In which the writer travels from New York and Washington, D.C. to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England.
The Road Not Taken in Vietnam
My plan for the afternoon was to interview Mrs. Dorothy Fall, the widow of Dr. Bernard Fall, the great French-American historian of the French and American wars in Vietnam.
I had written to her, saying when I would be in Washington, but her response wasn’t clear, and when I had called her house that morning, I had been switched to the answering machine. My only choice, as this was my last day in Washington, was to drive by the house and knock on the door—“door stopping,” in the time-honored way of newspapermen gone past.
Dorothy Fall lives in the Northwest section of Washington, and her house was easy to find. She spared me from the door knocking, as she was in her driveway, although initially was suspicious of my arrival—as though I had come bearing the Fuller Brush line.
I explained about my letters and phone calls, and my interest in her husband’s books about the Vietnam War. She said she was going for a walk in the neighborhood, to see who it was who was cutting down trees. She invited me to come along on the walk, which took in her neighborhood of upscale suburban houses—even some MacMansions—and the fringes of Rock Creek Park.
We walked for about an hour, and in that time she spoke freely about her husband. I knew the outlines of her story from her biography of her husband, Bernard Fall: Memories of a Soldier-Scholar. On the walk she filled in between the lines.
The Falls had met and married in the 1950s, after meeting at Syracuse University, where he was studying for his Ph.D about an obscure French colonial war in Indochina (which later made him one of the leading historians about the U.S. war in Vietnam). He had taught at Howard University, and they had moved into their house in this neighborhood in the early 1960s.
The book that made him famous was Street Without Joy, published in 1961, about the French Indochina War (with some cautionary words for American policymakers). Ironically, while on a Marines Corps patrol to the same Street Without Joy (it’s north of Hue) in 1967, Fall stepped on a landmine and was killed. But he had lived long enough to publish a number of books warning Americans about Vietnam, and to realize that few were heeding his prophetic words gathered from his study of the French experience.
I asked Mrs. Fall what had become of Bernard’s papers, and she said that after he died, Robert Kennedy had called up and asked that they be donated to his brother’s presidential library. She agreed, but it was only with the intervention of Edward Kennedy that the donation happened.
We talked for a long time about her husband’s relationship to the Kennedys. She said that Bernard had never met Jack or Robert, but that in late 1966, just before Bernard departed on his last, fateful trip to Vietnam, Robert had called the house and asked to meet him. His wife said, regretfully, that he was traveling, but she dates—correctly—Bobby’s opposition to the Vietnam War to his calling the house and requesting an interview.
Earlier, as Attorney General, Robert Kennedy had agreed to a request by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to tap the Falls’ home telephone. (Ironically, he was a neighbor of the Falls, and we went near his house on our walk.) It pointed to yet another dichotomy about the Kennedys and Vietnam—that while expressing skepticism about the military build-up in Vietnam that occurred on their watch, the brothers Kennedy had tapped the telephone of the one man who could have guided them out of the morass.
Fall had served in the French underground in World War II, when he was a boy, and all through the 1950s, while researching his books, he had traveled widely in Indochina. But they were not tapping his phone to get his insight into what happened at Dien Bien Phu.
Because of the Washington heat, we would occasionally stop and sit on a garden wall, and on one such pause in the walk, I asked her about Bernard’s childhood in France. She told me that he had been born in Vienna, and grew up speaking German. His family only moved to France in 1938.
Fall and his sister got out of Austria with an aunt, who carried to Vienna the French passports of her own children, who resembled their young cousins. I thought that Fall’s father had died in the Resistance, but Mrs. Fall said that he had died, of peritonitis, in a Nice hospital after the German army had swept through the premises. (She did not say whether they killed him or not.) Bernard’s mother was deported to Auschwitz, after which her son joined the Resistance.
After the war, because of his language ability, Bernard helped the Americans at Nuremberg. Dorothy said of her husband: “You have to understand, he was brilliant. You could hear it when he spoke.”
In the early 1950s, he was accepted into several graduate programs in the United States, including one at Johns Hopkins and another at Syracuse, from which he earned his Ph.D. But he was not an academic content to remain in the ivory tower, and early in the 1950s he began traveling to Indochina, to experience the French war firsthand.
Dorothy Fall is a well-regarded painter, and back at the house—we both needed cold water—she showed me many of her many paintings and her library about the Vietnam War, which is one of the best I have ever seen.
What was interesting to me, about the Falls house, is that it represents a road not taken in American politics in regard to the Vietnam War. To this house (the feel is California modern, from the 1960s, with an open fireplace and picture windows into the back garden) had come many U.S. senators and members of Congress, all of whom sought Bernard’s insight into the American quagmire.
Dorothy had often greeted Senators Fulbright and McGovern, as they would ring the doorbell and troop downstairs to Bernard’s writing room in the basement (where now she has her art studio and many of her paintings). She said that the senators would often stay for hours, talking to her husband, and only reluctantly, long after it was dark, come upstairs and eat a simple dinner. Here the Vietnam War could have ended.
In connection with one visitor, Daniel Ellsberg, the purloiner of the Pentagon papers, she told a bizarre story. She remembered him coming and spending about four hours in the house, talking to her husband. Later, when she bumped into Ellsberg at a Washington reception and reminded him of the visit, he said to her: “No, I never met your husband.” (Maybe Nixon’s Plumbers were on to something when they broke into his psychiatrist’s office?)
Mike Pence Goes Home
I stayed that night with friends in Northwest, and around 6:30 p.m. we took the dog on a walk. While walking in the neighborhood of a gaudy former Thai government residence (Popular expression in Bangkok: “You want to go boom-boom?”), we heard a loud wail of sirens coming from Massachusetts Avenue a few blocks away. My friend looked at his watch and said: “Yup. That’s Mike Pence, on his way home.” Vice-presidents live on the grounds of the U.S.Naval Observatory, but their commutes sound like a drug bust.
The next morning I was out the door at 7:00 a.m. for the drive to Gettysburg. I left early, as overnight there had been more thunderstorms in Washington, and the highway at Frederick, Maryland, was flooded.
My friends were glued into the Weather Channel, which, no matter the day or forecast, reminds me of the opening scenes of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy, her house, and Toto are sent swirling in the air.
I decided to ignore the witches of primetime dread (what choice did I have?) and set off for Gettysburg. I figured if the sluggish General McClellan could get his troops across several rivers in Maryland, so could I in a rental car. (After Antietam, Lincoln had written to the general, reprimanding him on his lethargic behavior: “Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?”) Shortly thereafter, Lincoln replaced McClellan with Ambrose Burnside(who proved no more effective).
After Gettysburg ever General Meade discouraged Lincoln, who wrote to him to the Union commander: “Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.”
As the flood waters in Frederick had yet to ascend to the interstate, I arrived in Gettysburg ahead of schedule, giving me enough time to wander around the new (since 2008) visitor center. I passed on watching “A New Birth of Freedom,” even though Morgan Freeman is the narrator.
I had thought I might find an engaging new book on the shelves or perhaps a detailed map of the battlefield. (The best one in print is that by my friend, the mapmaker Earl B. McElfresh.) Mostly the books I saw were retreads of earlier histories. There must as many books about Gettysburg as there are about baby Jesus, and written in the same reverential tone.
Even at 9:15 a.m. the Gettysburg parking lot was awash in RVs, so I moved on to the town center, where I found parking at the ceremonial Gettysburg railroad station (Amtrak doesn’t come here but Lincoln did). I would happily have waited for my college friend Tom Leonard in the station (word is that Lincoln worked on his address while on the train up from Washington). But it was closed that day, and I had to satisfy my curiosity by peeking in the windows and coming to the conclusion that Lincoln gave some of his finest speeches in proximity to railroad stations.
Lincoln’s so-called Farewell Address, given at the Great Western depot in Springfield, Illinois, might well rank just behind that at Gettysburg, in terms of eloquence. He said, in part: “To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail.” I suspect the Divine Being in Lincoln’s world was the support of neighbors and friends; he wasn’t much for organized religion. (And his wife once said that his only hobby were his cats.)
Thaddeus Stevens Saves America
Another lover of American history, my friend Tom had arranged for us to meet with Ross Hetrick, who is the one-man band of the Thaddeus Stephens Society. Hetrick dresses up in the garb of the Lancaster member of Congress—Stevens served in the House before, during, and after the Civil War—and enlightens meetings of historical societies and gatherings of tour buses, at least among those that remember Stevens as one of the godparents of the 13th and 14th amendments, those which abolished slavery and codified civil rights.
Granted, it sounds hokey to imagine spending an hour in Gettysburg at the home of a Thaddeus Stevens impersonator (Hetrick even wears a wig similar to one that Stevens sported). But without Hetrick’s act, who today would remember Thaddeus Stevens? And without Stevens’ wit, incisive mind, and moral courage in defense of freedom, the United States would be a poorer country.
A Whig member of Congress first elected in 1849, Stevens was an early believer in public education. Hetrick quotes him as urging his fellow legislators “to build not your monuments of brass or marble, but make them of the living mind.”
In 1834 Stevens helped establish Gettysburg College, which is still thriving almost 200 years later. He despised slavery and rode Lincoln hard, during the Civil War, to free the slaves.
In the Reconstruction Congress, Stevens was the architect of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, and structured the 14th amendment, which, as Hetrick says in his act, “requires equal treatment under the law and extends civil liberties to the state level.” Without the 14th Amendment, the United States would have remained as segregated as South Africa.
Stevens also pushed for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, who he thought was corrupt and a drunkard. (When someone defended the President by saying that he was, like Thaddeus, “a self-made man,” Stevens responded: “I never thought of it that way, but it does relieve Gold Almighty of a heavy responsibility.”
Alas, we don’t have Stevens around to eviscerate Donald Trump (something he would have done with relish, as well as pushing for his impeachment), but we do have his words about President James Buchanan (of Trumpian vanity and incompetence before the Civil War).
Stevens said of Buchanan’s candidacy in 1856: “There is a wrong impression about one of the candidates. There is no such person running as James Buchanan. He is dead of lockjaw. Nothing remains but a platform and a bloated mass of political putridity.”
Tom and I did what we could to encourage Hetrick to stick with his act; needless to say, there isn’t huge economic demand in 2018 for Thaddeus Stevens impersonators, and I am sure, on occasion, Hetrick can get discouraged. But he’s doing important work.
From his small gift corner we bought mugs, biographies, and laminated newspaper stories of Stevens’ life, and reminded Hetrick that among Stevens’ last words was the upbeat phrase, “I mean to die hurrahing.” Then we drifted down the street toward the railroad station and ate an early lunch in the Lincoln Diner.
Neither of us had the “Lincoln Special” (an Italian steak sub). But after lunch we did see the college (started by Stevens) and pay to see the bedroom in the Wills house where Lincoln slept after delivering the Gettysburg Address, and where he judged his own two-minute performance harshly, later calling it variously “a failure, a failure” and “a little speech.”
At least Lincoln didn’t utter the self-congratulatory words that, I suspect, the main speaker at Gettysburg, Edward Everett, might have had added to his resumé. To wit: “Delivered two-hour keynote address at the dedication of the Gettysburg national cemetery. Told by many that my speech will be remembered throughout history.”
Over sandwiches and Edward Everett jokes, Tom and I talked about driving to Lancaster and touring around the James Buchanan house. But it was raining and neither of us wanted to wallow in more political failure. (Buchanan was a northern Democrat who, by allowing slavery (see Dred Scott) into the unsettled West, pushed the country over the abyss into Civil War.
By the time Lincoln was elected, he could only served as one of the republic’s pallbearers, although I do fault him for not reaching out to the South between his November 1860 election and his inauguration in March 1861 during which time seven southern states seceded (nothing he mentioned when leaving Springfield).
The High Water Mark at Gettysburg
Instead of tracking down Buchanan’s Wheatland, which is close to downtown Lancaster, we decided to drive the loop of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park and to make a few stops along the way. Both of us had driven and biked the contours of the battle many times, but we decided we could benefit from another look at the High Water Mark, the Wheatfield, and Little Round Top—probably for the same reasons that monks in distant monasteries gather at dusk to sing vespers.
Tom drove and I narrated. I borrowed the text of my sermon from James McPherson’s short book about the battlefield, Hallowed Ground, in which he writes about the differences between the actual battlefield and what is today preserved in the national park.
Today, there is one peach orchard; then there were about sixty. Nor do the woods and farmland today correspond to the layout in July 1863, when the battlefield was a melange of working farms and small houses. Now it has the tidy contours of a Ken Burns film strip (with fifes playing in the background).
We stopped the car opposite the High Water Mark—that of Pickett’s Charge and proof, if any was needed, of Robert E. Lee’s military failings. (Later, Lee ordered Pickett to move his division to a new spot on the battlefield, and Pickett replied: “General, I have no division.”)
We also walked in the woods at Little Round Top, where the 20th Maine Regiment of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain held the exposed flank of the Union left. Had he not done so, Longstreet and the rest of the Confederate army would have turned Gettysburg into a defeat of Bull Run proportions, and I doubt whether Lincoln or the Union would have survived the flight from the front lines.
One of the stalwarts on what is now a rocky hillside in the forest was Prentiss Fogler, captain of I Company, 20th Maine, and the uncle of my wife’s grandfather. In the 1980s, when I wold speak with her grandfather at family gatherings, I was talking with someone who, in turn, had spoken directly with a veteran of the worst that Gettysburg had to offer—that of bayonet charges in a darkened woodland at the end of Day Two. (“At that crisis,” Chamberlain later recalled, “I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man; and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward…”)
If you ever want to find a place where America was saved, start by looking in the woods at Little Round Top.
I told Tom that had Stonewall Jackson (not Longstreet) been the general attacking the Union left, I cannot be sure that the 20th Maine would have prevailed. But Jackson had fallen two months earlier (to friendly fire) at Chancellorsville, something which probably decided the outcome at Gettysburg. Longstreet was only great on defense, and without Jackson, Lee was a general of WW I incompetence.
Melville’s Writing Room in the Berkshires
Nothing can sugarcoat a drive along the Pennsylvania Turnpike toward Philadelphia. The narrow toll road has the feel of motoring in the 1930s, although trucks barrel along at high speeds, nevertheless.
Not even fleeting views of Amish country around Lancaster—at least in the rain—made the drive into New Jersey a pleasure, although I did stop at two hour intervals to see friends along the way.
By the following morning I had returned the rental car at Newark Airport, and was heading to upstate New York on a series of buses. I might have kept the car longer, had not the drop charges loomed darkly in my imagination.
The problem with my bus riding was that I had to change at New York’s Port Authority, one of the city’s largest public urinals, despite the occasional upgrades that it receives from the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
New York might be the business capital of the universe and the tourist mecca of the western world, but Port Authority will never lose its atmosphere of 1960s social engineering, in the same way that Pennsylvania Station will always—at least in my lifetime—maintain the decor of an underground strip mall.
I remained upstate long enough to pack up my parents’ library (along with some pictures from their walls) and head to New Hampshire, where the plan was to store the boxes in a friend’s barn. But as we were unpacking the pickup truck, I noticed an empty room in a cottage on his property, part of what he hopes someday will be an Airbnb.
I unpacked and sorted out the books, and a day later I had hung the art work, shelved the best of the books, and had put together a “writer’s room” that overlooks one of those magical orchards on a New England farm.
The peach trees and blueberry patches, with rolling hills and forests on the horizon, reminded me of a similar view in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, about two hours to the west. In that farmhouse room, looking out at Mount Greylock, Herman Melville had finished writing Moby-Dick—the reason I think of the Pacific whenever I gaze at the Berkshires.
He worked on a plank of wood set up on two sawhorses, and his wife would leave his lunch in a basket against the bedroom door, so as not to disturb him. It was there that he wrote, at the end of the novel, the words: “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee.” (Ahab had separation issues.)
Russell Baker: Growing Up in Belleville, New Jersey
Next on the to-do list was a meeting, in Montclair, New Jersey, with a historical society that is interested in archiving some of the old family papers that turned up in family trunks. My mother had ancestors who fought and died at Antietam and Seven Pines—the Civil War battles—and my father’s ancestors were early residents in Newark, New Jersey. But both had family ties to Montclair.
In my mind these papers were best housed in the local historical society, which I found after taking a train from Secaucus (when John Dos Passos wrote about a similar stop in New Jersey, the station had the more magical name, Manhattan Transfer) and then biking through the New Jersey suburbs, which since I had arrived from Europe had gone from a wet spring to hot summertime.
From the meeting, which was over quickly and successfully—they were happy to take the family papers—I decided on a long bike ride back toward New York City. If I planned it right, I could pass from Montclair and Bloomfield and head toward the city through Newark and Jersey City, from which I could catch a ferry across the Hudson River into Manhattan. (Dos Passos writes: “How do I get to Broadway?… I want to get to the center of things.”)
A few years ago, with bicycle friends, I had done a similar ride, so I knew it would be possible to cross the bleak Meadowlands (even if I wasn’t driving a getaway car).
On this occasion, with the GPS not working on my Swiss phone, I was less Ahab following an obsession and more the ancient mariner, lost at sea in a remote, unfamiliar ocean. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes:
Oh! Dream of joy! Is this indeed
The light-house top I see?
Is this the hill? Is this the kirk?
Is this mine own countree?
The problem in this part of New Jersey is that few of the streets, for long distances, are laid out at proper angles. I was forever biking down narrow lanes that led into dead ends, school yards, and the dog-patrolled backs of warehouses.
Occasionally, from a hill, I could glimpse the skyline of Manhattan, so I knew I was heading east and in the right direction. (Yet another character in a Dos Passos story, seeking fame and fortune in the big city across the river.) At the same time I was adrift in the New Jersey suburbs and in a haphazard way rode over town lines marking Bloomfield, Belleville, Nutley, and Newark—never completely lost but rarely sure of my route until I stumbled upon Broadway in northern Newark—The Great Bodega and Car Wash Way.
At least I was pleased, finally, to see Belleville, as one of the books that I had unpacked from my parents’ library was Russell Baker’s Growing Up, which I consider one of the great American memoirs. Baker was also a celebrated columnist and reporter for the New York Times.
As my parents did, Baker grew up in the Depression, and for some of those years he was in Belleville (near to Montclair), living with his mother, sister, and a succession of quirky uncles and aunts (Pat, Charlie, Harold, and Allen) who give the book some of its comedic and artistic genius.
Baker learns much about language by overhearing family conversations while he is upstairs in his bedroom, trying to go to sleep. Here’s a taste:
Sometimes their talk about the Depression was shaded with anger, but its dominant tones were good humor and civility. The anger was never edged with bitterness or self-pity. Most often it was expressed as genial contempt toward business, labor, government, and all the salesmen of miracle cures for the world’s ailments. Communists were “crackpots” and “bomb throwers.” Father Coughlin and Huey Long were “rabble-rousers.” The German-American Bund with its Nazi swastikas, “a bunch of sausage stuffers.” Benito Mussolini, “the top Wop.” Not even the New Deal escaped. In Belleville, men on the government’s W.P.A.payroll were usually seen leaning on shovels. The initials W.P.A., Uncle Allen said, stood for “We Poke Along.”
Growing Up is a book I have read aloud to both my parents and children, and years later, in family conversations, someone will always casually quote from one of its passages. (Any time I read a tedious newspaper column, I will say to my wife, using a line from the book: “Cousin Edwin sure does write some dull stuff.”)
Belleville today remains a working class neighborhood—a bedroom community for Meadowlands industry (all those trucking and warehouse companies) and a neighborhood with lots of chain-link fencing and driveways of cracked concrete. Still I was happy to see it.
About growing up around New Jersey in the Depression, my mother liked to say: “I don’t need to write my memoirs. Russell Baker has written mine for me.”
Eternal Newark: The Casino Trump Economy
Each time I ride my bike around Newark, I am never sure if the city is on its way up or out. In New York City, there is no doubt that the high-rise developers are in charge of City Hall and most street corners. Newark still feels as if it is teetering on the edge.
On this occasion, I rode down any number of side streets where the houses are boarded up, and the housing projects around Newark, and further south in Elizabeth, are some of the most desperate slums in the country.
Newark’s downtown has the headquarters of Prudential Insurance and Audible books, and in the last twenty years the state of New Jersey has subsidized any number of art centers, museums, and ballparks in the city center (which I still associate with the race riots of the 1960s, when my grandmother, who had been a teacher in Newark, pointed to a photograph in Life Magazineof a dead rioter and said: “His brother was in my class.”)
It made me sad to ride near to Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium and to discover that the Newark Bears minor-league baseball team has folded, and that the new $30 million ballpark (one of the nicest around New York City) will be torn town and replaced with high-rise condominiums, if not subsidized slot machines—fitting monuments to the tilted wheels of the casino Trump economy.
We buried my parents in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, in northern Newark, which is a colonial enclave in what is otherwise a neighborhood of body shops, some of which play shrieking, boom-box music in their parking lots. I don’t think my mother would mind: she was always happy to find a discount tire center.
Next up: The new New York City – Part IV.