Rudolph, Our Hero

Posted December 24th, 2010 at 10:09 am (UTC-4)
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An early, and not exactly plump, department-store Santa. (Library of Congress)

An early, and not exactly plump, department-store Santa. (Library of Congress)

I’m posting this early on Friday, Christmas Eve.  For millions of American children, tonight will be the most exciting night of the year.  Bigger than New Year’s Eve.  Bigger than Independence Day’s fireworks at dusk.  Even bigger than Halloween, when they can beg bagfuls of candy from their neighbors.

Kids get so excited on Christmas Eve that they have a terrible time getting to sleep.  Yet it’s also the one night of the year that their parents are the most insistent about getting them to bed and to sleep.  Only when they’re in dreamland, Mom and Dad explain — without much in the way of proof — will the magic elf Santa Claus land his sleigh, laden with toys and pulled by eight tiny reindeer, on the rooftop above.

A 1912 cover of the Clement Moore poem in book form.  As here, the title was often changed to the first line of the poem. (Wikipedia Commons)

A 1912 cover of the Clement Moore poem in book form. As here, the title was often changed to the first line of the poem. (Wikipedia Commons)

I say eight tiny reindeer, and that’s the way the story went for 116 years, after Clement Clarke Moore published the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and described not only St. Nick — with cheeks like roses, a nose like a cherry, and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly — but also Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and five other hard-working reindeer.

But the story changed big-time in 1939.  In that year, someone at the Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago, Illinois, figured it could save money by publishing its own Christmas coloring book — the kind that store Santa Clauses gave away to boys and girls who lined up in the store to tell Santa what gifts they wanted for Christmas — rather than paying an outsider to provide these books.

The store turned to 34-year-old Robert May,  a bright fellow — Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth College — who was one of the writers of the store’s newspaper advertisements. 

On his own time and dime, May wrote children’s stories as well.

As a child, Bob May had been scrawny and sickly — mocked and shunned by other kids.  So, drawing upon his unhappy experiences and the 19th-century Danish fairy tale of the Ugly Duckling — a homely little fowl who was also an outcast among his peers — May invented the story of a ninth reindeer, living with the others at Santa’s toy workshop at the North Pole.

Like May and the duckling, this little deer was ridiculed by the eight privileged reindeer that proudly pulled Santa’s sleigh each Christmas Eve.  Not only was he small and wobbly, but he sported an oversized, ridiculously shiny red nose.  Red, like a clown’s nose or a drunk’s schnoz.  So red, it seemed to glow, making him that much easier a target for bullying.

May needed a name for this pitiable creature.  Something starting with “R” so he could couple it, alliteratively, with “red.”  He tried “Rollo the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” but that name sounded a little too cheerful.  He thought “Reginald” might work, but that seemed too stuffy for a spindly little deer.

This was the original cover of Bob May’s comic book.  (Wikipedia Commons)

This was the original cover of Bob May’s comic book. (Wikipedia Commons)

Finally, he settled on “Rudolph,” a name that, by itself, sounded a bit awkward to the American ear.  I don’t know whether it factored into May’s selection, but “Rudolph,” like the German name ending in “f” intead of a “ph,” would have been about as unpopular at the time — with World War II brewing — as a red-nosed pariah was to Prancer and Vixen and the rest of Santa’s favored deer.

Bob May’s story doesn’t tell us much about Rudolph’s doubtlessly dreadful life at the North Pole, left behind, all sad-eyed, each Christmas Eve as Santa and the eight working deer soared off with their sleigh full of toys.  His tale begins one Christmas Eve as a terrible fog descends upon Santa’s workshop, just at takeoff time.

 If a jet-powered plane equipped with millions of dollars’ of instruments cannot set off in such conditions today, an eight-pack of reindeer was assuredly stuck — socked in, grounded — in the pea-soup fog 71 years ago.

Christmas morning would be a disaster!  Read the rest of this entry »

Christmases Remembered

Posted December 22nd, 2010 at 1:01 pm (UTC-4)
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The other day I came upon a script of a VOA story that I had put together nine years ago. It was entitled, “Christmas Memories,” and it wasn’t a story so much as stories, warm reminiscences told in thin and sometimes crackly voices by men and women who lived in retirement homes — they used to call them “old-folks’ homes” — in the Washington, D.C. area.

Some of their backs were bowed, their gaits a shuffle, their hair turned thin and silver or tinted blue. Brothers and sisters and old playmates were gone. Names and dates and adventures were hard to pull from the fogbank of time.

A little girl wonders whether this is where Santa lives.  I’ve picked just old-timey photos to illustrate this posting, in keeping with the times in which the elderly folks in my story enjoyed Christmas as kids.  (Library of Congress)

A little girl wonders whether this is where Santa lives. I’ve picked just old-timey photos to illustrate this posting, in keeping with the times in which the elderly folks in my story enjoyed Christmas as kids. (Library of Congress)

But Christmas magic refreshed the child in those who played and prayed on that Christian holiday as little ones, long ago. The very mention of Christmas brought a shy smile, a twinkle of recollection — even, with a little prompting, a carol that they once sang heartily while gathered with family and friends around the piano.

No doubt many of the people whom I met that day are now gone, too. But their words endure for millions of others, me included, who treasure Christmas as much for the memories it leaves as for the delights of the day. So I thought you’d like to read some of those words and perhaps take a moment, too, to think back, wistfully, to warm childhood moments, whether or not the memories are triggered by the Christmas season.

Lawrence Friel was five when his mother died in the terrible influenza epidemic of 1918. His father worked nights as a locomotive mechanic in the sooty coal town of Connellsville, Pennsylvania.

Santa was plenty real to these children.  (Library of Congress)

Santa was plenty real to these children. (Library of Congress)

“I always wanted a wheelbarrow,” he told me. “I don’t know why, ‘cause I didn’t like workin’.” He laughed heartily here. “Always wanted a drum because I liked to make noise. And I got the wheelbarrow. That was a happy Christmas morning. And I got that drum at the same time. ‘Course I always believed in Santa Claus, hearing all that noise of Dad bringing that wheelbarrow in late at night. I guess it did snow that Christmas. You know, everybody looks for snow on Christmas to satisfy Santa Claus.

“We always thought Santa brought the snow with him.”

“Did you miss your mom that Christmas?” I asked him.

“Oh, my goodness, yes. I didn’t know what a mom was. I still miss my Mom today. I’m 89 years old.” And he laughed robustly again.

Eva Eden was 97 years old when we spoke. One of four children, she grew up near her senior-citizen residence in the Georgetown section of Washington. Her father, a bridge-builder, and her mother would sneak up to the attic on Christmas eve to get the family’s presents and the Christmas ornaments. When Eva, her sister, and two brothers came down Christmas morning, they found a whole snowy village surrounding the decorated tree. Read the rest of this entry »

The Real Bedford Falls

Posted December 20th, 2010 at 4:27 pm (UTC-4)
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A Christmas tradition in millions of American households is to curl up in front of a television set — and ideally a fireplace filled with crackling logs — and watch an old, black-and-white movie that never fails to rekindle the warm good feelings of the holiday.

James Stewart as George Bailey — with Donna Reed as his wife, Mary, and Karolyn Grimes as his youngest child, Zulu — still looks frazzled, despite the happy ending to “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  (Seneca Falls It’s a Wonderful Life Museum)

James Stewart as George Bailey — with Donna Reed as his wife, Mary, and Karolyn Grimes as his youngest child, Zulu — still looks frazzled, despite the happy ending to “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Seneca Falls It’s a Wonderful Life Museum)

The 1946 movie classic, Its a Wonderful Life, put together by legendary director Frank Capra, depicts a quaint, snow-covered town called “Bedford Falls.”  If you dreamed up a quintessential American village, with orderly streets and houses and good-natured people living and working there, your vision would come close to describing Bedford Falls.

Capra never explained whether the make-believe town was inspired by one specific community or by a composite of wholesome small towns in the snowy northern United States.

But that hasn’t stopped little Seneca Falls, in upper New York state — already famous as the cradle of the American women’s-rights movement — from asserting a claim as the film’s likely inspiration.

This isn’t the long, divided boulevard you see in Bedford Falls, but if Seneca Falls looked at all like this when Frank Capra visited, an idea might have formed.  (Henry Law)

This isn’t the long, divided boulevard you see in Bedford Falls, but if Seneca Falls looked at all like this when Frank Capra visited, an idea might have formed. (Henry Law)

Frank Capra visited there a year before putting the film together.  A barber, still living, remembers cutting his hair.  And Capra likely came through Seneca Falls often on his frequent journeys to visit his aunt in the nearby larger city of Auburn, New York.

There’s a bridge in Seneca Falls that looks just like the one from which an angel in human form jumps to save the film’s hero, George Bailey.  In fact, there’s an old plaque on that bridge — now called the “Bailey Bridge” — that Capra may have seen.  It honors a young man who gave his life jumping into the canal below to save a woman who had leapt off the bridge in 1917. Read the rest of this entry »

The Kwanzaa Bridge

Posted December 17th, 2010 at 3:01 pm (UTC-4)
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Early winter in America is a time of religious commemorations, including Christian Christmas and Jewish Hanukkah.

But there’s one equally thoughtful, though entirely secular, celebration that African Americans observe this time of year, over and above any observance of Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Muslim holiday of Ashura.

It’s Kwanzaa, which Americans of African descent mark over seven days, beginning December 26th, the day AFTER Christmas. If you don’t count wild and crazy New Year’s Eve, this long bridge between Christmas and New Year’s Day is the last holiday of each year.

While there’s no particular widely-sung or recorded song about Kwanzaa ─ no equivalent to Christendom’s “O Holy Night” or Jewish children’s “Dreidel Song” ─ there is lot of Kwanzaa music.

Much of it is centuries old and tribal and often sung with no more than a drumbeat accompaniment.

A Kwanzaa tradition in some households is to place as many ears of corn as there are children in the family on the holiday display.

A Kwanzaa tradition in some households is to place as many ears of corn as there are children in the family on the holiday display.

Based in part on early African harvest celebrations ─ corn, or maize, is prominent in its symbols and rituals ─ Kwanzaa is primarily a time for storytelling and reconnection with cultures dating to ancient Africa. Its name traces to a phrase that means “first fruits” in the Swahili language.

The holiday was developed in 1966, in the heart of the black nationalist movement, by Maulana Karenga, now an African-American scholar and activist at California State University at Long Beach. Back then, he was Ron Karenga, a radical California “black power” advocate.

He designed Kwanzaa as a festival of family and community. The purpose, he said, was to “reaffirm and restore our rootedness in African culture.”  Rites were to be in Swahili because it is the most widely spoken African language.

Africa’s storytelling tradition flowered among many peoples throughout the continent, notably during the harvest of the early summer’s first crops. This coincides with Kwanzaa’s timing in the early winter of the northern hemisphere. Keeping alive the storytelling tradition is part of the life work of griots.

And what are griots? Read the rest of this entry »

Pass the Tea

Posted December 15th, 2010 at 8:13 pm (UTC-4)
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As you see, I’m posting this on the eve of December 16th.

And what’s so special about December 16th?

It’s a big Tea Party day. Not the loose confederation of small-government, low-tax advocates who will be sending 30 or so rambunctious representatives to Congress come January and who are making all that political noise across the United States.

The hatter, or mad hatter, had something to say at HIS tea party just as speakers at Tea Party rallies do today. (Wikipedia Commons)

The hatter, or mad hatter, had something to say at HIS tea party just as speakers at Tea Party rallies do today. (Wikipedia Commons)

Not a real tea party — the kind where folks sip from delicate china and stick out their pinkies in a sort of upper-crust code of hoity-toitiness. Not the Alice in Wonderland tea party with the Mad Hatter from the fable, either.

December 16th is the anniversary of THE Tea Party, a little get-together in Boston 237 years ago. It is that affair that inspired and gave the name to the political Tea Party of today.

More about those events in 1773 shortly.

First, though, if you’ve just heard tell, as mother used to say, about today’s Tea Party, be aware:

It’s not yet — and “yet” could be the operative word — a full-fledged, official political party at all — except in Florida, where someone registered the name. It has no party chairman, no place by name on any ballot, no cute elephant or donkey symbol.

The Gadsden flag: colorful and provocative. (Wikipedia Commons)

The Gadsden flag: colorful and provocative. (Wikipedia Commons)

Tea partiers are, however, partial to a snake. That’s not a slap. I’m talking real snake, or at least a colorful symbol of one shown on the “Gadsden Flag” that dates all the way back to the American Revolution. That’s when some hastily mustered patriot marines marched about with drums painted bright yellow and carrying the image of a coiled rattlesnake and the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me.”  That saying and snake symbol then showed up on a flag presented to the patriot navy’s commander by Christopher Gadsden, who led the rebellious “Sons of Liberty” in his home colony of South Carolina.

Tea partiers of today are partial to the menacing snake and defiant “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan. Some are “all in” with the American Revolution metaphor, calling the Tea Party the “Patriot” movement.

A speaker invokes Uncle Sam at a Tea Party Rally in downtown Chicago in April.  (AP Photo)

A speaker invokes Uncle Sam at a Tea Party Rally in downtown Chicago in April. (AP Photo)

The Tea Party that’s shaking up Washington is indeed a phenomenon as well as an alliance of kindred conservatives — some prefer to say libertarians or populists, which would take a whole other blog to explain. Tea partiers think of themselves as a grassroots bunch, which implies a natural and spontaneous emergence from the hinterlands. For sure, the coalescence around lowering government spending, taxes, and the national debt didn’t start in the overstuffed chairs of Wall Street or the U.S. Capitol.

But cynics and critics argue that Tea Party protests, which began early last year, were more AstroTurf than natural grass, meaning that, like the synthetic carpet made to look like shoots of green grass, Tea Party gatherings were calculated events choreographed by savvy politicians and disguised as spontaneous uprisings and outcries. Read the rest of this entry »

Radio Daze

Posted December 13th, 2010 at 2:53 pm (UTC-4)
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In 1897, the gifted American humorist Mark Twain dashed off a note to the New York Herald newspaper.  The recent rumor of his death, he wrote, “was an exaggeration.”

Can the same be said for the death knells that are ringing for American radio?  Let’s look back.

Early TV seemed like a miracle, all right.  But we still listened to new-fangled transitor radio. (John Atherton, Wikipedia Commons)

Early TV seemed like a miracle, all right. But we still listened to new-fangled transitor radio. (John Atherton, Wikipedia Commons)

Television was absolutely going to kill off radio when the new medium boomed into American homes in the 1950s. Instead, radio flourished as the transistor brought perky music and glib disc jockeys into cars and portable radios.  Medium-wave radio, especially, was pronounced dead when FM stations offering rich, static-free sound caught the public’s fancy.  But medium wave lives on as a source for news and conversation — for now.

When Congress relaxed ownership rules in the 1990s, big corporations gobbled up radio stations by the hundreds.  They installed computerized formats, jacked up the number of commercials, and raked in fat profits.  Soon, radio sounded pretty much the same from coast to coast.

Now, as the Wall Street Journal put it, domestic radio is “bleeding.”

Many medium-wave stations have gone out of business or become fringe operations in which entrepreneurs buy air-time from the stations and use it to aggressively sell their products.  You hear long-winded pitches for life insurance, retirement investments, and geriatric drugs of all sorts, since the dreaded “55+” crowd predominates in the medium-wave audience.

A lot of people, including me, have turned away from radio just because of the incessant, intrusive commercials. (Wikipedia Commons)

A lot of people, including me, have turned away from radio just because of the incessant, intrusive commercials. (Wikipedia Commons)

Listening to some AM (medium wave) stations, you can imagine what carnival hucksters selling snake-oil miracle cures must have sounded like a few generations ago.

I say “dreaded 55+,” thinking back to my own days as an AM news director in three large markets: Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and New Orleans.  And, believe it or not, our Washington station, which played lots of music as well as covering the news, had an astounding 25 people in its news department.

Today, AM stations count themselves lucky if they have anyone at all covering local news.

Even in the halcyon days, three decades and more ago, station managers and program directors were scrounging for “younger demographics” because younger people were bigger spenders.  Ergo, more advertisers would buy “spots” to reach them.  Older listeners were — and are — loyal, listen to a program longer than impatient young listeners, and generally have more money to spend than do younger people.  Read the rest of this entry »

Lordly Georgetown

Posted December 10th, 2010 at 1:06 pm (UTC-4)
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One of America’s most festive neighborhoods this time of year is the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.

Georgetown doesn’t go crazy at the holidays.  Things are predictably tasteful. (bubbo-tubbo, Flickr Creative Commons)

Georgetown doesn’t go crazy at the holidays. Things are predictably tasteful. (bubbo-tubbo, Flickr Creative Commons)

It’s a swanky place, full of well-kept homes, chi-chi shops and restaurants, private schools and academies, and historic churches and cemeteries, as well as a prestigious, 221-year-old Roman Catholic university that carries its name.

The “D.C.” portion of Washington’s name stands for “District of Columbia,” of which Georgetown used to be an independent part. In 1787, the congress of the new United States of America, meeting in Philadelphia, decided to establish a new capital city, and a perfect diamond-shaped one — the District of Columbia — was carved out of land taken from Maryland to the north of the Potomac River and Virginia to the south.

Within it, a whole new city, Washington, named for President George Washington, was created out of mostly brambles and bogs.

And this new District of Columbia included two existing Potomac River port cities: Georgetown from Maryland and Alexandria from Virginia.

Georgetown harbor in 1910 looks grimy and industrial.  There’s no sign of classy stores or townhomes, that’s for sure. (Library of Congress)

Georgetown harbor in 1910 looks grimy and industrial. There’s no sign of classy stores or townhomes, that’s for sure. (Library of Congress)

Alexandria and the rest of the portion below the Potomac were eventually given back to Virginia. But Georgetown — named for King George the Second of England 25 years before the American Revolution — stayed and was absorbed into the City of Washington in 1871.

These days, Georgetown is somewhat isolated, socially as well as geographically. Much of Washington is poor. Georgetown is affluent. The remainder of town is overwhelmingly black. Georgetown is largely white. A big park and Georgetown University separate much of it from the rest of the city.

Even Washington’s subway system – first laid out in the 1970s – bypasses the tony enclave, meaning the only ways into Georgetown are on foot, or by bike, bus, or car.

(There’s some debate over exactly why the subway never came to Georgetown.  Some insist that influential, upper-crust residents, fearful that the subway would bring undesirable elements into the neighborhood, successfully opposed Metro’s construction plans.  But others suggest a more mundane reason:  that Metro engineers decided it would be impractical to locate a station in Georgetown because of its steep perch above the Potomac River —far, far above any subway line that would be dug into Virginia.) Read the rest of this entry »

Caught on the Fly

Posted December 8th, 2010 at 4:10 pm (UTC-4)
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While I’ve been gadding about the country, as my mother used to say, I’ve been squirreling away some scraps of paper on which I noted items of possible interest.

Like the rude rodents on my lawn, this squirrel is laughing at me.  (Navicore, Flickr Creative Commons)

Like the rude rodents on my lawn, this squirrel is laughing at me. (Navicore, Flickr Creative Commons)

First, speaking of squirrels, can you answer this question for me?  Have you ever seen a squirrel RETRIEVE one of the nuts that it buried for a winter’s day?  The bushy-tailed bandits in my backyard steal peanuts that we put out for the songbirds in the “bird garden,” carry them over to the lawn, and dig craters into it before dropping the nuts and pawing dirt and grass remnants over them.

But not once have I seen a squirrel return when the ground is frozen, the snow is high, and it’s presumably hungry as a, well, squirrel whose jowls aren’t quite as puffy, to fetch its stash. Fortunately the peanuts don’t sprout in the spring. Neither, however, does the grass in those spots. There isn’t any.

****

Wheres the For?

My colleague Julie Taboh passed me a Washington Post article on which she scribbled the following note, replete with exclamation points:

TED! The importance of prepositions!

Let’s see.  Red, blinking lights and a big-old stop sign next to the driver mean . . . speed right on by?  Try again.  (Svadilfiri, Flickr Creative Commons)

Let’s see. Red, blinking lights and a big-old stop sign next to the driver mean . . . speed right on by? Try again. (Svadilfiri, Flickr Creative Commons)

It seems that a fellow named John Mendez, of Woodbridge, Virginia, was having a bad day. His tools had just been stolen, and he had been laid off from his job. So he was likely out of sorts when he came upon a school bus, loaded with children, that was stopped with its red lights flashing and its “STOP” sign extended outside the driver’s window.

Whether he was or wasn’t preoccupied, Mendez drove right past the bus and into the clutches of a waiting police officer, who cited him for reckless driving — a serious charge that carries the potential of jail time and a hefty fine.

In that situation, most people I know would have gone before the judge, pleaded “guilty with an explanation,” and asked for leniency, considering the circumstances.

Mendez not only pleaded “not guilty,” he beat the rap, despite clear evidence that he had, indeed, lurched around a stopped school bus, potentially endangering the lives of little ones and their parents who could have popped out from in front of the bus.

Mendez’s defense was ingenious and indisputable.

He simply didn’t do what he was charged with, and he could prove it. Read the rest of this entry »

Couch Potatoes on Parade!

Posted December 6th, 2010 at 3:15 pm (UTC-4)
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America is full of vacation lodges . . . on wheels!

They are known as motor homes — literally kitchens, living rooms, and beds on the move across America.  Some people call them “recreational vehicles,” or “RVs.”  Still others, thinking back to more of a golden age of highway travel before crowded, high-speed highways criss-crossed the nation, called house trailers pulled by small trucks or large cars “land yachts.”

This is a fairly small, unusual, and comfortable-looking motor home.  (Slideshow Bruce, Flickr Creative Commons)

This is a fairly small, unusual, and comfortable-looking motor home. (Slideshow Bruce, Flickr Creative Commons)

There are more than 1.5 million rolling dwellings in the United States.  Rolling, as opposed to those whose owners plopped their mobile homes down in what are called “trailer parks,” took off the wheels, put a little fence around them, planted some pansies, nailed on a mailbox, and ended the vehicles’ days on the road forever.

There’s a clever nickname for trailer parks, too: “static caravans” — an oxymoron if I ever heard one.

Things don’t look so prosperous, in this row at least, at a trailer park on the edge of the prairie.  (Charles Henry, Flickr Creative Commons)

Things don’t look so prosperous, in this row at least, at a trailer park on the edge of the prairie. (Charles Henry, Flickr Creative Commons)

Some trailer parks — I’m thinking about dingy ones way back in the shadows of glamorous Las Vegas casinos — are sorry-looking, part of what Carol and I call “Disappearing America.”  Their occupants, who are often low-income hourly workers at places such as those casinos, are sometimes disparaged as “trailer trash.”  James Carville, a sharp-tongued adviser to President Bill Clinton, for instance, once said, “Drag $100 bills through trailer parks, there’s no telling what you’ll find.”

In our many travels, Carol and I have encountered a few cranky, unkempt trailer-dwellers (and their Dobermans and pit bulls), but many more sweet folks who enjoy a quiet life and simple pleasures.  We’ve also found amazingly refined communities, especially in retiree-filled places like Florida.  In fact, When Carol and I were there not too long ago, we learned that there are several entire COUNTIES in the middle of the state that have more people living in mobile-home parks than live in regular houses or apartment buildings.

Some trailer homes are almost as fancy, varied, and enormous as permanent “McMansions” down the road. These can sell for a quarter of a million dollars or more.  Luxurious, split-level models even feature complete playrooms and laundry facilities, just like you’d have in your basement. Read the rest of this entry »

Sharpsburg

Posted December 3rd, 2010 at 6:12 pm (UTC-4)
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Out in the Maryland countryside, close by the Potomac River an hour west of Washington, D.C., lies a drowsy little town called Sharpsburg — population 666.  Nobody except its townfolk and nearby farmers would pay much attention to it were it not for a meadow outside town that experienced the bloodiest single day in American history.

On that day in 1862, on pastureland next to a tiny stream called Antietam Creek, as many as 5,000 Americans were killed, and another 18,000 were wounded or went missing, in a single 12-hour battle.

And these were all Americans, be they Yankee northerners or Rebel southerners, fighting a great civil war.

Robert E. Lee put on his uniform at least once after the Civil War ended, for this photo portrait taken in Mathew Brady’s studio on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.  (Library of Congress)

Robert E. Lee put on his uniform at least once after the Civil War ended, for this photo portrait taken in Mathew Brady’s studio on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. (Library of Congress)

Confederate General Robert E. Lee had won victory after victory on his own soil in Virginia, south of the Potomac.  He wanted to move the fighting out of Virginia, where it had wrecked industry and farming.  He needed a triumph in northern territory that would persuade France and England to endorse the Confederacy of 12 breakaway southern states and provide it with arms to win the war.

Support for U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s war to save the Union was shaky at the time, and Lee knew that if he won at Antietam Creek and could march onward and menace the capital city of Washington, the border state of Maryland might join the Rebel cause, and the North lose its appetite for war.

This was “downtown” Sharpsburg in a stereopticon view taken the year of the great battle outside town.  (Library of Congress)

This was “downtown” Sharpsburg in a stereopticon view taken the year of the great battle outside town. (Library of Congress)

So the two great armies collided on rolling farmland near Sharpsburg, a town that back then was just a tenth of its present size.

In those fields today, you can almost feel and hear the fierce battle that decided it all, especially while walking down a sunken lane that the locals called “Hog Trough Road” because pigs had worn a depression in the earth going to and from a barn.

But the soldiers would soon call the place “Bloody Lane.”

Many years ago, my VOA colleague Ken Reed, a gifted storyteller, walked Bloody Lane and told our audience what happened in the attack by 9,500 Union troops on that trench, held by Confederate General D. H. Hill and 5,000 of his men: Read the rest of this entry »

Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

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