If I hadn’t dropped by Eeuzicasa‘s blog today, I would, of course, never have known that today is Bunker Hill Day – and neither would you. I suppose that’s one reason George B. posted it. More often than not, his bounty of information turns out to be something you didn’t know you might want to know. I ended up writing a long comment, some of which is incorporated into this post. I figured I’d taken up more space than was polite – plus, I couldn’t figure out how to add photos to his blog (joke, hardy har). He was extremely hospitable, and suggested that I expand my comment into a post. And here it is.
How well I remember lounging around the Bunker Hill statue/memorial (after I had worn out the statue on the Cambridge Common) when I was a kid – the trip to the tougher neighborhood of Charlestown was enough to qualify as something of an adventure, which is an indicator of how bored we were.
We had absolutely no appreciation of the monument’s significance. When tourists came to look at it, we just couldn’t believe the license plates. But we were absolutely certain of one thing: if we ever had cars and vacations and choices, no force on earth could compel us to travel 800 miles to look at some stupid piece of rock. If nothing else proved that adults had no sense of direction, this national trek to a hulking hunk of rock in the unsentimental working-class Boston neighborhood of Charlestown settled the question.
Years later, as an American history major in San Francisco, I thought of Paul Revere’s house.
Yep. Three thousand miles away.
I thought keenly of the (Old North?) church (above), Longfellow’s house, sitting big and yellow right there in Harvard Square, the 17th century cemetery with the bent iron railings, Old Iron Sides, the Lexington Green, the Transcendentalist Alcott community called Fruitlands, Walden Pond –
and was furiously gripped by the sheer idiocy of the modern child.
I had ignored all of them, except for Walden Pond, a fairly sizeable lake that I leaped into on hot summer afternoons when we were able to hijack a relative with a car. I had not set foot into Harvard’s exquisite free museums – I had only gotten stuck (several times) and hauled down from the lap of the huge statue of John Harvard. Also, kicked out of the music department for sneaking in with my friends to bang out Chopsticks on the practice pianos.
Years later, as I made arrangements to move from San Francisco to the Midwest, I had a moment of perspective – and spent my last month riding cable cars, at Fisherman’s Wharf, in Little Italy, Chinatown, and North Beach (no beatniks had been seen there for to decades. I rode the ferry across the Bay and ate at the Cliff House. I did everything the tourists did – it was the first time for all of us, only I had been right there for 12 years.
But I eventually learned the power of place. I had moved not 20 miles from the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
Without stopping to unpack, I drove straight to the crumbling town of Cairo (pronounced Kay-ro) Illinois. It had once been the pride of the Mississippi. My jaw dropped as I drove through town. I didn’t know I was in the northernmost Mississippi Delta. I didn’t know that I had arrived in the region that would teach me more about this nation than Boston, New York, and San Francisco combined. I had no idea that the poorest people in rural America lived here, or that the fragile shacks I passed were homes. I hadn’t yet heard the people speak, in voices that I still hear in my dreams, a cadence that both sooths and pierces the heart, and echos the mountains of Kentucky.
Main Street, Cairo, Illinois
I climbed a modest observation tower, took one look, and lost my breath.
Boy, was that something to see. Yet most people never see it, because almost no one goes to Cairo, anymore.
I was standing at the tip of the triangle in the upper part of the photo below, on the southernmost tip of Illinois. That tip is almost eight hours from Chicago, and is essentially another country. To the right is the Ohio River, and the land on its eastern (right) bank is the northwesternmost border of Kentucky. The Mississippi River flows in on the left. It’s western shore is Missouri’s eastern border. Just past the bottom of the photo lies the top of Missouri’s Bootheel , which extends further south than a good chunk of Arkansas.
When I got to my little apartment, paid for by a graduate fellowship, along with tuition and a stipend, I looked around and finally really knew what privilege was. I returned over and over to that old place where the upper South blends into the lower Midwest, but I always came back to another world, one that paid me to just learn. In the end, though, the people of the Delta were the road I chose. The stories they told me turned me into a journalist, rather than a professor of history.
By the time I left graduate school five years later, the two great rivers located me like a compass. They still do, and they always will.
That summer, I visited Paul Revere’s house, the Old North Church, Old Ironsides (don’t refer to them as ‘old – don’t refer to anything as old – to a European. They are unable to hide their amusement), Louisa May Alcott’s home, Fruitlands, and other colonial structures that have meaning for many Americans. I was more interested in the material culture of working-class people – I had, after all, been to graduate school, recently survived the excruciating, prolonged ordeal of getting admitted to doctoral candidacy and was still feeling my oats. I’m over it now – but I derived a settled feeling from my patriotic tour. It’s not that I’m a patriot. I’m markedly fickle when it comes to the entire concept of nationalism. I just like to know where I am.
True, Boston was no Cairo, Illinoi. But I had come to love the whole American landscape. I had come to see the people whose anonymous lives had been documented after all, left written for those who knew where to look. It was there in what they had laid their hands on, in how they had created beauty, in the songs they sang and in the way they buried their dead. I knew that America had another story made up of all the unimportant people who had struggled to understand what home meant in this land.
That’s as close as I’ll ever come to being a patriot.
One if by land and two if by sea
Oh, and I dropped in on the Bunker Hill Monument. You know, it’s really quite interesting.