Hiroshima, August 6, 1945

Hiroshima, 1945

I don’t know if I have anything particularly insightful, new, or especially revelatory to say about it, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that today is the 75th anniversary of the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima.

Truman had been in office less than four months at this time. Roosevelt had kept the Manhattan Project a secret from his vice-president, who learned of the race to build the atomic bomb only after Roosevelt’s death in April. Imagine hearing about such a thing for the first time, and knowing you would be the one who would have to make such a decision. The history, creation, and use of the atomic bomb is a story that resonates on the individual and universal level. Very rarely do tipping points in history come so sharply and clearly as they did seventy-five years ago today. There was no turning back or putting the genie back in the bottle for humankind after August 6, 1945. The world had unambiguously entered a new age.

(image/Truman Library Institute)

“Brown Broadway”

Newsboys on LA’s Central Avenue, 1939

One Sunday afternoon in March 1989 my brother and I attended Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final game in Houston against the Rockets. That was now more than three decades ago and my memories are naturally fuzzy, but as I recall I don’t think we knew when we bought the tickets that it would be the great center’s final game in Space City. Before the game they had the typical ceremony where the aging soon-to-be-hall of famer receives accolades and usually some cheesy gifts. Abdul-Jabbar said a few uncomfortable words and then the game was on. Houston was an important city in Kareem’s career: in the 1980s his Lakers lost twice to the Rockets in the Western Conference playoffs and in January 1968 then-still Lew Alcindor’s #2 ranked UCLA Bruins lost to the #1 ranked Houston Cougars 71-69 in the so-called Game of the Century before a nationally televised audience before tens of thousands in the Astrodome. (In March the Bruins would defeat Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels in the NCAA Finals.)

Abdul-Jabbar has always played a role in my and my brother’s popular culture narrative. Though sports mean less to me than they once did, you could not be a Boston sports fan in the 1980s and not think of Los Angeles Lakers. In retrospect I understand that our infatuation was partly based on our being uprooted from the Northeast and transported to the grim, humid Sunbelt in the 1970s; torn from our roots, we clung as we could to was there, which for us included the Red Sox, Bruins, Patriots, and–especially–the Celtics. These were the days before the internet or, for us, even cable television, and we often called the local newspaper in the late evening to ask the final score of this or that game before the next morning’s paper.

Abdul-Jabbar always seemed a shy and reserved man, less comfortable in the spotlight than Earvin Johnson. Magic’s affability and gift of gab probably took a great deal of strain off of the great center, which could only have been a relief. In the mid-90s I was working at a large chain bookstore in Houston when we were planning for some book signing event. That led to a discussion in the break room of previous public figures who had passed through in recent years, usually before my arrival on the job. One of them was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who my co-workers told me left though the backdoor halfway through the signing. If that even happened, who know why? Arrogance? Shyness? Social anxiety? Condescension? People are complicated.

A thoughtful and insightful individual, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has kept busy writing books and articles for much of the past thirty years. He recently wrote this fascinating story about Black Los Angeles for the LA Times. It especially covers the LA jazz scene, something that the retired basketball player turned writer knows more than a little about. Lew Alcindor grew up in Harlem and his father both a NYC transit cop and Julliard-trained musician who knew and played with most of the greats of the mid-twentieth century. Do check it out.

(image/photographer, Fred William Carter; Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library)



Newport 1965: Dylan plugs in

Bob Dylan performs an acoustic set at St. Lawrence University, November 26, 1963, just days after the Kennedy assassination and a year and a half before “going electric” at Newport in July 1965

Today is the 55th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s so-called plugging in and going electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Dylan at Newport in ’65 is one of those now Well Told Tales, recounted today by hundreds of thousands but witnessed in real time by a fraction of that number. The story has been mythologized, and to a large degree overblown, for more than half a century now. In the standard telling fans were outraged that Dylan would deign to forgo his folk roots and pollute the purity and sanctity of Newport with electronic sound. That doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For one thing, there had already been electric music played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band had done that very thing, as had others.

What is more, Dylan’s most ardent followers would have already known the directions he was already taking; his fifth album, the half-electric Bringing It All Back Home, had been released four months earlier in March. It seems the real issue with any booing–and it’s not really evident that there was that much–had to do with the sound quality of the stage set. The festival had been growing exponentially each succeeding year and organizers were having difficulty accommodating the thousands of listeners who converged on that New England seaside community fifty-five summers ago.

Nineteen sixty-five was a tipping point in the decade. Malcolm X had been assassinated in February, the Johnson Administration was escalating the American presence in Vietnam, Watts burned just two weeks after the Newport Festival. By the years’s end the Beatles would release Help! and Rubber Soul, and Dylan himself came out with Highway 61 Revisited. I was talking to someone a few days ago about this heady time when the Beatles and Dylan were taking over popular culture and he described it saying that it felt like the world was transforming from black-and-white to color, which in many ways it was via photography and television. It is no wonder people remember–and misremember–the moment so “clearly.”

(image/1964 St. Lawrence University yearbook)


Opening Day 2020 redux

Baseball field before Healy Hall, Georgetown University 1900

Opening Day of the truncated sixty game MLB schedule starts tonight when the Yankees face off against the Nationals in Washington D.C. I’m turning the game on the radio in a few minutes. I posted on what was supposed to have been Opening Day in late March, almost four months ago now. I was talking to someone the other day about potential anomalies that might occur due to the truncated schedule and other issues. We speculated that someone, or someones, may even hit .400. It’s not unusual for someone to hit above that mark for 2+ months at the start of a normal season before the longevity of a full complement of games brings them back to the statistical norm. While any batters hitting .400 for the first time since Ted Williams nearly eighty years ago would not really constitute a record of any sort, would there be some type of asterisk in the recognition of the achievement? Who knows? The wait-and-see uncertainty is strangely apropos and symbolic of 2020 itself.

(image/Georgetown University Library)


Rufus King, part two

King Manor, Jamaica Queens circa mid-twentieth century

The editors at the Journal of the American Revolution have posted the second and concluding article I wrote about Rufus King. This article brings King from 1789 to 1805, the year he purchased the house we see above. It worked out well because the scope of the JAR ends in 1805. Anything beyond that isn’t so much part of the Revolutionary or Early American periods. In 1805 King had another third of his life to go, but that’s a story for another time and venue. Work has been progressing on the manuscript about the King family in which I am in the early stages of writing. When the pandemic ends, I intend to visit archives in Massachusetts, Milwaukee, and elsewhere to track down the lives and times of his children, grandchildren, and beyond. Thankfully, there is also a large amount of material related to various Kings here in New York as well.

I love this image that we see above of King Manor. It comes from the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) report. It never quite occurred to me until I wrote the article linked to above that Rufus and wife Mary purchased this hime in 1805 inspired not just by Rufus’s childhood experience in Scarborough, Massachusetts (today Maine), but by the grand manors they would have seen in England when Mr. King was the U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s.

(image/Library of Congress)


Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862

Henry David Thoreau was born in Concord, Massachusetts on this date in 1817. The writer and philosopher lived an incredibly short life; he died in May 1862 just shy of his 45h birthday. To put that into perspective, his death occurred in the middle of General McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign. I have always wondered what Thoreau might have had to say about the Civil War had he lived through its entirety. Walt Whitman gave us “Drum Taps” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” at the war’s end, and then went on to live another twenty-seven years after Appomattox. Thoreau was a mere two years older than Whitman.

Henry David Thoreau, August 1861

Perhaps intellectually Thoreau did not have the sensibility to live in and understand Gilded Age America, much in the way Theodore Roosevelt’s 1919 death spared him having to live through the Roaring Twenties and Jazz Age, to which Roosevelt would have been constitutionally unsuited. So, maybe it’s for the best that Thoreau died when he did before the full tragedy of the war unfolded. This was we remember him as we do with the transcendentalists and for the influence he later had on Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and others.

A few weeks ago I began subscribing to The Atlantic. Given certain things taking place in our world today it has never been more important to support journalism. One of the things I find most beneficial about the periodical, in addition to its great stable of contributors, is its historical memory. The Atlantic has been in publication since 1857, the year of a great financial panic and depression. Three years later came  Lincoln’s 1860 presidential victory and soon thereafter the Civil War. Here is the magazine’s online author page for one Henry David Thoreau.

(photograph by George F. Parlow/Library of Congress)


These Old Houses

King Manor Museum interior, Jamaica, Queens

New York City is not a place known for preserving its architectural heritage. Since the arrival of the first Dutchmen centuries ago the city’s entire philosophy has been to tear down and create anew in pursuit of mammon. That creative destruction makes what indeed remains that much more precious. A friend of mine and I had intended to pick up where we left off last summer in our visits to the five boroughs’ few remaining historic homes, but that is not happening for obvious reason. My friend, another Park service volunteer, recently emailed me this New York Times piece from early June telling the stories of the men and women entrusted with the care of the dozen or so historic houses spread through New York City’s diverse neighborhoods. The caretakers live, either alone or with their nuclear families, in these houses, literally keeping the lights on and making certain nothing untoward occurs. All of their stories are intriguing. I was especially interested in the brief profile of eighty-year-old Roy Fox, who has been keeping watch at the Rufus King Manor for over three decades now dating back to the late 1980s. I have not yet met Mr. Fox, but would love to when the shutdown finally does end.

I am still adjusting to the reality of this most unusual summer; though I regard myself as among the fortunate, it is so difficult to be closed off from the wider world on beautiful summer days such as today. Under normal circumstances, who know where we might have been or what we might have seen? Historical homes such as King Manor and the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum have been quiet for more than three months now. As the article itself points out however, these sites have been around for a long time–centuries in most cases–and been through a lot: world wars, economic depressions, civic unrest, blackouts, petty vandalism, and more. Someday this crazy era too will be part of these structures’ history, and thankfully there are people there right now to preserve that ongoing institutional memory.

(image/CaptJayRuffins via Wikimedia Commons))

Like Sands Through The Hourglass

I was in my office at 7:45 this morning and the first thing I noticed when I opened the door and turned on the lights after being away for more than three months was the wall calendar still turned to March. Little did I know when I turned out the lights, closed the door and left way back in late winter that I would be gone for so long. The entire spring, with all its tumult and uncertainty, came and went. Now July is here and I went in to do a few things possible only in my office, pick up a few things, and go through some papers in preparation for the upcoming fall term. I only ran in to three people in the complex: one colleague, a construction worker, and two security officers. On my way out in the early afternoon I had a brief conversation with the officer at the entranceway about all the changes in the world since late spring, not least the deaths of several people from the college community who have perished from the virus.

San Fransisco, June 1945

President Truman (left) watches Edward Stettinius sign the UN charter on behalf of the United States, June 25, 1945

V-E Day had come and gone six weeks previously when representatives of fifty countries gathered in San Fransisco in late June 1945 for the signing if the United Nations charter. The war was still very much going on, quite brutally in fact. It is easy to think today that everyone knew that the war in the Pacific would be over by summer’s end, but of course no one could have predicted any such thing on June 25-26 when Edward Stettinius, President Truman, and others gathered at San Fransisco’s War Memorial Opera House to prepare for the future, whatever it might look like. The seeds of the creation of the international organization date to the start of American involvement in the Second World War: on New Years Day 1942 the United States and over two dozen other countries issued the United Nations Declaration expressing their cooperation in defeating the Axis Powers.

Truman speaks to UN closing session, June 26 1945

In an ironic way it is easier and more comforting to study war than it is peace; battles have a beginning, middle, and end, and easily recognizable sides to go with their timelines. Orders of battles imply the illusion of, well, order. Peace is messy and more often than not comes filled with ironic and bitter compromises. Truman of course was a veteran of the Great War and knew the failures of Versailles. The day before his speech in San Fransisco the president told a hospital ward full of wounded soldiers that “in the next generation the veterans of this war are going to run this country.” And that is essentially what happened.

Over the past several days I have been listening daily to Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul,” the seventy-nine-year-old musician’s recent single about the Kennedy assassination. Kennedy had fought in the Pacific. Thinking of the signing of the United Nations charter seventy-five years ago this week I can’t help but think now of JFK’s words from his first inaugural, just sixteen year later, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans–born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.”

(images/Truman Library Institute)