No doubt the star of this posting will be Carol’s photographs, so I urge you to hang in to the end to take them all in.
She and I spent New Year’s Day in an unlikely place: Philadelphia. Unlikely, because we had long figured that Philly’s cherished New Year’s Mummers Parade would be an earnest, energetic, moderately photogenic, but amateurish and intoxicated exhibition of street theater. On an inhospitably frigid January day, to boot.
These folks didn’t look too unkempt back in 1909. (Library of Congress)
I had seen a few black-and-white photos of costumed Mummers who looked like your scruffy cousin Fred and his dissolute pal Al, paying off a lost wager. Carol, who had lived in Philadelphia for eight years some time ago, never once left the house to catch a Mummers Parade. From what she had heard and had seen on TV, she assumed the procession would be rowdy and, well, tacky.
But we headed north from our Maryland home to see it anyway this year, mostly to reconnect with old friends and to chuck a few new entries into Carol’s photo archive.
And oh, how wrong we were about the nature and quality of the Mummers’ festivities, and how glad we are that we went.
This was no free-form street happening, no bacchanal with bands. The Mummers Parade — the 111th on 1/1/11! — was a daylong procession of performances that were mirthful, magical, mind-bending, and memorable beyond our wildest expectations.
Captain Charlie Roetz and his Quaker City String Band’s “My Kind of Clown” finished first in the tough String Bands Division. (Carol M. Highsmith)
They were a glittering necklace of musical and dance productions that Broadway choreographers would be hard-pressed to match.
Trust me, this is saying something, coming from devotees of Mardi Gras. To our astonishment, the Mummers outdid New Orleans’s costumed street epic in many ways.
At the latter, crowds of excited tourists and lubricated locals — drinking is cheerfully tolerated on the streets of the Big Easy — yell themselves hoarse begging trinkets from masquers passing in review. These “krewe” members ride high atop themed floats that are recycled from year to year.
A comic club’s cadre, large and small, cavort — in “golden” slippers, of course. (Carol M. Highsmith)
By contrast, Philly’s Mummers walk, run, and dance — quite a few bobbing parasols as they go — block after block amidst the crowd in original costumes each year, sometimes in formation, sometimes in joyous, helter-skelter waves. Their bent-knee struts are a Mummer trademark, said to be inspired by the 19th-century “cakewalk.”
Replete with bending and bowing, this dance began as a competition — for which fancy cakes were the prize — among plantation masters and slaves in the pre-Civil War South. The cakewalk “went national” in Philadelphia, coincidentally, at the 1876 world’s fairthat celebrated the centennial of American independence. Read the rest of this entry »
Most decent computer document programs include “spell-checker” software on which students and even some professional writers quickly come to rely.
Spell-checkers would do well in spelling bees. Or would they? (Artman1122, Flickr Creative Commons)
As they type away, the spell-checker miraculously sniffs out words that appear to be improperly spelled. It does this in nanoseconds by comparing each one against its storehouse of correctly spelled words. For poor or tentative spellers, this is the best thing since sliced bread.
Some computer spell-sleuths just highlight suspicious words and let the writer decide what to do. More assertive programs barge right in and change the spelling according to what they deduce belongs there.
As I was batting out the previous sentence, for instance, I deliberately mistyped the word “assertive,” giving it just one “s.” My spell-checker fixed it before I had even finished the word.
If I absolutely DID want it spelled “asertive” for some reason, I’d have had to stop and backspace out the second “s.” This would have irritated the haughty spell-checker, which would immediately underline “asertive” in red, as if to say, “Don’t blame ME for this, you bonehead.”
After enough of these battles of wits, some writers just let the spell-checkers “fix” whatever words they see fit to fix.
A visual metaphor for the lazy computer user — notice the mouse — who’s too reliant upon spell-checkers to clean up his or her copy. (Public Domain Photos, Flickr Creative Commons)
Reliance on these electronic copy editors is producing a nation of lazy spellers. They’ve discovered that even those who can’t spell “cat” can now crank out presentable papers.
But spell-checkers can do more dramatic damage. Three years ago, I told our VOA audience about what happened to some unfortunate folks at Middletown Area High School in Pennsylvania.
Like most U.S. secondary schools and colleges, Middletown High publishes a yearbook full of photographs and stories about its students, faculty, and activities. Yearbooks are keepsakes that can be touchstones of memories for generations to come.
The company producing Middletown High’s annual book deployed the hottest and latest electronic proofreading software to edit the yearbook’s text. A little too hot, as it turned out. Its hyper-aggressive spell-checker ran amok, overriding and replacing several people’s names. The spell program turned poor Max Zupanovic, for instance, into “Max Supernova.” How did Zupanovic become Supernova? Ask the lamebrain computer. Read the rest of this entry »
The other day I came upon a script of a VOA story that I had put together nine years ago. It was entitled, “Christmas Memories,” and it wasn’t a story so much as stories, warm reminiscences told in thin and sometimes crackly voices by men and women who lived in retirement homes — they used to call them “old-folks’ homes” — in the Washington, D.C. area.
Some of their backs were bowed, their gaits a shuffle, their hair turned thin and silver or tinted blue. Brothers and sisters and old playmates were gone. Names and dates and adventures were hard to pull from the fogbank of time.
A little girl wonders whether this is where Santa lives. I’ve picked just old-timey photos to illustrate this posting, in keeping with the times in which the elderly folks in my story enjoyed Christmas as kids. (Library of Congress)
But Christmas magic refreshed the child in those who played and prayed on that Christian holiday as little ones, long ago. The very mention of Christmas brought a shy smile, a twinkle of recollection — even, with a little prompting, a carol that they once sang heartily while gathered with family and friends around the piano.
No doubt many of the people whom I met that day are now gone, too. But their words endure for millions of others, me included, who treasure Christmas as much for the memories it leaves as for the delights of the day. So I thought you’d like to read some of those words and perhaps take a moment, too, to think back, wistfully, to warm childhood moments, whether or not the memories are triggered by the Christmas season.
Lawrence Friel was five when his mother died in the terrible influenza epidemicof 1918. His father worked nights as a locomotive mechanic in the sooty coal town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania.
Santa was plenty real to these children. (Library of Congress)
“I always wanted a wheelbarrow,” he told me. “I don’t know why, ‘cause I didn’t like workin’.” He laughed heartily here. “Always wanted a drum because I liked to make noise. And I got the wheelbarrow. That was a happy Christmas morning. And I got that drum at the same time. ‘Course I always believed in Santa Claus, hearing all that noise of Dad bringing that wheelbarrow in late at night. I guess it did snow that Christmas. You know, everybody looks for snow on Christmas to satisfy Santa Claus.
“We always thought Santa brought the snow with him.”
“Did you miss your mom that Christmas?” I asked him.
“Oh, my goodness, yes. I didn’t know what a mom was. I still miss my Mom today. I’m 89 years old.” And he laughed robustly again.
Eva Eden was 97 years old when we spoke. One of four children, she grew up near her senior-citizen residence in the Georgetown section of Washington. Her father, a bridge-builder, and her mother would sneak up to the attic on Christmas eve to get the family’s presents and the Christmas ornaments. When Eva, her sister, and two brothers came down Christmas morning, they found a whole snowy village surrounding the decorated tree. Read the rest of this entry »
In 1897, the gifted American humorist Mark Twaindashed off a note to the New York Herald newspaper. The recent rumor of his death, he wrote, “was an exaggeration.”
Can the same be said for the death knells that are ringing for American radio? Let’s look back.
Early TV seemed like a miracle, all right. But we still listened to new-fangled transitor radio. (John Atherton, Wikipedia Commons)
Television was absolutely going to kill off radio when thenew mediumboomed into American homes in the 1950s. Instead, radio flourished as the transistor brought perky music and glib disc jockeys into cars and portable radios. Medium-wave radio, especially, was pronounced dead when FM stations offering rich, static-free sound caught the public’s fancy. But medium wave lives on as a source for news and conversation — for now.
When Congress relaxed ownership rules in the 1990s, big corporations gobbled up radio stations by the hundreds. They installed computerized formats, jacked up the number of commercials, and raked in fat profits. Soon, radio sounded pretty much the same from coast to coast.
Now, as the Wall Street Journal put it, domestic radio is “bleeding.”
Many medium-wave stations have gone out of business or become fringe operations in which entrepreneurs buy air-time from the stations and use it to aggressively sell their products. You hear long-winded pitches for life insurance, retirement investments, and geriatric drugs of all sorts, since the dreaded “55+” crowd predominates in the medium-wave audience.
A lot of people, including me, have turned away from radio just because of the incessant, intrusive commercials. (Wikipedia Commons)
Listening to some AM (medium wave) stations, you can imagine what carnival hucksters selling snake-oil miracle cures must have sounded like a few generations ago.
I say “dreaded 55+,” thinking back to my own days as an AM news director in three large markets: Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and New Orleans. And, believe it or not, our Washington station, which played lots of music as well as covering the news, had an astounding 25 people in its news department.
Today, AM stations count themselves lucky if they have anyone at all covering local news.
Even in the halcyon days, three decades and more ago, station managers and program directors were scrounging for “younger demographics” because younger people were bigger spenders. Ergo, more advertisers would buy “spots” to reach them. Older listeners were — and are — loyal, listen to a program longer than impatient young listeners, and generally have more money to spend than do younger people. Read the rest of this entry »
Somehow I feel ritzy, elite, just writing the name.
If you’ve ever seen a classic black-and-white Hollywood movie such as “Sunset Strip,” there’s almost certain to be a reference, if not a celluloid visit, to the “resort city to the stars.”
Pedestrian-friendly downtown Palm Springs has a Mediterranean feel. (Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism)
This California desert town of 48,000 or so people ranks with places such as Malibu and Beverly Hills in the L.A. area, Greenwich in Connecticut, Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Long Island’s “Gold Coast,” and another “Palm” — the one followed by “Beach” in Florida — among the nation’s aristocratic addresses.
But Palm Springs stands alone in one category: it is considered the “Mecca of Modernism” — the most concentrated collection of mid-twentieth century modern architecture on earth.
“Desert Modernism,” the style is sometimes called. It saved Palm Springs from the relentless onslaught of faux-Spanish, red-tiled houses that overtook much of the rest of Southern California.
This is a modernist Palm Springs home, not a fire station! (Carol M. Highsmith)
To be fair, I know about as much about architecture as I do about, oh, Etruscan pottery. I couldn’t tell a finial from a newel post. And as you know if you’ve been with me for awhile, Carol’s and my tastes run toward cozy Victorian, not angular modernist.
But I respect what I read about Palm Springs’s ambitious architecture. I know what Carol and I saw: more glass walls and long, low roofs — and decadent swimming pools — than we’d ever seen in one place.
And I know what Robert Imber told us.
Imber, a Midwesterner who vacationed in Palm Springs before finally moving there, is now a passionate writer about, and preservationist of, the city’s Desert Modern treasures. He’s also guide to them, via minivan or, if you prefer, two-wheeled Segway “self-balancing transportation devices.” (We took the van.) Read the rest of this entry »
The “SportsCenter Effect” on American life is seductive and, in the view of many observers, insidious. “SportsCenter,” which showcases highlights of the day’s action in professional and amateur sports, is the signature program of the cable television sports network ESPN. Many of the plays that are spotlighted are stunningly violent. Helmet-to-helmet collisions, savage bodychecks into unyielding boards, and full-bore launches of muscular athletes into the heads and backs, kidneys and knees of vulnerable opponents have proven to be surefire audience-getters.
Medical personnel check Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Jordan Shipley after he absorbed a violent hit from T.J. Ward of the Cleveland Browns. Shipley suffered a concussion, and the league fined Ward $15,000 for his actions. (Tony Dejak/AP)
Those crunching “hits” — today’s term, replacing “tackles” and “checks” — make an impression, not just on viewers for whom American-style football, in particular, is a vicarious thrill, but also on young athletes, who cannot help but conclude that all-out assaults on other players will get them noticed, recruited, and, one day, extremely well-paid. Techniques that emphasize “wrapping up” your opponent and bringing him to the ground in workmanlike fashion are as quaint as leather helmets.
Every day on sports broadcasts and sports-talk shows, I hear commentators — ex-athletes in the main — laud the most ferocious players as “predators,” “assassins,” “cavemen,” “heat-seeking missiles,” “beasts,” and “attack dogs.” Producers of sports highlight packages — including the National Football League itself — happily promote clips of vicious collisions in which one player “blows up” another, in today’s vernacular — to the beat of a kind of macho music once reserved for war movies.
Big cat with an attitude? Or today’s pro athlete? (Tambako the Jaguar, Flickr Creative Commons)
You’d have to be terribly naïve to miss the message from these presentations: Merely vigorous competition without brutality is for losers and sissies.
Some social scientists believe the SportsCenter Effect that glorifies mayhem has even contributed to a rash of violent confrontations on the sidelines and in the stands at amateur sporting events. Incidents of fans attacking coaches, game officials, and each other occur almost routinely, even at tiny-tots’ games. Read the rest of this entry »
With an opening line like that, I could go in a million different directions, but as promised in a recent posting, I want to discuss bed-and-breakfast inns. On that subject, there are indeed two kinds of people, at least among those who have ever stayed at one: those who adore “B&Bs” and those who — hate is too strong a word — dislike and avoid them.
Hence my title: “DB&Bs”: delightful bed-and-breakfast inns, or dreaded ones, depending upon how you feel about them.
For reasons that a couple of tales will explain in a bit, Carol and I skew toward the “dread” end of the scale. We prefer the predictable presentation, the points we earn toward free future stays, and the blessed anonymity of decent chain motels.
In our fantasies, at least, “getting away from it all” includes a week of relaxation — fishing, perhaps, and lots of hikes and long snoozes at your B&B — in a location such as this, on Fish Lake, Alaska. (Carol M. Highsmith)
To a lot of people — us included at first — cozy bed-and-breakfast inns are alluring. (“Cozy” or “quaint” is an obligatory part of their descriptions in brochures and online, and you can be sure that they’re always “nestled” or “tucked” into some picturesque location.)
Who doesn’t want cozy? You’ve spent month after recent month confined to the same-old house or apartment or condo that you have to clean and maintain, or pay someone else to. You love sumptuous homes with high ceilings, gnarled furniture, unusual nooks (and unexpected crannies), perhaps a ghost or two, interesting ownership histories, and lovely gardens with comfy lawn chairs on which to read a book and listen to the whippoorwills.
Inviting, eh? Who has time at home to make the place so welcoming?
A little pampering’s nice, too. When you arrive at the B&B, you’ll likely be offered a glass or two or three of sherry or a local wine and some nibbles. Your pillows will be soft and fluffed. The place really will be “nestled” in a lovely and quiet neighborhood. Unlike a bored motel clerk, your enthusiastic innkeeper and her or his mate will know all about nearby attractions, and can recommend a truly good place to have dinner.
Next morning, she or he, not you or your partner for a change, will be the one rising early, rustling up breakfast, and doing the dishes afterward. You can picture it now: not a B&B but an R&R: a rest-and-relaxation inn. Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve been buzzing about the country for the past three weeks, getting as far from our Washington, D.C.-based home as the northwestern tip of the other Washington in the Pacific Northwest. Over the next few posts, I’ll tell you about some places and things I encountered in this 11,000-km journey, and about the joys of long-distance automobile travel.
I’m kidding about the “joys” part.
As I travel, I read a lot of local newspapers as well as USA Today and, when I can get it, the New York Times. The real, tactile versions, not the “e-book” editions. With real newsprint, I can underline things, rip out articles, and stuff them in my travel bag, next to the shaving cream.
When I unpacked, the bag bulged with newspaper fragments, each telling an interesting, if not earth-shaking story. Here are a few that I set aside:
Been Burgled? Complete Form 0673-B
American cities and towns have plenty of crime to fight. Muggings, drug deals, gang violence, and worse.
Someone breaking in? If you’re home at the time, you can probably call the 911 emergency line. If not, don’t bother.
But ordinary home burglaries, vandalism, and swindles are crimes, too, and they’re anything but routine to their victims. They’re usually not violent offenses, but they can cause great anguish, outrage, and financial distress. The victims want them solved and the crooks arrested.
But budget cuts and strains on resources brought on by the tight economy have forced both big cities such as Oakland, California, and small towns like Norton, Massachusetts, to tell victims of property crimes and theft, in so many words:
“Really sorry to hear about what happened. Here’s the URL of an online site where you can fill out a form and describe what took place. We’re kind of busy right now and won’t be stopping by. But rest assured: if we run across the evildoers, we’ll lock ’em up, lickety-split! Have a good day, and send a copy to your insurance company.”
As an Oakland police spokeswoman told USA Today, “If you come home to find your house burglarized and you call, we’re not coming,”
Don’t call us. And we won’t be calling you.
You’ll need everything but this pen when you report a crime online. Where it goes from there, or whether anyone ever reads it, is a good question.
Police in cities such as Tulsa, Oklahoma — which lost 13 percent of its 839 officers to budget slashes — are finding that a lot of citizens, who figure that the paperwork will end up in the bottom of some drawer, aren’t even bothering to fill out reports. In Norton, outside Boston, police told residents that there’s only a slight chance that anyone would show up to take reports on vandalism and other property crimes. So they shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the cruiser.
There’s a danger inherent in this cavalier attitude toward “petty” crime. It brings to mind a word for one possible reaction when people think the protection of their homes, vehicles, and themselves is up to them and them alone.
That’s the kind of question one usually asks while in the midst of existential angst.
But every year, untroubled American women pose the question as well.
Women rather than men, because we men are born Theodore W. Landphair or John H. Jones and remain Landphairs and Joneses the rest of our lives. In that sense, at least, we know who we’ve been, who we are, and who we’re going to be.
Mr. Ochocinco was still Chad Johnson when this colorful photo was taken. (Wikipedia Commons)
Unless, of course, we, like the American football player Chad Johnson, don’t like our names, determine to officially change them, and get a judge to sign off on it. Johnson, who wears No. 85 for the Cincinnati Bengals, is now, quite legally, Chad Ochocinco. Ocho cinco is Spanish for “eight five.” Mr. Ochocinco apparently didn’t know, or didn’t care, that “85” translates as ochenta y cinco. Maybe there wasn’t room on his jersey.
But back to the ladies.
For generations, it was traditional for an American woman who wed to take her husband’s last name. Upon marrying James Davis, Mary Robinson would — often giddily and gladly — become “Mary Davis,” or, just as proudly, “Mrs. James Davis.” Read the rest of this entry »
After reading my post about suburbia a couple of times back, my colleague Penelope Poulou, who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, pointed out that even though Alexandria is considered part of suburban Washington, D.C., the city of 145,000 people is nothing like stereotypical modern suburbs.
Founded in 1749, 52 years before Washington even existed, Alexandria was a thriving river port. But by the time planners of the nation’s new capital city had finished, Alexandria and part of neighboring Arlington had been excised from Virginia, renamed “Alexandria County,” and placed within the new, diamond-shaped federal “District of Columbia.”
Click on this map of the locations of Alexandria and Georgetown, and it changes to reveal the progression of the nation’s capital into the city we know today. (epicAdam, Wikipedia Commons)
Also within the new, 100-square-mile (259 km2), diamond-shaped, federal district — on what had been Maryland land across the Potomac River — lay Georgetown, another little port town that’s now a chi-chi Washington neighborhood; an area next to Georgetown called “Washington City,” earmarked for new federal buildings; and surrounding woods, brambles, and low hills in what was called “Washington County.”
All, including Alexandria, I repeat, within the new federal district that no longer belonged to any state.
As a teeming center of the southern slave trade, Alexandria chafed under federal control, even though the commissioners who ran the young capital city paid it little mind. They were too busy trying to get the government functioning across the river.
This was an Alexandria slave pen and auction house, photographed in 1862 after the Union Army had crossed the Potomac to occupy the city. (Library of Congress)
Eventually, in 1846, Congress washed its hands of Alexandria and Arlington and retroceded them to Virginia, only to see the state secede from the Union 17 years later to join a confederacy of disgruntled southern states. Federal troops hurriedly crossed the Potomac and occupied what had once been Washington’s own Virginia neighborhoods in order to keep the Confederate army at arms’ length — pun intended — from the capital.
The point of this historical interlude is that Alexandria and many other old, close-in suburbs of America’s big cities have rich histories of their own that far predate suburban tract developments that, much later, would sprout from farm fields outside of town.
And here’s something that caught my eye: CNNMoney.com, an online business magazine, recently published its annual list of the nation’s 100 “Best Places to Live” among America’s small cities.
There wasn’t much to Centreville, Virginia — it certainly wasn’t surburbia — in 1862, shortly before the second Battle of Bull Run (Second Manassas to the Confederates, who prevailed in that battle. (Library of Congress)
Alexandria finished 47th. That’s reasonably impressive, although one other Virginia city finished ahead of it in 30th place. It’s Centreville, in Fairfax County, west of Alexandria near the Manassas Civil War battlefield — called “Bull Run” by the Yankees of the North. Centreville’s a typical, well-to-do, unincorporated suburban boomtown of luxury townhomes, single-family developments, and enormous shopping malls.
Among a very few attributes that CNNMoney.com credited to Centreville was this: “Washington, D.C., is anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour and a half away, depending on traffic.”
It’s 40 minutes away, all right — in the middle of the night. The grinding rush-hour commute into town on Northern Virginia’s clogged roads is far closer to the hour-and-a-half drive.
You sure can’t see a Blue Ridge Mountain scene like this from congested Centreville today, but you can get there in less than an hour. (Brendan Reals)
Asked about Centreville’s surprise showing on the “best places” list, some Facebook contributors praised its schools and waxed nostalgic about the days when they could putter out two-lane roads to picnic in the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. But others bemoaned the paving of a rural paradise. “Just looks like a big strip mall with big box chains, tract developments, McMansions and fast food joints,” wrote Andrew Wilson. “Have the people who created this list even been there?”
Two other small Virginia cities — Chesapeake (85th) and Suffolk (91st), both in the “Tidewater” area near the Chesapeake Bay — made it into CNNMoney’s Top 100 list as well.
All of which gets me thinking about the “Old Dominion.” That term was given to Virginia by King Charles II of England in 1660 for the colony’s steadfast loyalty to the crown during the English Civil War. He even added Virginia’s coat of arms to his shield, joining those of his other dominions: England, Ireland, and Scotland.
Allow me to tell you more about Virginia’s history. Next posting, we’ll cast an eye on other parts of “Old Virginny,” where, as we hear in an 1878 tune by James A. Bland that became the official state song, “the cotton and corn and taters grow.”
It was to that place, in the same song, written 13 years after southern slaves had been freed, that an “old darkey” sang that his “heart am long’d to go.” Even though Bland, its songwriter, was an African-American minstrel, his fond recollections of laboring “so hard for Old Massa” didn’t sound so peachy more than a century later. In 1997, the Virginia General Assembly declared that “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” would henceforth be the commonwealth’s state song emeritus.
The Latin motto meaning “Thus Always to Tyrants!” — the same words spoken by John Wilkes Booth after he fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln — appears on the Virginia flag, in which the goddess Virtus (Virtue) subdues a Tyrant.
If you’re curious about the term ”commonwealth, Virginia is one of four U.S. states that call themselves by that name. Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania are the others. The word has no particular legal meaning. I suspect that leaders in these places thought it would give their states a bit of snob appeal.
Nowadays, Virginia is for Lovers, or so the commonwealth’s slogan goes.
History lovers, especially. Its domain, which winds along the Atlantic Ocean and down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, was named in the early 17th Century, when all of newly discovered North America that was not Spanish or French was called “Virginia” after Elizabeth, England’s “Virgin Queen.”
Not surprisingly, you’ll find this statue of Thomas Jefferson at his own national memorial in Washington. But you’ll also find dozens of others around his home state of Virginia, including another splendid one at his namesake hotel in Richmond. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Thomas Jefferson, destined to be the nation’s first secretary of state and third president, surveyed much of Virginia and set an “exact description of the limits and boundaries” in 1781. But its borders were inexact out west. On a map Virginia stretched far across the Appalachians and onward to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers on the extremities of the land known to whites. On paper, the early commonwealth was one-third larger than the entire British motherland.
Jefferson’s name resounds to this day throughout ancestor-worshipping Virginia. Veteran statehouse observers in its capital, Richmond, would be hard-pressed to recall the last important political speech that did not invoke Jefferson’s words. And the proclamations of other legendary Virginians — including the first U.S. president, George Washington; the 28th, Woodrow Wilson; and five other presidents born in Virginia — also have as much currency as they did generations ago.
More than one Virginia visitor has gazed at a nearby thicket through the morning mist and imagined a Rebel column stirring as in Civil War times, or tarried on a great, white portico and thought of the inspiring oratory that sounded some of the first calls for American freedom.
This shows Virginia in geographical context. Both West Virginia and Kentucky to the west were originally part of the commonwealth. (NationalAtlasl.com).
But Virginia defies stereotyping as a stuffy time capsule. In this single state — shaped a bit like a wood plane whose high “knob” reaches up to Washington, flat bottom runs along the North Carolina border, and thin, pointed prow jabs far into Appalachia — one can leave the glistening strand of Virginia Beach for indolent swamps, cotton and tobacco fields, apple orchards, plantation homes, reborn colonial villages, wayside taverns, giant clothing and tobacco factories, an array of amazing caverns, the remnants of epic battlefields, and parallel mountain spines that stretch almost 650 km (400 miles) from Maryland to Tennessee.
And there are plenty of Centreville-style suburban plats as well.
No single metropolis dominates. Tourists enjoy the easygoing charms of Norfolk (deepwater ships), Roanoke (mountain music and art), Danville (old mills and warehouses), Lynchburg (abundant nearby battlefields), and Richmond, which for a time was also the capital city of the entire rebellious Confederacy.
Still, it is the old, more than anything new, that makes Virginia unequalled in the land. This, after all, is the place that thought of itself as old even in the Civil War of the 1860s, when Confederate General George Pickett shouted to his troops, “Up, men, and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia” before leading the last, desperate charge up Cemetery Ridge at the Battle of Gettysburgin Pennsylvania.
Matoaka, whose childhood nickname was “Pocahantas” (Little Woman), was an Indian chief’s daughter. She helped the white settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, and married one of them. Her statue can be found at the Colonial National Historical Park in Yorktown. (Carol M. Highsmith)
How old? Colonization began soon after the dawn of the 17th century, on May 13, 1607, when three vessels commissioned by the Virginia Company of London landed at Jamestown and began the first permanent settlement in the New World. An earlier colonization attempt at Roanoke Island, in what was then Virginia and is now North Carolina, was such a failure that no trace of it or its inhabitants has been found. According to legend, Pocahontas, daughter of the Indian chief Powhatan, would save Captain John Smith from a violent death at Jamestown.
Smith not only prospered; he even wrote a Historie of Virginia that became a prized book on the shelves of Virginia’s gentry. Think of it! Europeans had barely landed before they were writing histories of the place! Virginia was for History Lovers even then.
By 1618 the colony had achieved enough stability to convene a House of Burgesses, the first democratically elected legislative body in the New World. As settlement spread, three levels of Virginia society emerged: planters — chiefly of tobacco — who held most of the legislative seats; middle-class “yeomen”; and non-free laborers, including white indentured servants and ever-increasing numbers of black slaves.
Virginians called the planters “cavaliers.” There aren’t many of them left, but the term remains the nickname of the sports teams at the state university in Charlottesville.
The Sir Christopher Wren Building, constructed in 1700, at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, is the second-oldest academic structure still in use in America. It is named for the famous English architect who, some say, drew the plans for the building. (Library of Congress)
Plantation farming spread westward to the “middle colony” around Williamsburg, and beyond to “frontier land” in the densely forested mountains. By 1693, Virginia Colony was prosperous enough to establish a college, William & Mary — named for England’s new monarchs — in Williamsburg, which would soon become the colonial capital.
Tobacco dominated Virginia’s economy. By 1730, more than 9 million kilos (20 million pounds) of Virginia tobacco were shipped to England annually. Slaves, who had been 9 percent of Virginia’s inhabitants in 1700, would comprise 40 percent of a larger population 50 years later.
Future revolutionaries, including George Washington, cut their teeth in battle in the western mountains — “western” being a relative term, since the “West” then lay just over the eastern Appalachians — during the French and Indian War. In 1767, two years after the Treaty of Paris ended that conflict, frontier lawyer Patrick Henry rose in the House of Burgesses to denounce the British Stamp Act, which taxed the colonies without their approval. “If this be treason,” he thundered, “make the most of it.”
Revolution was in the air. Virginian Richard Bland — a white patrician who most likely was not an ancestor of the black “Old Virginny” songwriter — produced a pamphlet, An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies, that declared the colonies to be “no part of the British Empire” but independent entities loyal to the crown. Declaring his sympathy with colonists in Massachusetts who had dumped British tea into Boston harbor, Patrick Henry, again, told a meeting of colonists in Richmond:
Gentlemen may cry “Peace! Peace!” but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! . . . Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!
After the revolution began in 1775, most of the fighting involving Virginians occurred in the West — today’s Midwest. But the climactic American victory took place on Virginia soil in 1781 at Yorktown, where the British, to the beat of an apt old tune, “The World Turned Upside Down,” marched in defeat to their ships and an ignominious sail home.
Matters would turn complex for the new commonwealth — and nation — as slavery took root. Within a year of the Revolutionary War peace treaty, Virginia ceded the vast territory northwest of its mountains for future national expansion. In 1792, Kentucky — directly to the west, where slavery was only a here-and-there institution — broke away to become the nation’s 15th state. And when civil war visited Virginia 70 years later, its mountainous, non-slaveholding counties would leave, too, to form West Virginia.
The Manassas Battlefield National Park commemorates two epic U.S. Civil War battles west of Washington, including the first big battle of the war. Union soldiers named the conflicts after Bull Run, a little stream that flows nearby. Confederate forces won both battles but did not advance on Washington. (Carol M. Highsmith)
As the Confederate state nearest to Washington during the American Civil War, Virginia became the locus of bloody fighting, beginning with an embarrassing Union defeat at Manassas, continuing through fearsome campaigns in woodsy places such as “The “Wilderness,” and ending with rebel commander Robert E. Lee’s dignified surrender to Union general Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865.
Devastated by war, the Old Dominion’s cities grew slowly, and a majority of Virginians remained on upland farms and former plantations.
Under President Jefferson, the United States almost doubled in size with the purchase from France, for $154 million, of the Louisiana Territory in 1803. Jefferson then dispatched two other Virginians, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore the vast Northwest. Two administrations later, President James Monroe, also a Virginian, enunciated principles that became the “Monroe Doctrine,”announcing U.S. “protection” of the entire Western Hemisphere from European colonization.
Virginians still speak proudly of “FFVs,” a term that everyone from Wachapreague on the Eastern Shore to Winchester at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley understands. An FFV is a “First Family of Virginia,” a title loosely accorded to old-line families who trace their lineage to early English settlement.
Christ Church in Alexandria was the home church of President George Washington and, years later, Robert E. Lee, the commander of southern forces in the U.S. Civil War. (Carol M. Highsmith)
Many FFVs live in Old Town Alexandria, which surely sets it apart from the upstart suburbs. A staging area for British troops fighting the French in the 1750s and then that prosperous little port, Alexandria would be quickly taken out of action in the Civil War as Union troops poured out of Washington and over the Potomac River to occupy the town.
It’s a good thing I’m not a Virginian, or I’d go on and on and on in this historical vein. If you were Virginians, you’d expect it!
This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.
Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.