless they advanced under a flag of truce. 

 General Grant, convinced that the white flag would amount to an admission of defeat, refused the terms.

Finally, after nearly three days, Grant's conscience got the better of him, and he agreed to send recovery teams forward under Lee's conditions.  Confederate soldiers joined the northerners in this gruesome work. John Cooper, an officer in the 8th, writes:



Last evening at 7 o'clock the joyful tidings of a flag of truce was announced, and we went out to look after our dead. I hope and pray it may never be my fortune to behold such a sight again. The ground was strewn with our dead, but they were in such an awful condition, it was impossible to recognize any one except by their clothes, or papers found on them. They were all as black as the blackest negro you ever saw, and were covered with maggots, and a most sickening stench arose from their remains which it was almost impossible to endure. They were all buried as soon as possible, as only one hour was allowed us; at the expiration of which time we were obliged to retire behind our works again.
 

It was rather a singular sight to see the rebels and our men mixed up and conversing together in a pleasant manner, as though they were the best of friends instead of mortal enemies. I conversed with several rebel officers, and one of them showed me a Richmond 'Examiner' of yesterday, and wished to exchange it for one of our late papers, but as I had none, I could not effect the exchange. They said they received Richmond papers daily, it being only 8 miles distant. While conversing with them they remarked if we would not fire any more on them, they would not on us, until another general engagement, and not a single shot has been fired since from either side, although it is now 11 o'clock, A.M. It is as quiet as though the two armies were a hundred miles apart, instead of being only a few yards, and the rebels stand upon their breastworks and talk to us, and several exchanges of papers have taken place this morning. It seems like Sunday at home...Our band is now playing, and the rebels seem to enjoy the music as well as ourselves. 



The Glory of War: Conscripts collect the remains of Union dead, 
Cold Harbor, Virginia, April 1965
The Union suffered a massive defeat at Cold Harbor.  Thirteen thousand men were killed, captured, or wounded, including close to six hundred of the 8th Heavy Artillery.  The Confederates suffered 2,500 casualties; fewer than one hundred men were killed.  Grant was derided in the northern press.  The South was jubilant; surely this defeat would force public opinion against Abraham Lincoln, and move Northern popular opinion toward a resolution of the conflict, one that would preserve the South's "peculiar institutions."
 

The anticipated changes never came to pass.  Lincoln was re-elected.  Grant recovered from his blunder, and surprised Lee with bold cavalry strikes at the Shenandoah Valley.  Further south, Sherman's army burned Atlanta, and crippled the Confederate military effort in Georgia, Florida, and the Carolinas.  Lee's men were trapped in an elaborate string of bunkers, vainly trying to protect Richmond from the advancing bluecoats.  On 9 April 1865, Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomatox Court House, Virginia, and the war was ended.
 

Somehow, Eugene Pearce survived.  He saw action at Petersburg and Weldon Railroad and Deep Bottom and Strawberry Plains.  He fought at Ream's Station and Boydton Plank Road and Dabney's Mills.  He was at Appomattox the day of the surrender.
Injured, malnourished, dirty, undoubtedly traumatized, Eugene Pearce was present at the war's end.


And he could not go home.  The Federal government informed the men of the 8th that they had enlisted for 3 years, and that their term of service did not expire until August 1865.  Company F, what was left of it, boarded a train -- by now, train travel did not hold the allure it had when they left Lockport in 1862 -- and traveled to New York City, where they were assigned to the 10th New York Infantry, and posted to Hart's Island, a spit of land on just east of the Bronx.

Hart's Island was home to a large prisoner of war camp.  More than 3,400 Rebel soldiers, many of them captured at Gettysburg, were housed there, in an open stockade of about four acres.  Disease, including pneumonia and dysentery, were rampant: close to 300 prisoners died while in captivity.  

Eugene Pearce, sick, hurt, and weak, was assigned to guard detail, preparing these men for a return to their homes.  Four months of guard duty, and Eugene himself would be going home to Wheatfield.

He never made it.

Details are very sketchy, but Eugene Pearce died, "from disease and the effects of his battle wounds," at Hart's Island, on 15 July 1865.  Given the health dangers posed by transporting diseased bodies, it is likely that he was buried on the island.  In the 1920's, long after Hart's Island has become the Potter's Field for New York City, the bodies of dozens of Union soldiers who had died there were exhumed and reburied in a Brooklyn cemetery.
Eugene would have been no older than twenty-five.  In August, the month he was to return home, his wife Louisa filed for her widow's pension:


Eugene Pearce left no children.  He is my uncle, the brother of my great-great-grandfather.  There is no progeny to tell his story, no one to look at the flag and remember that those red stripes are colored with his patriot's blood.  I've written this for Eugene, and for the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren he never had, and for all of those sons and husbands who lay on the bloody ground of Cold Harbor on that horrible day in June.

I have no photograph of Eugene Pearce, but here are a few of his fellow members of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery:


Capt. Marshall Norton Cook, I Company

 
Corporal John J. Sherman. Before and After spending several months in Salisbury Prison, a Confederate POW camp



 
Private James Short, M Company


1st Lt. Samuel Green, A Company

 These men, like all of the men of the 8th, were natives of Genessee, Orleans, and Niagara counties.
 




Grant writing his memoirs
 

At the end of his life, dying of throat cancer, Ulysses Grant wrote his memoirs.  Of Cold Harbor, he notes, "I have always regretted that the...assault on Cold Harbor was ever made....At Cold Harbor no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy losses we sustained."


Today, Cold Harbor is swallowed up by metropolitan Richmond. Most of the battlefield has been used to build tract homes.  

Reunion of the survivors of 8th New York Heavy Artillery, 
Cold Harbor, Virginia, 1909
 

I am indebted to Linda Schmidt and to Wilbur Russell Dunn for their outstanding research on the history of the 8th New York Heavy Artillery, which was invaluable in preparing these recent entries.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Lonesome Death of Eugene Pearce, Part Two

The Civil War sits astride two eras, at once the last great gasp of the Romantic period, and the screaming, bloody birth of the Modern.   


Modernity's birth is plainly seen.  All of the things that made the Twentieth Century run red with blood had their genesis in the Civil War:  Trench warfare; Mechanized warfare; Total War, where civilians were seen as "enemy combatants" and therefore fair game; Embedding reporters and photographers with battle regiments, thus giving the home front a close-up view of battle; even concentration camps and political assassinations and secret arms deals all have their prototypes in this conflict.


Evidences of the Romantic impulse are sprinkled across the war's bloody history.  Inspired by media reports on the exploits of French troops fighting in North Africa, dozens of volunteer regiments, both north and south, called themselves "Zouaves" and adopted the French unit's flamboyant Algerian-inspired uniforms as their own.  The most famous Zouaves units were the Louisiana Tigers in the Confederacy (which eventually inspired the nickname for the LSU sports teams), and the 5th New York and 14th Brooklyn Volunteers in the North, who dressed in red bloomers and matching fez:



The 5th New York, Top
Wheat's Louisiana Tigers, Bottom
  
Letters home penned by the men of the 8th Heavy Artillery carry this same romantic sentiment.  One man writes of witnessing the funeral of a Union enlisted man killed in battle, and wonders if he will ever get the opportunity to receive such an inspiring, hero-worthy send off.  Another assesses the prospects of facing the Rebel army with a cheery, "I expect we shall have a good time."  There was sickness and accident, even death for the 8th during their time manning the Maryland garrisons, but there was also time to write home and ask for care packages of honey and canned peaches, time to attend the Maryland State Fair, time to woo girls at church dances, time still to see war as a Grand Adventure.

The first week of May 1864, The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rapidan and Rappahannock Rivers and began a full assault against Robert E. Lee's outmanned and outgunned Army of Northern Virginia.  The chief strategist of the Union forces, Ulysses S Grant, had secured the Mississippi in the Western theater of the war, and President Lincoln was counting on him to crush the rebellion in the East.  Grant called his strategy "The Overland Campaign", and intended to use a combination of rapid troop movements and superior numbers to overwhelm Lee's forces.

What the Confederates lacked in troop size, they compensated for in guile.  Lee managed to anticipate Grant's movements, and under the direction of some very talented engineers, situated his men behind well-placed, well-constructed trenches and barricades.

Grant attacked, first at The Wilderness, then two weeks later at Spotsylvania Court House.  The Union forces, many of them veterans of three years of fighting, fell in droves.  Grant suffered 18,000 casualties at The Wilderness, nearly 2,300 of them fatalities.  At Spotsylvania, 18,000 more Union troops fell, with more than 2,700 dead.

Despite having one-third of his force dead, wounded, or captured, Grant was determined to stay on the offensive.  Even behind the relative safety of their barricades, Lee's troops had suffered heavy casualties, too: nearly half of his force was dead or wounded, and he was desperately short on provisions and ammunition.  Grant knew this, and was convinced that with fresh troops, he could break Lee's army.  The 8th were ordered to the battlefront.


On 15 May 1864, a Sunday morning, the 8th Heavy Artillery marched out of Baltimore's Fort Federal Hill, bound for the battlefront.  The morning was marked by torrential rains; the regimental band played a popular tune, "The Girl I Left Behind Me".  Corporal Nelson Armstrong remembers the 8th marched "with buoyant step and hopeful hearts."  "What glory there seemed for the young soldier!" he writes.  "Merrily we tramped along through the rain and running water..."  There were about 1800 men in the regiment.


The 8th traveled by train to Washington, and from there boarded southbound steamers on the Potomac to "set foot on the soil of Old Virginia."  Two days of marching and the 8th arrived at Spotsylvania, joined there to the 2nd Corps of The Army of the Potomac.  That night, Confederate sharpshooters attacked; four hours of exchanging fire in the darkness resulted in 33 men killed, wounded or missing, the first casualties by enemy fire sustained by the men of the 8th.  


Faced with the realities of war -- it is one thing to lose a friend or brother to dysentery or cholera, another entirely to stand beside him as Rebel minie' balls rip through his body-- the letters home take a different color.  George Stone, distraught over the grievous wounding of a close friend, wrote home, listing his address as "Camp Somewhere in the sacred evil of Virginia, God only knows where," and confessed that "I am so worried...I cant keep my thoughts together two moments at a time..." 


Virgina in the late Spring is hot and humid and rainy.  The men of the 8th marched across battle-scarred territory, subsisting on hardtack and rancid, fatty salt pork.  Many of the men had abandoned their packs, hoping that a lighter load would lessen the effects of the heat.  Now they lacked canteens, and many were suffering the effects of heat stroke.  They were harassed by Confederate artillery and sniper attacks.    By 2 June, they camped within 3,000 feet of an entrenched Confederate line, just twelve miles north of Richmond, a place called Cold Harbor.


The next day, they would join with 48,000 other Union troops in a mad dash across an open field.  Grant's strategy, already unsuccessful at The Wilderness and at Spotsylvania, was to overwhelm Lee's entrenchments through sheer force of numbers, breaking the line and sending the Rebels into confusion.  It was a daring, reckless plan, and the 8th was at its center.  


It was raining.  It was hot. The men were exhausted.  At 2:00 that afternoon, the orders arrived:  "a good night's rest [should be given the men] preparatory to an assault at say 4.30 a.m. in the morning."


Tomorrow: The Lonesome Death of Eugene Pearce





 

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Lonesome Death of Eugene Pearce, Part One



 Colonel Peter A. Porter
I am indebted to Wilbur Russell Dunn, author of Full Measure of Devotion, for his outstanding research 
on the history of the New York 8th Heavy Artillery, which helped me prepare the Eugene Pearce entries


The Apache pilot was a couple of years older than me, ruddy and barrel chested, dressed in those fancy new pixilated camouflage uniforms they're wearing these days.  More than five hundred kids and their Boy Scout leaders crowded around the sleek, black attack helicopter, awestruck as the pilot held forth on the maneuverability, toughness, and killing power of his machine.  The Apache, for its part, looked a lot like a great metallic grasshopper, resting in this open field just south of Navasota.

"It's a real pleasure to come to your Scout camporee -- you sure picked a beautiful day for it," the pilot said, pushing his camouflage baseball cap back a bit on his head.  "We consider this a recruiting trip: we hope that in a few years, some of you Scouts will make the decision to join us up in the sky, defending our great nation."  The kids were transfixed, eyes bright with the thought of executing neat loop-the-loops while squeezing off a few rounds of heat-seeking missles at The Enemies of Freedom.  The adults, most of them big-bellied men well into middle age, had that wistful look that men get when they realize Youth is gone, and with it romance and adventure and fun and the chance to ever sit in the cockpit of a twenty million dollar attack helicopter.

Young men have always been bedazzled by war,  their souls stirred by high thoughts of defending home and country, and by more visceral desires, the thrill of danger, of adventure, of conquest.  Some just like the idea of being someplace else, anyplace but home, anywhere but where they are right now.  That's why a group of twelve and thirteen year olds at a south Texas Scout camp get so excited by the surprise visit of a battle chopper from Randolph Air Force Base.  And it's why a Wheatfield farm kid named Philander Eugene Pearce enlisted with the Union Army in the Summer of 1862.


Philander, spelled as "Flilander" in some records, went by Eugene.  He was the third of Benjamin and Vashti Pearce's sons, at least the third to survive into adulthood.  By twenty-two, he had settled into what would surely be his life's routine, helping his family work the small farm they owned, just north of what is today the intersection of Niagara Falls Boulevard and Ward Road, harvesting corn and wheat.


The Summer of 1862 changed everything.  The war, which many expected to be over in a few weeks, was more than a year old.  Radical anti-war politicians, known as "Copperheads," were agitating in New York City and Balitmore, calling for an immediate truce.  President Lincoln was hugely unpopular, and was blamed for the blunders of his generals, many of whom proved to be indecisive, incompetent, or both.  Confederate victory, and with it the dissolution of the Union, seemed a real possibility.  The times called for bold action, and in sleepy farming communities like Wheatfield, New York, there were plenty of young men ready to act.


Peter A. Porter, wealthy and well-connected, son of a former U.S. Secretary of War, provided these young men their opportunity.  With a colonel's commission granted him by the New York State Assembly, Porter put out a call for one thousand able-bodied men in Orleans, Niagara and Genessee Counties to join him in "fighting the Rebs."  On 23 August, 1862, the largest volunteer army ever raised in the area, the 129th New York State Volunteer Infantry, marched from the Lockport Fairgrounds to the train station, accompanied by several marching bands and cheered by several thousand friends, family members and well wishers, bound for Baltimore.  Among them was Eugene Pearce.  

Even in 1862, sex and money were effective tools in selling the war effort.  Along with patriotic speeches and choirs singing inspiring anthems, recruitment drives often featured young women costumed in red, white and blue gowns, who promised kisses to anyone signing up.  The state assembly guaranteed recruits a monthly salary of $13, plus a signing bonus of $200, which in 2009 dollars would be valued at about $283 in salary, and a $4,360 bonus.  That kind of money would have been enough to save a struggling farm, which may have prompted some desperate wives to push their husbands into the service: a recruitment drive in Gasport was marked by an angry wife berating her husband for deciding against joining the regiment. "If you don't do it," his angry wife yelled, "go straight home and take off those breeches and let me have them and I will go myself."  The chagrined husband signed his enlistment papers.

The bonus was also enough money for a young man to start a family, and it appears that starting a family was on Eugene Pearce's mind.  Sometime before his induction, Eugene took a bride, a young woman named Louisa.  This was a fairly common occurrence: swept up in the emotions of the moment, departing soldiers often married the girls they were courting.  Surely Louisa, not to mention Benjamin and Vashti, was among the throngs bidding farewell to the 129th as they boarded their trains.


The 129th consisted of ten companies, plus officers and non-commissioned officers, more than 1200 men strong.  "F. Pierce" was a member of F Company, all recruits from the towns and villages in southern Niagara County (the Pearce name is frequently misspelled in the records.  Adding to the confusion is the presence of Josiah Eugene Pierce, a member of B Company, who also went by the name Eugene.  J. E. Pierce was given a medical discharge in December 1862, after being wounded in a training accident.  He never saw actual combat, and is not connected to our Pearce family).  

The standards for induction were scant: a recruit had to stand at least five feet, four inches in height; show no visible signs of mouth disease or bruising or "cracking" about the chest and sternum; and to be capable of marching.  Recruits were as old as forty-one and as young as fourteen, although the boys lied about their age to meet the minimum requirement of 18 years.  They listed their occupations as farmer, laborer, cooper, blacksmith, clerk, and carpenter.  They were working class men doing working class jobs, jobs laden with hard work and monotony.  Recruits were committed to a three year enlistment, meaning that they would be discharged in August 1865.  Dressed in their brand-new blue woolen army tunics, steel tracks clicking their way out of Lockport, the men of the 129th were ready, as Private Amos P. Wetherby writes, "for a fine time on our journey."



For most of these new soldiers, the trip south was their first time on a train.  For many, it was the first time they had ventured more than a few miles away from their hometowns.  They were astonished at the thick stands of spruce and cedar that covered the peaks of the Allegheny Mountains.  For men accustomed to the gently rolling hills of upstate New York, the Alleghenies may as well have been the Alps.  Seeking relief from the swelter of their compartments, they climbed up onto the roofs of their cars (remember, trains in the 1860's rarely traveled faster than 40 or 50 miles an hour), and joked and napped and admired the passing scenery.


The 129th drew a plum assignment.  They were reclassified as the 8th New York Heavy Artillery Regiment, and charged with defending Baltimore from enemy attack.  For nearly two years, the 8th drilled and paraded, safely tucked far behind the battle lines, the war no more real for them than it was for their families back in New York.


Their leader, Colonel Porter, a man well-respected for his honesty and fairness, was offered an early release from his military commitment.  Porter had political aspirations, and the 1863 offer to run for a statewide office must have tempted him.  


To his credit, he declined the offer, writing:



I left home in command of a regiment composed mainly of the sons of friends and neighbors, in a measure committed to my care. I can hardly ask for my discharge, while theirs cannot be granted, and I have a strong desire, if alive, to carry back those whom the chances of time and war shall permit to be ' present" and to "account" in person for all.

Some had indeed died.  There were training accidents: in one case, carelessly handled gunpowder exploded, taking the lives of eight men in Company F, Eugene Pearce's company.  There was illness.  Following Gettysburg, the 8th Heavy Artillery was charged with guarding a large number of Confederate POWs, nearly 7,000 guards and prisoners crammed into Fort McHenry.  Poor sanitation and overcrowding exacerbated the spread of disease, and led to more fatalities.

These deaths were nothing compared to what was to come.

Tomorrow, the march to Cold Harbor. 






Friday, October 23, 2009

Where The Bottles Break


 Some rapids are easier to ride than others...

It's "Guess the Obscure Song's Artist" day.  Take a guess!  Use your Brain Power! Have fun!

Give up?  Of course you do.  Today's title is "Where The Bottles Break" from the album "Jack's Crows", penned by the estimable John Gorka.  The song is about living in a poor neighborhood, a place "where the bottles break, and the blacktop still comes back for more."  It's a neighborhood where gentrification is changing things: "they've turned biker's bars into flower shops," so "the wild and poor get pushed aside." And just when you think he's going to go all bleeding heart and Joan Baez and tell us how delightful and outstanding and praiseworthy being poor is, Gorka pens the best line I've ever heard about the realities of poverty: "These people aren't saints; no, people just are -- they want to feel like they count; they want to ride in their own car."   


The great social critic (and Hall of Fame goalie) Ken Dryden once asked, "Where is the romance in beginning life poor, except if you didn't?"  


Poverty is marked by acquisitiveness .  When you have nothing, all you think about is having something, anything.  Romantic versions of this drive to acquire show up all over popular culture.  Eliza Doolittle dreams of a "room somewhere, far away from the cold night air," where she has an endless supply of chocolate and heating coal.  Marty McFly's Nirvana amounted to a new pickup truck and a trip to the lake.  Commercials for casinos and state lotteries rely on the notion of better living through sudden affluence.  Nearly every prop in every rap video ever made plays on the same fantasy, from the fancy cars to the diamond-studded cell phones to the pneumatically enhanced, frantically gyrating young women.


The reality is uglier, and it crosses generations.  You convince yourself that life will have meaning if you could only buy that car, or that flat screen television, or that new furniture, and you lock yourself into a bunch of payment plans that force you into some drudge job that will never begin to make you solvent, and before you know it, you've convinced yourself and your kids and your kids' kids that the only thing you all were put here to do it is to mow those lawns, or man those assembly lines, or drive those trucks.  You'll find this in the popular culture, too.  It's Stephen Stills's father in "Four + Twenty", the resentful salesman, "working like the Devil to be more."  It's Springsteen's kid, walking "the same dirty streets where I was born," seething with resentment that his father had to settle for another used car.  It's Al Bundy and George Costanza and every character Danny DeVito has ever played, mean and low and grasping, blind to everything except The Big Payoff.

With our hearts set upon the world, we rarely allow ourselves a vision of something better, of accomplishing something more than scraping out a living, of acquiring something more valuable than a new car or a flat panel teevee. 


Poverty of the spirit works the same way.  We had a girl in our second grade glass, Paula, who terrified us.  She rarely came to school, and when she did, she showed up in torn, ratty, dirty clothes, her hair matted and filthy, her hands and face streaked with dirt.  She had no friends.  She was a horrible student; I'm pretty sure she didn't know how to read.  North Tonawanda was a working class town, but it was a town with standards.  You didn't walk around looking like that.  You didn't live that way.

What I remember best about Paula was her eyes.  There was no light there, just fear.  I'd never seen anyone with eyes like that before. 

Eventually, Paula shopped showing up at school entirely.  If people went looking for her, I didn't know about it.  Small towns in the late 1960's didn't have social welfare nets.  It was your family and your church and your community, and if you didn't have any of those things, then too bad for you.

I saw her, a couple of years later, standing next to a dirty, disheveled woman on the porch of a sagging, decrepit old house just off Oliver Street, a place that got torn down a few months later.  We were collecting old newspapers for a Church fundraising drive.  The woman had Paula's filthy clothes and matted hair and haunted eyes.  Paula didn't recognize me.  We asked for papers; the woman swore at us, and they went inside.

Now I have seen those eyes dozens and dozens of times, on dozens and dozens of faces, mostly women's faces or children's faces, but not always.  They are victims' eyes.  They are the eyes of the unloved, the neglected and abused.  They are the eyes that bear witness of blood and hate and horror, and they string themselves from parents to children, as the same cruelties, the same viciousness is visited upon each succeeding generation.

Sometimes I wish I could go back and find that little girl.  Sometimes I wish I had possessed the words, the awareness, to tell my parents what was happening to Paula, so that they could have helped her.  Sometimes, I wish that I had shown more compassion, but more often, I wish that I had never seen such eyes, never known that such lives were lived.

It's easy, in the face of heartbreaking injustice, to feel self-satisfied.  We aren't those kind of people!  Our children are loved!  Our lives are clean!  We are better than that!

Breathe deep, and you will see that we all carry a faint stink of sanctimony.  We are guilty, of not loving perfectly, of not trying hard enough, of being too quick to censure, too slow to listen and to be kind.  We will let loose some tsunami -- a flash of rage, a display of impatience, a commitment broken -- that will bruise the spirits and break the hearts of the people we love, and when the storm is passed, we act as if it never happened.  We treat our behaviors like some  Disneyland ride: the waters rage and the village is wiped off the planet, our family bouncing along, hearts racing, on the crest of it, strapped down in some spinning raft.  When it's over, pumps whir and the water is returned to its holding tank, every drop. Mechanically driven chains pull taut and the grass huts and palm trees and terrified natives all crank back to their original positions.  Everything is back to normal, ready for the next performance.


Life doesn't work this way.  What we loose, ravages.  What we do, cannot be undone.  And repairing the destruction can take forever.   And without some herculean acts of self-control, the destruction repeats itself, again and again, for generation to generation.



Even if we live where the bottles break, we don't have to be the ones doing the breaking.


 

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

There Is No Such Thing as a Crane Kick


Finish Him!

I love routine.


That's not exactly true. The true lovers of routine have an apostolic devotion to it, a scary single mindedness that makes them, not robotic exactly, but surely more than human. Routine makes them champions. Ted Williams -- The Kid, the Splendid Splinter, The Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived, Teddy Ballgame -- raised routine to high art: every swing of his bat was the product of hours of repetitive practice. Wayne Gretzky was the same way, once telling reporters that nothing he ever saw in a game surprised him, because he'd "already seen it a thousand times in practice." Even the sons of Mosiah in the Book of Mormon devoted themselves to disciplined study and "much prayer and fasting," so that they could teach with the "power of God."


It's the "Wax on, Wax off" strategy: Move your left arm in a sweeping counterclockwise motion, and move your right arm in a sweeping clockwise motion, and after about ten thousand repetitions, you're ready to head down to the All-Valley Karate Tournament, and give the ol' what for to those smug pretty boys from Cobra Kai dojo.


That's not me. I'm no Sultan of Sameness, no Rajah of Routine.  I'm not disciplined enough for that.  I'm just a guy who doesn't like surprises. I take the same way to work, every day. I like vanilla ice cream, not French vanilla, not Mexican vanilla, just plain vanilla. Subway? Ham on white, please, with a mini bag of regular Lay's. Last month, I bought a new pair of New Balance sneakers, and throwing care to the wind, chose a style that featured red and blue trim, instead of my normal navy on white. I've worn them once. The red unnerves me.


I was looking for something yesterday, scrolling through a photo file, and found a bunch of images of our kids, many of them photos taken when they were just babies. I felt this enormous, almost disorienting pang of remorse, and sat and wished that they were still small and sheltered and safely tucked away with Mom and Dad. I wanted everything to be like it used to be, everything safe and certain in a nice, unsurprising, ham on white sameness. My grandmother, that tiny terror, Five Feet of Fury, used to berate my cousins Chris and Greg and me, because we'd had the temerity to grow taller than she was. She was kidding, I think -- Grandma's sense of humor tended toward the Don Rickles, "I hate you; God bless you" end of the spectrum, which is tough sledding for a twelve year old -- but I also think that our growing up was a source of sadness for her, a reminder that everything was changing.


This is no way to live.  Change is inevitable, and it is essential, and if you don't embrace it, it steamrolls you anyway. I miss the old days -- nostalgia is an essential component of the human condition -- but all of the really wonderful and joyous and exciting things that have ever happened to me, have happened because of change.  Coming to Texas was an enormous change.  Leaving for college, serving a mission, getting married, starting a family: all risky, all overwhelming, all great, shining blessings in my life.

As much as those baby pictures tugged at my heart, I'm glad we're not stuck in toddler days.  Our daughter, our only daughter, is months away from being a college student, of being "on her own" in that independent, yet bankrolled by a generous grant from the Mom and Dad Foundation way that college students are on their own. She is smart and confident and beautiful, a fully realized young woman, and only a fool would wish it any other way. Our sons, one already a man, one just stepping out of boyhood, are fully realized in their own right, filled with talents and opinions and aspirations and the thrill of discovering for themselves the paths they ought to walk.  Babies?  Babies I'll be glad for when I'm a grandfather (does that sound like Tevye?  Maybe it does.  It's raining and I'm 46 and my back is sore and I've been in such a mood for the last two days and if you can't sound a little like Tevye under those circumstances, then phooey.) 


You can't stop time. You can't go backwards; what you're looking for back there doesn't exist anymore. You can only remember the lessons you've learned, avoid the pitfalls you're experienced enough to recognize, and keep moving forward.


I've decided that I need to be better about embracing change. It's time for lunch. I'm thinking turkey on white, with barbecue chips.


Small steps.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

She's got really pretty eyes, too...



Lynda and I did not have the most conventional of courtships.  We knew each other as children in western New York, the result of Union Carbide briefly transferring her father from south Texas to Buffalo, three years of worry about frozen pipes and salt-corroded wheel wells before his grateful return to the endless, frost-free possibilities of Houston.  We met again in 1984, when we were both students at BYU, and dated, briefly, before she decided to transfer to Houston Baptist University to finish her degree, a move she insists was decided on weeks before our first date, though I have my doubts.

After that, we did not see each other for sixteen months, from December 1984 to April 1986, sixteen months of letters and phone calls.  We got engaged over the phone.  My roommates were convinced that "Lynda" was my pet name for the time and temperature recording, that the whole courtship by telephone was a sad, pathetic ruse.

There is something romantic about a long-distance romance.  It was like a Russian novel, the brave and noble young hero exiled to Siberia, the plucky, bright-eyed and achingly beautiful young heroine determined to Wait For Him, her loyalty unshakable, even in the face of famine, Winter, and the soulless cruelties of the Tsar's minions. Except I wasn't in Siberia, I was in Provo.  Actually, Provo is a lot like Siberia, only with Samoan fast food joints and an absence of onion domes.  But I digress.

The only thing that we could share during those sixteen months was the thoughts in our heads.  This was a decade before anyone had heard of emails, so it was all handwritten letters and phone calls, just us, unfiltered by distractions and friends' opinions and the sweet hypnotism of physical contact.  What I learned in those sixteen months was that this person, with the beautiful, clear penmanship and a voice that had the perfect mix of Texas lilt and the tiniest hint of a lisp, a voice that I could listen to forever, was funny and smart and interesting and challenging and made me want to be a better person.  So I asked her to marry me, and she said yes, and we eventually did just that.  It remains the wisest decision of my life.

I have always been convinced that our marriage was something that went beyond us.  Of course it is the means of bringing our children into the world, and having children together binds everything, your DNA, your relationships with siblings and parents, the uncreated conscience of your race, everything.  

Our marriage seemed to demand something extra from us. From the very beginning, ours felt like the joining of two family histories, our union blending all the unions that preceded us, two primary colors combining to form a new shade, red and blue becoming violet.  Why would we have known each other in Buffalo?  Why would we have found each other in Provo?  At the risk of going all Circle of Our Love here (the Mormon readers will wince knowingly at this cultural reference; the non-Mormon readers should feel grateful that they don't know what I'm talking about.  Seriously, 1970's musicals written specifically for a Mormon audience are bleak stuff, indeed), there are strange yin-and-yang coincidences -- my great-great-great grandfather was a Tory who participated in anti-American war crimes, hers marched in the New Hampshire Militia under the leadership of General Horatio Gates; my family joined the Mormons and quit, her family joined the Mormons at the same time, and became one of the first families to settle Salt Lake Valley; her family started in the northeast and moved west; my family started in the northeast and never went much father than New York --  it seemed there was something really important about our being together.


We celebrated our 22nd anniversary by spending a day in Austin, the not-as-weird-as-it-thinks-it-is capital of Texas.  Austin is plenty weird, especially for a state that prides itself on its pickup trucks, its big as a dinner plate belt buckles, and on the truly mind boggling variety of ways we can turn chunks of animal flesh and spices into slow smoked sausage. Hippies abound. There is an independent bookstore AND a supremely cool record shop. People ride bikes as their primary means of transportation.  Undergraduate vegetarians justify the odd trip to Lockhart for a heaping plate of Kreutz Market brisket with earnest Daily Texan essays about embracing the "Buddhist concept of The Middle Path."  It's weird enough by Texas standards, but weird writ small, nonthreatening and cute, like a frisky chihuahua standing under a "BEWARE OF ATTACK DOG!" sign.  In other places, the weird is more like a half-starved Rottweiler, crazy-eyed and mouth foaming and yearning to rip and tear at soft tissue, places like the Tenderloin in San Francisco, where I saw so much scary weirdness in so short an amount of time, I was convinced I had arrived at The End of The World.

So we went to Austin, and indulged our personal lapdogs of weird.  We ate at a charming, impeccably painted and spotlessly clean lunch trailer for Vietnamese sandwiches and chrysanthemum tea.  We rode rented bikes around Town Lake.  We listened to a tasteful little jazz combo, The Jitterbug Vipers.  And we went to beautiful Paramount Theater for a late-night revival of the John Ford classic "Drums Along The Mohawk".

We sat in the balcony of this ornate, enormous old movie house, and watched Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert in all their Technicolor glory, scratching a living out of the Mohawk Valley wilderness.  This was Ford's first color film, and he used the the technology for all it was worth: the colors explode on the screen, green greens and red reds and blue skies of almost transcendent loveliness, every shade shouting its arrival, beyond brilliant, like in a Bollywood dance number, or on the "Sergeant Pepper's" album cover.  

We're in the balcony, watching all of Henry and Claudette's hard work burn in ORANGE! and RED! and YELLOW! cruelly torched by the remorseless British and their dusky Iroquois helpmeets, and we're both rooting for The Good Guys.  Young Mr. Fonda takes up his rifle, fair Miss Colbert throws on a militiaman's coat and together they commence to whacking a whole bunch of British evildoers.  

When the fight is over, Fonda and Colbert and their little crowd of Yankees is victorious, the battlefield strewn with the smoking, lifeless remains of the King's men.  Henry strides through the carnage, square jawed and clear eyed, searching for his sweetheart.  Lynda leans over in her balcony seat, points to Fonda, and whispers, "That's my ancestor, and" Henry steps over the buckshot peppered body of a fallen British soldier, "that's your ancestor."

Jacob Anguish, wherever you are, take a moment to look up old Jabez Alexander, late of the New Hampshire Militia.  He's a farmer, like you, and a soldier, like you, even if you fought under warring flags. 


You're related by marriage.  Try not to burn his stuff.

Monday, October 19, 2009

March of the Paraprofessionals


Image courtesy of the always fascinating Shorpy.com

Old forms are fascinating things.  Once, about ten years ago, my father-in-law uncovered a meticulously kept scorecard from one of my brother-in-law's high school baseball games, and with it, he was able to recreate, nearly pitch-by-pitch, an event that had happened a long time ago.  Census forms do the same thing: read them carefully, and you feel whole neighborhoods come back to life.

The older the census, the sketchier the details.  The 1820 US census is little more than the name of the head of household, and a series of tally marks indicating the number of men, women and children living under his roof.  There are tantalizing bits of information -- the Milliman family is listed as living just a stone's throw from the Cowderys, which makes me wonder if my great-great grandmother Vesta Milliman might have known a young man by the name of Oliver -- but it is impossible trying to build something solid out of this data alone.  What you construct is shoddy and unreliable, like a log cabin built out of toothpicks: All the chinking spackle in the world can't cover the fact that you're lacking in essential raw materials.

By 1860, the report included the names of every person living in a household, their ages, birthplace, marital status, occupations, citizenship, parentage, literacy level, and the wonderful catch-all category, "Whether deaf and dumb, blind, insane, idiotic, pauper, or convict."  In the 1930 report, there's a box to indicate whether the houshold owned its own radio set (my great-grandfather Alfred McMurray, living at 624 East Thompson Street, North Tonawanda, did not own a radio, putting him in a slight minority on his block).  This is the kind of information that helps bring life to those voices out of the dust.

The "occupation" column is one of my favorites.  Scrolling down the East Thompson Street list,  there are several "laborers," working everywhere from "The Sled Factory" to "Odd Jobs."  There is a typist at the telegraph office, and a hardware store salesman, a silk factory supervisor and a city policeman, a contractor and grocery store saleslady, a carpenter and an insurance salesman, a machinist and a chauffeur and the piano factory timekeeper, all on one block of one street in a little town in upstate New York, all sorts of occupations, mostly blue collar occupations.  All sorts of ways to make a living.


No one, not on East Thompson, not in the Avenues, not anywhere that I have ever found on any of these old forms, works as a "technician."  There aren't any custodial engineers, either, though I did run across a man whose job was "sweeps up the movie theater."  And while I've come across "garbagemen" in the census lists, I've yet to see a "waste removal engineer."


We live in the age of the Glorified Job Title.  Meeting with some school board candidates on Saturday, I mentioned that their campaigns should target non-faculty employees, since most of the classroom teachers live outside of our district boundaries, and nearly all of the custodians, lunch ladies and teacher's aides live within the district.  "Don't call them that!" an aghast candidate interrupted me.  "They're paraprofessionals!  That shut me up for the rest of the meeting.

This is social alchemy, using fancy words to turn the dross of emptying trash cans and slinging mystery meat and washing glue out of kindergartners' hair into something great and golden.  It doesn't work.  Waste removal engineers are still hauling off other people's refuse.  Pool service technicians are still toting chlorine and pulling dead frogs out of skimmers.  Laborers are still laboring, sales ladies are still selling, typists are still typing, even if now they're called "data entry specialists."

We do this because we're ashamed of dirty work.  It's necessary work -- as choleric and disgusting as Victorian London was, it would have been far, far worse without the pure-finders and bone-pickers, who scavenged the streets for salable refuse, from dog excrement (used in the tanning process) to rags, bones, and scraps of wood and metal -- but it's demeaning work.  Give it a new name, preferably something that sounds vague and impressive and somehow implies that a certain amount of education was required to qualify for the position, and everyone feels better.



Dignity doesn't come from titles.  Our ancestors seemed to understand that.   


 







 


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Warren Harding

Yes, friends, today marks another exciting round of Guess the Obscure Seventies Song Reference!  Here's how we play:  the title of today's posting is also the title of an obscure song from the Seventies.  Your task is to identify the performer or performers who created the tune.  Are your ready!  OK, let's play!


Give up?  It's Al Stewart, Scotland born and Bournemouth raised, the great singer of "history songs," including "Constantinople", "The Last Day of June, 1934", "Roads to Moscow", and of course, "Warren Harding", a peppy little number, driven rather incongruously by steel drums, paralleling the rise of an immigrant turned small-time bootlegger, and the fall of America's most corrupt president (a notorious gambler, boozer and grafter, whose prodigious womanizing, according to one historian, "makes John Kennedy and Bill Clinton look like Dominican friars.")  Al Stewart continues to release beautifully written, exquisitely played music.  While more famous contemporaries are content to be slightly creepy nostalgia acts (can you believe there was once a time when Elton John was taken seriously as a singer-songwriter?), Al Stewart is still creating art that is relevant, thought-provoking, and just plain wonderful.  Spend some money.  Buy "A Beach Full of Shells" or "Between the Wars" or just about anything else in his catalog.  You won't regret it.


In "Warren Harding", a recently landed immigrant complains, "I got no shoes upon my feet, I've been all day with nothing to eat, It sure gets hard down here in the street, but I know where I'm gonna be..."  He gets there, security and stature, the American Dream, by getting involved in the bootlegging business.  The immigrant scrambles to make it, while the old order, the Warren Hardings, "play cards in a smoke filled room, winning and losing, filling the time."

Americans are fascinated by immigrants.  We're scared to death of them, demonize them at every opportunity, but we can't stop looking.  They come here, usually poor and always desperate, speaking languages unfamiliar to us, looking unlike the rest of us, eating strange foods and practicing strange customs.  Old Mr. Potter in "It's A Wonderful Life" dismisses the immigrant customers of Bailey Building and Loan as "a bunch of garlic eaters."  He wasn't, of course, adverse to moving their house notes over to his bank: It doesn't matter what color you are, so long as your cash is green.


It has always been this way.  Benjamin Franklin spoke out against anti-German movements, way back in the 1760's.  The Palatines, Germanic people who settled in the Mohawk River Valley, were often ostracized and mistreated.  A few years back, historian Eric Rauchway wrote a fascinating book called Murdering McKinley, which examined the ways that anarchist Leon Czolgosz's assasination of the president unleashed a storm of pent-up mistrust of eastern European immigrants, particularly Poles and, since they were central to the anarchist movement, Jews.  The anti-Catholic "No Nothing" movement in the 1850s, the efforts to outlaw the Mormon Church (its phenomenal 19th century growth driven in large part by the emmigration of thousands of European converts), organized opposition to Irish and Italian immigration in the 19th and early 20th century are all examples of the fear that drives us when a stranger comes to the table.

What is amazing about the immigrant is that somehow, no matter the opposition, he finds a way not only to become accepted into American culture, but to become a driving force in that culture.  It seems silly today, but there was a time in this country when sane, responsible citizens were convinced that the Pope had orchestrated the influx of thousands of his Polish, Italian, and Irish followers, and had given them clear instructions to procreate, procreate, procreate in order to drive the White Race into extinction, and remake the United States as a Catholic homeland.  Last time I checked, we aren't speaking some sad pidgin mash-up of Italian, Polish, and English, delivered in a thick brouge -- "Sure and I'ma gonna buy me some kielbasa down to the wee drogheria, you bet! Abbondanza!" -- and the Pope doesn't run the government.  Our culture has been changed: from the Marx Brothers to Frank Sinatra to Stan Musial to Carlos Santana to Duke Ellington to Jackie Roosevelt Robinson, immigrants and their children and children's children have lifted us, improved us, made us more American. 

On May 24, 1911, a seventeen year old boy named Piotr Litwin landed at Ellis Island.  He was from a little farming community, a tiny spot on the map called Wylewa, in southeastern Poland, less than 20 miles from the Ukrainian border.  He was five feet, one inch tall, had black hair and brown eyes, and was in good health.  He told government inspectors that he been a farm hand in Poland, and that he was headed to Tonawanda, New York, to live with his father, Jan Litwin.

Piotr traveled with three others, all from Wylewa or from a neighboring village called Dobra.  There was Leon Bumoski, age 25, Adam Kwansicwicz, and Pavel Rojek, both seventeen years old.  (The last names may not be spelled correctly; the documents are very, very hard to read, as if the person writing things down was in a big hurry.)  Leon, the oldest, was a red head, with grey eyes.  The other two boys were fair, blonde haired and blue eyed.  They had come across the Atlantic on the SS Bremen, a ship that a year later would pass through the debris field left ny the sinking of the Titanic, passengers and crew reporting that hundreds of frozen corpses were floating on the ocean surface.



The Bremen in her prime


The Bremen was a workhorse, employed to transport the poor, the tired, the huddled masses from the docks of northern Germany to America's golden door.  Piotr would have seen all of it: the turrets and towers of Coney Island's pleasure palaces; the endless wharves and docks of Brooklyn and red Hook; the great throbbing energy of Manhattan; the verdigris colossus, raising her torch just for him.  He surely spoke not a word of English, this child, this farm boy, but those sights made his eyes shine and put a thrill down his spine and made him believe that God was in His heaven and anything was possible.


He appears to make quick progress, one he arrives in North Tonawanda.  The Poles lived, for the most part, in the Avenues.  If massive, red bricked OLC Church was the heart of the neighborhood, then Oliver Street was its circulatory system, the street lined with delis and butchers and barbers and bakeries.  Across the street from the parish there was a pharmacist.  A few doors up the street was the hardware store.  A few blocks the other way was the Dom Polski hall, the influential community organization.  Go back the other way, and there was the sprawling Buffalo Bolt factory; if you didn't work there yourself, you had a son or daughter or husband or wife who did.  (It seems like Avenue resident in the records of the era lists his or her employer as "B B Inc.")  Piotr was part of all of this, part of this city within a city, this place where you were as likely to hear Polish as English, and where the aroma of dinner cooking as often as not carried the scent of fried onions and stewing cabbage.


On 10 February 1915, Piotr married Rosalia Rusin, herself an immigrant girl, in OLC Church:


Image kindly provided by Steve Litwin

In 1920, they were living in a house on Seventh Avenue, sharing the property with two other families.  Their family now included Mary, Helen, and Joseph, and Piotr and Rosalia were now Peter and Rose.  The census records show that they still claimed Polish as their spoken language, but their Americanization was in full swing:  the census recorder had initially listed "Polish" as the preferred language of little Mary, Helen, and Joseph, but the entry is marked out with a large, black "X", as if the parents had corrected him, had insisted that no, we speak Polish, but our children are English speakers.  They are Americans.

By 1927, Peter had moved the family to a place of their own, at 671 Oliver Street.  He was no longer working at the bolt factory; a city directory lists his occupation as "barber" (but we all know that story!).  In the 1930 census, the Litwin family has grown to include four more children: Sophie; Roman (also known as Ray); Henry ("Uncle Jumbo); and Alice (another child, Loretta, or Lolly, was yet to come).  He lists the value of his home at $5400, the equivalent of about $70,000 today.  He was active in his parish, and at Dom Polski.  He was a member of the Tonawandas chapter of the St. Joseph Society, a benevolent association that provided insurance, scholarships, and cultural opportunities for Polish-American immigrants and their children:



Peter is front row, second from left.  The man to his left may be Joseph Cyrna, his maternal grandfather.
Photo is kindly provided by Steve Litwin


Peter remade himself, from Polish farmboy to immigrant factory worker to respected, successful American small businessman.  One of his children, Ray, was a member of the US Army Air Corps, defending America in the European Theater.  His grandchildren and great-grandchildren have become poets and teachers, physicians and attorneys, mothers and musicians and small businessmen themselves.  They are, to their boots, American.  They are because Piotr saw the possibilities, took the chances, knew where he needed to be, and said, "I am Peter now."

The next time you think it's a good idea to build a fence on our southern border, or you get disgusted because the guy waiting on you at the grocery store struggles with his English, you remember Piotr Litwin, and understand that these new immigrants, this army of Juans and Kofis and Tuans and Gamals are the kinsmen of the all the Piotrs who came before them.  They know where they want to be, what they want for their children, and soon enough they will be John and Charley and Tom and Gary, and their children will be laughing and talking in English, dreaming in English, and we will be the better for it, the richer for it.

 (One important note.  There are actually two Peter Litwins who lived in North Tonawanda.  One was our ancestor.  The other, who lived 696 Oliver Street in 1927, and on Seventh Avenue in 1930, was married to Anna, and had children named Francis, Florenz, Edward and Stanley.  There have been many instances where I believe that our Peter Litwin has been mistaken for this Peter Litwin by family history researchers.)