The Nickel Shot

Today was history day. We visited Thomas Jefferson’s mountain plantation, Monticello in Charlottesville. Pictured is the “Nickel Shot”, as seen on the back of old nickels. I did this tour fifty years ago and it seems different. After the house tour, which seemed about the same, we did the slave tour which I think is much newer. Jefferson throughout his life owned over six hundred people. He may have advocated abolition, but he was also a practicing slaveholder.

Then there was the Sally Hemings, his slave who had a number of his children. DNA testing now confirm that her offspring are part of the Jefferson family. Disclosures like these tend to cast shade on his notable achievements. We ate lunch there too.

Next stop was downtown Charlottesville. They have a pedestrian mall that we toured until thunderstorms chased us back to the car. We headed back towards the hotel and then crashed head-on into a Harry Potter festival. I felt like such a muggle there. We watched a quidditch game and almost had to use a port-a-Potter, while waiting for our table. After dinner it took us three tries to escape from the festival, because of blocked off streets, but we made it.

Angels in America, Part Deux

Angel of the Bethesda Fountain

We attended the second part of Angels in America, Perestroika. The action picks up where the first half ended. It is the 1985. Gorbachev is attempting to reform the USSR through an economic restructuring or perestroika. The aids epidemic is raging, with only one ray of hope on the horizon, a new miracle drug, AZT. While the first half of the play, basically setup the plot and introduced the characters, the focus of this second half is the death of Roy Cohn.

The play’s one historical character is vilified by all and does everything he can to justify that vilification. Using his political connections, he appeals to Nancy Reagan and acquires his own private stash of AZT, hoarding for himself enough medicine to treat eighty aids patients of this very rare and much sought after drug. It is all to no avail though, because while AZT was effective with some patients, it does not staunch the advancement of Cohn’s “liver cancer”.

Near the end, in combination with the morphine drip that he takes to ease his pain, visitations from the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg become more frequent. Cohn was the Federal prosecutor who secured the convictions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and insured their execution, even going so far as judge tampering. One time he asks her to sing him asleep. While reluctant, she eventually complies and sings a Jewish lullaby. Finishing, she becomes concerned that she sang him more than just to sleep, only to be startled when he gleefully gloats, “I finally made Ethel Rosenberg sing!”

During intermission, I spoke to a man whose father was investigated by Roy Cohn. After the Rosenbergs, Cohn joined Senator Joe McCarthy and his un-American activities subcommittee and became his chief deputy. McCarthy’s witch hunt, to turn a phrase, was ruthless in its search for communists, first in government, but then McCarthy turned his fire on the US Army. This led to a confrontation with Joe Walsh, an attorney hired by the Army. After McCarthy launched a particularly brutal attack on a young soldier, Walsh famously asked, “Have you no sense of decency?” The man who I spoke with, his father had been in the Army. He had been serving at Los Alamos, when called before the un-American activities committee. I asked the man what had happened to his father. “Not much, he was transferred to Fort Leonard Wood,” here in Missouri.

That confrontation with Walsh marked the end of both McCarthy and Cohn’s political careers. Cohn returned to NYC and private practice, where for thirty years he hobnobbed with the rich, while doing their dirty work too. One up and coming lad who Cohn helped out and who was later described as what Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn’s love child would look like, was Donald Trump. It has been an interesting week, what with scandal erupting into impeachment proceedings. In conjunction with this play, I am reminded of the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The play ends in 1989. The Berlin Wall has fallen and the Soviet Union is no more. With the help of Cohn’s cache of AZT, Prior is still living with AIDS after five years. The play ends at the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, where Prior promises that the great work begun will continue. 

Point Arena Lighthouse

Point Arena Lighthouse

About a hundred miles north of San Francisco is Point Arena and its lighthouse. The current lighthouse was built after the previous one was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. Point Arena is along the same San Andreas fault as San Francisco. A keeper was on duty at the time of the quake and he reported that the lighthouse first swung twelve feet one-way and then twelve feet back the other way. The keeper survived the quake with only minor scrapes.

The reason for his survival was the steel spiral staircase that bended, but did not break during the quake. The original lighthouse had to be rebuilt, but the stairs were reusable. We toured the lighthouse and its top is now an empty room. At the time there was huge Fresnel up there that is now on display in the museum. The lens turned, because it rode on a table that was floating in a vat of mercury. All that weight at the top makes the lightkeepers survival even more amazing.

I bicycled in the park today. I was hardly quicksilver fast. I think that I was passed by about half-a-dozen other cyclists. Still, I was out there on the bike.

Driving Me Crazy

1937 Packard Goddess of Speed Hood Ornament

Buckle-up, Buttercup! Someone just flicked on the bitch switch. Yesterday, when we were driving home from the environs of Motor City we shook-up our usual auditory literary selection and instead of listening to a “book on tape”, we listened to a selection of New Yorker magazine articles that digitally come both written and read. One of the articles seemed particularly apropos for road-tripping, Nathan Heller’s Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake? Heller, a lifelong non-driver, gave a brief history of automobiles in America and then went on to sepeculate on the future of automotive travel.

Interestingly, the introduction of the auto featured a battle between gas powered and electric vehicles. Even though early electric out-performed early gas in both performance and range, gas won out, because it was cheaper than electric. Low cost allowed gas powered cars to be sold as personal vehicles. The marketing plan for electric cars relied upon a ride-sharing model to mitigate its higher cost. Heller recounts America’s love affair with the automobile from the Roaring 20s to the 60s of the Beach Boys. But all good things come to an end. Ralph Nader pointed out that our cars were trying to kill us. High oil prices ushered in cheap foreign imports. An invasion that Detroit has never learned to stem.

Now ride-sharing and electric cars are back and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon. Pundits predict that when the robot revolution hits the open road, America will see as great a change as the initial introduction of the automobile first wrought. Except the robots are already here. Our phones tell us where to go. Even as we were yesterday, traveling a route that we have followed dozens of times, our phones guided us around traffic jams and construction detours. If we buy a new car, we’ll likely opt for a safety package. These packages now only assist a driver, with a gentle tug on the wheel, if you start to stray from your lane. Some even provide emergency braking if an accident is imminent. How much longer will it take before cars can drive themselves?

Throughout yesterday’s drive semis dominated the weekday rural interstate traffic and I longingly dreamed of un-employing these modern day cowboys. Come the robot revolution, over-the-road truckers look as competitive as buggy whip makers. A robot doesn’t need to sleep and once purchased costs less than a man does. I shall not mourn their passing.