1920's, History, memory, NY, Upstate New York

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

My last post featured a monument to a Seneca chief, that turned out to be complete rubbish. (“Gu-Ya-No-Ga, the Seneca Chief”)

Facing the facts, I finally found a fairy tale – – a fallacious fib by foxy farmers, fabricating a fable, falsifying and feigning familiarity of former times.  A fiction, fraud, fib, forgery, flimflam, and furtive falsity.  A kind of phantasm.  Phony.  A full load of phooey.

That’s all the “F” sounds I’ve got, and now my mouth is dry, let’s move on.



I took the mock monument seriously, because there was an official, state-issued, serious-looking, cast-iron plaque next to it.  How could I doubt it?  It just stood there, looking, well, like Al-Gore-on-a-stick:  blue suit, kinda square, a bit dull, but sincere and trustworthy.


These old roadside blue & gold-trimmed historical markers are a familiar sight around New York State.  I’ve seen them all my life, and never really paid much attention to them, until now.

Turns out, most are kind of antiques themselves.  In 1926, the Education Department started planting them up all over the state.  They didn’t have the internet, but a century ago, folks seemed to share our obsession with tagging things.  There are 2,800 of the old blue signs – my county has 40,  and next door in mostly-rural Cayuga county, there’s 176!


This one is relatively modern, from the ’80’s. I’m not sure if anyone has an accurate count, they just continue to put them up, year after year, implacably.



As far as I can tell, the plaque for Gu-Ya-No-Ga is the only state marker, of thousands, based on a joke.

There is a rather cryptic one, near Otsego Lake (“Glimmerglass”):

“Natty Bumpo”  Leatherstocking – Rescued Chingachgook from flames – Chingach dying in his care – “Pioneers”

Well, nobody wants a Flaming Chingachgook, it’s hard to get that odor out of the drapes.  But I’m not sure how many people nowadays would have any idea what this sign is about, and realize it’s fictional.  “Pioneers” was the 4th novel in James Fenimore Cooper’s series of Leatherstocking Tales.  But maybe they saw the movie version of the 2nd one, “The Last of the Mohicans” with Daniel Day-Lewis, and get the general idea.

The Education Department stopped making these signs many years ago.  Like me, they found that the strain of being concise was too much to bear.  But since 2006, the Pomeroy Foundation has put up another 600.


I think New York must have more signs, of all kinds, than any other state.

I notice when driving in other states, sure, there are billboards and directions, but there just aren’t the thickets of factoids, suggestions, warnings, and orders that New York feels is necessary.  Every time I come back to NY, there’s more — last month, about a thousand toll collectors lost their jobs, and were replaced with a new swarm of signs about E-ZPass and electronic billing.


I just like “Rumble Strips”. Makes me think the Sharks and the Jets are up ahead on the shoulder


On visits to my great-uncle in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania, I’ll drive down Bear Creek Road, winding and bumpy, and at night you’ll see glints from broken headlights and pieces of chrome, where some weekender ran into a tree or boulder.  NY would plaster it with Slow! Sharp Curve! 25 MPH!  No Shoulder!  Possible Indigenous Chipmunk Crossing!  etc. But there aren’t any warning signs that I can remember, I guess the Pennsylvanians credit people with enough brains to take it easy on those curves.  The scarred and paint-streaked boulders do a good job, serving as reminders.


Even the snowmobile paths have warning signs


A couple of years ago, Albany stuck up 500 more placards along the Thruway – – not directional signs, just tourism advertising.  “I Love NY” “The New York State Experience” “Taste of New York” “Path Through History” etc.  Five hundred more signs to block the view.  The feds got fed up, and threatened to cut off highway funding if they didn’t remove these distractions.  NY, at great expense, took down 400 of the signs they’d just put up, and moved them to various parking lots, etc.

There’s also all sorts of signs put on buildings by the villages or cities, historical societies, county highway departments, etc.  There’s billboard-sized history ones at all the rest stops on the Thruway.


There’s 139 of these big ones, from the ’60’s, mostly at rest stops on the interstates.


Another 1920’s series in the Finger Lakes, follows the route of the Sullivan-Clinton Expedition during the Revolution, and marks most of the forty villages the soldiers burned.


In the Finger Lakes region, try walking twenty feet in any direction, you’ll run into a signpost.

Trip over any large rock, and there’s probably a brass plaque stuck to it.

Sometimes they’re random, useless factoids, and only interesting, because you wonder what possessed anyone to put them on a sign.  But I find, a lot of these odd snippets of history, will prompt you to look up the whole story.



Here’s a random example –  from Montezuma, NY.  If you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never heard of Tyler, perhaps it will comfort you to know, I never did either.   But that’s how these signs work – –  I was curious and looked him up. Turns out, he was one of the founders of Syracuse.  The sign mentions “salt maker,” and then you start reading about the days when a lot of the salt used in the U.S. came from brine wells around Syracuse, and so it goes… another hour lost to browsing on the internet.  Here’s a link to his family’s pyramid.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oakwood_Cemetery_(Syracuse,_New_York)#/media/File:Oakwood-Comfort-Tyler-02.jpg


Syracuse, NY was once called “Salt City,” and one of the primary arteries through the city is called Salina St. (stereoview from Library of Congress)


Col. Comfort Tyler. This was painted around 1900 by a local artist, George K. Knapp. Not really sure what’s happening here. He seems to have a cannon on his roof, there’s a dead deer in the foreground (arrow wound?  cannon?  ax?) and there’s some sort of parade going on, possibly War of 1812, or they’re trying to keep the Syracuse University basketball fans under control.


When the blue history markers were put up, it was a logical time for these tiny roadside histories — 1926 was also kind of a marker for roads themselves in this country.  It’s hard to visualize, in our car-obsessed era,  but for most of U.S. history, paved roads were scarce.  People were excited about rivers, canals, ships, and railroads.  But toward the end of the 19th century, the “good roads” movements – – which included farmers, millions of bicyclists, and then auto enthusiasts – – began to gain traction.  When FDR was governor of NY, and then President, he accelerated this – building farm roads, highways, and parkways.


Another G. K. Knapp painting, of the early days of automobiles in Syracuse.  I think the ruin in the background, might be Tyler’s house.  Maybe the cannon was too heavy for the roof.


When people first started traveling by car, promoters created hundreds of random names on cobbled-together routes like the “Lincoln Highway,” or “Dixie Highway,” but often long stretches were unpaved, or even just ruts across a prairie, with an occasional signpost put up by the Boy Scouts (seriously).  One of the first cars to make it across the U.S., was only able to do it, by carrying a second set of custom wheels, for driving on railroad tracks.

Between 1914 and 1926, the miles of paved roads had more than doubled, and the official U.S. numbering system began (basically the system we have now, Route 66, etc.), instead of just having names, like the “Albany Post Road,” “Natchez Trace,” “El Camino Real,” and “Oregon Trail.” *


By the ’20’s, there were millions of people driving around — I was surprised to learn that they made over 3 million cars in 1926!  By the end of the decade, there were something like 26 million cars on the road.

So 1926 was also when Burma-Shave stated putting up their roadside signs, poetic gems like:

Every shaver / Now can snore / Six more minutes / Than before / By using / Burma-Shave


So in 1926, the state educators jumped on the bandwagon, minus the poetry.  Here’s a sampling from around the state, and I didn’t make any of them up.

“Henry Hudson, Explorer, Here ended the voyage of the Half Moon, In quest of the Indies, September 1609”

“Clermont.  Near the foot of Madison Avenue, Robert Fulton in Aug. 1807, Completed the first successful steamboat voyage.”

A modern replica of the Halve Maen (“Half Moon”), photo from the state museum site.

These two signs are near Albany, our state capital (just south of where the Mohawk River joins the Hudson).  A lot of voyages and quests have terminated there, in a snarl of confusion & crookery, regulations & red tape.

Henry probably wouldn’t have made it to China, going by way of Schenectady.  You can do it, although it’s not really the best route.  But we’ll never know – he got to Albany and couldn’t get the right permits to go any farther.

Or maybe the locals, like all true New Yorkers, refused to admit they had no idea how to get to China, and gave him bad directions, sending him by way of northern Canada.

Where two years later, his crew finally got fed up, and abandoned him in Hudson Bay (this last part is true, poor guy).


This was the 1909 Half Moon replica, a gift from the Netherlands.


If Henry had just made it up the Mohawk as far as Utica, he could’ve bought his mutinous crew Half-Moon Cookies, maybe smoothed things over.  They’re a central NY specialty  –  devil’s food chocolate cookie, flipped over, with buttercream icing, half vanilla/half cocoa.

(Well, ok, actually they weren’t invented until the ’20’s, but they’re pretty great! They’re NOT the same thing as NYC black-and-white cookies, Half-Moons are way better.)


The second sign is about the boat “Clermont” and the beginning of the end for sailing vessels.  Robert Fulton partnered with Robert Livingston, a NY politician and one of the Founding Fathers, who, in the interests of liberty & democracy, etc. got himself a monopoly on traveling the Hudson by steamboat.

They established a commuter run, NYC-Albany, that covered the 145 miles in only 36 hours, pretty competitive with current Amtrak service.


1909 replica of the Clermont (Library of Congress)


You know, for years, until I wrote this post and took a closer look, I believed the state flag had both these vessels on it.  Someone must’ve told me that, but it’s not so.  It’s just two random ships.


More old blue signs:

“Cheese Factory, First in Town of Berne, Built in 1878, And made 495 pounds in a single day.”

By gum, who wouldn’t find this exciting, and useful to know?

Whether Upstate NY or Wisconsin, I’ve always been surrounded by cheeseheads, so I took a keen interest in this one.

One day’s production would keep a dozen Americans cheesed for a year.  Or eight Danes.


“Andre captured here in 1780.  Three honest militiamen arrested Major John Andre, Adjt-Gen. British Army, disguised, Preventing disaster to American cause.”

André, of course, was the head of the British Secret Service in America, and was caught, and hanged, just after Benedict Arnold handed him the plans to the fortifications at West Point.

It was obviously unusual, and noteworthy, that the local militiamen were honest.   And one of them could read (true).

When they found the West Point documents, hidden in his stockings, André told them the plans were for the Army-Navy football game.  The militiamen conferred, and decided neither football, or even rugby, would be invented for another ninety years, and anyways, what was with the snobby little accent mark on this guy’s name?  Nobody used la cédille in these parts.  And maybe he was French, with a name like that?

Congress and France had signed a Treaty of Alliance, but that didn’t mean the Westchester County Militia had to trust Monsieur Fancy Boots.  A guy who wore socks, even though he had boots, and was maybe a redcoat, or maybe he hailed from the country that started half of the French & Indian War.  André then tried to bribe them with his horse and pocketwatch, but since they were honest, and had muskets, why couldn’t they just take that stuff anyway.   So they hanged him.  And his fancy accent mark, too, for good measure.

Many militia bands in those years, were less partisans than brigands.  The old courthouse in Goshen, about 25 miles west of West Point, had a skull embedded above the doorway, which they obtained from Claudius Smith, leader of one of these bands of marauders.


“Decker’s Tavern.  Here Modeline, the Indian who scalped Tom Quick, Sr., Reenacted the old man’s death agony.  He was shot for it by Tom Quick, Jr.”

There are several markers, in both NY and Pennsylvania, concerning Tom Quick “The Indian Slayer,” who depending on your viewpoint was a (1) brave frontiersman (2) teller of tall tales in taverns, or (3) psychotic murderer.


“Home of Jethro Wood, Inventor of Cast Iron Plough” 

“The First Cast Iron Plow in the World, Was Made by Jethro Woods, At Foot of Falls, 1819” 

“Site of Home, John Wood.  Field Officers were voted for here, May 11,1776.  Also Birthplace John Wood’s son, Jethro Wood, Inventor First Iron Mould Plow (1814)”

They were certainly excited about plows in 1926.

Everyone knows John Deere, who invented the steel plow.  But before him, was Jethro Wood, and his iron plow, who rated three of these plaques, in three different towns.

Sometimes I’ve seen these markers along a road, but there’s no shoulder, and I can’t stop, or even slow down enough to read them.  It occurred to me, that maybe it would be better to spread them out, like the old Burma Shave signs, so people could read them without pulling over.  So, for example:

Jethro Wood

Was pretty good.

His iron plough

Was good enough

the rocky soil to till.

It had no peer

At least until

Vermont’s John Deere

Made one better still.

Here’s a link to a complete inventory of the original signs.  http://www.aphnys.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Historical-Markers-Listing-2018-07.pdf

These 1926 history plaques were supposedly for the 150th anniversary of the Revolution, but I think the project had more to do with the lack of booze.  People were stuck in the middle of Prohibition, and needed something to do, some kind of a hobby.  Just like us now, during the Pandemic, frantic after being housebound for so long, sticking little labels on everything in the cupboard and on the workbench, ordering up Tupperware, bins, and desk organizers, alphabetizing our record collections, etc.  Rearranging the canned goods by expiration date, building replicas of the Eiffel Tower with rolls of toilet paper.

Personally, during the past nine months, I’ve had each of my socks embroidered with individual names, to help keep them in pairs.  Lewis & Clark, Abbott & Costello, Orville & Wilbur, Darryl & His Other Brother Darryl.


This is a recent addition, and not one from the ’20’s – ’30’s.

These history markers were approved for all kinds of stuff.  Old-time schools, bridges, churches, battles, trails, native villages, etc. and residences or burial places of famous people.

Businesses – gristmills, woolen mills, saw mills, smithies, mines, hotels, etc. – are all mentioned.

Quite often, there’s no place to park and read these signs. It’s probably dangerous to pull over on the shoulder sometimes, but I’m trusting to nerd immunity.


You can tell a lot about a culture, and time, by what it names and celebrates.

There are markers for lots and lots of inns and taverns – in the old days, they were essential social centers, meeting places for politicians, revolutionaries and militias. But among these Prohibition-era markers, there’s not one for a brewery, distillery, malt house, or winery!

The colonial Dutch started building breweries in the 1640’s, and alcohol was an essential part of life in the old days, a huge industry.  In the 1800’s, NY grew more hops than any other state, but there are no markers for hop farms or oast houses.  Even George Washington made whiskey, for pete’s sake, and owned one of the largest distilleries in the country.  But in 1926, during Prohibition, alcohol wasn’t deemed worthy of a single mention.  Not even Schaefer, Rheingold or Knickerbocker!?

What else is missing?  Women.  Out of 2800 signs, I only saw a handful.  Ann Lee, leader of the Shaker sect, is mentioned, Harriet Tubman, some general’s widow, a county named for the Dutchess of York (that’s how they spelled Duchess in the old days).  Emily Chubbuck a/k/a Fanny Forrester, who in her 37 years managed to be a teacher, writer, poet, and missionary.  Yep, I never heard of her either, but doesn’t she sound like someone you should look up?  Sybil Ludington, who also has a couple of statues and a Bicentennial stamp, for doing a Paul Revere-style ride, except Sybil didn’t get caught.

And another thing, sign after sign points to all kinds of citizens of good repute, but not one house of ill repute?  Just once, wouldn’t you like to see a plaque “Washington Didn’t Sleep Here”?



*P.S.   In the 1950’s, when Eisenhower called for an interstate system, he was probably thinking of his transcontinental drive in 1919, part of an army convoy, from Washington, D.C. to the world’s fair in San Francisco.  They took two months, and claimed to have rocketed along at 5.67 mph.  Counting the days they spent resting along the way, probably averaged closer to 2 mph.

The Eisenhower interstates, actually one of FDR’s ideas, were the largest public works project in U.S. history, a federal Ten Year Plan completed in only 36 years.  And now it’s way overdue to have all those roads and bridges replaced, currently rated D+ by the engineers, but nothing that $588 billion couldn’t fix.

Blogging, memory, music, South America, Sudamerica

The power of a song ~ ~ ~ Musical journeys in my mind

Every day, I’d look at the volcán Villarica. At night, there was a glow in the sky above it, from its lava lake.


A little over a year ago, I was living in Chile, teaching English to school kids.

I think about my time there quite often, but whenever I try to write down my impressions of that country, I find it very difficult.


I arrived, and dove right into it, caught up in a fast-paced orientation program, then moving to a small town in the foothills of the Andes, during the wintertime. I got off the bus, found my host family and moved into their hostel.

Next day, started teaching, often bewildered by the constant shifts in language. Textbook Spanish, to “schileno,” to some indigenous Mupache words, to “huaso” (a “cowboy” dialect used by the rancher kids), to “flaite” (ghetto slang).  My Spanish was so-so, and elements of “Spanglish” had crept in, from my City Year in a Milwaukee school.   Chile’s “English Opens Doors” program is taught entirely in English, in theory, but I was the only native English-speaker in the school, and needed to communicate with the staff, as well as the kids.

I was using every bit of spare time to think about creating lessons, to travel, find a hot shower, visit friends. I never took time to consider or reflect about my experience in Chile, until I was no longer there.

Now, I can look back, peering at that place and time in my mind’s eye, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to being able to describe it in a meaningful way.

Take Santiago, for example.

A fascinating place, but I don’t think I can really describe that city, apart from a series of brief memories. A walk up the Cerro Lucia hill, or the eerie silence of the city from atop the Torre de Americas, the tallest building in Latin America.

photos of the hillsides by Paul Quealy


But these memories already feel distant, like I’m watching a movie. Snippets of memories from Chile are vivid, but mostly they seem like a well-edited video.



I didn’t take many pictures, and most of those were taken with a cheap cellphone, and are clearly low resolution.  But I can close my eyes, and recall countless images, in clear high definition.

I can recall an emotional link (as you may get during a good movie), but as I replay these experiences in my mind, I cannot bring them back to life.



In an instant, I can conjure up a stream of images, that blend and flow seamlessly into each other, but they feel like a picture gallery, beyond reality.



That is, anyway, until I listen to music.

People often talk about scents, the aromas and smells that evoke memories. But for me, music is the strongest link to memory. Places, people, and even emotions come alive again when I’m listening, and it’s the sounds that are extremely evocative.

You usually don’t get to call the tune. For me, Chile is a song I would never have heard, had it not been for my fellow teacher, and good friend Paul, from Dublin.

Assigned as roommates in Santiago during training, by chance, we ended up posted to the same region of Chile, in towns on either side of Lake Villarica.

He was teaching the kids his kind of English, with a strong Irish accent, and would talk about his family in Dublin. And he introduced me to the music of an Irish singer I’d heard of, but never actually listened to, James Vincent McMorrow.

And like soda bread, or mutton stew, McMorrow is an acquired taste.

Not my usual rock & roll, or Motown soul.  I heard a high, light voice, like someone quietly singing to themselves.  Usually described by music critics as “delicate,” or even “whispy.”   It was good to hear someone singing in English, but McMorrow was really not my cup of tea.  At first, if I had to pick a single word for this terse, falsetto style, it might be “strange”.

And yet, the first song I heard, “Get Low,” immediately stuck in my head, and became the song of Chile for me.

I’d like to relate, that my theme song for Chile was a hauntingly beautiful folk tune, in 3/4-time, for the traditional cueca, the national dance.  But instead, every time I did anything by myself – riding the bus to Villaricca or Temuco, walking along the beach, on my way to school, when I got out bed – it was this almost airy Irish tune that played in my head.

And when I didn’t hear Get Low in my mind, this persistent, odd song, I’d put on headphones, and listen to it.

Chileans are a welcoming bunch.  Sincere, kind, and generous.  The teachers I worked with, the kids, and people I met day-to-day, were all honest and straightforward folks who love life.

But I was just desperate to hear English. It was exhausting to think and operate entirely in another language, especially when complicated by an unfamiliar accent, dialects and two distinct sets of slang, and there were times I felt like I was unable to think, unless I would be listening to music in English. So I would listen to any tune, any sort of dreck, so long as it was sung in English. Some of it, really terrible.

But, every day, I also listened to Get Low.


Now, over a year since I left Chile (almost to the day), when I hear that song, Chile is brought back to me in vibrant Technicolor! And with it, the memories of my friends, students, fellow teachers, glimpses of the landscapes from a bus window, the walks around town, all tinted with a happy glow. It all comes flooding back to me. I listen, and, during the span of that three-and-a-half minutes, I am revisiting Villaricca.



I can picture walking along the Costenera, see the volcano in the distance across the lake, the children running along the cold water on the black sand beach. I can picture coming up on the big terminal of the Jac Bus station, built from large wooden beams, which signaled that I had arrived back in town. I can picture the walk to Paul’s house, up the hill apart from all the other houses, back along the windy back roads.


My village, Pucón, sitting next to an active volcano, often felt creepy, despite being a “eco-tourist hub” with its trendy bars, tour stands, even a nightclub, its legions of bikers and hikers, getting gear on, getting a buzz on, getting onto the trucks and buses for their guided outdoor “adventures.”  The teachers and kids were wonderful, but their town, during the winter months, is a dark, rainy place, saturated in smog from the countless wood stoves.  Some days you could taste the air, a pea soup of green wood smoke and carbon monoxide, with a soupçon of formaldehyde and ashes.

Across the lake, Villarica felt like a balanced, happier place, furthering my theory that Pucón’s volcano exerted some sort of magnetic pulse that negatively influenced my mood and emotions. There was a constant disorienting feeling of the surreal in Pucón, a sense of unreality.


Villaricca felt normal and safe, apart from the scattered remnants of the old city, most of which was burned during a Mapuche reprisal attack in the 1570s. A local told me the history of the region, and his in-depth recitation of its wars and slaughter also left me with a feeling of unease. The Mapuches, never subdued by the Incas or conquistadors, are resistant to colonization to this day;  some of the church-burnings prior to the Pope’s recent visit were blamed on extremist Mapuche factions.

But back to the music.

As the song plays, Chile suddenly becomes real to me.

I can picture going out for a beer and fried potatoes with onions and cheese (sounds bad but tastes good) with Paul and our local friend, Valentina. I can picture walking on the old concrete of a former dock, trying to dodge the waves off the lake as the wind picked up. I see the church, which meant I was lost, as I only ever saw it when I wandered in the wrong direction. The clothing stores, surprisingly nice and high-end. Fruit stalls that struck me as honest and authentic, with their colorful concrete walls, stacks of oranges, apples, and other fruits. I went there for cheap fruit frequently, at least until I was informed by Paul that the stacks of boxes harbored a considerable colony of rats. I never saw evidence of them, but figured that he was better informed.


While the music plays, I feel and recall everything .

We had a party in Villaricca, well, really more of a low-key get together, some of the English tutors and some locals. I can smell the gas of the heaters, feel the chilly biting cold wind, and hear the endless baying of the black-faced ibises on the rooftops around us.


Some of the English Opens Door teachers.

But, the song does more for me. Perhaps as my discrete, detailed memories fade and meld into one single dream-like experience, I listen now and see more.

I can see, all at once, the entire journey from Santiago to Valparaíso and everything in between, six months of memories and experiences, compressed into a few minutes.



I listen and recall our side trip to Argentina, riding bikes into the mountains, the lakes azure blue in the dry heat and the resinous smell of the pines and monkey puzzle trees. I clearly see Valparaíso, perhaps the highlight of my time in Chile. A place that felt magical, and was one of the more amazing cities I have been – very much a place in the here-and-now, and also a place off in a kind of time warp.


Now, when I hear Get Low, while I see mostly Pucón and Villariccca, a third town Temuco floats into the recollection, a place where I spent a fair bit of time. A little regional capital, with limited things to do and see, but a place where I was happy.

It’s not that the song is great. The song isn’t great, in fact I find McMorrow’s voice a bit weak and whispery, and the tune has become annoying, or at least, it is, when it’s playing endlessly in my head.

But as a tool, as a means of recalling and reliving highlights of the past, it is phenomenal.


The view from Volcán Villarica (in Mapuche, Rucapillán) 2,860 m.


You can take a chairlift most of the way up the Villarica volcano, and then hike up the snow-covered bit. Coming back down is faster, and fun – you can slide on your back, using the ice ax as a brake.


I have other songs. I recall Hong Kong with “We Were Kids” by Turtle Giant. I can listen to tunes to remind myself of college, or to recreate various trips. One piece of electronica instantly takes me to my college library, third floor, right side, fifth window from the bathrooms, overlooking the quad, with my countless books about the Iroquois stacked all around me.

The furthest back I can go with this trick, is six years ago, a trip through the Southwest, and specifically to Colorado, with The Killer’s “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” and a song called “Roya Re” sung by a Punjabi whose name escapes me. Both tunes provided by my Venezuelan friend Luis, with traveled with two things: a big collection of tunes on an iPod, and even bigger knife, and who took the time to introduce me to some new music.

I am now in Boston, and I am still waiting for the song that will define this city for me, but that will come in due time. I don’t even have to listen for it, it will just start playing one day.



P.S.  If anyone is interested in the “English Opens Doors,” here is the link centrodevoluntarios.cl/

It’s a wonderful program – the concept, the staff, and the volunteers –  run by Chile’s Ministry of Education and the U.N., and here’s a bit from their website:

The National Volunteer Center is a branch of the English Opens Doors Program and is supported by the United Nations Development Programme-Chile. The National Volunteer Center recruits native and near-native English speakers to work as teaching assistants in Chilean classrooms, specifically to improve students’ listening and speaking skills. Volunteers also assist with other initiatives of the English Opens Doors Program, such as debates and English Camps.
Volunteers teach and encourage the study of English while living with Chilean host families and interacting with members of the local community.

McMorrow “Get Low”


And War with “Low Rider


AFS American Ambulance Field Service, American Philosophical Society, Decoration Day, First World War, History, Memorial Day, memory, Philadelphia, Philly, WWI

Before the leaves fall ~~~~ Reading letters from the First World War

Paris 1918. AFS archive.

The First World War is now a century old. Part of the past, just like the Middle Ages, the Ming Dynasty, or the Roman Empire.  There are no combat veterans of the war left alive.

I wasn’t around for either World War, Korea, Vietnam, or even the Gulf War. And yet, like so many things, WWI doesn’t quite feel like ancient history to me — fossilized into stone monuments, stuffed into museums, or snoozing away in the pages of dusty old books.

Sitting around the kitchen table with my grandparents, the war was mentioned many times over the years, a part of family history. Far from being some distant event, remote in time and faraway, it felt quite real, immediate and relevant, because it involved our relatives and the family’s story-line, recited “as if it were yesterday.”

The old folks didn’t talk of geopolitics, military tactics, or Grand Alliances — they spoke of people – – the war’s impact on people they’d known.

Just like accounts of mining disasters in the coal region, never-to-be-forgotten-bad-hairstyles, bygone aunts who were legendary bakers-of-never-equaled pies, or comic sagas like The Studebaker With No Brakes Parked on Top of the Hill, etc. something would prompt a memory, and we’d hear about kinfolk in The Great War, passing along a narrative they remembered, or had been told as children.

I’d have a slice of pie, watch my grandmother wildly overbid in Auction Pinochle, try to Sit Up Straight & Not Slouch For Heaven’s Sake, and hear stories of near-death, destruction, and army rations. Hear about places in France that no one knew how to pronounce correctly, or had felt a need to look up the pronunciation, for ninety years.  No one cared about “ethnic tensions in the Balkans” or the clash of empires, but they remembered Franz Joseph’s luxuriant whiskers.

British troops digging out wounded from a First-Aid shelter which had been blown up by a shell. Wellcome Library.

One of the stories from my father’s family, mixed up in American wars since the French & Indian, was of an uncle, my great-grandmother’s favorite brother, who was “Never Quite the Same After the War.”

His National Guard unit had just come back from Pershing’s “Punitive Expedition,” chasing Pancho Villa around northern Mexico.  Back in Pennsylvania, they stood down, only to called right back up & shipped to France, among the first Americans thrown into combat.


American ambulance in France, 1918. The church bell in the background, is to warn of gas attacks. LOC.

He returned a bit disfigured from a gas attack, and my grandmother always remembered her uncle as a frightening figure – a black eyepatch and swollen neck from the mustard gas, wearing his filthy old Army greatcoat for many years, even in the summertime, and often drunk. I don’t recall anyone from my grandmother’s generation ever using “PTSD,” but they’d say “shell-shocked.”

That’s his helmet in the first picture.


Doughboys. 107th Regiment Memorial, Central Park


Another g-g-uncle, a sergeant at a hospital in France, survived the war, but died of pneumonia at 42.  The old folks on the “kitchen cabinet” discussed whether exposure to gas during the war had “weakened his lungs”.

My mother’s family, more recent immigrants, had brothers fighting on both sides. Mom’s grandfather proudly served in the Austro-Hungarian artillery, on the Italian front.  At the end of the war, his unit surrendered and was interned.  He soon added Italian to his other four languages, and never had anything but compliments for the kind treatment he received from his captors.

Three of his older brothers fought on the other side, in France with the U.S. army. One of the brothers was decorated, when his fluent German and fatherly manner persuaded a squad of teenage Bavarians to put down their rifles and surrender to him.



A few summers ago, I worked in the archives of the American Philosophical Society, in Philadelphia, and read the wartime letters of someone from another family.

Henry Howard Houston II.   I studied and helped to organize his letters and photos — messages from a life long-ago and far from my experience.

Houston’s reactions and comments offer a glimpse of the pre-war Philadelphia elite, the Ivy League, the Mexican border crisis, and finally the life, and death, of the doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force.

And, despite being separated by a century and a vastly different lifestyle, I still felt a connection to him, his personality gleaned from reading his personal thoughts, unfiltered by a biographer or historian.


Henry Howard Houston II did not emerge from the First World War as a household name, like Eddie Rickenbacker, or Sgt. Alvin York. He did not shoot down the Red Baron, rescue the “Lost Battalion”, or capture an entire company of enemy soldiers single-handedly. But he, like all the doughboys and medics, deserves to be remembered for his part in that great and bloody struggle we call the First World War.

He died at the front, near Arcis-le-Ponsart, at the age of twenty three, the same age I am now.  Thought to be in a safe sector, an artillery shell found him, and a piece of shrapnel pierced his skull. A man who believed war was evil, but fought nonetheless. He never had a chance to join the “Lost Generation”, and lost his life in a foreign land, instead.


IMG_3599-2“Archive” summons up images of dusty shelves, dry-as-dust history, and heaps of paper.  Guess what – – there was some of that – – eight cubic feet of documents, filed away in brown boxes.

But among the yellowed army records and fading photographs, are his personal letters to his family, and reading through his thoughts, was a very interesting and sometimes moving experience.

Since I don’t work for the NSA or Wikileaks, it seemed like a strange thing, to read other people’s mail.

And here’s a secret I haven’t shared with the NSA.

I didn’t much like the guy.

His unthinking elitism, casual evasion of rules, and off-hand shifts in attitude struck me as symptoms of someone who was spoiled and shallow.

Then, just like getting to know someone in real life, or hearing about the dearly departed in my own family, warts and all, I realized, he had flaws, like anyone, but he had a lot of good in him.  He volunteered, he walked the walk, he grew up in a hurry, and he sacrificed his own life for his duty.  He was an honorable gentleman, and I think, by the end of his short life, a mensch.


from a children’s book, published in Germany – “Father in the War”


Another news flash arrived while I was immersed in his letters — something that surely seems too obvious to all you intelligent readers.  This country was a very different place one hundred years ago.  I was working in the same city, and walking through the streets of his neighborhood, but Henry’s high-toned Philadelphia was a very alien world.

Here’s one example.  In 1916, it was often the rich, educated, and privileged who were the first into the fight, not like today’s poor and underprivileged being shipped out to the Petroleum Wars.

Here’s another change.  Houston grew up in a Philadelphia that still honored its Quaker tradition, and even if true pacifists and conscientious objectors were uncommon, then as now, I think that in 1916, it was possible to be regarded as a Patriotic American, without espousing militarism and the glorification of warfare.


American ambulance near Verdun. LOC


Sure, just like the decisions made by most of us, I think Houston entered the war with confused motives.  He simply craved excitement and a chance to prove his bravery.  He despised war, but then, as he picked up body after body for his ambulance, he came to hate The Enemy, and wished to crush the Kaiser and his soldiers.

His ambivalence over the war was evident in his letters.  He began by condemning warfare, serving first as a volunteer non-combatant, rescuing the wounded  —  then returned as a combatant, an Army officer, using the latest technology for destruction and death, by guiding the flight of one-hundred pound explosive shells, miles through the air, to wound, maim, or kill.


The Harvard Club of Alsace Reconquise.  AFS Archives


A capsule biography.

He belonged to one of Philadelphia’s most elite families.

His grandfather was a railroad and real estate magnate.  If you ever put on your spats and straw boater, and stroll through one of his creations, the Chestnut Hill neighborhood (Philadelphia’s “garden suburb”), you’ll catch of glimpse of Houston’s moneyed background.  But it was a family that believed not just in the accumulation of wealth, but also in philanthropy, civic duty, and the promotion of beauty.

Henry had joined the Pennsylvania National Guard. In 1916, while the war in Europe had been underway for two years, his unit was activated and became part of the U.S. Army, as the famous “Keystone Division”.




But we had not yet entered the First World War.  First, we had a little practice exercise, closer to home.

Villa LOC

General Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula, “Pancho Villa“, LOC

The Pennsylvanians were one of the first units sent to the Texas-Mexican border, as part of a response to a raid by General Jose Doroteo Arango Arambula, better known in the U.S.by his nickname “Pancho Villa”.

Villa had emerged as a leader during Mexico’s chaotic Civil War/Revolution. He was angry at the U.S. – he resented our recognition of his rival, Carranza, and our imperialistic tactics and economic exploitation. In 1916, Villa crossed the border and raided Columbus, NM, killing civilians and soldiers. Villa’s attack was sensationalized by the American press, and Wilson was forced to respond with a show of decisiveness. (In reality, Villa lost four times as many men as the Americans did during the raid, due to the U.S. Cavalry’s superior training and weaponry, and he’d fled back over the border.)

Woodrow Wilson sent troops under General Pershing, to stabilize the border, and to pursue Villa into Mexico. Houston was part of this first wave of what was called the Punitive Expedition, or the Pancho Villa Expedition.


The Benet-Mercie light machine gun was a flop, and was ditched before we entered WWI. LOC


He described in detail his experiences while serving with the field artillery. He seems to have followed his orders well, most of the time, but perhaps did not fully grasp the concept of Army discipline. When he was no longer assigned to active duty, he decided to explore the Southwest, and he proceeded to write and photograph during jaunts to the Grand Canyon, through the Mexican deserts, and around Texas. His superior officers were less excited about his adventures, since his notice of taking leave was misrouted, and he was technically AWOL. Luckily, in those more relaxed and clubby days, and with his father’s connections, Henry was let off the hook.

Shortly after his tour on the Mexican border, he enlisted in the Regular Army. He went through additional gunnery training at Camp Hancock, GA, but then left the artillery, and resigned his commission, to join the Volunteer Ambulance Services.

Winter at the front. AFS Archives

The U.S. had not yet entered World War I, so he paid his own way to France, to volunteer as an ambulance driver on the front.

His unit’s heroism while rescuing wounded soldiers under fire, at Verdun and the Argonne, earned the American volunteers the Croix de Guerre .

AFS Archive

He would later serve on the same front, this time as a combatant, when he returned as an artillery officer with the U.S. Army.

As a volunteer with the ambulance corps, Houston was in pretty illustrious company – the most famous example being, of course, Ernest Hemingway, but also e.e.cummings, John Dos Passos, Ralph Vaughn Williams, Archibald MacLeish, and Somerset Maugham, among many others.

Houston was at the front for most of 1917. These two different tours of duty in France, one with ambulances, trying to save lives, and the other with the artillery, trying to blow up as many people as possible, are reflected in the deep ambivalence in his writings.

Advance dressing station in the field.  Wellcome Library

Initially he seemed to think American involvement should be primarily volunteer expeditions like his, for all aspects of warfare. Then, in a series of letters to different people, a different attitude emerges, as he sees the horror of war first-hand. The pacifist tone and references to the evil of war fade away, and he begins to describe the Germans as “barbaric” and inferior as human beings, due to their war-mongering. Houston comes to believe that it was important to crush the Kaiser’s army. He also was honest enough to express fear, one of the humanizing elements in his letters which drew me closer to him.


After his volunteer service, he returned to Camp Hancock, and then Fort Sill, OK, where he received aerial observation training. He would have seen some of the first U.S. military planes (“Jennies” made by Curtiss Wright in Hammondsport, NY, used in the hunt for Pancho Villa.)  He became an aerial observer (a “spotter”) for the 53rd Artillery Division, directing artillery fire from above.

Photo taken by a German pilot in 1916. On the right is what I think may be a pre-war star-shaped fortification in France or Belgium.


It was a tough and unenviable job – trying to make out enemy positions and fortifications from the air, taking photographs with a bulky camera, or trying to signal your artillery battery, with a heavy, primitive radio transmitter, while watching out for enemy fighter planes and ground fire. He was also expected to man a twin Lewis gun to defend his plane. There was no metal armor to protect you from machine gun bullets, only a leather coat and a fuselage made of thin sticks and cloth.

By this point of the war, romantic notions of aerial knights had evaporated, and reconnaissance pilots were fair game for the fighter pilots.  Most of the Red Baron’s 80 kills were by shooting down observation planes.



In 1918, Houston returned to France for final training, and then flew into action.

In August, stationed in the “safe” part of the front, he was killed when he returned to an airfield during a German shelling.


Ambulance destroyed by shells       AFS Archive


He is buried in France, in Suresnes American Cemetery outside of Paris, with several thousand other Americans.

His first cousin, Houston Woodward, also died that summer, shot down while flying for the Lafayette Escadrille.



This brief history doesn’t really do justice to Houston’s experiences or sacrifice, (nor that of all the others like my relatives who served in the AEF, or on the other side) and makes his time in the military seem to fly by, until his inevitable death. There are no stories of heroics — he didn’t capture an entire division of Germans with one round in his pistol, pretending the potato in the other hand was a grenade, he didn’t storm a machine gun nest, or engage in dogfights with the Flying Circus, but instead, he volunteered to save the lives of French soldiers, risking his life, driving through artillery fire, to save the wounded of a nation that wasn’t his. Later he risked his neck again, to create the maps that would help his own artillery and help keep his men alive.



The APS, Philadelphia

I’ve only given you a tiny piece of Henry’s story, from my very brief time at the APS archive. And this is just one of the millions of such memories stored there — to me real treasures buried inside their vaults.  It’s not a very profound thought, but an awful lot of “History” turns out to be stories about people.  Some of them we admire, and some…we may even come to think of their stories, as threads in the storyline of our own, extended family.  I never met any veterans of the Great War, and now it is too late, but I will pass along some of their stories when I can.

The airplane photos were taken at the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome in the Hudson Valley of New York State.