Monday, July 27, 2009

The Ukraine Today is a Mess

The Ukraine today is a mess. The Great Recession has devastated the economy, the political system is moribund and corrupt and the average person is desperately poor. On the other hand, this is a distinct improvement from the past. So people are pretty cheerful and optimistic. And it is summer.

Summer is the season where Ukrainian women dress minimally and the whole city is a bar. The local genes seem to produce girls with endlessly long legs, which are required to be maximally displayed. Every few feet and in every park there is a little kiosk selling snacks, and more importantly bottles of beer for less than a dollar. People buy a couple of brewskis and hang out. Foreigners are quite welcome.

In the back of the Israeli museum in Tel Aviv there is a small wooden synagogue. As you enter, music starts to play. This is one of thousands of synagogues belonging to the three million Jews here in Ukraine who perished in the holocaust. After the war one of their neighbors who survived found a copy of music that this particular synagogue used, written by one of its members. Both the synagogue and the music ended up in Israel. This synagogue and this music are all that remain of the people who worshipped in this synagogue, slaughtered like animals, each and every one. Their village no longer exists even as a name on a map. Not even their names are known, nor who wrote this beautiful music or why.

Kiev is a city built on hills. One deep ravine is called Babi Yar and it was used to kill Jews early, before the death camps were up and running. Thirty, forty thousand taken here, and shot. Thrown into the ravine, sometimes not quite dead, other Jews forced to shovel on dirt to hold down the stench, knowing that witnesses would not be allowed to live

A handful of Jews here took to the forest and fought as guerillas, and a handful of those survived.

But of course we had our holocaust on Amelia Island when around 1600 every Timucuan on the island died. They died of the viral diseases that the Europeans brought. Not as morally fraught but as tragic and horrible nonetheless

But life goes on and those beer drinking, mostly naked young people have no or little knowledge of this particular tragedy among all those visited on these people or this world. Nor do we ever have a thought for those long dead Native Americans.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Two of the Civil War Wounds: A Hero & an Irony

I hope you caught Bill Birdsong’s talk at the museum on three human stories caused by three different Civil War wounds. Bill could make drying paint a fascinating subject, and he had good stuff to work with. He is also a very humorous guy.

His first story was the ironic death of Albert Sydney Johnson during the late afternoon at the first day of the battle of Shiloh in April 1862. The second was Joshua Chamberlain’s many wounds, including at Gettysburg where he arguably saved the Union Army from disaster by holding Little Round Top on the second day.

Many people have argued that Gettysburg was the most important battle of the Civil War and that The South might have won the war, if they had seized Little Round Top and rolled down the Union line in flank, or if Picket’s charge on the third day had succeeded. There is, in my opinion, no truth to one assertion and doubtful truth to the other.

Lee did not go off to invade Pennsylvania with the idea of destroying the Union in decisive battle. His plan was to take some heat off Virginia so crops could be harvested and try to sway Northern public opinion further against the war. He accomplished the first, but not the second. While many in the North were against the war, Lincoln had solid backing in Congress, and, most importantly in the army to finish the job.

Lee’s problem was that Meade had just too many men and resources, and Lee too little. If Lee had managed to rout Lee and scatter his army, there were still plenty enough union soldiers in position to prevent Lee seizing Washington. Moreover, at the end of the third day at Gettysburg, Lee’s army was much reduced in size from deaths and wounded. Even more critical, he was virtually out of ammunition. Had Meade attacked Lee in retreat the war might well have ended in 1863. Certainly had Grant been in charge instead of Meade, he would have attacked.

It might be that Chamberlain saved the battle, but Oates confederates attacking Chamberlain had taken heavy causalities, and couldn’t have pushed on much further. Longstreet was not in a position to exploit gains they made. It is one this to seize a position on the flank. It is another to drive a determined enemy from good defensive positions.

But Shiloh was a much more critical matter. Johnston had caught the union army by surprise, which is to say he caught Sherman and Grant by surprise. Grant was some miles away at Pittsfield Landing when the attack came, and didn’t arrive at the battlefield until late afternoon. He immediately began to sort out the mess in his unflappable way. But it was a near thing. Grant was close to being pushed into the river, and losing most of his army, and then, providentially, Johnson was killed.

He had not shared his battle plan with his second-in-command Beauregard who decided to stop for the night, and get organized to finish the battle in the morning. When the morning came, it was Grant who attacked and soon, Don Carlos Buell showed up with 40,000 fresh union troops. The Confederates were soon in a headlong retreat back to Corinth in Mississippi.

Had Grant and Sherman lost the battle of Shiloh decisively, they would have been busted out of the army. But instead the South was pummeled and took casualties it could not replace. It took Grant another 18 month to conquer The West of the Confederacy, but, at no time during that period, did the South have the men and material to stop him

The death of Albert Sydney Johnson was the critical turning point of the Civil War.

Gettysburg is easy to reach by car, and a fascinating place. I have been there at least twenty times. When the pressures of being a lawyer with lots of irons in the fire got to be too much, I would head there for the day and stay until dark. My own personal problems didn’t seem so important by the time I got back home.

Shiloh is hard to reach by car, but a moving experience. It’s tucked in the extreme southwest corner of Tennessee, very close to Mississippi. The battlefield is very well preserved – it looks just like it did when the battle raged – and the rangers are wonderful in evoking the events of those two days.

So now you know the rest of the story.

Friday, July 17, 2009

All For the Want of Silver

Did you know that the history of Amelia Island was largely determined by the fact that Chinese people 500 hundred years ago really liked silver? No? What an oversight!

It all goes back to Chris Columbus. Now Chris himself is not very important. If he had not discovered The New World in 1492, someone else would have done so within the next few years, likely the Portuguese. In fact, the existence of a large land mass to the west was well known in Europe. When Chris set sail, there were Danish and Irish fisherman on the Grand Banks, and drying their cods on the coast of Labrador.

The big deal is that within a few years after Columbus, the Spanish had figured out how to get rich from what they found. That’s why they built an empire here, which included Florida in general and Amelia Island in particular. And for the first century after Chris it was the lust for gold and silver and the successful discovery of lots of both that created the wealth. No money, no empire. It’s that simple.

Now gold has always been considered to have great value, and its scarcity ensures that will always be the case. I saw an exhibit in Quebec last year on gold and among other things I learned that all the gold that has ever existed in the world and that will ever exist can be fitted into a cube 3 meters on a side. That is not a very big box.

Silver is gold’s poorer cousin. It has never had the cachet of gold, in part because there is a lot of it around. It was used as coinage in the ancient world, but then so was copper and other metals and alloys.

The Spanish within a few years had seized all the gold that the Incas and Aztecs had accumulated over a very long time. They faced loss of the cash flow needed to carry on the conquests, but, by that time, they had discovered the incredibly productive silver mines of Mexico. The world supply of silver almost instantly went up by several times What should have happened is that the price of silver should have crashed, to the point that most of it wouldn’t have been worth mining. Had that happened, the Spanish might well have abandoned what was now an unproductive conquest, and just went home. No more Spanish Florida.

But, by coincidence, the Chinese economy was expanding at this time, and the Chinese people had a real love for silver, a love not shared in the same way by anyone else in the world. China at this time had 25% of all people on the planet and 40% of the world economy.

So the Chinese started buying up the Spanish silver, and that kept up the price, so Spain continued to enjoy cash flow that could support its conquest. The Spanish founded Manila largely as a place to manage the sale of silver to the Chinese, and buy their products in return.

Part of that silver bought textiles and other goods which were bartered in Africa for slaves, who mined the silver and eventually created the great estates in Mexico and elsewhere in the Spanish New World. But without that Chinese price support, the history of our little island would be very different indeed

We are off to Russia by the time you read this, what Churchill called a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” My plan is to send back blogs from time to time, whenever I find WiFi or an Internet café. I hope to find that critical connection between Amelia Island and Russia. That may take some searching.

Well, it finally had to happen. I been censored!

Last Saturday we had specialists at the museum all night testing for ghosts. Personally, I don’t believe in ghosts, but polls consistently show most Americans believe otherwise. Anyway, it was reported to me second or third hand that they found a ghost, and it was an African-American boy (I’m not sure I got this right)

I got to thinking if there is a ghost, what could have been the circumstances that trapped it there, something horrible that happened at the museum. So I sat down at my computer and wrote a ghost story. I tried to make it as gory and scary as I could. I will never be Stephen King, but I can aspire. I called it “Ghost Story” (Okay, its not a very original title)

I circulated it to a few friends, and the reactions I got were fascinating. Some loved the piece, while others described it as gruesome and repulsive. Mostly the break was along generational lines. No one under forty thought this was anything bad, mostly they liked it. In general, the older you are the more repulsed you were. But sadly that tags me as either a perpetual adolescent, or a culture omnivore. Probably right.

Moreover, Ghost Story wasn’t censored because we don’t do ghost stories. We do ghost tours, and spin regularly the tale of Aury’s nephew who was decapitated during hanging. That’s pretty gross. It wasn’t censored for its sexual content, because it has none (Maybe next time)

My Ghost Story got censored because it is a really, really good ghost story.

I took even the negative comments as a complement, albeit a clearly unintended. I am not all that secure about my writing, and this was rave stuff, so I submitted it as my next blog.


I didn’t even get my story reproduced with that big “CENSORED” stamp over it.

But this may be a great thing.

When I was a kid in the fifties, I watched the censorship battles over Lady Chatterley Henry Miller (Remember Tropic of Cancer? That one was an eye opener), Fanny Hill and lots more. I grabbed them and read them cover to cover the minute they were available.

I am hoping this censorship will make everyone want to read my little Fernandina Ghost Story.

So if you think you are tough enough, drop me an email at, and back will come the whole tale (UNCENSORED). And this week only, if you order within twenty four hours, you get at no extra cost, a new ghost story on Halloween eve, guaranteed to scare the beejesus out of you.

Now, don’t you want to read it?


Monday, July 13, 2009

A Clarification on Yulee

Until today, I understood that David Yulee – the guy that built the railway, served as Florida’s first senator and hosted General Grant at the Egmont Hotel in 1880 – was tossed into Fort Pulaski at the end of the Civil War because he had written a letter to the Florida legislature before the war advocating secession. The letter was reproduced in Harper’s magazine during the war, and is also reproduced in our Civil War room.

That explanation always seemed fishy to me. Some people have asserted that, whatever the ostensible reason, the real motivation was to get him to give up any interest in his railway to the rich New York financiers who had bought up his bonds. That makes sense, but they had to have something more on Yulee than just that letter to jail him for such an extended period. Yulee was still a rich, important guy with good connections north and south. He was not the kind of guy you could arbitrarily jail on specious grounds, and keep him there indefinitely.

But I have now run down multiple sources that say Yulee was tossed into the clink not because of that letter, but because of suspicions that he had aided that traitor Jefferson Davis and his cabinet after they fled Richmond just before its fall in April of 1865.

Davis was captured on May 6 in Irwinsville, Georgia, wearing a dress. Whether he was wearing it over his men’s suit or he was trying to pass as a woman is a matter of heated dispute. Obviously, whichever the case, he was not thinking of his image. He almost made it to Florida.

However, other cabinet members and the gold reserves of the Confederacy made it to and traveled furtively through Florida. At least one contingent and some gold stopped at Yulee’s plantation in Archer. He apparently wasn’t there, but his wife welcomed the fugitives and helped them on their way. A few made it to the Keys and thence to Cuba.

It was Grant who got Yulee out of Fort Pulaski, but that’s a story for another day. He probably was guilty of aiding Davis and his partying some way, but by 1866, no one cared.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Jose Marti

There is talk about placing a statute of Jose Marti somewhere around town. Sounds like a good idea to me. It occurred to me that I knew only a couple of basic facts about him, so I went looking for more information. The more I looked, the more I liked.

His full name was José Julián Martí Pérez. He was born in Havana Cuba on January 28, 1853. Martí's father was a sergeant in the Spanish Army who was transferred to Cuba in 1850. Marti is recognized by almost every Cuban, including Fidel and those who hate Fidel, both as a true Cuban national hero and an important figure in Latin American literature.
I was lucky enough to visit Cuba three years ago and saw his image and statue, it seemed, on every corner. A tour was not complete there without some mention of Marti, and of course Che. I would guess Che will not be getting a statue in Fernandina.
From our perspective today, we look at his photo, and see a timid, little, mousy guy obviously more at home reading a book than leading men into battle. And that is not far off the mark. But you have to admire his bravery and tenacity, even thought his was planning was more than a little inept.
Vi sting Cuba also impressed me just how poorly most people in Cuba were treated under Spanish rule and the dictators supported by the United States who followed. Most people were no better than slaves and treated as such.
In his short life, Marti was a poet, an essayist, a journalist, a revolutionary philosopher, a translator, a professor, a publisher, and a political theorist. Through his writings and political activity, he became a symbol for Cuba's bid for Independence against Spain in the 19th century, and is sometimes referred to as the "Apostle of Cuban Independence".

He also fought against the threat of United States expansionism into Cuba. From adolescence, he dedicated his life to the promotion of liberty, political Independence for Cuba and intellectual independence for all Spanish Americans.
On 21 October 1869, aged 16, he was arrested and incarcerated in the national jail, following an accusation of treason and bribery from the Spanish government More than four months later, Martí confessed to the charges and was condemned to six years in prison on the dreaded Isla de Pinos. Eventually, Martí fell ill; his legs were severely lacerated by the chains that bound him. The Spanish authorities decided to repatriate him to Spain. In Spain, Martí, who was 18 at the time, was allowed to continue his studies with the hopes that studying in Spain would renew his loyalty to Spanish rule in Cuba. It didn’t. If anything, he became more dedicated to freeing Cuba.
Three years later, prevented from returning to Cuba, Martí went instead to Mexico and Guatemala. During these travels, he taught and wrote, advocating continually for Cuba's independence. After a short time in New York, Martí travelled to Venezuela in 1881, where he provoked the wrath of Venezuela's dictator, Antonio Guzmán Blanco, and Martí was forced to leave for New York.
By 1895, Marti decided the time had come for action. He moved to Fernandina where he stayed at the Florida House for several months, and assembled a secret expedition. However, he was betrayed by an informant, and, as a result, his plot was partially thwarted. On January 12, 1895, the authorities seized the steamship Lagonda and two other suspicious ships, Amadis, and Baracoa at the Fernandina port in Florida, confiscating the weapons he had put aboard to to overthrow Spanish rule.
He then decided to shift base to Montecristi in Mexico, to join Máximo Gómez who had agreed to lead the expedition into Cuba. The expedition finally took landed in Cuba on February 24, 1895.
It was a military fiasco, and Marti was killed in battle against Spanish troops on May 19, 1895. Martí was alone and seeing a young courier ride by he said: "Joven, a la carga" meaning: "Young man, let's charge!" This was around midday, and he was, as always, dressed in a black jacket, riding a white horse, which made him an easy target for the Spanish. He was promptly shot off his horse and died, but he also instantly became a martyr to the cause of Cuban Independence.
The death of Marti was a blow to the aspirations of the Cuban rebels inside and outside of the island, but the fighting continued with alternating successes and failures until the entry of the United States into the war in 1898.
Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.
Jose Marti

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Florida's Most Important Naturalist

This year 2009 is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Archie Carr, Florida’s most important naturalist.

What? You say. Who the Hell is Archie Carr and why is he so important?

When Archie was born, Florida was the last frontier. In the north were isolated farms scratching out a meager living. In the south were communities every bit as rough and rugged as Dodge City or Abilene. In fact, many of the desperadoes who the law ran out of The West, went to South Florida, just as mean and crooked as ever.

By the time Archie was fifty years old, most of the coasts were populated, and the plan, signed on by every politician and most Floridians, was to pave the entire state, replace marsh with green lawns and get rid permanently of the inconvenient critters. Archie by that time was a fixture at The University of Florida, and was showing generations of students the beauty and the value of what was slated for destruction. He wrote passionately of the natural world in Florida and argued for its preservation.

People listened to Archie, and slowly attitudes changed against destroying all of this unique natural environment.

His particular passion was saving the sea turtles from immanent extinction. He has been called the father of sea turtle research, and rightly so. Even beyond his field, his name is recognized for his commitment to the protection of these reptiles.

He didn’t win all the battles, he didn’t even win most. But he won a few, and most importantly he built a constituency of preservationists. By Archie’s death in 1987, even developers knew that had to pay at least lip service to the idea of preservation.

What makes Florida so special to most of us – the power dive of osprey fishing off a main beach, alligators sunning themselves in the Greenway, the abundant fish and shrimp we love so much, and so much more – we owe to a coconsiderable extent to Archie.

I am lobbying to dedicate the upcoming museum show on natural history to Archie. Its time for a thank you from Amelia Island..

So why is Archie more important than the Bartrams, Audubon, Catesby or Muir? Those people brought the glory of Florida’s flora and fauna to the world. Archie did that as well, but he saved it for future generations.

So now you know who Archie Carr was.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Public Enemies

We saw Public Enemies this morning. Almost a great flick and certainly a fascinating one.

For one thing, it’s outright beautiful in scene after scene, and styled perfectly. Some of the director’s tricks are just awesome. It’s shot in HD digital and that provides a level of detail that is startling, particularly at night. The sound too is superb, with bullets literally seeming to fly all around your seat. The movie successfully evokes the era of the 1930s

Johnny Depp is good, and so is the young actress who played Piaf in that flick. Billy Crudup is astounding at J Edgar Hoover. He just oozes slime. The various G men and gangsters all look convincing and it’s hard to tell them apart, in attitude and brutality, as well as appearance.

And there is a slight personal connection. Dillinger broke out of a jail in Indiana as depicted in the movie, allegedly using only a bar of soap be carved and painted to look like a gun. At that time my father was in college at Ohio Northern in Ada Ohio. He was as broke as it was possible to be, and the police in Lima Ohio a few miles away went to the college looking for students they could deputize to guard the jail and bank, because Dillinger was allegedly headed their way. My Dad got, as I recall, five bucks, enough money to eat on for a week or more, to occupy the roof of a building all night with a shotgun. After a while it became apparent that no Dillinger was coming, and they relaxed. My father as a result had a life time fascination with Dillinger.

The opening scene was my favorite. I liked the way Michael Mann started the movie with a blank screen, and then noises, and then the action explodes.

Be warmed. It is violent. Dozens of people get killed in violent ways, but its all cartoonish.

Oscar material? Certainly for technical things, and likely Depp and Mann for best actor and best director respectively. And with ten nominations now for best picture, this one surely will make that cut.

Go see it at a theater, the way it was meant to be seen. You won’t be sorry.