Armistice Day 1921

image via Korean American Digital Archive East Asian Library, University of Southern California

This incredible photograph was taken one hundred years ago today on November 11, 1921. There were a number of Korean and Korean-American communities in the West in the early decades of the twentieth century and this photograph almost certainly was taken in one of those communities, probably in California. I did a shallow dive trying to learn more based on the few kernels in the image’s metadata but unfortunately could not establish anything truly definitive beyond the few nuggets already there. In the few hours remaining please do stop for a few moments and remember Armistice Day.

Why do family history?

Chapman Brothers Lithographers, Chicago 1888 / via Library of Congress

Back in mid July someone in the family, knowing that I have become something of the unofficial clan historian, emailed me asking for some details about one of our ancestors. I have been doing our genealogy for ~20 years now, my involvement often waxing and waning depending on how busy I am at work, the status of different projects, and just life in general. Recently I had gotten away from it for the better part of two years, essentially since just prior to the pandemic. Thankfully I had the answer to the question he was looking for. His query sent me down a rabbit hole and for about 7-10 days I dug further into the family history, finding things I never knew before. Genealogy is a lot of detail work in which one leaves a lot on the fall because one is not entirely certain if the piece of data is correct. When in doubt, leave it out.

I noticed on the family tree back in July that my great-grandmother was born on October 28, 1896, 125 years ago today. That was one week before the first William McKinley vs. William Jennings Bryan presidential election. She died on October 29, 1986, one day after her ninetieth birthday. If you are keeping track, that is 35 years ago tomorrow. When I noticed that three months ago I jotted it down in my daily planner and told myself I would email 5-6 people in the immediate and extended family with this information. Early this morning I did just that. My own father repeatedly told us when his health began to fail that he did not expect or want us to dwell exceedingly about him once he left this world. He emphasized that life was for the living and that we should live ours while we still can. I have taken that to heart. Still, I carry his legacy, as well as those like my great-grandmother, who I faintly remember, with me. If you have not done any of your own family history, I would encourage you to do so. What is more, I would start as soon as possible before those who might remember important details are gone. It is later than you think. Today my own work paid off when I was able to share the life and memory of someone a few of us remember from an earlier time in our own lives.

Fall cleaning

Pullman Company ticket, circa 1927

I have been cleaning the house in preparation for the coming fall weather. Part of this has included thinning the home library of some books I no longer need, usually titles I bought second-hand for past projects. One must move on and make room for the new. I always skim through a book to make sure I haven’t left anything inside. Yesterday I did just that to one old title and out fell what you see above. It is a Pullman ticket from back in the day. In and of itself there is nothing unusual about it. The ticket is just a piece of the everyday detritus of life, something one would purchase for one’s trip and then discard upon reaching the destination much in the way I discarded my Metro-North ticket last Saturday at Grand Central upon returning from Connecticut after a day trip. Millions of others do it daily as well. It is the Pullman part that makes it interesting. Our long-lost friend used his ticket for a bookmark, which yesterday I found nearly a century later. I have it magnetted to the refrigerator.

Unfortunately the handwriting is so bad that I cannot make out the destination or even the date. The book from which it fell was published in 1927, so I assume it is from around that time. I am guessing that this was not a sleeper car. The fare was $.75, which indicates it was more of a commuter trip than long-distance journey. I plugged that amount into an inflation calculator and the fare would be the equivalent in today’s dollars to ~$10-12. Certainly an overnight ride cost more than that, but I really don’t know. The railroads were hugely important in American society until as recently as the late 1950s and early 1960s, not that long ago in the grand scheme of things. It was the airplane, the automobile, and the Highway Act of 1956 that dealt the fatal blows. Yesterday like an autumn leaf a little reminder of that old world fell on the living room floor.

Just in time for fall

I took a day trip yesterday and on the train leaving the city one of my friends was telling me about some work she had recently had done on an old leather bag. The craftsman who had repaired it had done a good job mending the vintage item, now strong enough for many more years of use but with the patina and old scuffs that give such items character and make them worth restoring in the first place. It was an interesting conversation about the longterm value of Well Made Things. I noted that just the day before, on Friday, I had received a phone call from the cobbler that my Red Wing boots were ready to pick up. I wore these things hard throughout the pandemic, in large part because shops were closed for so long that I could not get to a store to buy any other walking shoes. Made in Minnesota, these boots are as tough as they look and took the beating well. Still, the heels and soles inevitably gave out, as they should after years of service. The need for the boots became less immediate when I finally bought two pairs of hiking shoes in June. The boots then sat around all summer until I dropped them off last week in preparation for the cooler weather. Today I ventured out in the light rain to pick then up. Here are the results.


The first Sunday of autumn

New York Marble Cemetery

Friends and I could not have had a more beautiful day to visit New York Marble Cemetery in the East Village. I had always wanted to visit this historic cemetery, the first non-denominational resting place built in New York City, but it is normally closed to the public. The cemetery was built primarily to bury victims of the yellow fever pandemic of the early 1830s. As we can see, it is more utilitarian than the garden cemeteries built in the United States beginning in this same period. The cemtery’s founders used marble to entomb the dead because they believed that using that stone would prevent the transmission of the yellow fever disease.

For more than two decades I had walked past the closed gates on Second Avenue between 2nd and 3rd Streets and wondered what it looked like inside. Had I visited in the late 1990s it would have looked quite different. What you see here are the results of two decades of hard work by the people, many the descendants of individuals interred here, who have cleaned up and maintained this special place. Until gentrification this area was notoriously crime- and drug-ridden. Inhabitants of the then ubiquitous flophouse were notorious for throwing trash of all types out the windows in the grounds here. In the early 2000s they began the clean-up and the planting of the landscaping one sees here. They have also done extensive genealogy work and tracked down the descendants of many of the cemetery residents. It is amazing what even a few individuals working with purpose can accomplish.

Labor Day ’21

A. Philip Randolph memorial, Union Station

I was passing through Union Station this morning and saw one of my favorite memorials for the first time in ages, this rendering of A. Philip Randolph that stands near the gates to the train platforms. It is strange how some figures become institutionalized in our public memory and others get forgotten. Randolph has been overlooked in our civic culture, which is a tragedy. Perhaps in Randolph’s case it is because he does not fit into any neat category, but instead exists in a grey area between union leader and civil right activist. Or perhaps it is because railroads just don’t play the role in our society that they once did, and so we fail to see his significance. Among other things Randolph founded The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, a labor union comprised almost exclusively of African-American men who worked in various capacities on the railroads that then criss-crossed the entirety of the United States. I’m far from an expert on Randolph but as I understand it he had a somewhat contentious relationship with W.E.B. DuBois. Others, like Fiorello La Guardia, offered their support over the years. In 1941 he had a tense stand-off with the Roosevelt Administration over a March on Washington that Randolph wanted to organize in protest against job discrimination in the defense industry. Randolph eventually backed down but that event took place in 1963.

Sunday morning coffee, tropical storm edition

We are riding the storm out here, so far fortunate that we have not lost power or anything worse. We’ll see what the next thirty-six hours brings.

Joe Galloway in San Fransisco, 2017 / photograph by Christopher Michel

Someone texted me the other day that Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway died earlier this week. In the texting thread that ensued I pointed out that given the events of our current moment it seemed appropriate in a bitterly ironic way that the chronicler of that conflict died when he did. Galloway’s death comes seven months after Neal Sheehan’s passing this past January. We were fortunate that Lynn Novick, Ken Burns and their team were able to get the two journalist’s on film for their 2017 documentary “The Vietnam War.” In the winter of their lives they added further nuance to our understanding of the war and the era. Galloway in particular was ubiquitous on the promotional circuit during and immediately after the film’s release, talking with Burns and others at symposia and other public events. Sheehan it seems was too infirm by that point to contribute in such a manner.

1967 Mercury Records promotional image of Tom T. Hall

Galloway was not the only figure from the era who died this week. A second was Tom T. Hall. Known as The Storyteller, Hall was born in Kentucky in 1936. Historian Bill C. Malone tells us in his important book “Country Music, U.S.A.” that one of Hall’s greatest inspirations as a songwriter was Hemingway. One can see that in the succinctness and brevity of Hall’s lyrics. The songs are short, and the language crisp and clear. Hall told you the story and then quickly wrapped it up. Just like Hemingway. That is a much more difficult thing to pull off than the reader or listener realizes. That one does not see the effort and deliberation that went into it means the creator succeeded. I must say that as much as I admire Tom T. Hall’s imagination and proficiency I never entirely warmed up to his catalogue. His songs, at least to me, never quite had the depth of expression found in the work of Kris Kristofferson, Vern Gosdin, Townes Van Zandt, and others. I don’t find myself going back to Hall’s work regularly the way I do with others. Listening to Merle Haggard or Bob Dylan at twenty-five is not the same as listening to them at forty, and again at fifty as one’s own life and circumstances evolve. Once you have heard a Tom T. Hall song, you basically know what it is. The figure he reminds me the most of is Buck Owens, another supremely talented, deeply intelligent figure whose oeuvre never quite plumbed the depths that it could have. Still it’s hard to argue with a song like “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” Hall’s 1968 classic sung by Jeannie C. Riley skewering the hypocrisy inflicted upon a single mother by her “betters” in the small town in which she lives as she’s trying to get by. We are fortunate we had Joe Galloway and Tom T. Hall while we did.

Placentia Bay, August 1941

Earlier this week I had an early morning dentist appointment in midtown Manhattan and afterward went looking for Chartwell Booksellers, an independent bookstore founded in 1983 dedicated to selling books and ephemera related to Winston Churchill. I was only “vaguely” looking for the shop, knowing it was in the general area but not all that worried should I not see it. It did not appear and so I stopped for a quick coffee & croissant before moving on with my day. I next stopped in the public area of a skyscraper to wash my hands when, lo and behold, there was Chartwell Booksellers in the lobby. I did not buy anything but intend to go back. I took a few photographs of the shop windows and texted them to a friend in another state who has a similar interest in the period. This led to a back-and-forth text discussion of the merits and demerits of Churchill and Roosevelt. Needless to say, both men were extremely gifted and flawed individuals whose successes and failures run parallel and still resonate today. Entirely coincidentally my quick visit to the bookstore fell on the eightieth anniversary of the Placentia Bay conference in Newfoundland at which the president and prime minister discussed the war in Europe. It was less than two months after Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union, their ally of nearly the previous two years. The United States was still technically neutral in the war, though earlier in the year in his January 6 address to Congress Roosevelt had laid out his idea of the Lend-Lease project in what is now known as the Four Freedoms speech.

Leslie MacDonald Gill map / via Cornell University Library

The relationship between the United States and Great Britain during the Second World War was more fraught and complicated than most people realize even today. Hiding the fissures is what good diplomacy does. Churchill, Roosevelt, and scores of military and civilian leaders hashed out various logistics from August 9-12. On August 14 the two leaders issued the Atlantic Charter, a basic framework of principles for what both war and peace might look like. In the coming years the Atlantic Charter was often more honored in the breach than in reality. It’s not that surprising given the complexity and fluidity of a war that took the lives of sixty million people and wounded and displaced millions more. Three quarters of a century later it is still impossible to wrap one’s mind around it. Above is an extraordinary piece of material culture: a 1942 map created by cartographer and graphic designer Leslie MacDonald Gill for the British magazine “Time and Tide” with the text of the Atlantic Charter and a map of the natural resources of the “United Nations” that by then were fighting the Axis Powers. The map struck a chord with the British and American publics, so much so that the London Geographical Institute and Denoyer-Geppert Science Company of Chicago mass produced it in poster form in 1943 and sold it by the thousands. In the ensuing decades the “Time and Tide” map of the Atlantic Charter has appeared in museum exhibitions and at trade shows in London, Miami, and elsewhere. One thing I find striking is how colorful it is. I was talking to someone a few weeks ago about how we interpret the World Wars as having been in black-and-white because almost all of the photographs and moving images are such. The people of the time literally saw it differently.