Learning to laugh in Maine

Sam Smith

Long before Bert & I, I started collecting Maine humor during my summer visits. One of my sources as a boy was Walter Stowe for whom I worked on various projects.

Mr. Stowe appreciated having someone to instruct and demonstrate his immunity to poison ivy by chewing on some its leaves. He had a stock of sayings of which he never tired. He could recite a blasphemous version of the Lord’s Prayer at breakneck speed and when you asked him how much something cost, he always replied, “25 cents, two bits, two dimes and a nickel, one quartah of a dollah.” When you picked up your end of a plank, the instructions also never varied: “Head her southeast!” When you said goodbye he said, “Keep her under 60 on the curves.” And he offered this assessment of a suddenly departed brother-in-law: “That fella never was any good. Now he’s upped and died right in the middle of hay season.”

On the other hand, his assessment of Clyde Johnson was more favorable: “He’s the only man who can shingle a barn, tell a dirty story and smoke a pipe all at the same time.”
When he needed to stall while thinking of a reply, the quite short Mr. Stowe would go into a brief shuffle, observe his feet intently, pick up his dirty baseball hat and scratch his bald head, finally declaring, “Well now!” with the occasional addendum “Ain’t that somethin?”
When I introduced my future wife to Mr. Stowe and told him we were engaged, he did his shuffle and his head scratching, glanced at Kathy and then looked up at me over his little round glasses and said, “Pretty good for a girl.”

“Er, Mr. Stowe, Kathy’s from Wisconsin.”

Shuffle. Hat back on.

“Glad to meet you anyway.”

John T. Mann recalls that Mr. Stowe had told his father: “If I die afore the end of mud season, just stick me in the gravel pit ’til the road dries out and the ground thaws.”
You never knew when a laugh would crop up. Once, as a teenager, I drove into a gas station, stepped out of my car into a puddle and heard someone say “How’s the watah?”
And John at R&D Automotive told me many years back that my brother had been in with his car. “He said he kept smelling gas . . . so I told him to stop it.”

Then there was the exchange at Ed Leighton’s department store:

“How ya doin?”
“You want the long story or the short one?”
“Oh hell, give me the long one.”
“Pretty good, I guess.”

And there was the time Bob Guillamette, the plumber, came to fix something. I asked him to also look at the tub he had recently installed because the water was slow to drain. He returned a couple of minutes later saying, “Christ, Sam, you’re one of the lucky ones. Most of them won’t hold water.”

Then he fixed it.

Weekend update

Sam Smith – During a trip last weekend to the coastal area north of Boston, my wife and I stayed at the Emerson Inn by the Sea in Rockport. It was neither its original name nor in its original location. It had once been a tavern nearby until in 1856 some 200 townswomen, as well as three men, began a destructive raid against alcoholic spirits. According to the inn’ s account, “Hiding their weapons beneath lacy shawls, the protestors set out to destroy every drop of alcohol. . .Five hours after the siege began, the weary but victorious women went home to fix supper for their families.”

In the wake of this chaos, the owner decided to turn the tavern into an inn since Pigeon Cove had begin attracting a growing number of summer visitors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, originally brought by his friend Henry David Thoreau

Emerson would spend several vacations here with his family and wrote about it in his diary with less than careful reserve:

Returned from Pigeon Cove, where we have made acquaintance with the sea, for seven days. Tis a noble, friendly power, and seemed to say to me, “Why so late and slow to come to me? Am I not here always, thy proper summer home? Is not my voice thy needful music; my breath, thy healthful climate in the heats; My touch, thy cure? Was ever a building like my terraces? Was ever a couch so magnificent as mine? Lie down on my warm ledges and learn that a very little but is all you need. I have made thy architecture superfluous, and it is paltry beside mine. Here are twenty Romes and Nineveho and Karnacs in ruin together, obelisk and pyramid and giant’s causeway here they all are prostrate or half piled.”

As It turned out, our room was just two down the hall from Emerson’s, which would have been heart warming were it not for the fact that his pre-Expedia assessment of the inn was in stunning contrast with some of his other comments on travel that I have regularly quoted, to wit:

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. . .I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. . .My giant goes with me wherever I go.

He who travels to be amused, or to get something which he does not carry, travels away from himself and grows old even in youth among old things.

But it wasn’t the only historic clash of the weekend. Upon arriving in nearby Salem we were immediately reminded that Halloween was only a week away as it was already being cheerfully observed by an extraordinary number of people wearing odd costumes and pointed hats. The mood was mindlessly celebratory, at least until we joined a few other people in the town’s visitors’ center to see a documentary on where Salem’s interest in witches had begun, namely in 1692 during trials that resulted in the hanging of 19 women in nine months of hysteria about the subject. History.com describes it this way:

The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months. By September 1692, the hysteria had begun to abate and public opinion turned against the trials. Though the Massachusetts General Court later annulled guilty verdicts against accused witches and granted indemnities to their families, bitterness lingered in the community, and the painful legacy of the Salem witch trials would endure for centuries….

In January 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting for the tragedy of the Salem witch trials; the court later deemed the trials unlawful, and the leading justice Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the process. The damage to the community lingered, however, even after Massachusetts Colony passed legislation restoring the good names of the condemned and providing financial restitution to their heirs in 1711. Indeed, the vivid and painful legacy of the Salem witch trials endured well into the 20th century, when Arthur Miller dramatized the events of 1692 in his play “The Crucible” (1953), using them as an allegory for the anti-Communist “witch hunts” led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

To view a documentary on this subject in a nearly empty auditorium and then to step into a main street of Salem jammed with a contemporary celebration of sorcery was a troublesome reminder of how little we often learn from history

Switching channels

Sam Smith
 
We couldn’t take it any longer so last week my wife and I changed our family dinner time TV show from Chris Matthews to the PBS News Hour. For me the choice was driven by the fact that I would rather fall asleep of boredom than be hollered at one more time during an otherwise pleasant meal. Admittedly the News Hour is Prozac taken by ear instead by mouth and its staff is so robotic that, should the White House catch on fire, it would probably calmly announce that “we shall be shortly discussing with a panel of experts the effect of this event on the President’s schedule and his budgetary planning.”

I was long familiar with the problem. When my sons were in a DC  elementary school one of their classmates had appeared on the McNeil Lehrer Show with his father to discuss child finances. I asked the boy afterwards how it went. He said, “Well, they seemed kind of nervous. I don’t think they ever had a kid on the show before.”

But still, the News Hour would be better than the shouting, angry lectures, guests being interrupted in the midst of their first sentence, and the look-at-me-aren’t-I-wonderful style of Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow.

Given the similarity in viewer demographics, it is interesting to note that the first Downton Abbey of the season had over ten times as many viewers as did the various MSNBC news shows.

I admit I have a problem. I started out as a radio newsman and the difference between radio and TV talk is often the difference between a telephone and a pulpit or a stage. Radio talk shows favor conversations; too often on TV you have lectures or sermons.

I’ve done TV as well but I’ve never felt as comfortable with those cameras pointed at you like they were cops aiming their guns to keep you from connecting with the audience.

There are a few who manage to keep television human and friendly. Morning Joe is a positive MSNBC exception. And of course there’s Jon Stewart, but have you noticed how, like other late night hosts, he often he plays not to the screen but to the audience in the studio? People to people.

This isn’t about content. I generally agree with Stewart and often disagree with Joe and Mika. But then that was true when I used to listen occasionally to the leading radio talk guy in America, Paul Harvey, not for his usually over conservative politics but for items like this one:

Up in Binghamton New York last night. . . A Little League game. . .

12 year old Ronnie Mitchell hit a high fly ball to center field. Made it to first, rounded second and spun past third. . . .

(Pause)

He slid home

(Pause)

He was safe

(Long Pause)

And dead. No, don’t ask me. There’ll be an autopsy tomorrow. Now page 3. . . .

Paul Harvey at his peak had close to fifty times more listeners than Chris Matthews. And his saving moment was that, with his son facing the draft, he suddenly turned against the Vietnam War, saying to Nixon on one show, “”Mr. President, I love you, but you’re wrong.” I have long suspected that Harvey was far more critical to the anti-war movement than he has been credited with. In any case, he sure knew how to tell a story.

Another problem with television news shows is that they create stars and, once you’ve done that, part of journalism is destroyed.

I once put it like this, “Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from.”

On another occasion, I wrote: “This writer proposes to serve not as an expert, but rather in the more modest and more constructive role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider me simply someone who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home.”

That’s not a popular view on MSNBC, Fox or CNN. I suspect MSNBC developed its overblown style as a bad imitation of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.. It’s sort of the media version of what’s happened to liberals generally . Instead of offering an appealing and solid alternative to the right they just yell at it.

50 years behind the masthead

Sam Smith

A few years back, Mark Plotkin started an interview with me on WTOP this way: “How do you respond to those who say you’re just outrageous, off the wall, beyond normal?” Here’s part of what I told him: If you go back and read what I wrote ten, twenty or thirty years ago it’s hard to see what the problem was. The FBI, in a rare of moment of literary eloquence labeled those who fought in the Spanish Civil War as “premature anti-fascists.” In this town timing is everything. Phil Hart once described the Senate as place that does things 20 years after it should have. I think I was like a bad comedian; I got the punch lines right; I just delivered them too soon.

I had ended up much as I started: the kid they sent to right field because he couldn’t or wouldn’t play the game right.

I didn’t plan it this way. I didn’t want it this way. In truth, a large part of me still would have liked to have been one of the popular boys in the class, but things kept getting in the way – some addictive confluence of moral aggravation, periodic accident, undisciplined imagination, sporadic and unpremeditated courage randomly suppressing chronic shyness and cowardice, sloppy romanticism, episodic existentialism, recurrent hope, stultifying stubbornness and an abiding intolerance for the dull. A child’s dreams and an adult’s faith pounding tide after tide on the rock of reality, thinking that maybe this time I’ll float off.

Some people take it personally, as though I rebelled simply to annoy them. They make little jokes about the fact that I’m different, as if I had a moral obligation to be like them. When they see someone like me coming, they close the doors of their institutions, their imaginations, and their hearts. We are, after all, thieves who might abscond with their most precious possession: the tranquility of unexamined certainty.

But it’s really more like Vaclav Havel said long ago when he was still a rebel:
“You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society . . .’ ”

Those dissidents who somehow remain connected to the normal find themselves alone in the crowd. Even in my home town, I often felt an exile – as though all had emigrated except for me, as though somehow I had missed the ship.

It’s often not easy. Albert Camus spoke of the tremendous energy some must expend “merely to be normal” and added:

The rebel can never find peace. He knows what is good and, despite himself, does evil. The value which supports him is never given to him once and for all – he must fight to uphold it, unceasingly.

Emerson also understood the problem:

You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.

Still, you can’t talk about such things because it would further confirm the belief that you are best ignored, dismissed, or considered absurd. So you become the charming stranger from a strange place, you tell the jokes first, and you change the subject when it starts to get too close to the real. Better yet, you fool them into thinking that you are one of them even though you really blend better with those the urban itinerant Joe Gould once described as the “cranks and misfits and the one-lungers and might-have-beens and the would-bes and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats.”

Still, among the illusions of my life has been that if I stuck it out long enough, time would provide the acceptance that my words and thoughts had prevented. I. F. Stone used to say that when you’re young you’re blamed for things you didn’t do and when you’re older you get credit for them. It hasn’t worked out like that, in part because just when I should have started coasting, the world around me took a nasty, greedy and dangerous turn. America began destroying itself. It was the wrong time to start fitting in .

True, the best period for a revolution of the good is when one is young. To be twenty or thirty and part of an uprising of the collective soul is a rare gift of life. It does spoil you, though, for you go through the rest of your time wondering why that moment went away and why nothing seems able to bring it back.

What was unexpected, both in timing and intensity, was that I would not only live through one of America’s great revivals but during a subsequent era when my country — without debate, consideration, or struggle — decided it really didn’t want to be America any more.

Few even talked about it, but, as a writer and as a child of segregation, I knew that in the silence could be something as telling and evil as words. After all, the language of the old south was most descriptive in what it didn’t say – and what wasn’t allowed to be said.

Shortly before his death in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz says:

What was it all about? When did it begin? . . . Couldn’t we just stay put? . . . We’ve done nothing wrong! We didn’t harm anyone. Did we? . . . There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said — no. But somehow we missed it.. . . Well, we’ll know better next time.

I didn’t want to miss the moment. This wasn’t an act of nobility; it came more from fear of shame. Consequences can’t be wholly unintentional once you’ve imagined them. Successfully deny or ignore them and you’ll die happy. Open your eyes and you become irrevocably responsible, with all the pain, doubt, and fear that goes with it.

And now the stakes are even higher than just for better or for worse. This time the stupid things we have done to this planet may not be forgiven. This time democracy may be not only staggering, but gone.

Still, this is not something you talk about over dinner and get invited back. And so, “you wait for one shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join you in resisting somehow.”

But it doesn’t happen and you know it’s not happening and you don’t have the slightest idea of what to do about it except to use the archaic tools of your trade and the stores of your mind as best you can, not permit the hostility towards the effort depress you too much, and try to enjoy the countervailing virtues and strengths of the struggle, as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter:

“She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness, as vast, as intricate, and shadowy as the untamed forest. . . Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places. . . The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.”

I have tried to help keep alive the beleaguered tradition of plain speaking and truth-seeking that I understood to be at the heart of good journalism. But in a time when much of the media prefers perceptions to facts, bullet quotes to understanding and spin over reality, such efforts are seen as eccentric at best, apostasy at worst. The proper journalist has become, wittingly or not, the accomplice of a system in which news, advertising and agitprop are hopelessly mingled and the facts fatally adulterated. Truth has little to do with it anymore. It is as if we are living in a new Middle Ages, only with the myth being driven by cable TV rather than by the church.

Further, where once saying unconventional things was regarded as hip, it is now considered ‘inappropriate.’ Hipness has become a fashion statement – a consumer selection carefully synchronized with corporate intent rather than outward evidence of a state of mind free of the corporatized state. And so it is easy to feel ostracized, alone and ineffectual. Such feelings are bad enough at 26, but far harder at 66 if for no other reason than that you have less time to recover from them.

I know because I’ve had the feelings at both ages. And at both ages the despair has often been exaggerated, self-defeating, and self-fulfilling. Which isn’t to say unnecessary, for wrestling with the pain of living is one of the surest signs that you are still alive. The problem is that you never know when you’re exaggerating and when you’ve got it right.

Part of my love of the craft of journalism has been the simple joy of possessing the license to go wherever curiosity leads, to consider no place in the planet alien to my inquiry, to use words as a child uses little plastic blocks. Part of it has been the pleasure of deliberately learning more about something than any reasonable person would want to know.

Tina Hobson once said of her husband, the civil rights activist, “The trouble with Julius is that he takes the Constitution personally.” I suffer from a similar debility. But sometimes people credit me with a sense of justice when in fact I am just titillated, fascinated or surprised. In such ways I have also disappointed some of my more didactic allies who expected me to stick to business and not be distracted by the noise of news and the search for better words with which to describe it.

George Orwell faced something similar and wrote:

Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself.

I also want to walk away from it at will. Back in the 60s, I was sitting in an office on 8th Street SE in Washington talking with one of the sergeants of the War on Poverty. It was shortly after the riots of April 1968 and our conversation drifted in the shadows of those smoky and charred days. Then the community organizer stopped in mid-sentence and said, “Look, Sam, all I really want to do is to sit on my front stoop in the sun, drink beer, and shoot craps.”

His words keep coming back, a reminder that even the best politics are a pretty poor substitute for life and that the worst politics compound their felony by forcing us to leave the front stoop to do something about them. Our quarrel with the abuse of power should be not only be that it is cruel and stupid but that it takes so much time way from other things — like loving and being loved, and music, and a good meal and the sunset of a gentle day. In a nation ablaze with struggles for power, we are too often forced to choose between being a co-conspirator in the arson or a member of the volunteer fire department. And, too often, as we immerse ourselves in the terrible relevance of our times, beauty and happiness seem to drift away.

That community organizer in the dingy office on 8th Street understood that the proper end of politics was not a policy, not a budget, not an ideology, not even worthy abstractions like peace and justice, but rather good places, and good days and healthy and happy people — the collective little republics of our individual hopes and dreams.In the melancholy that descends from time to time, in the loneliness that lies like a desert between myself and my imagination, I think about opportunities and offers that have come my way that I brazenly – wantonly, some might say – rejected. I think I knew in my heart that if I had accepted such things, I would have ended up broken or fired. And probably a drunk as well.

And as best as I can tell, my real impetus was not masochism but a truly manic, grandiose, and cockeyed optimism – the faith that even in late 20th century America I could do something on my own that would be even better than what I could if I just did what was expected of me.

Saul Alinsky was once asked by a seminarian how he could retain his values as he made his way through the church, “That’s easy,” replied Alinsky. “Just decide now whether you wish to be a cardinal or a priest.” It was a choice I made early.

As far back as high school, when I first read of Thoreau’s preference for sitting on a pumpkin and having it all to himself to being crowded on a velvet stool, I had rated freedom ahead of power. Raised in dysfunctional luxury, I have placed an abnormal emphasis on things I could do without benefit of social standing, money, or power, such as writing, playing the piano, . . and imagining. I would come to suspect that I had spent a lifetime trying to finish the script of a radio show first concocted under the covers as a child – a lifelong broadcast in which I was the stumbling protagonist. I have tried to live a daydream – one that began because I didn’t like what was going on downstairs. And still don’t.

I can’t recommend such a way; I can’t even justify having tried it. A lot of it doesn’t make sense. I spurned the normal icons of ambition, yet was so ambitious that I sought the unattainable. I gave the outward impression of a radical but in my heart was just a moderate of a time that had yet to arrive. I constantly sought change but was most happy enjoying the changeless virtues of music and conversation and returning to the mooring after a long, happy day on the bay.

Sometimes I would think of myself as a reluctant draftee, called up to serve in the struggle that Albert Camus described: “It is those who know how to rebel, at the appropriate moment, against history who really advance its interests.” I didn’t really want to do it. I just had to. What I wanted most was that the struggle be won so I could live in a land where people laughed and made new friends and were gentle with one another. So I could return to that place where the sun hit the front stoop just right on a quiet morning, reminding me that this was how good everything else could be as well.

The war on terror before 9/11

With US Airways going out the door, we thought we would revive one of our fond memories, as reported in 1999:

 The Progressive Review’s editor, Sam Smith, was detained at Washington National Airport for a half hour as five US Airways security officials, 3 police officers, and one bomb-sniffing dog attempted to determine if he was, as they suspected, a terrorist. Total evidence for the suspicion came from a defective high tech security machine. In the end, the bomb-sniffing dog nosed about the computer, licked the hard drive and quickly returned without complaint to K-9 officer Jim Cox.

Before departure, Cox boarded the plane to get my Social Security number for his report and apologized for the incident saying that it was US Air’s security force and not National Airport police that had instigated it. After writing to US Air I got an actual apology from a vice president, perhaps the last American to do so in the history of the war on terror.

When I went to the Kansas City airport for my return flight, I explained to the security woman that my computer had set off warnings in the machine in Washington. She waved me on, saying, “Oh they probably just don’t feed their dogs.”

One of the interesting things about this is that what we think of as anti-terrorist air security began not following 9/11 but after the 1996 crash of TWA 800. Yet two years after the FBI had declared there was no terrorist involvement, the TWA 800 security measures remained unaltered and would expand with time.

If you believe the official story, therefore, the airport aspect of the war on terror really got underway thanks to an incident that never happened. Of course, as we would learn with increasing frequency during the years that followed, what the government told you about such matters was not always true.

My JFK moments

Sam Smith

In the summer of 1957, I covered a Senate investigation of the Teamsters Union. Among those seated at the long panel table was young John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts. His brother, Robert, served as a counsel for the committee. At one point, a prostitute witness made some off-color comment that brought guffaws from the audience; and Bobby’s own giggles were amplified by his mike. The humorless chair, John McClellan, rapped his gavel and told Kennedy that “This is not a joking matter.” It would be the only time I ever saw a Kennedy look chastened.

The testimony of Hoffa went like this:

Robert F. Kennedy: Did you say, “That S.O.B., I’ll break his back”?
Jimmy Hoffa: Who?
Kennedy: You.
Hoffa: Say it to who?
Kennedy: To anyone?
Hoffa: Figure of speech… I don’t even know what I was talking about and I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Kennedy: Uh… Mr. Hoffa, all I’m trying to find out, I’ll tell you what I’m talking about. I’m trying to find out whose back you were going to break.
Hoffa: Figure of speech… figure of speech.

Later, I wrote in a September 5, 1959 letter:

The Kennedy brothers — like the remark about the Quakers — came to Washington to do good and did very well. Jimmy Hoffa, who’s astute if corrupt, told me once in the midst of the rackets hearing, “Bobby Kennedy is trying to make headlines for his brother so he can get him to the White House, but he can’t find his way out of this room.”

It may be that what happened in that hearing room helped to lay the groundwork for Kennedy’s later assassination – if theories of a mob hit are true. Certainly Hoffa hated the Kennedys and Washington investigator author Ron Goldfarb wrote that in “August 1962, Hoffa recruited an aide to kill RFK. In February 1963, John Kennedy told Newsweek’s Ben Bradlee that Hoffa had recruited an assassin to kill the attorney general.”

Frank Ragano, long-time lawyer for both Santos Trafficante Jr. and Hoffa, wrote a memoir with NY Times reporter Selwyn Raab in which he recalled several conversations between the two mobsters:Trafficante:  Somebody is going to kill those sons of bitches. It’s just a matter of time.

Hoffa: Something has to be done. The time has come for your friend and Carlos [Marcello] to get rid of him kill that son of a bitch John Kennedy. This has got to be done. Be sure to tell them what I said. No more fucking around. We’re running out of time – something has to be done.

After JFK’s assassination, Ragano claimed that Marcello told him, “When you see Jimmy, you tell him he owes me, and he owes me big.”

And Trafficante thought they had got the wrong man: “We shouldn’t have killed John. We should have killed Bobby.”

Goldfarb quotes the brother of Sam Giacana as boasting, “We took care of Kennedy. The hit in Dallas was just like any other operation we’d worked in the past.” Writes Goldfarb: “Sam Giancana himself was murdered in 1975 just days before he was suppose to talk to the Senate intelligence committee about plots to kill Castro.”

He also notes that “Two biographies of leading mobsters report that Marcello exclaimed, ‘Don’t worry about that Bobby son of a bitch. He’s going to be taken care of ‘ According to one participant Marcello told his listeners he would recruit some nut to kill Kennedy so it couldn’t be traced to him, ‘like they do in Sicily.'” Marcello would later deny the quote.

If Goldfarb is right, then during my introduction to journalism, I not only interviewed John F. Kennedy but one of those responsible for his assassination.

As Goldberg – who went on to work for Bobby Kennedy and knew a lot about organized crime – wrote in a 2009 article for Daily Beast:

Drawing on incriminating tapped phone conversations, new literature and investigations, and Trafficante’s lawyer’s 1994 memoir (Frank Ragano’s Mob Lawyer), I concluded that the assassination was generated by Jimmy Hoffa. Oswald was, as he claimed, a patsy. It was a mob touch to use someone to carry out their deadly assignments, and then to kill that person to avoid detection.

Whatever happened, it would happen twice more in the next five years with the killings of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, after whose death I wrote:The central point of the tragedies was not their proximate cause but rather that we, as a nation, had assigned so much of the burden of hope, progress, decency and faith to so few men.

Their deaths leave us shaken, fearful and alone because we had been so willing to share their vitality only vicariously. We permitted them to affirm for us rather than with us. Their stature was increased by our common weakness as much as by their individual strength. They were exceptions, when they should have been the best among many.
 MMSAM+jfk

THE AUTHOR, 2nd FROM RIGHT, INTERVIEWS JFK RIGHT AFTER HE ANNOUNCED HIS PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDACY.
Photo by Hank Walker, Life Magazine.

 I interviewed JFK momentsafter he had announced he was running for president and later, in January 1961, made my only foray into the real world of network television. I was hired for Kennedy’s inauguration by CBS News as a news editor. Along with fellow WWDC newsman Ed Taishoff, I sat all day capped with a headset in a ballroom of the Hotel Washington , turning phone calls from CBS correspondents into stories then placed on Walter Cronkite’s personal news ticker. If there was one thing Ed and I knew, it was how to take news from callers, turn it into copy and get it on the air fast.

But when the calls weren’t coming in, I looked around the room and tried to figure out what the scores of CBS minions and executives were doing. As far as I could tell, Ed and I and a few people in front of dials and screens were doing most of the work. Yet we were badly out-numbered and underpaid by men in suits who tore around yelling and looking concerned or angry or wanting to know where something was. It all didn’t look like much fun and I think it was when I decided I didn’t want to be a network anchorman after all.

Meanwhile, the military draft was breathing down hard and the Coast Guard had accepted me for its officer candidate school.  My first assignment was as public information officer for the Second Coast Guard District, headquartered in St. Louis. I would explain that it was harder to guard the coasts in St. Louis, because on the Mississippi River there were two of them.

The Coast Guard was short on officers and so your list of collateral duties ran long, in my case two of them thanks to the newly elected John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy had noted during his inauguration parade the lack of any blacks in the Coast Guard Academy contingent and called our bosses at the Treasury Department the next day to seek a remedy. And so the word went forth, even to the federal building in St. Louis, to do something about it and I found myself, although the name hadn’t been invented in 1961, serving as the district’s affirmative action officer.

I was totally unsuccessful. St. Louisians of any ethnicity were disinclined to think that going out on any of the major oceans was a good idea for either themselves or their children. The black businessmen and civic leaders I addressed agreed and seemed to regard me as an agent of the devil when I described what a Coast Guard officer actually did and under what circumstances he often did it.

Kennedy had also declare the nation unfit and wanted the military to set an example for everyone else. And so I found myself assigned to run a physical fitness program for the hundred officers and men of the district headquarters. It all went somewhat better than the affirmative action effort, but in the end those who started out fit tended to stay fit while similar trends prevailed among the flabby. Being in charge of all this inertia did, however, inspire my own efforts and I pumped iron regularly in the dingy YMCA gym with that marvelous assortment (including my case a professional wrestler) one found in such places before fitness was defined by silly people in spandex jumping up and down and yelling faux encouragement at their bedraggled wards to the sounds of excessively loud rock.

Eventually I would end up as operations officer aboard the CG cutter Spar out of Bristol RI. In November 1963 we were assigned to take two 40 foot patrol boats to be used to guard John F. Kennedy when he was vacationing near there. At a flank speed of 15 knots it had taken us days to get down there and days to get back. I had the conn as we finally pulled up to the dock at Bristol with everyone anxious to go ashore.

We weren’t more than a hundred feet off when a crew member came out on the buoy deck below and called up to the bridge, “President Kennedy’s been shot.” I thought: what a stupid thing to say. I edged the ship up gently to the pier, got the lines properly secured and went below. Only then did I realize that it was true. Despite days away from home port, no one left the ship for three hours as we huddled around the mess deck television.

Things my father didn’t tell me

 Sam Smith

The recent story about finding huge amounts of art hidden by the Nazis didn’t surprise me as much as it once might have. Here, from our overstocked archives, is why:

After World War II broke out, my father, who had worked for the New Deal from almost the beginning and was then over 40, went to work for the Foreign Economic Administration in Dakar, buying things West Africa needed and buying from West Africa things the military needed such as fats and oils. Richard Saltonstall in a chapter on my father in Pilgrimages, wrote that he “conducted extremely high-level and sensitive business missions for the government, including the purchase of the fuel oil that got Patton’s tanks rolling again across Germany.” In a letter of recommendation in 1945, the Army’s Adjutant General, James Ulio, said he had purchased $20 million in commodities for the U.S. Army, the equivalent about about $240 million in 2010.

In West Africa he acquired two phobias: bare feet and airplanes. He had learned in Dakar of the dangers of disease from walking around in bare feet. His children were thereafter forbidden to walk inside the house in bare feet, no matter how dissimilar our house was from those in West Africa. His distaste for flying, built up in 100,000 miles of propeller-driven travel during the war, crystallized in a nighttime flight over Africa. The co-pilot came into the cabin and said he understood my father had been to Dakar before and did those lights down there look like it? After the war my father never flew again. My mother was never in a plane.

Nearly a quarter century after my father’s death, I was tinkering with an old family desk that I knew had several hidden compartments. A piece of wood suddenly moved and I found myself staring at a small cache of typewritten letters between my parents in the last year of the war.

On March 2, 1945 he wrote my mother from Bern. He describes catching an 8:29 am train to Zurich: “There I talked three hours to the head, or one of the heads, of the Swiss National Bank, named Mr. Hirs and then took the train back here.”

Then:

Tuesday I go to Paris probably – if so with the Currie Mission on their train. I come back in a day or two. No gestapo follows me, except possible the Swiss, for they have a wonderful one.

And at the end:

Tell mother that there are plenty of Swiss spies but not German and no female spies. I haven’t time for them either.

Then on March 14:

Paris is cold and damp. We left in two 2 1/2 ton six wheel trucks and a jeep with six soldiers, all with guns to protect the load on the way back. . . German tanks and trucks burned up, and turned over off the road, wooden repairs to iron and steel bridges, German prisoners marching off to work, a warning by an MP that two German parachutists had dropped, a railroad locomotive off the bridge and beside the road. . . factories and oil plants destroyed. . .

 Author’s father on the way from Paris to Bern in March 1945. Lawrence Smith carried a noncombatant certificate which said that if captured he was to be treated as a field grade officer (major to colonel). At his right is his driver carrying a pistol. Smith wrote home: “We had six tommy guns and plenty of ammunition. At one point we were warned two [German] paratroopers had dropped behind the lines.”

What my father was doing on this trip from Paris to Berne remains a mystery. About a fortnight earlier he had written to say that he expected to go to Paris in a few days with the Currie Mission on their train: “I come back in a day or two.”

The photo of my father and the soldiers continued to puzzle me, especially since it was accompanied by another showing a Swiss moving van backed up to one of the Army trucks. Then in 2009, I was having some art appraised and in the course of a conversation with the appraiser’s assistant, who also happened to be a member of an OSS history group. I recounted the story of my father’s strange journey and other WWII materials I had found. She said, “It sounds like he might have been part of Operation Safehaven.”

She took my materials to an OSS history group meeting and came back with a note from one ot its oldest members: “It appears that Mr. Smith was indeed a member of the Safehaven mission.”

My father had never used the phrase, there had never been a hint of any connection with OSS, but the more I investigated, the more it seemed that I had discovered something deliberately hidden all these years.

Operation Safehaven was a secret World War II project aimed at recovering stolen and hoarded Nazi gold, art and other valuables. In the course of my research I came across an OSS summary stating that Safehaven’s purpose was “above all, to deny Germany the capacity to start another war.” A CIA report below calls this purpose its “overriding goal.”

The Safehaven operation was started by the Foreign Economic Administration, for which my father was working. But, while inventing the project, the FEA soon found itself over its head and called on the OSS for help. In classic government tradition the two agencies apparently alternately cooperated and competed. The State and Treasury departments’ involvement helped to make it even more complicated.

The Currie Mission, with which my father was involved in some manner, was headed by Laughlin Currie, head of the Foreign Econimic Adminsitration. According to one account, “In early 1945, Currie headed a tripartite (U.S., British, and French) mission to Berne to persuade the Swiss to freeze Nazi bank balances and stop further shipments of German supplies through Switzerland to the Italian front.”

That was the trip my father had taken. The Currie Mission, according to the National Holocaust Museum, reached an agreement with Switzerland to stop cloaking enemy assets, gold purchases from Germany, assist in the restoration of looted property, and conduct a census of German assets in Switzerland. It adds that Switzerland “reneged on commitments.”

Two weeks earlier, my father had “talked three hours to the head, or one of the heads, of the Swiss National Bank, named Mr. Hirs.” Mr. Hirs, it turns out, was only the deputy head, of whom David Sanger of the NY Times would write decades later:

When the war ended, the Swiss offered a series of backtracking explanations of their behavior [with Nazi loot] . . When bank records or intelligence reports surfaced, it turned to legalistic defenses, arguing that under the rules of occupation the Nazis had clear title to anything they looted from central banks.

Lengthy negotiations were held in Washington over this prickly subject. A particularly duplicitous deputy head of the Swiss National Bank, Alfred Hirs, blurted out to the Americans, ”Do you want to take 500 million Swiss francs of gold” — worth roughly $1.25 billion today — ”and ruin my bank?” It was a telling moment, because until his outburst the Swiss had not acknowledged holding anywhere near that much looted gold.

The record of my father’s role in all this remains blurred. He was a serious art collector and art was one of the things the Nazi had looted. He had also held a high position in the Justice Department so he was used to keeping his mouth shut.

In fact, according to one news account, Operation Safehaven didn’t even become publicly known until the mid nineties, two decades after my father’s death.

In 1997, Stuart Eizenstat compiled a report for the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence. In it, citing two countries in which my father operated, he wrote;

The overriding goal of Safehaven was to make it impossible for Germany to start another war. Its immediate goals were to force those neutrals trading with Nazi Germany into compliance with the regulations imposed by the Allied economic blockade and to identify the points of clandestine German economic penetration. . .

It is quite clear that Safehaven planners had a good idea of what they wanted to achieve, but it also is apparent that they did not have the slightest idea of how to do it. Although it was evident from the outset that Safehaven would be primarily an intelligence-gathering problem, it does not appear to have occurred to anyone to consult the intelligence services, which were excluded from the planning and implementation of Safehaven until the end of November 1944. Bureaucratic rivalries predominated. Indeed, Safehaven was nearly destroyed by internecine quarrels among the FEA, State, and Treasury, each of which wanted to control the program and to exclude the other two from any participation. . .

The decision was finally taken to invite the formal participation of the OSS. Once the OSS was brought into the Safehaven fold, all the advantages of a centralized intelligence organization were brought to bear. . .

The unique character of Safehaven, which was both an attempt to prevent the postwar German economic penetration of foreign economies and an intelligence-gathering operation, meant that the OSS counterintelligence branch, X-2, also had an important role to play.

Safehaven thus emerged as a joint [Strategic Intelligence]/X-2 operation shortly after its inception, especially in the key OSS outposts in Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal, with X-2 not infrequently playing the dominant role. . .

In Nazi Europe, neutral Switzerland carried out business as usual, providing the international banking channels that facilitated the transfer of gold, currencies, and commodities between nations. Always heavily dependent on Swiss cooperation to pay for imports, the Reich became even more so as the ultimate defeat of the National Socialist regime became obvious and neutrals grew more wary of cooperating with the Axis belligerents. . .

In this critical situation, the Swiss banks acted as clearinghouses whereby German gold–much of which was looted from occupied countries–could be converted to a more suitable medium of exchange. An intercepted Swiss diplomatic cable shows how, allegedly without inquiring as to its origin, the Swiss National Bank helped the German Reichsbank convert some $15 million in (probably) looted Dutch gold into liquid assets. . .

Fortuitously, the restoration of access to Switzerland through France in November 1944 made it possible for the first X-2 operative in Switzerland to enter the country by the end of the year. By January 1945, X-2 was up and running in Switzerland, and by April it was able to provide OSS Washington with an extensive summary of Nazi gold and currency transfers arranged via Switzerland through most of the war. . .

Despite its liberal democratic traditions, Sweden was Nazi Germany’s largest trading partner during the war and almost the sole source of high-grade iron ore and precision ball bearings for the German war machine. . .

Another CIA report states:

Within the OSS, Safehaven fell largely under the aegis of the Secret Intelligence Branch, responsible for the gathering of intelligence from clandestine sources inside neutral and German-occupied Europe. But the unique character of Safehaven, which was both an attempt to prevent the postwar German economic penetration of foreign economies and an intelligence-gathering operation, meant that the OSS counterintelligence branch, X-2, also had an important role to play.

What my father’s precise role in all of this, I’ll never know, but if I hadn’t stumbled upon that hidden compartment in my parents’ desk, I would have had no idea that he had been somehow involved in a major secret operation designed in part, amazingly, to prevent the Nazis from ever starting another war.

UPDATE

In view of the Monuments Men movie, my curiosity about my father’s role in all of this has been reignited.

The story, which was kept secret  a long time, is extremely complicated and involved a number of agencies including Foreign Economic Administration (for which my father worked), the OSS (which took over the FEA’s role), the Treasury Department, the Army, and the Roberts Commission.

The Roberts Commission was chaired by Owen Roberts, who helped to found the law firm where my father worked. At one point, my father says he worked for Roberts, but looking at Robert’s bio, as  a lawyer this could have only have been for a few months. As a Robert’s biography notes:

In 1930 Roberts returned to his private practice but only for a few months, as President Herbert Hoover soon appointed him to the Supreme Court of the United States

The other time mjy father might have been referring to was when he was with the FEA, working with the Roberts Commission. One account describes this commission thusly:

The Roberts Commission was established in 1943 to consolidate earlier efforts on a national basis with the US Army to help protect Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives in war zones. The commission ran until 1946, when its activities were consolidated into the State Department.

Elsewhere:

The name “Monuments Men” was shortened from the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section of the Roberts Commission, a group approved by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943 and headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts.

Here’s what the National Archives has to say about the relationship between the Roberts Commission and the FEA:

The Commission also assisted the U.S. Foreign Economic Administration in writing and disseminating an extensive report on Nazi art looting and collecting in the spring and summer of 1945. The Roberts Commission cooperated with various agencies to prevent looted art from being used to fund a postwar Nazi state.

My fatherwas a key official in the FEA at that time in Switzerland – center of much investigatory concern.  He also went to Sweden, another neutral country in which many things were happening or suspected to have happened.

The commission’s own report states:

RELATION TO THE FOREIGN ECO­NOMIC ADMINISTRATION

Because of its concern with over enemy economic activities, the For­eign Economic Administration participated in the setting up of controls over the exportation of art objects from Europe.  The Enemy Branch, Blockade Division of the Foreign Economic Administration, prepared in May 1945 an extensive report on enemy art looting in Europe and art collecting by enemy nationals in tile western hemisphere…

Because much of the material was of necessity based on unevalu­ated evidence, it was necessary to revise the Foreign Economic Administration report in August 1945 in the .light of later evidence… Since this report contains citations of cases still under investiga­tion it is, of necessity, classified as “Secret” and is not available for distribution.

At least one of the ,Monuments Men also was working for the FEA. From his bio:

Merrill joined the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942 as assistant to the Navy liaison officer to the Board of Economic Warfare. In 1945 he transferred to the Foreign Economic Administration, assigned to the headquarters of the United States European Theater in Frankfurt. That same year he was recruited to assist with preparation and shipment of 202 German-owned paintings to Washington for safekeeping…. The paintings arrived at the National Gallery on December 8, 1945. They remained there in storage until 1948, when they began an exhibition tour of thirteen American museums.

Add to this the fact that my father had been significantly involved in the arts before the war – e.g. the American Federation of Arts – and after the war was deeply involved with UNESCO, which took as one of its concerns how to prevent what the Nazis did from happening again, and this strange story starts to make sense.

 

 On travel

Sam Smith – My general view of travel matches Samuel Johnson’s when asked if Rome was worth seeing: “Worth seeing, yes. Worth going to see, no.”

Perhaps it is because of too many unexpectedly fluid stools left in too many foreign lands. Perhaps it is because of our strange legal system that forces ramps to be widely provided for the handicapped but allows airlines to cramp our legs with impunity.

And perhaps it is because of a strange tendency for me to be viewed suspiciously by those guarding our transport, a tendency that began at the age of 13 on a vessel headed from Puerto Barrios in Guatemala to New Orleans. On the first night out, a crew member was murdered and his body dragged through the dining salon and pushed out of one of its large portholes. For the rest of the trip, we passed the roped off bloody trail as we had our next meal.

It didn’t scare me because I already had the instincts of a journalist and even arose at an early hour to see the police and Coast Guard vessels guarding us as we moved up the Mississippi River. Once in port, none of us left the vessel for eight hours as everyone, down to my three year old youngest sister, was interrogated by the FBI.

Pursuing the story, I asked my father how I was going to find out who done it. He gave me a dollar and told me to give it and my address to the hotel elevator operator and ask him to end you any news stories. “It probably won’t work,” he said, “but give it a try.”

It did work, which is how this hard hitting 13 year old reporter discovered that the man had been killed by another crew member in a dispute over a gambling debt.

Some years later, now a college student, I found myself sitting in the increasingly empty customs area on the dock where the steampship America had landed after bringing me home from Europe. It clearly wasn’t anything in my bags because they remained uninspected.

As I sat patiently on one of them as the last passenger on the dock, an inspector finally came by and said by way of greeting, “You’re not the Smith we’re looking for.”

He glanced perfunctorily at my passport and asked me whether I was in college. I admitted that I went to Harvard.

“Harvard, huh? You have any problems with those communists up there?”

I couldn’t come up with any and so he let me go.

It would be some decades before I would be a traveling suspect again. I was flying from Washington to Kansas City not long after the TWA 800 crash, the event – not 9/11 that actually initiated our manic efforts for airplane security.

My computer – a new brand of laptop from Japan – was the culprit. The airport security team’s scanning sticks had determined that the computer was up to no good because it hadn’t yet gotten on the approved list of computer smells. I waited a full 45 minutes while the pre-TSA security team tried to figure out what to do with me.

Finally, a National Airport police officer approached with his dog. The dog sniffed the computer, wagged his tail, and I was declared free to board the plane.

That was about four years before September 11 and remains one of those special moments when one is among the last of something good. For once on the plane, the airport police officer came aboard to get my Social Security number and before he left actually apologized for the incident, pointing out that it was not his department but the airline security team that had been responsible. Later, after I wrote a letter to the airline, I even got an apologetic reply from one of its vice presidents.

Departing from Kansas City, I thought it best to warn the airline security agent of how my computer had failed to screening in Washington. Her response, “Oh, they just don’t feed their dogs right” and waved me on.

Some time later I ran into a similar problem flying into Long Island, which really surprised me because I couldn’t figure out why a terrorist would bother bombing Long Island.

These experiences were not intimidating but symbolized the uncertainties of travel.

As did my departure this morning for Washington. I was no more than a half mile down the narrow road towards town when a friend, whose phone number I had given to the local police, came the other way and informed me that my burglar alarm had gone off and that the cops were on their way. Indeed, by the time I had turned around I was followed back to my home by two police cars. It was just a mechanical problem but it was one more piece of evidence to support my thesis that I will end my days in gunfire as I step out the cab at an airport in a town I never wanted to visit in the first place.

Besides, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Traveling is a fool’s paradise. . .I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. . .My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

I also think that some of us are doers and some are viewers. I am happiest doing something and never did well in museums.

And there is one other factor, magnificently expressed by Henry Beetle Hough, an editor of the Martha’s Vinyard Gazette: “If I should go away I would miss something.”

I have one major exception to my antipathy towards travel: trains. As I wrote once:

I early subscribed to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s view that “there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take no matter where it’s going.” Such an opinion required not only a sense of romance, but considerable endurance, for love of trains was often unrequited. Trains could be dirty, cold, hot, late, cancelled, overcrowded, or sit for hours in a wheat field for no fathomable reason. I would quickly learn, for example, that the silver temperature control knobs in Pullmans were either dummy switches or that the legends on them had been printed in random order. But such annoyances were more than balanced by the pleasures of standing in the vestibule with the top of the dutch door open feeling the air and the country rush by. Or watching from the last car as the roadbed disappeared into a point. Or pasting your nose to the window and seeing the engine pull you around a curve. Or peering into the backyard of America. Or climbing into the top bunk. Or getting off the train in the middle of nowhere and wondering with another passenger what the problem was.

And lately I’ve added another exception: the Concord Coach bus line between Portland Maine and Boston, which features free pretzels and water southbound (but not northbound because of the stingy rules of Logan Airport), and drivers who have clearly learned a lot by watching the David Letterman show. They sing, joke and get through the required announcements as though it was a stage routine. The latest told us said that if we liked his service his name was Larry; if not it was Charlie. And we were to please be sure not to leave anything behind, but if we did, not to worry: “You can just go on a website called Ebay and bid accordingly.”

ector finally came by and said by way of greeting, “You’re not the Smith we’re looking for.”

He glanced perfunctorily at my passport and asked me whether I was in college. I admitted that I went to Harvard.

“Harvard, huh? You have any problems with those communists up there?”

I couldn’t come up with any and so he let me go.

It would be some decades before I would be a traveling suspect again. I was flying from Washington to Kansas City not long after the TWA 800 crash, the event – not 9/11 that actually initiated our manic efforts for airplane security.

My computer – a new brand of laptop from Japan – was the culprit. The airport security team’s scanning sticks had determined that the computer was up to no good because it hadn’t yet gotten on the approved list of computer smells. I waited a full 45 minutes while the pre-TSA security team tried to figure out what to do with me.

Finally, a National Airport police officer approached with his dog. The dog sniffed the computer, wagged his tail, and I was declared free to board the plane.

That was about four years before September 11 and remains one of those special moments when one is among the last of something good. For once on the plane, the airport police officer came aboard to get my Social Security number and before he left actually apologized for the incident, pointing out that it was not his department but the airline security team that had been responsible. Later, after I wrote a letter to the airline, I even got an apologetic reply from one of its vice presidents.

Departing from Kansas City, I thought it best to warn the airline security agent of how my computer had failed to screening in Washington. Her response, “Oh, they just don’t feed their dogs right” and waved me on.

Some time later I ran into a similar problem flying into Long Island, which really surprised me because I couldn’t figure out why a terrorist would bother bombing Long Island.

These experiences were not intimidating but symbolized the uncertainties of travel.

As did my departure this morning for Washington. I was no more than a half mile down the narrow road towards town when a friend, whose phone number I had given to the local police, came the other way and informed me that my burglar alarm had gone off and that the cops were on their way. Indeed, by the time I had turned around I was followed back to my home by two police cars. It was just a mechanical problem but it was one more piece of evidence to support my thesis that I will end my days in gunfire as I step out the cab at an airport in a town I never wanted to visit in the first place.

Besides, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “Traveling is a fool’s paradise. . .I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. . .My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

I also think that some of us are doers and some are viewers. I am happiest doing something and never did well in museums.

And there is one other factor, magnificently expressed by Henry Beetle Hough, an editor of the Martha’s Vinyard Gazette: “If I should go away I would miss something.”

I have one major exception to my antipathy towards travel: trains. As I wrote once:

I early subscribed to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s view that “there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take no matter where it’s going.” Such an opinion required not only a sense of romance, but considerable endurance, for love of trains was often unrequited. Trains could be dirty, cold, hot, late, cancelled, overcrowded, or sit for hours in a wheat field for no fathomable reason. I would quickly learn, for example, that the silver temperature control knobs in Pullmans were either dummy switches or that the legends on them had been printed in random order. But such annoyances were more than balanced by the pleasures of standing in the vestibule with the top of the dutch door open feeling the air and the country rush by. Or watching from the last car as the roadbed disappeared into a point. Or pasting your nose to the window and seeing the engine pull you around a curve. Or peering into the backyard of America. Or climbing into the top bunk. Or getting off the train in the middle of nowhere and wondering with another passenger what the problem was.

And lately I’ve added another exception: the Concord Coach bus line between Portland Maine and Boston, which features free pretzels and water southbound (but not northbound because of the stingy rules of Logan Airport), and drivers who have clearly learned a lot by watching the David Letterman show. They sing, joke and get through the required announcements as though it was a stage routine. The latest told us said that if we liked his service his name was Larry; if not it was Charlie. And we were to please be sure not to leave anything behind, but if we did, not to worry: “You can just go on a website called Ebay and bid accordingly.”

My cellphone deficit disorder

Sam Smith – Watching a woman pull her bag from the train overhead bag compartment, stuff some papers into it and make her way to the door – all the time never removing her bent head from the cellphone stuck between it and her shoulder, I noticed that she at no point opened her mouth. She might have been listening to a podcast or her favorite aria, but there was absolutely no reaction to whatever sound was emanating from the object.

The incident occurred not long after I had been alternately fascinated and beleaguered by a guy on another cellphone who hardly ever stopped talking between Boston and Newark.

It all raised a question that I have not dared to ask publicly for fear it might reveal a piece of personal paranoia. But in such cases I wonder: what if there is no one on the other end of the phone?

Could that explain the explosion of people in America who seem to have so many more friends, clients and business partners than I?

And if they really are talking to real people why do they not smile, frown, or look puzzled?  Why do they say so little?

The ones who fascinate me the most are the couples who get off a plane or a train and immediately turn away from each other,  start staring at their cellphones, and lose all reference to their physical partner. What’s going on? Are they checking in with their secret lovers?

Even before cellphones, I had enjoyed watching people in public places seriously attempting to look serious, especially when they’re walking. Their speed, determination, eye focus and don’t interfere with me look sets them apart. I sometimes want to go up and ask them what time it is but I’m afraid I might be charged with assault.

And so I just watch them silently, an inferior, friendless person without purpose in life waiting for a train while they speed on to their 2:30 pm appointment.

The Civil War in one family

Sam Smith

During the Civil War, my great great grandfather on my father’s side, Isaac Ogden, vainly argued with his young son Ludlow not to join the Confederates. Ludlow had lived in the south and was opposed to slavery but supported secession. He wrote his father, “I cannot in the hour of danger desert the friends of so many years” as he went off to join a Louisiana regiment and later the Texas Rangers. He was killed near Murfreesboro, Tennessee, while on a scouting expedition.

As it became clear that Ludlow was joining the South, his mother Sarah faced another fear: her younger son Morris – only 17 – might be drafted and end up in battle against his own brother. She arranged to have her own brother, a brigadier general in the Union Army, take Morris onto his staff. He survived the war but only barely, once escaping from a hotel moments before it was attacked by using a sheet as rope to reach his horse and once on a boat raided by Confederates thanks to his location being kept a secret by a young woman southern spy he had earlier befriended. My grandmother later wrote, “They shot and stabbed all the paymasters and Union men, but Morris, shivering in his berth, was untouched. Morris went again into the saloon. The girl was still sitting coolly at the piano surrounded by the bodies of the men who had been killed. . . He went quickly away. He said he never wanted to see her again.”

The Civil War not only divided a nation; it divided families.

The second story took place in the same months as those shown in the movie and might have even affected them if Lincoln had ever heard about it.

My mother’s mother, Charlotte, had come from a line of plantation-holders and slave owners. My grandmother’s father, Charles Moses Shepherd Jr., had been wounded at the battle of Shiloh and was taken prisoner at the end of the war by the Union Army.

After the war, Shepherd’s whereabouts become exceedingly murky, but it is clear that he ran into deep financial trouble and essentially abandoned his children to their maternal grandmother, Ruhama, who took them to Philadelphia to live with a relative. My grandmother Charlotte was less than two years old at the time. When one of Charlotte’s brothers died, Ruhama wrote her own son:

Mr. H telegraphed the sad news to Mr. Shepherd, very fully; Then I wrote to him on the day the darling was buried, & Lotty H. had written to him during his illness; but not a line has been rec[eive]d from him. Can he be sick, or maybe he is away. We don’t understand not hearing from him.

In 1871, his plantation, Golden Grove, was almost seized by the tax collector. In 1872, a court ruled against Shepherd in an indebtedness case. No news or funds reached Philadelphia. Nothing more is known of him until his death in 1876.

Charlotte’s brother Kenner was a wanderer and sometime railroad brakeman, his travels took him as far as western Montana. He was a seedy-looking heavy drinker described by one Louisiana acquaintance as a “mean bastard.”

After Charlotte married my grandfather, Kenner would periodically show up seeking money. According to my sister Meredith and her husband Chad, who looked into the matter:

“These visits, building upon memories of her father’s neglect and financial ineptitude, intensified [Charlotte’s] distrust of Shepherds, and are said to have upset her so much that her husband . . . eventually had to pay the man off to get rid of him. “

Kenner had been named after a side of the family that fared considerably better, at least for a while. According to one account:

William Kenner arrived at Cannes Brulees at the turn of the century.. . . . Kenner played an important role in organizing a company which received a franchise from the United States Congress to dig a large canal across New Orleans. The canal was never started, but Canal Street received its name from the aborted project.

Kenner bought a plantation and married Mary Minor, the 14 year old daughter of Stephen “Don Estavan” Minor who had served as Spanish governor of Mississippi, “swatted mosquitos and hacked through cane thickets” as he later helped Andrew Ellicott plot the 39th parallel across the top of Florida and owned a goodly chunk of Natchez. Mary Minor gave birth to four sons and then died at the age of 27.

Six years later a trusted partner of Kenner absconded with most of the assets of the business and three years after that, William Kenner died at the age of 47. The Kenner boys, all under 16, were rescued by a family friend, Creole lawyer Etienne Masareau. They went on to own three large plantations, roughly occupying the current town of Kenner.

The most unusual of the four was, Duncan Kenner, the brother of my great great grandfather. Kenner had become a major slaveowner and one of the South’s richest men, reputedly losing $20,000 in one card game. He also married a Creole.

After my mother’s death, I stumbled across a little known part of his story told in a book I found on one of her shelves, Retrospections of an Active Life, published in 1909, authored by John Bigelow, former Union envoy in Paris:

Kenner was a member of the Confederate Congress. He had long been satisfied that it was impossible to prosecute the war to a successful issue without a recognition of the Confederacy by at least one of the maritime powers of western Europe, into the ports of which the Southern States might carry their prizes, make repairs, and get supplies. He was also satisfied that they would never secure recognition or any substantial aid so long as the foundations of their projected new empire rested on slavery. He communicated these views to President Davis. The President asked what he had to propose in the premises. He said he wanted the President to authorize a special envoy to offer to the governments of England and France to put an end to slavery in the Confederacy if they would recognize the South as a sovereign power. The President consented to submit the suggestion to several of the leading members of the Congress, by some of whom it was roughly handled.

They protested that the emancipation of the slaves would ruin them, etc. Mr. Kenner told them that he and his family owned more slaves, probably, than all the other members of the Congress put together, and that he was asking no one to make sacrifices which he was not ready to make himself. The result of the consultations was that Kenner himself was sent abroad by President Davis, either with or without the confirmation of the Senate, with full powers to negotiate for recognition on the basis of emancipation. As soon as he received his commission he took a special train to Wilmington, North Carolina. On his arrival there he found either that the blockade was too strict, or that there was no suitable transportation available from that port, and returned at once to Richmond, determined to go by the way of the Potomac and New York. When he mentioned his purpose to Davis, “Why, :Kenner,” he exclaimed, “there is not a gambler in the country who won’t know you. You will certainly be captured.” Kenner had been one of the leading turfmen in the South for a generation. “I am not afraid of that,” said Kenner. “There is not a gambler who knows me who would betray me. I am going to New York.”

Being a very bald man, Kenner provided himself with a brown wig as his chief if not only disguise, and proceeded on his journey. By hook and by crook he finally reached New York and drove to the Metropolitan Hotel. Discovering that the waiters were colored, and that there were too many chances of some of them knowing him, also that ex-Senator Foote of Mississippi, who had deserted the Confederates, was residing at this hotel, he succeeded in getting a note to Mr. Hildreth, then managing the New York Hotel, and an old and trusty friend, asking that a certain room on the lower floor and north side of the hotel be made ready for him, and named the hour that he might be expected, adding that he could not sign the letter, but was a friend. At the time named he went to the hotel and directly to the room he had ordered. The fireman was preparing a fire. While at his work at the grate the door opened, and in walked Hildreth to see who his ‘friend,’ and new lodger might be. Upon recognizing Kenner, he exclaimed, “Good God!” He was checked from continuing by observing Kenner’s fingers on his lips.

They talked upon indifferent matters until the fireman left, and then Hildreth asked Kenner, what could have brought him to New York at such a time. “Do you know,” said he, “that it is as much as your life is worth to be found here?”

“I am going to sail in the English steamer on Saturday, ” said Kenner, and I wish to stay quietly with you until then. You can denounce me to the government if you choose, but I know you won’t.”

Kenner did not leave his room till he left it in a cab for the steamer. His meals were served in his room by Hildreth’s personal attendant. As soon as Kenner arrived in London he sought an interview with Palmerston, to whom he unfolded his mission. Palmerston said that his proposition could not be entertained without the concurrence of the Emperor of France.

“With the Emperor’s concurrence would you give us recognition?” asked Kenner.

“That,” replied Palmerston, “would be a subject for consideration when the case presents itself, and may depend upon circumstances which cannot be foreseen.” Kenner went to Paris and had an interview with the Emperor, who told him he would do whatever England was willing to do in the premises, and would do nothing without her.

Kenner then returned to Palmerston to report the Emperor’s answer. During his absence, the news of Sherman’s successful march through the South had reached London.

Palmerston’s answer to him was, “It is too late.”

Bigelow’s story is mostly confirmed, with some variation, by a fascinating recent book about a little known aspect of the Civil War, how Britain was, and wasn’t, involved. Armanda Foreman, in A World on Fire, describes how Jefferson Davis attempted to deal with the prospects of total defeat:

President Davis decided to make one last appeal to Britain. With nothing left to offer, and with no threat of blackmail or an Anglo-American war to dangle, Davis resorted to the previously unthinkable: he proposed to abolish slavery in return for recognition of Southern independence. On December 27, 1864, he asked Duncan F. Kenner, one of his few remaining allies in the Confederate Congress, to go to London to speak to Lord Palmerston.. .. Meanwhile, Davis arranged a secret meeting between Kenner and the Confederate congressional leaders, who reluctantly accepted that there was no alternative.

This was approximately one month after Sherman’s march on Georgia and even as the fierce debate in the Thirteenth Amendment, so amazingly pictured in “Lincoln,” was underway.

Writes Foreman:

When Davis’s envoy, Duncan Kenner, reached New York on February 6 after a hazardous trek through the back roads of Virginia and Maryland, he discovered that the slavery issue had been taken out of his hands. On January 21, the U.S. House of Representatives had finally voted – by 119 to 56 – to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment, thus abolishing slavery on American soil. … Kenner also learned that the two governments had engaged in halfhearted peace negotiations [also in the movie] on February 3 – known as the Hampton Roads Conference – which collapsed on the first day These were all good reasons for him to give up, but he was determined to see the mission through to completion. He boarded the Southampton-bound America on February 11, posing as a Frenchman in order to confuse the detectives standing guard at the pier. Kenner believed the fate of the Confederacy lay in his hands: Wilmington was gone, Charleston was tottering, and Richmond was surrounded. But if Lord Palmerston could be persuaded that there was no longer any moral impediment to Southern recognition, Kenner still had faith that the combination of Britain’s navy and Confederate courage would win independence for the South.”

Duncan Kenner arrived in England in February 24.

The battles of Petersburg and Appomattox took place March 25 to April 9 and the Civil War came to an end

Writes Foreman, “Even if Duncan Kenner had succeeded in obtaining Southern recognition from Palmerston in exchange for emancipation … it was too late for the Confederacy.”