If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? --Albert Einstein

Friday, February 27, 2015

Robert Todd Lincoln--A Life of Synchronicities

Robert Todd Lincoln as a
young man--rather dashing!
I heard an odd bit of trivia concerning the eldest son of Abraham Lincoln.

I’ve always heard lots about poor Willie, who died while in the White House, and Tad, called a “notorious hellion” by observers. They say he even charged people to see his father, but that’s a bit off-topic.
Robert was the only son to reach adulthood and was enrolled in Harvard during the Civil War years. Mary Todd kept him out of the war until the final months when he was made a captain and served on Grant’s immediate staff. Understandably, this embarrassed young Robert Lincoln. As it should have.

Abe and Mary Todd invited Robert to accompany them to the Ford Theater the night of his father’s assassination, but he declined. Once tragedy struck, the son rushed to his father’s side and was with Abe Lincoln at the time of his death.
Notable, but not odd. On to some eerie coincidences. Robert Todd Lincoln was present at two presidential assassinations and I’m not counting his father’s.

As James Garfield’s Secretary of War in 1881, Robert was with Garfield at the Sixth Street Train Station in Washington, DC when the president was shot. The leader hung on for eleven weeks, then died.
Twenty years later, President William McKinley invited Lincoln to accompany him to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. There, an anarchist shot McKinley in the abdomen, resulting in his death about a week later.

Robert Lincoln was later invited to another presidential event, but before anyone else could say it, he responded, "No, I'm not going, and they'd better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present."
There have been four fatal assassinations of presidents of the United States in our history. Robert Todd Lincoln was in attendance or arrived shortly thereafter for three of them.

Now for good measure, one more odd coincidence. While in college, Robert Todd Lincoln was jostled on a crowded railroad platform in Jersey City until he was crushed against the train. In later years he wrote, “In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless.”
Run, Robert! Run!
Suddenly, a rescuer grabbed his coat collar and hauled Lincoln to safety. He turned to thank his rescuer, only to find it was the famous actor, Edwin Booth.

Robert told of the incident to a colleague on Grant’s staff who happened to be Edwin Booth’s friend. The friend wrote Booth of the incident, who remembered it, but had had no idea the young man was the president’s son. They say it was a comfort to him in later years after his brother, John Wilkes’s dirty deeds.
Robert Todd Lincoln lived to the ripe old age of eighty-two--not the rock star his father had been, but witness to some of the most momentous events of his lifetime.

An intelligent Forrest Gump, you might say.

NOTE: This article was reworked from a previous post on my private blog.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Word Histories: Gorilla

Hanno! What an asshat.
I wanted one of my characters in Aroon to call someone a gorilla. They couldn’t. The word as we know it today didn’t exist in 1750 when my book takes place.

An American missionary to Liberia, Thomas S. Savage, first acquired bones of a new species of ape. In 1847, Savage and naturalist, Jeffries Wyman, presented their findings to the Boston Society of Natural History where they gave the skull and bones the scientific name of Troglogdytes gorilla.

Savage and Wyman got the word “gorilla” from Hanno the Navigator, a Carthaginian explorer of the fifth or sixth century B.C. who took 60 ships through Pillars of Heracles (Strait of Gibraltar) and down the West African coast. How far south he traveled is controversial. It seems Hanno and his Carthaginian colleagues made changes in the distances and directions of his account to conceal the true routes. They were determined to remain masters of the seas.
You know what they say about Carthaginians.
One strange excerpt of his logbook states that they came to an island “inhabited by a rude description of people. The females were much more numerous than the males, and had rough skins: our interpreters called them Gorillae. We pursued but could take none of the males; they all escaped to
"My bad."
the top of precipices, which they mounted with ease, and threw down stones; we took three of the females, but they made such violent struggles, biting and tearing their captors, that we killed them, and stripped off the skins, which we carried to Carthage: being out of provisions we could go no further.”

That is disgusting. I would imagine they came across actual gorillas that the explorer thought were rough, hairy people. Seriously, Hanno? The skins they stripped from the females were taken back to Carthage where, it is said, they remained on display for 350 years until Carthage fell to Rome.
The term “gorilla” came from Hanno’s native interpreters, leading Online Etymology Dictionary to speculate it was an African word. When Thomas Savage and Jeffries Wyman encountered this new species, they decided the creatures were the ones described by Hanno centuries ago.

I guess gorillas were Sasquatch of the 1800s.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A Monument to Freedom

One month from today is the fiftieth anniversary of a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement—the assault on the Edmund Pettus Bridge known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Nearly two years ago, my husband took me on a surprise trip to Alabama. After an evening at the Monroeville Courthouse watching a local production of To Kill a Mockingbird, we headed north toward Montgomery. At Exit 167 on Interstate 65, we turned west on U.S. Highway 80, the route marchers took from Selma to the statehouse in Montgomery—a 54-mile trek along the highway.
Once off the exit, I was struck by a National Park Service sign that announced the “Selma to Montgomery National Historical Trail.” This was it. The road those courageous men, women, and
children had hiked, risking all. I was overwhelmed and moved to tears—tears that fell intermittently during the entire drive to Selma.

As the trip progressed, my husband, Wendy, and I speculated on what such a long walk (it took five days) would be like. We had only a month earlier entered the Cooper River Bridge Run, a 10K in Charleston, South Carolina. Even though I was a walker, the 6.2 miles generated painful shin splints. How did these people do it?
“They were in their church clothes,” Wendy said. “And dress shoes.”

Shoes worn by Juanita T. Williams
during the Selma to Montgomery March
Oh, my Lord. We wore comfortable clothes and shoes designed for optimum support on a walk only a fraction of the distance. They wore wingtips. Juanita T. Williams, activist, donated her leather loafers to the Smithsonian Institute. The blisters and open sores must have been agonizing.
After driving nearly an hour, my breath caught in my throat. The Edmund Pettus Bridge. The site of such brutality that the rest of the nation could no longer turn away in apathy.

We parked the car and, hand in hand, began to walk across the landmark as my emotions again simmered to the surface.
The bridge's sidewalk was surprisingly narrow. A thin metal rail provided the only barrier between me and the swirling waters of the Alabama River. My moderate fear of bridges kicked in and I insisted on walking on the road side. However, there was no shoulder between it and the cars, and my husband worried I would be struck by a passing vehicle. They were moving at a pretty good clip. Finally, we compromised with me walking behind him, a foot or so away from the road, as we continued to hold hands.

“How did they fit on this sidewalk?” I asked.
Reviewing the films with that in mind, I saw that they walked in twos, careful not to step into the road. I know they wanted to follow all laws, hoping to prevent excuses, it turns out, the authorities did not need.

We reached the end of the bridge. The National Park Service website describes what happened there in 1965.
"As they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, they were met by a column of State Troopers and local volunteer officers of the local sheriff's department who blocked their path.

The non-violent protesters were told by Maj. John Cloud that they had two minutes to return back to their church and homes. In less than the time allotted, they were attacked by the Law Enforcement Officers with nightsticks and teargas. According to several reports, at least 50 protestors required hospital treatment. The brutality that was displayed on this day was captured by the media; however, the media was held back as the protesters retreated, where the violence continued for some time."
Reproduction of MLK's
Birmingham jail cell
What was then Haisten’s Mattress and Awning Company is now the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute. Its collections feature the history of the nonviolence movement as a whole, including the works of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. A replica of Martin Luther King’s cell in the Birmingham jail moved us, but what struck us most was the exhibit that ran throughout the museum. The footprints of Foot Soldiers for the movement.

Shoes of civil rights workers
Not only were shoes featured at this museum, but also at the Martin Luther King Visitor Center in Atlanta. It’s a powerful metaphor. It took the baby steps and grand strides of thousands of people to cross that bridge and lead the rest of us to the freedom King dreamed about.
Two weeks following Bloody Sunday there were not 600 marchers ready to cross Edmund Pettus Bridge. There were 25,000. And with a court order, they completed that march to Montgomery—five months before President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Yes, the Edmund Pettus Bridge is a shrine. To determination. To courage. To justice.
And I was humbled to be there.

Photo of shoes from