The house I grew up in was built in 1926. The widow of the President of the Gas Company bought a parcel of land on what had been the fruit orchard of a very prominent estate of an even more prominent family. The property had been in this family since before the American Revolution but it took the Industrial Revolution to really bring home the bacon. The head of the family at the time, a good man with a good head for numbers, had taken his young family into New York City where he not only made out really well, he was really well liked. He and his business associates went on to found the Illinois Central Railroad. But before he did that he decided to build his growing family a proper cottage on the old family property to escape from the City during the summer months. Or when plagues hit. And he did. Which is why I grew up a mere hop, skip and jump away from one of the first private residences in America done in the new (at the time) American Gothic style. And considering the family stories I have related in this space, the great American writer,Washington Irving, if he were making the story of my life a Gothic tale to delight Andrew Cusack, could not have situated me in a more perfect spot, but I digress.
The American Gothic cottage is still standing to this day. More than that, it is still occupied by the very same family. That is a rare accomplishment in America. But they are a very rare family. My mother is friendly with the family members who currently reside in the cottage. A few years back, she was invited to take afternoon tea. The lady of the cottage is into history and she had a little historical display of her family in the sitting room. Among the items there was a handbill for purchases of fine personal items made by the man who had built the cottage. The hand bill bore the signature of my great -great-great grandfather who in the 1830's had moved from the pre-Revolutionary War family farm in Massachusetts to New York City to help his cash-strapped brother-in-law out with his dry goods store down by the Old City Hall. My grandfather, understanding English goods were all the rage, sent another man to England to bring back English sterling silver flatware and personal items. He then sent him back to bring back English silversmiths and employed them to make him items under his own hallmark - yes, thanks to my most excellent grandfather I am one of the few Americans that can claim to have their very own sterling silver hallmark. Not that I actually own any of the sterling silver that bears the hallmark but again I'm digressing. And then my grandfather sent the man to Paris to bring back jewels -paste at first, and then when Americans were rich enough, the real stuff. And apparently the man who built the cottage was a customer of my grandfather's which makes sense as my grandfather and his family resided in a brownstone on Warren Street on Old New York. This man who co-founded the Illinois Central Railroad and his family lived just one street over and he was known to possess a taste for fine English things for he had hired the English architect, Joseph C. Wells to design his family's American Gothic cottage. Today the cottage has about 30 rooms, 11 staircases, 13 fireplaces, six stories and one of the greatest rooms to ever built in America, the book tower. When the lady of cottage learned the handbill in her little historical display bore the signature of one of my mother's direct male descendants, and being the kind of lady that males are important to, she sent it off and had a museum quality copy of it made for my mother and presented it to her as a gift. Like I said, they are a very rare family.
But enough about the cottage for now and let us move on to its orchard. In the 1920's the orchard, no longer needed, was divided into parcels and put up for sale. Since the lady who built my childhood home was the recent widow of the gas company, and she was moving out of her oceanfront estate in Greens Farms to reside in the orchard with only one maid, the Gas Company still being a place at the time where niceties were observed decided to honour her late husband by running a natural gas tunnel through the orchard, right up to our home only. The other homes in the neighborhood may have had other perks like their own elevators, greenhouses, and pools, but ours was the only one with natural gas heat. It was not uncommon while growing up to hear the mothers of neighborhood chums complain how difficult it was to incorporate the old cast iron radiators into their decorating schemes. Even sighing aloud about how lucky my mother was. It was odd to consider that the mothers considered my mother lucky when unlike them, she did not have a husband and had to work for a living. But this envy might just give a window into why, in just a few years time, our town enjoyed the one of the highest, if not the highest, rate of divorce in the country. And may just be why today my mother's neighborhood is largely populated by double income couples but again I am digressing.
Since our home had natural gas heating, it also meant out next to our thick slate patio in the backyard was an in the ground gas grill. Talk about a luxury item in the 1960's. This grill stood next to one of the two surviving apple trees from the original fruit orchard. Our backyard was really like a small orchard itself as we not only had the two apple trees, but a pear, peach and cherry tree, too. Unfortunately for us, my father decided to cut down the cherry tree before he divorced us, thereby dispelling me early of the childish notion that only those that cannot tell lies cut down cherry trees but again I digress. The apple trees are unlike any apple trees you've ever seen. They are about 50 feet in height with enormous canopies.
I can recall one fine spring day (I know it was spring because the apple trees were in full bloom and the air was heavy with their fragrance) and I was about 11 or so years of age. I was out under the apple trees practicing my archery. Yes, my mother allowed me to play with a bow and arrow. More than that, she also let me shoot my brother's BB gun - using the fallen apples from the trees placed on the top of a wooden step ladder as targets but the gun was taken away when my brother bagged the neighbor's grand piano. I was getting quite good at archery and decided to put my arm to the test. I wanted to see if I could actually shoot my arrows over the tops of the apple trees. So, I stepped back in a classic archer pose, pointed my bow upwards and drew my string back as far as I could. Then I let go. And the arrow did exactly as it had been directed to do. It not only cleared the top of closest tree but both apple trees. I didn't see where it landed but I really didn't care. I was so thrilled. It was just as I was standing back in my classic archer pose, drawing my string back to attempt a repeat of my performance with another arrow, when the husband from next door appeared from behind the about 3 -4 foot wide trunk of one of the old maple trees that bordered our properties. He had my arrow in hand and his face was red, well, as red as an apple.
I stopped what I was doing and my mouth hung open as he unleashed one of the best cases of anger I've ever developed in anyone. After a few moments his words became intelligible and I was able to understand him. Apparently I had almost killed him.
Imagine my surprise.
Unbeknown to me when I set out that day to shoot my bow and arrows, my neighbor had taken the day off from work to plant the flats of flowers his wife had ordered him to. The flowers were to flank the gravel path she had earlier ordered him to install in their backyard. My neighbor was hard at work on his hands and knees, trowel in hand and with his back to me. Thanks to the shrubbery, trees, and a small privacy fence, I never even saw him. But as he screamed, when my arrow landed not 3 inches from his side, he realised immediately what I was up to. After stressing how close I had come to killing him, he broke my arrow in two over his knee and told me I was never allowed to shoot any of them again. Because next time I might not be so lucky. Then he threw my arrow down, turned around and stormed off to finish planting his marigolds. I ran into my house. So, if you've ever wondered what killed my Olympic Archery career, the near killing of my next door neighbor snuffed it out completely.
Oh, and if you ever wondered what happened between my neighbor and I, a few years later I became the babysitter to his little girls. They had appeared in the years since I given up my archery aspirations. He and his wife liked me so much I traveled on very posh vacations with them. His little girls liked me so much the youngest called me "Mommy" instead of her mother. When I went off to college, he presented me with a monogrammed hoof pick "to fight the boys off with" as he had once been engaged to a girl who went to my finishing school and understood their charms.
But this story is not about the man I nearly killed by shooting my arrow over the apple trees, it's about the young man from Connecticut who, about 80 years earlier, had fallen in love under the apple trees, J P Morgan.
And technically speaking JP didn't exactly fall in love under the apple trees, he fell in love while riding his horse in Hyde Park in London. But I like to think his love blossomed under those trees as it probably did.
To be continued.....
Since we all voted for change I’m trying a different approach this year. In an effort at reaching across the aisle, from now on I will be giving my columns titles that sound like PBS programs that nobody watches (but everybody pays for). In passing I might also observe, in the most bi-partisan spirit, that since a concerted effort is being made to link Obama's inauguration with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, it might be fitting to remember that the Great Emancipator once observed that you can fool all of the people some of the time...
But I digress. Our writers (and previous contributors) should take this as the opening shot of Patum Peperium's annual Christmas Book List. Instead of me publishing an impossibly long list of reviews and offering them up as possible gifts ideas--or fair warnings--for you and yours, I’m going to put up a few reviews here and a few reviews there. You are all invited to do the same. Decking the (book) stalls, as it were. Mrs. P shall soon be emailing the invitation to contribute so stay alert. Especially our readers in India.
A Struggle for Power. This book is nothing short of a revelation. For three years now, the object of all my recreational reading has been to answer one question: Why did the American Revolution happen? Theodore Draper’s answer is stunning. As far back as the late 17th Century, British officialdom was anticipating the day the colonies would grow up—shedding the strictures of the mercantilist system—and strike out on their own. While the familiar story of colonial military weakness vs. imperial strength is true, it’s just as true that by the time shots were traded on Lexington Green, Britain’s prosperity rested firmly—and for all intents and purposes solely—on her colonial markets. All of Britain's colonial policy after 1763 was driven by this unsettling realization: they had become dependent on their dependencies. Worse, both theory and history told them these dependencies were destined to someday break away. Further, that monster born of the Enlightenment, official statistics, indicated that in the the two sure indexes of power, population and trade, America was destined to overtake the mother country within a generation or so. Of course, colonial thinkers and leaders were just as aware of these facts and trends. In Draper’s hands the war becomes largely inevitable.
I first read this book when it came out in 1996 and I have to admit I got a lot more out of it the second time around. Draper’s habit of throwing out names like James Otis sans explanation didn’t throw me like it did twelve years earlier. The good news for you is that Struggle is still readily available in a handsome paperback edition. But for all the good things I could say about this one, buyer beware: Dr. Johnson’s quip about Paradise Lost applies. A cross between a straight narrative history and a free-ranging analysis, Draper flits from one mode to the other and sometimes one period to the other in a way that makes you wonder, like the five year old in the back seat, are we there yet? Draper’s habit of recycling quotations to make slightly different points in different chapters lends an eerie echo-chamber effect to the book, making it seem even longer.
John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy. With his recent revelations about how he really feels about our president-elect (“creepy”) I wonder why Thomas chose to include the term “hero” in the subtitle of this book. Even the mantle of “Father of the American Navy” is, we learn, in dispute among scholars. And given the portrait painted here by Thomas, it’s no wonder.
A touchy, preening peacock of an ego who seems to have had one (admittedly glorious) victory to his name and then dined out on it for the rest of his life. The term “creepy” definitely applies here. As might be expected from a member of the MSM, we get plenty of the American-Revolution-as-Egalitarian-Morality-Play storyline. And as the son of a head gardener on a large estate in Scotland, Jones was probably motivated by some of the feelings that template imposes on his biography. But the book begins with far too much psychologizing backed up by far too little documentary foundation. From there the story is one of a single-minded drive for glory and renown. Of course, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, LaFayette --even the wispy James Madison--were similarly driven. But in the case of Jones you get the—yes, creepy—feeling that there wasn’t anything else behind the drive.
But all is not lost. Mrs. P plucked this one out of the stacks at a library sale, figured that a dollar wasn’t too much to hazard on a book that so obviously catered to her husband’s interests. And I have to admit that the chapter on the Bonhomme Richard-Serapis fight is gripping. The rest of the book moves fast—a welcome change of gear after Theodore Draper’s illuminating but methodical approach—but it’s a narrative speed that begins at times to look like mere shallowness of insight.
One hundred and forty-six years ago today--also a Saturday--George McClellan was in the process of relinquishing command of the Army of the Potomac. He had often referred to it as "my army" and he was right. Picking up the pieces in the aftermath of First Bull Run, he had reorganized it, trained it--even named it--and given it the spirit of dogged determination that would carry it all the way to Appomattox. True, that dogged determination was born of a sense of inferiority--McClellan never tired of reminding his army that it was outnumbered and over time that conviction ossified into an almost fatalistic expectation of defeat. But as everyone who has opened a book on the Civil War knows, the real inferiority resided in the soul of George McClellan, the author of the defeats from Ball's Bluff to the Peninsula that fueled that fatalistic expectation. Worse, at least to me, was the ease with which he could suggest to higher ups that the men he professed to love so much were perhaps not quite up to the task at hand.
In short, it's not hard to find fault with George McClellan. Nevertheless, he had his good points as a soldier and I officially designate this day as the day we should remember them. His legacy to his army went beyond a bad case of hero-worship and a psychologically debilitating chip on its collective shoulder. He also contributed materially to the Army of the Potomac's ultimate victory by making two crucial appointments in the aftermath of the Peninsula Campaign: Rufus Ingalls as quartermaster and Henry J. Hunt as Chief of Artillery.
Both men served in these positions to the end of the war. The efficient Ingalls, an Old Army friend of Ulysses Grant, worked hand in glove with the Lieutenant General in the Overland Campaign of 1864. Hunt's direction of the artillery at Gettysburg came close to breaking up Longstreet's final assault before it even reached the Angle. To the end of his days Hunt insisted that, had his orders to husband ammunition during the Confederate barrage been strictly followed, no Southern infantryman would have reached the stone wall.
Making appointments and organizing army corps are not the occupations of your standard military hero. History, as Nathaniel Greene complained to George Washington, does not remember quartermasters no matter how efficient. But brisk military administration and an eye for talent have their place. These gifts George McClellan possessed in abundance. Even Lincoln, the man whose forbearance McClellan tried most sorely, could be just. As he confessed to his secretary John Hay, if the general could not fight, "he excels at making others ready to fight."
The Eccentric Observer
Old Dominion Tory
Although you will read this on Election Day, I am writing it late in the day on November 3. Based on all that I have seen over the past week as well as on Monday, this is what should happen in today’s elections:Presidency: Obama-298 electoral votes, McCain-240 electoral votes. No doubt, McCain is surging in the campaign’s final days, but I don’t think it will be enough to push him past Obama. McCain will win Missouri, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, and Virginia. However, despite McCain’s best efforts and some last-minute revelations about his energy policies, Obama will capture Ohio (narrowly) and Pennsylvania (not as narrowly but not in the double digits) as well as Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, four of which were won by George Bush in 2004.Senate: Currently, 51 Democrats (to include Independents who caucus with the Democrats, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut) and 49 Republicans. Of the eleven contested seats currently held by the GOP, Democrats will win seven—North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, Colorado, New Hampshire, Alaska, and New Mexico—and the Republicans will win four—Minnesota, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Georgia. The Republicans’ best shot for a pick-up is in Louisiana where the race between Mary Landrieu and State Treasurer John Kennedy has tightened up considerably. In fact, some polls show the race as even. With McCain up in this state by 14%-16%, I’ll crawl out on a limb and give the Republicans a close victory. So, come January, the Democrats will have 57 seats and the Republicans will hold 43.House: There are some interesting races in the House that could see some established Democrats lose (e.g., Murtha and Kanjorski in Pennsylvania), but, all in all, it will be a somewhat bad night for House Republicans who will suffer a net loss of 20-22 seats. Keep an eye on New Hampshire 1 and Connecticut 4. If the GOP loses both races, there will not be a single Republican representing a New England state in the House. Also, there might be a surprise in Idaho 1 in which the Republican incumbent, Mark Sali, is not well liked or well funded. Likely balance: 258-260 Democrats, 175-177 Republicans.