In the 1970s I was an enlisted man, a tech in the oral surgery section of a Naval Hospital in California. It was an interesting position. Like servants in a proper British household, or like house slaves on the plantation, we were seen but ignored when the officers conversed. We knew everything they talked about; they had no idea what we said about them.
Our new Captain, just back from a deployment in the far east and looking forward to retirement, said to his colleagues, “I’m really glad to be back from Japan, but now I can’t wait to get back to America.”
He was joking, but he meant it, too. He was from one of those mythical places like Vermont, and California didn’t look like home to him. I understood him completely. I was born and raised in Oklahoma, but even to me, historical America meant New England. Despite the fact that Washington, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry were all Virginians, and the fact that the Declaration of Independence was written in Pennsylvania, if you say 1776, most Americans will think of New England.
For me, that’s because of textbooks. In the mid-fifties, elementary history textbooks did not contain photographs. No doubt it was a matter of technology and economics, but what those books had instead were beautiful line drawings, frequently sepia toned, which not only showed aspects of the colonial world, but looked like they could have been drawn in 1740. I remember one in particular, representing the tobacco trade. A wagon sized barrel, lying on its side, was hitched directly behind an ox and self-rolling down to the water, where an apple cheeked ship with a single square sail was standing in to receive it. It opened up my landlocked Oklahoma heart and made me love the sea a decade before I saw the sea. I’ve been looking for a copy of that old textbook for many years, but it may be a blessing that I haven’t found it. The reality is unlikely to be as fulfilling as the memory.
As a side note, the thesis I wrote for my second masters degree, thirty years later, was on American maritime history.
I didn’t visit the northeastern part of the United States until I was pushing forty, and it was everything I had dreamed it would be – as long as we avoided the cities. My wife and I spent most of our time in the countryside, and visited cities primarily for the museums. D. C. and Philadelphia were inspiring; Valley Forge and Chadds Ford were beautiful beyond belief, at least at that season. The list could go on.
I also got a gift in New York, in Tarrytown. We were visiting the Washington Irving mansion when a tour guide told us that the house had been a station on the underground railroad, and that the family could sometimes hear noises through the walls when escaping slaves were hiding in the basement.
True, or just a good story? I didn’t know and I didn’t care. I just knew that I had been handed another novel for my to-write list. As of now, I’m 45 pages in and I’ve been stalled there for a long time. I’m not sure if I need to go from first person to third, or if there is some other problem that my subconscious has not yet rolled out into the light, but Voices in the Walls will get finished, eventually. Meanwhile, I will be using it as the centerpiece of an extended discussion of race, starting in mid-January of next year.