“I ain’t gonna stand no foolin’ around.
If I do, well, I’ll be John Brown.”
Huey “Piano” Smith
Setting out to attend Ray Smock’s Distinguished Alumni Lecture, I arose at 4 a.m. Thursday to catch the airport bus from Highland to O’Hare. My American Eagle plane had lone seats on one side of the aisle and two on the other. I couldn’t board with my carry-on bag, but attendants had it for me at the gate shortly after I deplaned. From Baltimore Washington International I zipped down to College Park in less than an hour with the invaluable help of a Hertz GPS device. It was my first time back to the University of Maryland since receiving my PhD in 1970 except at night for a ceremony to dedicate the Sam Merrill seminar room. At first things looked totally unfamiliar. The Marriott Inn and Conference Center was located on a previously undeveloped end of the campus. Walking around, however, I located the Cole Student Union, McKeldin Library where Toni worked, the green at the center of campus, and the Francis Scott Key Building – my old stomping ground. Once inside I wandered around for some time before finding the History Department.
At the Mariott I caught the conclusion of the Cubs opener on local TV since they were playing Washington (relievers Wood and Marmol spoiled Dempster’s stellar outing). I returned to Key Hall and peeked into room 006 where as a T.A. I’d heard Louis Harlan and Sam Merrill lecture. Outside the Merrill seminar room was a spread that included sandwiches, shrimp, and wine and slightly familiar faces that looked like elderly professors but turned out to be contemporaries. Most remembered that I had pitched for the Wobblies softball team. It was great seeing good buddy Pete Daniel. Forty years ago he gave us six German wine glasses. Five got broken, but we still have the lone survivor. Oral history conference mainstays Don and Anne Ritchie greeted me warmly, as did Ray and Phyllis Smock. Both Pete and Don were past distinguished lecturers. Dick Baker, a historian of the Senate for many years, knew me mainly through Smock and Ritchie. Sam Walker, author of “Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan” talked with me about his most recent book, a history of ACC basketball and in particular about Vic Bubas, a 1944 Lew Wallace grad who starred at NC State and brought Duke program into prominence during a coaching career that spanned 11 years, beginning in 1959.
Introducing Ray was Ira Berlin, a leading expert on slavery and author of “Many Thousands Gone,” “Generations of Captivity,” and “Slaves Without Masters,” about free blacks in antebellum America. Ray’s entertaining talk, entitled “I Did It My Way, By Accident: Lessons from an Unconventional Career,” traced his interest in history back to his coin collecting day. Obtaining a Booker T. Washington half-dollar, he did research about the Tuskegee Institute founder. People who saw it often said, “Oh, the peanut guy?” – meaning George Washington Carver. Ray would reply, “No, the guy who hired the peanut man.” Ray gave credit to a junior college instructor for exciting him about the relevance of history and to August Meier, who taught him at Roosevelt University. Ray helped edit the Booker T. Washington papers and overcame opposition when he submitted two volumes in place of a traditional dissertation. His main theme: history departments need to start thinking outside the box in terms of assigning worth to collaborative projects, including areas of public history, rather of than the lone wolf model of how one earns a degree and promotion up the ranks. There was a nice crowd of about 30 but hardly any grad students who could have benefitted from Ray’s sage remarks.
After Ray’s speech most of us moved to the Oracle, a bar located where I was staying that had Yuengling beer on tap. I talked at length to fellow grad student and environmental historian John Wennersten, author of “Anacostia: The Death and Birth of an American River.” He taught at Maryland’s Eastern Shore campus and wrote extensively about the Chesapeake Bay, including a book about oyster wars. His most recent work is “Global Thirst: Water and Society in the 21st Century.” Wife Ruth Ellen was also a Marylander, and we chatted about both being in Hong Kong, where I lectured at Chinese University for a month 20 years ago.
Friday I awoke, thought the clock said 9:20, and went to the lobby to find the dining area and Starbucks kiosk closed. It opens at six, someone told me. It turned out to be 5:30, so I went back to bed and after a leisurely morning drove to the Smocks in Martinsburg, West Virginia. On the way I stopped at a scenic vista that happened to be the site of the Battle of Mononacy. Hoosier general Lew Wallace, who later wrote “Ben-Hur” and has a Gary school named for him, held off a superior rebel force long enough to save Washington, DC, from attack.
After catching up on recent doings and drinking Sam Adams with Ray and Phyllis on their deck and, we dined at a Mexican Restaurant and then watched “War Horse,” commenting wittily during corny scenes. Next morning Phyllis made scrambled eggs, sausages, and grits, and we joked about how Romney tried to win over Mississippians by claiming to like cheesy grits. I looked through Ray’s extensive book collection and noticed photographs on the wall of him with Senator Robert Byrd and other dignitaries as well as one of the two of us at the 1969 antiwar Moratorium rally. I wish we lived closer to each other.
My GPS route took me within a couple blocks of the Harpers Ferry National Park. I got in free with my lifetime senior citizen pass. At the restored town was the engine house where abolitionist John Brown fought it out with U.S. troops. Located where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers come together, Harpers Ferry was important not only because of the armory that John Brown tried to seize but as an early transportation route and area of early industry. Two songs come to mind whenever If think of John Brown, the ditty by r and b pioneer Huey “Piano” Smith and this more famous one that inspired the Union cause: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,/ But his soul goes marching on.”
Around two I arrived at nephew Aaron Pickert’s house in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Three dogs greeted me and then brother-in-law Steve, or Doc, as everyone calls him. Nephew Kyle and his girlfriend Palma had arrived the night before and daughter-in-law Beth arrived shortly after I did from Virginia. She and Aaron are both into Game of Thrones, so they had a fine time trading theories. Beth hadn’t seen 23 year-old Kyle since he was a kid and loved holding Aaron and Kim’s 17 month-old son Nic (Nicodemos), a sweetheart with very observant eyes. Since he says “da” for yes, Steve bragged that he spoke Russian. In his walker he pushed a device that played music and got a kick watching me dance a jig, a routine we repeated several times. Kim and Aaron designed their house themselves, which has a library on two levels and a geothermal heating and cooling system involving pipes set eight feet below the ground. Steve treated at Cozy’s, a buffet place that houses a small Camp David museum illustrating the presidential retreat located nearby. Aaron was an engineering major at my alma mater Bucknell, and Steve told a joke about a baker, shoemaker and engineer sentenced during the French Revolution to be guillotined. The first two were spared when the guillotine stopped an inch from their neck. Just before the guillotine was about to descend on the engineer, he said, “Wait, I think I see the problem.” Aaron, a gamer like me, taught us Fluxx, Unspeakable Words, and Chairman Mao.
All too soon it was time to head to the airport. Normally the route would have been busy, but on Easter morning the traffic was almost nonexistent. I had a couple hours to read chapters on Reagan and Clinton in William H. Chafee’s “The Rise and Fall of the American Century.” Ronnie had astute advisers his first term but stumbled after they left. Truly asleep at the wheel, he didn’t even know the names of some cabinet members and failed to prep for a summit with the Russians because “The Sound of Music” was on TV the night before. Chafee thinks Bill leaned too much on Hillary’s advice at times when his infidelities caused him to be too timid about crossing her.
Back at the Highland parking lot at 3:20, I ran into Donn Gobbe, excited about having been with all nine tennis players who started the women’s professional tennis circuit 30 years ago. He had already interviewed Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals, and a few others, but others he was interacting with for the first time. Home in time for the end of the Masters, won on the second playoff hole by the guy I was rooting for (Tiger being out of it), Bubba Watson, a down-to-earth long shot.
Alan Barr’s Monday movie was “Ju Lou,” a 22 year-old Chinese film set in the 1920s about a woman purchased by a cruel cloth dyer who has an affair with her husband’s adapted nephew. Originally banned in China, it was that country’s first film nominated for an Academy Award.
On April 9, 1865, the Civil War ended. Sergeant Samuel A. Clear of the Irish brigade wrote in his diary: “At 3 P. P. an order was read to the effect that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered. When we knew it to be a sure thing what a loud, long, glorious shout went up. Then the first thing I knew I was rolling in the mud and several Company K boys piled on top and wallowed me in the mud and themselves too pulled one another about. Such confusion and carrying on was never seen in so short a time. Then the artillery . . . belched forth the glad tidings. . . . It was one continual roar for miles and miles.”
Ozzie Guillen, who frequently said provocative things while managing the White Sox, is in trouble now that he’s the Marlins skipper for saying he admires Cuban leader Fidel Castro for staying in power so longer despite CIA attempts to assassinate him and America’s longstanding embargo, among other harassments. The marlins new stadium is in the middle of Little Havana, where 600,000 Cubans live supposedly in exile and one group that is always ready at the drop of a hat to protest vowed to have 20,000 demonstrators demanding punitive action against Guillen. So much for free speech. Suspended without pay for five games by the owner, Guillen has apologized. Most sports jocks have piled on poor Ozzie except for The SCORE’s Boers and Bernstein, who see it as a tempest in a teapot. On the Mully and Hanley show a caller pointed out that the old regime was both dictatorial and racist and that Castro provided schooling and health care for everyone. Some yahoo called in to brand him a moron.