Scottish Independence

Today is the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, in which a delegation of Scottish nobles asked Pope John XXII to recognize their nation’s independence from England and lift the excommunication of their king, Robert the Bruce (1274-1329). The Bruce had defeated the English at Bannockburn six years earlier and continued to successfully resist their efforts to subjugate his country. Despite a long history of invasion, the noblemen asserted, “our nation of Scots . . . could be conquered by no one anywhere,” and has maintained itself “free from all slavery,” ruled by a succession of 113 Scottish kings “without interruption by foreigners.”

The letter, written in Latin, urged Rome to persuade England’s King Edward II to abandon the brutal war against Scotland begun by his father, Edward I or “Longshanks,” more than 20 years earlier. This First War of Scottish Independence produced the brilliant leader Sir William Wallace (c. 1270-1305), immortalized in the 1995 Oscar-winning film Braveheart. After Edward II’s death in 1327, the Pope finally relented and convinced the new King Edward III to sign the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328, renouncing all claims to Scotland. The excommunication of King Robert I was lifted eight months later.

Scotland had plans to commemorate this auspicious historical event with speeches, parades, and a large march from Arbroath Abbey where the document was signed to Arbroath Harbour where it boarded a ship to the continent. But all of this has been postponed until next year (now called Arbroath 2020 + 1) because of the COVID-19 pandemic now sweeping across the world. The occasion is not forgotten, however, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of the ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) and other leaders are calling national attention to the radio programs and numerous educational activities accessible online.

The irony of celebrating Scotland’s 1320 Declaration of Independence this year is that Scotland has not been an independent country for more than three hundred years. That freedom was forfeited in the highly unpopular Union with England Act of 1707. Like their ancestors who swore allegiance to Edward I four centuries earlier, the forty aristocrats who signed their names to that document chose to give away their nation’s political sovereignty in exchange for economic aid and military protection. In 1791, the poet Robert Burns wrote scornfully, “We’re bought and sold for English gold – such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”

Why would an American care about this story? In my case, it is more than a lifelong interest in history. The Irish ancestors on my father’s side and the Scottish ones on my mother’s both saw England as the enemy. The Scots-Irish Deanes and Laugherys fought the redcoats in the Revolution and the Feeneys and Lynches were driven out of Mother Erin by British landlords who let them starve during the Great Hunger. This dim view of Anglo-Celtic relations has been long reinforced in literature and film, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Kidnapped to movies like Braveheart, Rob Roy, Michael Collins, The Devil’s Own, Outlaw King, and the recent popular television series Outlander.

When I took the time to do research, however, I discovered that my family history is more complicated. I was surprised to learn that I am as English as I am Irish or Scottish. My maternal grandfather was born in London to a mother from Sussex. When I visited London in December of 2003 I felt as great a connection to the place as I had in Ireland three years earlier. The Feeneys changed their surname to the Anglicized “Finney” in America, and the original Laugherys (Lochries) were invited to leave Lanarkshire to settle confiscated Catholic lands in Ulster because they were English-speaking Protestants loyal to the British king.

These complexities are also reflected in the history of Scotland. Ancient Pictish tribes managed to resist Roman invasion but were later overwhelmed by Vikings from Scandinavia, Normans and Anglo-Saxons from England, and Gaels from Ulster. There are historic Scottish families from all these bloodlines and more. Scottish unity was always difficult to achieve. Like the Native American tribes, the clans were vulnerable to a strategy of divide and conquer. There were as many Scots in the government army at Culloden in 1746, for example, as there were in the Jacobite forces of “Bonnie Prince Charlie.”

The same holds true today. In September of 2014, the SNP’s historic independence referendum was defeated by a margin of 5%. I stayed up all night watching the BBC election returns, hoping for a triumph of the “Yes” vote, and was crestfallen to hear the final result. My sentiments were shared by millions of others in the “Scottish diaspora” around the world. The damning lyrics of “dear auld Rabbie” returned with a vengeance. Were those 5% the new “parcel of rogues?” The Queen and Parliament had both given their assent to the legality of the election. Why would the Scots choose to throw away the opportunity to regain their freedom?

I realize the big picture is hard to grasp for an outsider. I can see some parallels between Scotland and California, where I have lived for four decades. Scottish oil, agriculture, manufacturing, and research provide a significant portion of the United Kingdom’s annual Gross Domestic Product, much as California does for the United States. Both places have multicultural societies and a large military presence. Since devolution in 1998, the Scottish Parliament has managed most of its own domestic affairs, as the government in Sacramento oversees the fifth largest economy on earth. There are inextricable familial and business ties across the border in both places. To many, complete separation is inconceivable.

Or is it? The SNP spent many years building the case for independence before placing it on the ballot, and Westminster did not give its approval lightly. Support for a second referendum has grown in the last six years, particularly in the wake of “Brexit,” which was opposed in 2016 by two-thirds of Scottish voters. Sturgeon and others have pointed to the issue of membership in the European Union as a key reason why many voted in 2014 to remain in the UK. The passionate speeches given in London by Scottish MPs in the past several years have reminded me of those given by our Founding Fathers in the Continental Congress.

Just before contracting the coronavirus himself a couple weeks ago, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson officially rejected Scotland’s request for another independence vote, citing the SNP’s promise that the first would be a “once in a generation” effort. Yet Scotland’s desire to chart its own course has not waned. EU leaders have refused to get involved in what they call “an inner British process,” but there are many across Europe who have expressed support for the idea of Scottish independence. The current pandemic has tabled much of the official discussions in Edinburgh in the interest of public health. But the issue will not go away.

Much of the “No” vote in 2014 came from an older electorate with long political and economic ties to the rest of the UK. Issues of taxation, investment, and retirement pensions were on the minds of many. Younger voters (the minimum age for the franchise in Scotland is 16) overwhelmingly supported independence and continue to join the SNP in large numbers. The past six years have seen proposals about Scotland’s ability to sustain its own economy without the umbrella of the government and banks in London become more viable. Millions of Scottish descendants around the world still look forward to the establishment of a free ancestral homeland.

Despite political disagreements and complex economic considerations, the right to self-determination remains. The people of Scotland will decide their own destiny, and their cousins across the globe will support them. Perhaps the 700th anniversary in 2028 of the treaty signed by Edward III will prove a more timely moment. In the end, the stirring words of the Arbroath signatories will not be silenced. These are emblazoned on the monument near the historic abbey: “We do not fight for honour, riches, or glory, but solely for freedom which no true man gives up but with his life.”

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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The New Rationing

My maternal grandmother passed away at 63 shortly after I turned thirteen. I was sad to lose my favorite grandparent at such a young age. I missed her at my high school graduation, but she did not leave me empty-handed. Along with fond memories of visiting her ranch in Blanco, Texas and seeing her at the holidays, I was given her grandfather’s veteran medals from the Civil War as well as many stories from her remarkable life. These included riding across the country in a “rumble seat,” adventures as a “flapper” in the 1920s, and making ends meet as a single mother in the Great Depression.

My maternal grandmother in her thirties during World War II. Her flat-soled work shoes are indicative of the larger role women played in the wartime economy. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

Then there was World War II. While her husband was serving with the U.S. Coast Guard on an LST in the Pacific, she worked as a secretary at Esso in New Jersey. “There were no teenagers then,” she told me when I turned 13. “Everyone did their part. The kids your age collected things for the war effort.” This included scrap metal for planes, ships, and tanks; rubber for tires and canteens; silk stockings for parachutes; and canned goods. Dairy products, meat, and gasoline were rationed with the use of stamps and stickers. Like many other Americans, my grandmother grew a “Victory Garden” to boost morale and help lower agricultural prices for the War Department.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is being described by many in the media as the most dire global emergency since the Second World War. There are indeed many parallels. We now face a merciless and relentless enemy. The death toll is running in the tens of thousands, and may reach into the millions if left unchecked. Those in uniform are again risking their lives on the front lines, this time wearing medical scrubs rather than helmets and fatigues. Ventilators and N95 respirator masks have replaced M1 carbines, Browning Automatic Rifles, and “Tommy guns” as the weapons of choice on the ground. Entire economies and populations are under threat.

As in World War II, there are limited quantities of vital food and supplies. But unlike then, the shortages have not been imposed by the government. Likewise, freedom of speech is not being curtailed. No one has been arrested for sedition or espionage. So far, the only restrictions decreed by elected officials are those on freedom of movement and association. Yes, millions have been laid off from their jobs, and industries such as hospitality, travel, and tourism have taken a big hit. But there is still plenty of food being produced on American farms and sold by American grocers.

Then why can’t anyone seem to find things like pasta, couscous, tomato sauce, cheese, boxed cereal, bread, canned beans, and especially toilet paper? True, one can decide to wear a face mask and wait in line at the local supermarket, and many restaurants are still open for takeout and curbside pickup. But what about the people with food allergies, hypertension, diabetes, or other health issues which require special dietary considerations? A large number of these individuals are elderly or disabled and particularly vulnerable to the devastating effects of COVID-19. Government officials are pleading with them to stay home during quarantine. Then how are they to eat?

Online food suppliers are swamped with orders. Local farmers are now overwhelmed where they were once struggling to compete with big grocery chains only weeks ago. Hoarders scrambling to stock up have depleted both stores and warehouses. Some small town and rural jurisdictions without large numbers of coronavirus cases have been slow in sharing their medical supplies with hard-hit urban communities. The President has revived the 1950 Defense Production Act but has been reluctant to invoke its full power by overriding state governors and commandeering state resources.

In a country long seen as the wealthiest on earth, it seems inconceivable that so many Americans cannot get what they need in this unprecedented health crisis. The hesitation of government officials to take more control of production and distribution of needed supplies is equally incredulous. The uneven application of self-isolation and hygienic guidelines threatens to prolong the pandemic and move the economy closer to collapse. With a national mortality rate of 2%, this new virus has the potential to kill millions. Millions more may face the dangers of malnutrition, domestic violence, homelessness, and despair.

So what can be done? As a student of history, my best answer is always to learn from the past. America won the Second World War through teamwork. Millions of young men answered the call to arms and risked their lives to achieve military victory. Millions more joined young women in building the “Arsenal of Democracy” in wartime production jobs. Children collected needed materials from their neighborhoods. Clergy preached cooperation and sacrifice from their pulpits. The government punished price-gouging and hoarding. Film studios produced morale-boosting propaganda. Celebrities toured the country on war bond drives.

Some countries such as Denmark have been able to contain COVID-19 in a matter of weeks. Granted, the United States is a much larger nation with a federal system that divides power between national and state government. But we have the laws and industry in place to get the job done. All we need is the proper leadership to use them. The President has authorized the military to share needed medical facilities, and Congress has passed the largest financial relief package in American history. Now it is time to exercise the management of distribution that made us a world superpower.

I do not advocate draconian measures here. We are, after all, the oldest living democratic government on earth, and I for one want us to stay that way. But we also have a right to expect our elected officials to fulfill the promises that won them our vote. Americans of all political persuasions need to eat, and Americans of all backgrounds need proper medical care if they fall ill. People are willing to go without if they know they are doing so for a larger goal. We have already embraced “social distancing” in order to ride out this collective threat. We now need the government to go the distance to keep us well supplied at home.

My background is in history, not public policy. But I did teach economics for enough years to know the difference between scarcity and negligence. If we are to stay inside, then we need to be able to order what we need and anticipate its timely delivery. Americans will wait to “return to normal” if we know we do not have to worry about scrounging together our next meal. This is especially true of those of us over 55 who are not working in essential services. We need the government’s help as much as we did after Pearl Harbor. The more efficacious that intervention, the better the long term result for public health and prosperity.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Distance Learning

The current COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented quarantine guidelines across America and the world. Restaurants and stores have moved to “curbside pickup” only. Live music venues have shut down. Millions have been laid off from their jobs; others are working from home. “Social distancing” has created new online communities. Parades, festivals, religious services, and family gatherings have been restricted. The 2020 Olympics were postponed to next year. Many schools have decided to remain closed until the fall, when the decision to reopen for classes will be reevaluated. Graduation ceremonies have been cancelled.

This last casualty is particularly painful and frustrating for high school and college seniors, eager to get together and receive recognition for four years of hard work. There will be no group photos this year, no Student of the Year Awards in the auditorium, no jubilant crowds in the stadium, no Grad Night at Disneyland. Graduates will have to settle for remote online ceremonies and parties. The only handshakes and hugs will come from “quarantine buddies,” the people with whom they have been sharing their confinement. Life has taken a turn for the surreal. “Pomp and Circumstance” has been replaced by something that feels like house arrest.

This has to be demoralizing and disappointing. I remember my high school, college, and seminary graduations fondly, and the thought of having missed them all is heartbreaking. I think back to May 1985, when I was unable to attend my M.A. commencement in Boston because I finished my coursework early and returned home to California. I tried not to look at pictures of my classmates in their caps and gowns, smiling and embracing each other and their loved ones. There is something very gratifying about receiving public recognition for a job well done. While some students miss their graduation through choice or circumstance, the vast majority look forward to participating.

For every student still in school, the structure of learning has changed. Those confined at home with supportive parents and the latest technology have largely adjusted to the new reality. For them, the sudden shift to “distance learning” is not a show stopper. These parents are helping students stay connected to their teachers and assignments. Curriculum materials are being gathered and distributed in digital classrooms. Advanced Placement and Honors students in particular remain motivated. Testing continues and college application procedures remain in place.

But what about the large numbers of kids who are economically disadvantaged or without a supportive home environment? Up to three million of the 76 million students enrolled in American schools have no internet access at home, and one in five lacks a reliable connection. Some districts have undertaken bold new measures to mitigate this problem. One has equipped their school buses with routers and offered free WiFi to parents who will park next to the bus and allow their children to work on their laptops in the passenger seat. But even creative solutions like this will not reach everyone.

I am reminded of the state of public education a century ago. In 1920, all of the then 48 states required children to complete elementary school, but many did not go beyond the sixth grade. Half of them attended drafty, one-room schoolhouses in isolated, rural areas. Racial segregation was the law in the South and the de facto reality everywhere else. Girls were required to wear skirts and excluded from advanced science and mathematics classes. Immigrant and minority children often went without books and supplies. Teachers were underpaid and underrepresented. Public funding was inadequate.

The reforms of the New Deal, Civil Rights Movement, and Great Society periods did much to improve education for the disadvantaged, ending segregation and increasing access to proper facilities and materials. Secondary school enrollment grew dramatically in the postwar years and high school graduation rates steadily increased. The affirmative action and scholarship programs of the 1970s led to greater minority enrollment in colleges and universities. By the end of the 20th century, students of all backgrounds were receiving a quality public education in many parts of the country.

Inequality remained, however, as the test results of the No Child Left Behind period (2001-2014) revealed. Mastery of state content standards was spotty, leading many parents to question how their tax dollars were being used by public school districts. Low test scores led to a “blame game” of increasing stridency. Some parents and politicians scapegoated “incompetent” teachers and “corrupt” unions and called for school vouchers to allow for greater choice in enrollment. Private and charter schools grew. Numbers of students in large public school districts dropped dramatically.

This was the state of things when COVID-19 hit. As a storm exposes holes in a ship and an earthquake tests a building’s structural integrity, social disruptions and calamities rearrange human societal patterns. War, disease, and natural disaster throw order into chaos. Recent studies of the effects of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on schoolchildren indicate that it took years for most of them to recover from lost instruction and emotional trauma. Some school districts hit by these kinds of events never recover. Like the people most endangered by the new coronavirus, many are already in a state of compromised health.

So what are these “pre-existing conditions” that leave so many school districts vulnerable to attack? The horrific school shootings of the last two decades exposed weaknesses in physical security procedures, but other systemic imperfections only reveal themselves when the buildings are empty. Such are the circumstances in which we find ourselves today. Are tax dollars being wisely spent by school boards? Are teachers being properly trained in credential and continuing education programs? Are all students receiving proper curriculum and supplies? Is the educational system really educating people?

I can only speak from my own experience. Of the thousands of students I taught over my two decades in the classroom, I had many who were motivated, interested, and disciplined in their study habits. Some came to me that way and others developed under my tutelage. But I also had many I was unable to reach for a variety of reasons. Some were not eating properly or working long hours outside of school and were too exhausted to pay attention in class. Others had personal troubles that distracted them or special needs that made it hard to keep up. Still others did not care for my personality or instructional style. No teacher can have a 100% success rate.

Many traditional indigenous cultures educate the young through individual apprenticeship, storytelling in a circle, and group games and other activities. I used each of these techniques liberally during my career. Socratic seminars, tutoring, team projects, role play, and field trips all helped expand the reach and impact of my instruction. But I still spent most of my time standing in front of students seated before me in rows of desks. I spoke and they listened. And I know I was not alone in this model. In fact, I was more “experimental” than most in my teaching methodology. Yet in spite of these efforts, I still had students who “fell through the cracks.”

Perhaps there is a silver lining in the current reality of “distance learning.” For what, in truth, are students “distanced” from? Their friends and teachers? Their curriculum materials? Their clubs and other extra-curricular activities? All of these can be accessed through their smartphones or district-issued laptops. They are not distanced from their parents and guardians in quarantine. These are their main teachers now. The model of caregivers working with individual tutors is an old one. It was once the exclusive purview of the rich. Maybe the time has come to offer this resource to everyone.

Granted, parents will eventually have to return to work, and children will need care and supervision. But is an overcrowded campus the best solution to this problem? Research has shown that smaller groups foster greater learning. Would it really be that difficult for school districts to reallocate limited resources from buildings and parking lots to routers and updated digital classrooms? The teaching profession has proven itself to be resilient. Many teachers today are making the leap to remote instruction successfully. Those who are not need to catch up, as I did during my last four years in the classroom, or join me in retirement.

I dedicated most of my adult life to public education and still believe in the concept. But the current circumstances demand new implementation. We live in an increasingly crowded and interconnected world. Climate change and a growing population have reordered our physical environment. We can no longer afford to cling to old models of consumption, citizenship, and community. People are moving toward green energy and increased global cooperation. The structure of social gatherings, including school, must remain flexible. The younger generations are calling for new models of living and learning. It is time to listen to them.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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April is Scottish American Heritage Month

The Scots were one of the original ethnic groups to settle British North America. King James I of England, also James VI of Scotland, was the first British monarch to establish permanent colonies in what later became the United States. A few years prior to the founding of the Jamestown colony in Virginia, his government encouraged thousands of Presbyterian Lowland Scots to settle confiscated Catholic lands in northern Ireland. These people became known as Ulster Scots or Scots-Irish (Scotch-Irish) and later moved to the American colonies in great numbers, both as free settlers and indentured servants.

Many settled on the frontier throughout the 18th century. Their cultural traditions helped to shape Appalachian culture, including their long rifles, log cabins, homemade distilleries, quilt making and other crafts, cooking and medicinal recipes, music, dancing, and storytelling. They were joined by thousands of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders in the wake of the failed 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. From western Pennsylvania to the Great Smoky Mountains, names such as MacDonald, Cameron, Murray, and Stewart filled the landscape. Settlements called Aberdeen, Dundee, Inverness, Glencoe, Edinburgh, and Glasgow spread westward.

Hatred of the English crown was widespread among many of these fiercely independent settlers. While some remained loyal to King George III, most of them signed up to fight the redcoats when the colonies rose in revolt. At the Battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina on October 7, 1780, they shot down more than four hundred Loyalist militiamen and their commanding officer, British Major Patrick Ferguson (who was, ironically, born in Scotland). After the war, Scots-Irish pioneers crossed the Appalachians to settle the new states of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

Their descendants filled the rolls of American political and literary fame. Writers Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Margaret Mitchell, and William Faulkner all came from Scottish or Scots-Irish roots. So did Alexander Hamilton and U.S. Presidents Monroe, Jackson, Polk, Johnson (Andrew and Lyndon), Grant, Hayes, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison (William and Benjamin), McKinley, Roosevelt (Theodore), Taft, Wilson, Harding, Truman, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush (George H. W. and George W.), Clinton, and Obama. Current President Donald Trump’s mother was born Mary Anne MacLeod on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides.

Scottish Americans participated on both sides of the Civil War. Generals Grant, McClellan, and McPherson fought for the Union against Scots-Irish Confederates like “Stonewall” Jackson, J.E.B. Stuart, and Jefferson Davis. Over the next century, American Scots led the way in scientific and technological development. These included industrialist Andrew Carnegie, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, the founders of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper, and astronauts Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates comes from Scottish ancestry on his mother’s side.

One in ten Americans today can claim Scottish ancestry, either directly from Scotland or from the Scots-Irish settlements in northern Ireland. Many of the latter group wear orange rather than green on St. Patrick’s Day to commemorate their ancestors’ loyalty to King William III and the Protestant succession in Britain. In 1999, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution recognizing April 6 as Tartan Day in honor of the anniversary of the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath. Coupled with the anniversary of the Battle of Culloden on the 16th, the month of April was set aside in many communities across the country as Scottish American Heritage Month.

I discovered Scottish ancestors on my mother’s side when I began compiling a genealogy scrapbook in the 1990s. My grandmother’s maternal grandfather, James Allen Davis (1856-1894), after whom I named my American Civil War correspondent impression, was descended from Clan Davidson in the region of Inverness, Scotland. His wife, my great-great-grandmother Sarah Margaret Laughery (1862-1947), was also related to Clan Davidson through her mother, Mary Deane. The surname Laughery was Loughrea in Galway, Ireland and Lochrie in Lanarkshire, Scotland, where the family was a sept of Clan Douglas.

I spent the next decade learning more about Scottish history and attending several large cultural events throughout California, including the Caledonian Club of San Francisco’s Scottish Highland Gathering and Games at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton and similar festivals at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona and aboard the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach. I went to a Celtic New Year celebration in Reno, Nevada in early November 1995 and participated in smaller events in Oakland, Irvine, and Roseville, California, where I joined my first reenacting group in 1996.

Each of these events offered stimulating historical exhibits and featured bagpipe bands and other traditional music as well as a number of vendors selling everything from family tartan ties and scarves to Celtic knotwork jewelry and leather goods. Many of the Scottish clan societies had tents there with information on family history and historical travel. The Grandfather Mountain Highland Games have been held in a spectacular mountain setting near Linville, North Carolina for the past 65 years and remain one of the largest Scottish gatherings in North America.

Many local communities across the United States continue to celebrate Scottish cultural holidays, including Burns Night on January 25, St. Andrew’s Day on November 30, and Hogmanay on New Year’s Eve. They also support efforts to keep the Scottish Gaelic language alive as well as traditional arts and music. As an American who celebrates Scottish ancestry, I applauded the independence referendum launched by the Scottish National Party in 2014. Its narrow defeat and the unpopularity of “Brexit” only served to increase the SNP’s membership and renew the hopes of Scots around the world for an independent ancestral homeland.

Scottish American Heritage Month offers many exciting activities for the classroom. From the colorful tartans and clan histories to the stirring music of the pipes and drums, Scottish culture can be both attractive and educational for your students. The kilted Highlander and Scottish terrier are still used as school mascots across the United States. Exploring the Scottish roots of bluegrass, country, and other forms of American music can provide entertaining and engaging lessons. Legendary castles, cathedrals, standing stones, and films and television programs set in Scotland continue to gather fans today.

Introduce your students to the rich culture and history of Scotland and the traditions Scottish immigrants brought to America. Your efforts will produce rewarding results, not only for those students who have Scottish roots, but for everyone who appreciates good music and dancing, tasty food, stylish fashion, kinship and hospitality, beautiful artwork, storytelling, and a deep and abiding connection to the land. The Scots share these values with many of the other cultures that came to America in search of a better life. Celebrate those values in your classroom this month.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Learning From Pandemics

We are now three months into the worst global health crisis in a century. The rapid spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus has wreaked more havoc than any outbreak of disease since the H1N1 “Spanish Flu” pandemic of 1918. That virus infected a third of the world’s population and killed up to 50 million people. More Americans died in a year than were lost in the four years of the Civil War. And there was no way to stop it. The electron microscopes needed to even see and identify the virus were still a decade away. People used masks and homemade elixirs to attempt to stem the inexorable and pitiless spread of an invisible and lethal enemy.

Many doctors and scientists at that time recommended isolation, what has become known now as “social distancing.” But in 1918, thousands still gathered at war bond rallies and parades to send off new recruits to the final campaigns of the Great War. The soldiers boarded tightly packed transport ships, where the deadly virus spread quickly through the ranks. When they disembarked in France and marched to the front, they infected their comrades, allies, and enemies. Although there is evidence that the disease first appeared in an army camp in Kansas, by the fall it had been named the “Spanish flu” because neutral Spain was the first to publicize its terrible effects.

Much has changed in the last hundred years. We now have advanced research and medical facilities, antibiotics, the internet, international health organizations, and anti-viral vaccines. But vaccines still cannot kill a virus, and can only retard rather than stop its spread. New diseases remain as mysterious and frightening now as they were a century ago. Although our understanding of virology has improved, the world has become a much smaller place. People regularly cross international borders in greater proportions than at any other time in history. What affects one quickly affects all.

Pandemics are nothing new. I remember well the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Just like today, the first diagnoses were followed by public denial, paranoia, procrastination, scapegoating, and lack of proper coordination between governmental and medical authorities. I was in seminary at the time and had LGBT classmates who came out publicly to their respective synods. They were among millions outraged by the seeming indifference of the administration in Washington and the public perception that AIDS was only a “gay disease.” When IV drug users, hemophiliac children, and celebrities became sick, the general public started to pay attention.

More than a million Americans today still have HIV, and AIDS has killed as many in this country over the past three decades as the “Spanish Flu” did in its brutal year. COVID-19 has the same infectious potential. With a nationwide mortality rate of 2%, that could mean deaths in the millions. California alone could lose tens of thousands. Yet politicians still squabble and bargain, ever mindful of Election Day in November. Hospitals are begging for help. Many people are ignoring public quarantine guidelines and continue to gather in groups. Hoarding at grocery stores and online has threatened the supply of food and household goods.

As in all times of crisis throughout history, prejudice has again reared its ugly head. Because COVID-19 was first diagnosed in Wuhan in China’s Hubei Province, many Americans have taken to calling it the “Chinese virus.” This has led to anti-Asian hostility on a scale not seen since the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. Anyone who coughs in public immediately becomes the target of scorn or abuse. Many young people assume they are invulnerable to the worst symptoms and have not restricted their movements, further endangering those whose age or compromised health place them at the greatest risk.

The city where I live has been hit particularly hard by this sudden emergency. San Diego loves to get together, as evidenced by the thousands of restaurants and bars that are typically filled to capacity and the holiday celebrations and tourist destinations that attract up to 35 million visitors a year. The multitudes I witnessed at St. Patrick’s Day and December Nights in Balboa Park, Cinco de Mayo and Day of the Dead in Old Town, and during the weekend of Comic-Con have vanished. The vibrant live music scene across town has shut down. Hundreds of thousands are out of work. Many popular restaurants and breweries have closed and others display signs like the one below.

One of the many effects of the COVID-19 quarantine here in San Diego. Photo Copyright (c) 2020 Jill Forbath.

The last time I remember a time like this was immediately after the 9-11 attacks in 2001. Like then, I am seeing evidence of both the worst and best of humanity. The tardiness and vacillation of the politicians and the avarice and gluttony of the hoarders is matched by the creativity and compassion of many people of good will. Musicians are performing on social media for their fans. Neighbors are waving and smiling at each other from a safe distance. Loved ones are enjoying their time together. The separated are reassuring one another with positive emails, text messages, and posts. Parents are home schooling. Teachers and professors are educating online.

Some industries are doing remarkably well during this surreal paradigm shift. Delivery trucks are everywhere. Amazon and other online suppliers are hiring hundreds of thousands of new workers. Local farms cannot keep up with demand from those consumers trying to avoid mainstream supermarkets. Technical firms and other companies are successfully adapting to a remote model. Large manufacturing corporations are retooling their factories to produce much needed medical supplies. The President has invoked the Defense Production Act to coordinate national efforts, last used by Harry Truman during the Korean War.

As a student of history, I believe the people of the United States and the world are capable of rising above this devastating blow. The tragedy of the 1918 influenza pandemic was followed by the triumphant expansion and expression of the Roaring Twenties, and the sacrifices of the Great Depression and World War II made way for the longest period of economic prosperity in American history. The AIDS epidemic led to increased health education in schools. 9-11 and other acts of senseless violence have brought the country together in a common effort to create safer communities.

The Coronavirus pandemic is not the first such threat to public health and prosperity, and it will not be the last. We are being challenged to muster all our resourcefulness and ingenuity to deal with this moment. In spite of everything, we are stronger than we might think. Staying informed is important, as is our right and ability to think critically. We must be patient, creative, and willing to stretch our comfort zone. Such times test the strength of the human spirit. As long as we are willing to listen, work together and support one another through prayer and service, that spirit will prevail.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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El Camino Real

The Dana Adobe near Nipomo in San Luis Obispo County, California was built by sea captain William Dana in 1839. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and now houses the Dana Cultural Center. I attended a living history event there in 2005.

California is a big place. The Mexicans called it Las Californias before they ceded the northern half (Alta California) to the United States in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and continued to acknowledge the vastness of the southern half by dividing their remaining portion of Baja California into Norte and Sur. The former Alta California was admitted as the 31st State in 1850, encompassing 164,000 square miles and several distinct geographic and cultural regions. The Gold Rush made San Francisco the first major city west of the Mississippi. Today California has 40 million people and the fifth largest economy on earth.

I have lived in California since 1977, minus one year in Kansas, one in Boston, and one in Honolulu. The eight counties I called home over those four decades included Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Cruz, Alameda, Sonoma, Sacramento, Kern, and San Diego. Over those years I traveled extensively through most of the remaining fifty counties and up and down the majority of the major state and federal highways. I have vacationed in many of the national and state parks and visited several historical sites. At this point in my life, I cannot imagine living anywhere else.

While the undisputed geographic backbone of the Golden State is the snow-capped 40,000-square mile range of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it can be argued that the cultural spine is located closer to the Pacific Coast. The 600 miles of El Camino Real, the Royal Highway, connected the network of 21 Spanish Franciscan missions established at the end of the 18th century between San Diego and Sonoma. In 1926 it became the southern part of U.S. Highway 101, which continued past Sonoma up California’s Redwood Coast and into Oregon and Washington.

The California Missions developed large scale agricultural, irrigation, and manufacturing operations using native labor and contributed leather, beef, corn, bricks, iron, and many other products to the Spanish colonial economy. Harsh treatment of the California Indians by the friars remains controversial to this day, and the canonization of Father Junipero Serra (1713-1784) by the Vatican in 2015 sparked protests among Native American groups. The missions were secularized by the Mexican government in 1833 and gradually fell into disrepair until their restoration began in the mid-20th century.

U.S. Highway 101 winds through the scenic hills of the central California coast along the old El Camino Real. I drove this route often over a period of three decades.

Today the missions are popular tourist attractions and visited by thousands of fourth graders every year as part of their California state history project. The road that connects them is part of Interstate 5 from San Diego to Los Angeles, where it veers off through the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County. From there it continues up the scenic California central coast until it reaches San Jose and merges with the Pacific Coast Highway. In San Francisco, Highway 101 crosses the Golden Gate Bridge and continues north through Marin and Sonoma Counties and into the “Emerald Triangle” of Mendocino, Humboldt, and Del Norte Counties.

My first trip up 101 was in the spring of 1979 when my parents drove me up from Orange County to visit the campus of UC Santa Cruz. I went back and forth many times over the next four years, usually stopping in the Camp Roberts rest area and lunching in Santa Barbara. From Santa Cruz I took the Coast Highway to Watsonville and cut across on State Highway 152 to merge onto 101 South at Gilroy and continue south to Salinas. Salinas was the scene of many of the stories of John Steinbeck (1902-1968), one of the writers I studied extensively in college, and later became home to the National Steinbeck Center in 1998.

East of Gilroy, Highway 152 continues through farms and ranches of live oak and over Pacheco Pass, passing the San Luis Reservoir and descending into the San Joaquin Valley, where it joins with Interstate 5 at Los Banos. I took this route often between 1998 and 2005 when I was living in Bakersfield and visiting the Bay Area. Pacheco Pass is a dramatic landscape filled with wild hills and steep rocky crags and often buffeted by high winds. The San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area features boating, camping, fishing, and hiking along the shores of the 13,000-acre reservoir nestled in the wildflowers and pastures of the Diablo Mountains.

During my seven years in Bakersfield, California I often commuted to the Bay Area by way of State Highway 152 through Pacheco Pass. The San Luis Reservoir State Recreation Area lies along this scenic route through the Diablo Mountains and offers many fun activities and natural wonders. The reservoir waters much of California’s San Joaquin Valley.

My favorite section of El Camino Real was always the open road between San Jose and Santa Barbara. I was never a fan of urban sprawl and only drove into the crowded cloverleaves of the South Bay and L.A. Basin when I had no other choice. I listened to my favorite music as I traveled through the tall eucalyptus groves of San Benito County and the gentle hills near Mission San Miguel along the Salinas River. I attended a 2004 performance of La Virgen del Tepeyac in the Mission San Juan Bautista, in which playwright Luis Valdez played the role of the bishop. I told him afterwards how much I enjoyed his work with El Teatro Campesino and his films Zoot Suit (1981) and La Bamba (1987).

The following year I attended a living history event with my partner Jill at the Dana Adobe near Nipomo along Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo County. Our friend Russ was part of the group working to restore the historic 1839 home and was dressed as an early Californio. We knew Russ from the annual reenactment in Moorpark, California where Jill and I met a few years earlier. There he portrayed a reporter from Civil War-era San Francisco and fell in with us over the next several years as a member of our West Coast contingent of the “Bohemian Brigade.” The 2005 event at the Dana Adobe included period contra dancing and other educational displays.

Jill and I returned to the area a few years later to attend a period ball at the Union Hotel in Los Alamos, just south of Nipomo and Santa Maria along El Camino Real. The hotel was built as a stagecoach station in 1880 and was restored in 1972. Its period rooms, saloon, and extensive grounds are now booked for weddings and other special events and have been visited by many celebrities over the years, including Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. We stayed in one of the upstairs rooms near the billiard table and joined our fellow attendees for a formal dinner and dance in our period garb, followed by a photography session and a stroll through the garden.

Jill and I in our Victorian era finery at the 1880 Union Hotel in Los Alamos, California in 2008.

During my years in Bakersfield I often reached Highway 101 by way of California State Route 46 through the Cholame Hills and Temblor Mountains. This route was particularly lovely in the spring when wildflowers dotted the green hills surrounding the series of wineries leading into Paso Robles. The intersection of Highways 41 and 46 is still known as “Blood Alley” and was the scene of the tragic car crash that killed actor James Dean on September 30, 1955. The village of Cholame has a monument to Dean and the state officially named the spot the James Dean Memorial Junction in 2005 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death.

Highway 101 provides access to many prominent schools and universities, including California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and UC Santa Barbara. Popular nearby coastal destinations include Morro Bay, Pismo Beach, and the Hearst Castle, which I visited in 2003. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) inherited the 40,000-acre estate from his wealthy father in 1919 and spent many years and millions of dollars outfitting it in regal splendor. Opulent parties attracted movie stars, politicians, and business leaders until Hearst’s declining health forced him to leave the home in 1947. Ten years later the Hearst family donated it to the State of California, which established the Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument.

In 2005 my teaching career took me from Bakersfield to Orange County, and I no longer had occasion to drive through the wide expanses of central California. I did return to El Camino Real three more times over the next six years to visit San Francisco with Jill. On our last trip in 2011 we drove up Interstate 5 and spent the night at Harris Ranch before heading over Pacheco Pass along Highway 152. On our way home we bade farewell to the Royal Highway before lunching at Casa de Fruta and disappearing into California’s vast central valley. I took with me many fond memories of the gentle slopes and fascinating sites of this peaceful heart of the Golden State.

Enjoying a break as James Allen Davis of Harper’s Weekly at the Dana Adobe in Nipomo, California during a living history event in 2005. Photo by Jill Forbath.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Faugh a Ballagh!

Portraying a Union soldier (right) at the Civil War Revisited event sponsored by the Fresno Historical Society in the fall of 1997. I was a member of Company A of the 69th New York State Volunteers in northern California for five years, followed by two in Company D of the 28th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at Fort Tejon State Historic Park. From an image by William Dunniway.

St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated on March 17 every year in a variety of ways by Irish people and their friends all over the world. Parades, speeches, religious services, singing, dancing, storytelling, live music, games, the “wearing of the green (or orange if you are Scots-Irish),” feasting, and drinking are long-honored holiday traditions. A table festooned with shamrocks, tricolors, and leprechauns and filled with dishes of corned beef and cabbage, lamb stew, colcannon, pints of Guinness stout, and whiskey-flavored soda bread is at the center of any great Irish party.

I have celebrated my Irish heritage with all of these traditions over the years. Inspired by a renewed interest in genealogy, I began hosting a lively St. Patrick’s Day party at my home in Kansas in 1992 and continued doing so during my six years in Sacramento, seven in Bakersfield, and thirteen in Irvine. Many of the gatherings featured live bands in my living room, and others involved listening to live music at a local Irish pub or festival. Over my twenty years in the classroom as a social studies teacher, I wore green outfits and holiday ties and highlighted Irish American history throughout the month of March.

In March of 1996, I celebrated St. Patrick’s Day at my apartment in Sacramento with some musician friends with whom I was singing and songwriting. Many of my compositions were influenced by Celtic language and legend. I was heavily involved in putting together a family history scrapbook at the time and listening weekly to The Thistle and Shamrock on National Public Radio. I had been eagerly devouring every resource I could get on Irish and Scottish culture and history for four years. I was still enjoying the afterglow of an exciting Celtic New Year festival in Reno, Nevada the previous November and was looking for more participatory activities in my immediate area.

The following month I attended the Scottish Games in Roseville, California northeast of Sacramento. In addition to clan tents and bagpipe bands, meat pie trucks, outdoor pubs, and traditional arts and crafts vendors, there was a living history area where amateur enthusiasts donned costumes and set up authentic camps to portray various historical periods. There was a band of medieval swordsmen representing the characters in the recent blockbuster movie Braveheart. Mary, Queen of Scots was also there with her court, as well as Jacobite clansmen, the 1882 Gordon Highlanders, and a Scottish regiment from the First World War.

As I was walking through these camps and admiring their displays, I was approached by a tall, bearded, smiling soldier in a blue Civil War uniform. He introduced himself as Corporal Mike of Company A of the 69th New York State Volunteers, the leading regiment of General Thomas Francis Meagher’s Irish Brigade of the Union Army of the Potomac. I was immediately attracted to their green banner with its bright sunburst and Gaelic motto. Mike shared some of the history of the unit and I told him about my childhood visits to Civil War battlefields and recent interest in Irish history. I had met a true kindred spirit, and agreed to attend the group’s next event on Memorial Day Weekend.

Posing (at far left) with brothers in arms of Company A of the 69th NYSV of Meagher’s Irish Brigade, attending a American Civil War reenactment at the Johnston House in Half Moon Bay, California in 1996. My friend Mike is in the white shirt at center. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

When I arrived at San Jose’s Kelley Park a few weeks later and entered the event, I was amazed to find myself completely immersed in the year 1863. I had attended a few Civil War reenactments during my time in the Shenandoah Valley twenty years earlier, but never saw anything like this. Women in crinolines and bonnets, soldiers in blue and gray, horses and blacksmiths, period dentists and doctors, and sutlers selling their wares under big canvas tents were everywhere. I watched the first battle in the field below the historical village and was instantly enthralled. When I met up with Mike after the engagement at one of the sutler tents, I decided to enlist right there and outfit myself with the kit of a company private.

This included a dark blue enlisted man’s “sack coat” with its four brass eagle buttons and kersey blue woolen trousers, a white cotton shirt and drawers, gray woolen socks, leather brogans, blue woolen forage cap with brass insignia, a black painted canvas haversack, canteen, leather cartridge box and belt, and a replica musket and bayonet. While the original men of the 69th New York carried .69 caliber smoothbore muskets loaded with “buck and ball,” I purchased an 1853 model .58 caliber Enfield rifle, which came in handy a few years later when I helped form a company of the 28th Massachusetts, one of the other regiments in Meagher’s Irish Brigade.

Armed with my new ensemble and all the ardor of the recruit, I assembled with Company A for my first drill. This involved standing at attention and following instructions through marching formations and the manual of arms. While my company was not a “campaigner” unit in the strictest sense (i.e., one which strives for meticulous authenticity in its portrayal and activities), the two sergeants who drilled us had definitely done their homework. We wheeled and tramped around the camp, stood at “shoulder arms” and “right shoulder shift,” learned to salute officers and stack our muskets, and cooked period rations of hardtack and coffee around the campfire.

I was excited beyond words, even after being teased as “fresh fish” by the veteran members and reprimanded by the NCOs for errors in drill and chatting while in ranks. In the next battle I was allowed to march in with the others but not to fire my musket, as I had not yet passed the firearms safety test. The experience of rushing in “at the double quick” with ground charges exploding all around and shattering musket volleys over the screams of officers and staccato of drumbeats made my heart beat wildly and my hair stand on end. I decided to fall “dead” toward the end of the fight and lay in the straw and dirt with my cap on my face, listening to the roar of battle roll over me.

When the bugle sounded the solemn notes of “Taps,” shortly followed by “Recall,” we all stood up to receive the applause of the audience. It was a truly exhilarating moment. I felt I had entered the scenes of recent Civil War movies like Glory (1989) and Gettysburg (1993). It was a three-dimensional, participatory learning experience that far surpassed any books I had read or even visits to battlefields and museums. My company captain congratulated me on a job well done and assured me that I would be allowed to “see the elephant” at the next event, that is, take the safety test and fire my musket in battle. I was hooked, and determined to attend as many future events as possible.

This I did, from Half Moon Bay’s historic James Johnston House (see image above) to other venues in Vacaville, Murphys, Mariposa, Nevada City, and Sonoma County. I marched in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin, California in 1997 and joined my company at the Scottish Games and Gathering in Pleasanton for the same kind of display that had attracted me to the unit at Roseville. Mike was promoted to sergeant and then became company cook, brigade surgeon, and was finally elected President of our umbrella living history organization. I remained by his side, learning from his leadership and recruiting several of my friends into the unit.

In camp at an event in Pioneer Park in Nevada City, California in 1997. Our unit participated in a parade down the main street of the historic Gold Rush era town and performed demonstrations for local residents, visitors and school groups. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

I added new items to my ensemble such as slouch hats, clay and wooden pipes, and checkered shirts. I brewed coffee and fried salt pork and potatoes in camp and slept under a dog tent. I was awakened to perform guard duty in camp at 2 am and stumbled out of my tent to assemble for roll call at 6. Once I was assigned the punishment of cleaning dishes after being caught smoking a cigar on guard duty. I volunteered to be the unfortunate patient in a field hospital demonstration, and entertained the crowd with my impromptu hysterics as my “leg” was removed.

After a year “on campaign,” I was promoted to corporal when I joined the battalion color guard and was permitted to sew crossed flags and chevrons onto the sleeves of my sack coat. I charged Confederate entrenchments in a hand to hand scenario (carefully rehearsed and using only rubber bayonets) and was captured and held prisoner in another. I helped new recruits learn drill and sang at a period wedding. I attended the annual holiday party in December and joined in the series of traditional toasts. I collected books and historical music and was allowed to carry the green regimental banner by our hosts at an event in Oregon on the Fourth of July.

I remained active in the unit for four more seasons, attending nearly every field event and three winter balls. The largest reenactment in those days was the Civil War Revisited event in Fresno, sponsored by the local historical society. Over a thousand reenactors and hordes of spectators showed up, smaller numbers than the large events back East but a substantial turnout for the West Coast. There were a large group of sutler tents and extensive army camps on both sides, as well as a diverse camp of living historians portraying rope makers, clergymen, seamstresses, schoolteachers, refugees, and other civilian impressions.

The Fresno event was something everyone in the unit looked forward to each year. Units from across the western United States traveled great distances to attend, including a sister unit from Oregon representing the 116th Pennsylvania (also part of Meagher’s Brigade). Standing at “present arms” and marching into battle to the strains of “Hell on the Wabash” and “Garryowen” and charging forward with the ancient battle cry “Faugh a Ballagh!” (“Clear the Way!”) thrilled me beyond words. By this time my service and participation had earned me a place of honor in the company. I was awarded a II Corps badge with its red shamrock sewn onto a green one to represent our brigade designation, which I proudly affixed to the top of my forage cap.

Each successive event brought new and exciting experiences. I developed a first person persona, complete with Irish accent, and interacted extensively with the public. I learned period songs and began singing in camp and at lyceums. After I moved from Sacramento to Bakersfield in 1998 to begin my teaching career, I continued to drive north to attend events with my old unit. I returned to the Kelley Park event for two more years and moved on to Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont, an engaging venue which featured historic buildings, extensive fields and gardens, and a period railroad.

By the fall of 1999 I began developing the persona of a special artist correspondent for the illustrated newspaper Harper’s Weekly. In conjunction with this new impression, I continued to reenact at Fresno with the 69th through the final engagement of the 2000 event. That year I helped my friend Marshall organize Company D of the 28th Massachusetts, a sister regiment in the Irish Brigade, for the Fort Tejon Historical Society. At the end of 2001 I finally hung up my faded blue uniform and sold my musket and bayonet to buy a woolen suit for my correspondent character. The old military kit found new use in my classroom as part of my unit on the American Civil War.

I was unable to join my company for the 135th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam in Maryland in 1997 and at 135th Gettysburg in 1998, but I did attend the 140th Gettysburg as Mr. Davis of Harper’s Weekly. There I was excited to meet reenactors from East Coast groups who were portraying soldiers of Meagher’s Brigade and other Irish units. Back in California, I continued to march into battle with my old comrades of the 69th, this time behind them or on the flanks with my journalist’s pen knife, charcoals, and notepad at the ready. When I wrote my “period memoir” in 2009, I included characters and scenes in the narrative that were based on my seven years with the Irish Brigade.

Nearly twenty years have passed since I marched into battle under the folds of the green banner. Every year on St. Patrick’s Day my partner Jill and I get out our holiday decor, which includes a small replica of that flag. She is also a veteran of the Irish Brigade, having portrayed a vivandiere with the 116th Pennsylvania. We met on the field and reenacted together for seven years before retiring from the hobby in 2011. Like me, she has great-great-grandparents from Ireland. We hosted many holiday parties in our Irvine home and displayed our gear, books, and photographs in our “reenacting room” upstairs. When we retired to San Diego in 2018, we took our several boxes of memorabilia and holiday decor with us.

St. Patrick’s Day has become a festive time for millions of people around the world, both Irish and non-Irish alike. Along with Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, and Day of the Dead, it is one of the largest cultural festivals here in San Diego every year. When we attended the St. Patrick’s Day gathering in Balboa Park last year, I was pleased to see an extensive living history area much like the one I saw at the Roseville Scottish Games in 1996. The Irish Brigade was there under their green flag, recruiting new members and proudly representing the sons and daughters of Erin who risked everything to come to the shores of “Amerikay” in search of freedom and fortune.

The five regiments of Meagher’s Irish Brigade marched under the Stars and Stripes and the green flag of Erin through the four years of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Their ancient Celtic battle cry was “Faugh a Ballagh!” – Clear the Way!

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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March 13-April 15 is National Deaf History Month

On April 8, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a charter empowering the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb in Washington, D. C. to grant college degrees, the first to do so for the hearing and speech impaired in United States history. Former Postmaster General Amos Kendall (1789-1869) and educator Edward M. Gallaudet (1837-1917) had been lobbying for Congressional support for their school for nearly a decade. By the end of the Civil War, there were more than 100 students from fourteen states enrolled, with plans underway to provide instruction in the “oral method” as well as in sign language.

Gallaudet built on the work on his father, the Rev. Thomas H. Gallaudet (1787-1851), who founded the first permanent school for the deaf in Connecticut on April 15, 1817. Both father and son traveled extensively in Europe to study pedagogical theories and practices for the hearing impaired. Their advocacy gathered considerable public support in the States, and by 1870 there were more than a score of designated schools scattered across the nation. Deaf women were admitted to the college in Washington in 1887, and in 1954 Congress amended the school’s name to Gallaudet College. In 1986 it became Gallaudet University.

Two years later, on March 6, 1988, Gallaudet students began to protest the appointment of another hearing president to run the school. Their week-long campaign became known as Deaf President Now and resulted in the hiring of the university’s first deaf president, Dr. Irving King Jordan, who served for two decades until his retirement. This series of historical events in deaf education led the National Association of the Deaf (founded in Cincinnati in 1880) and the American Library Association in 2006 to designate the period between March 13 and April 15 as National Deaf History Month.

Today there are millions of Americans with profound hearing loss among the nearly fifty million with some form of disability. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans With Disabilities Act, providing federal mandates for equal access in education and public facilities and protections against discrimination. Among the programs created to implement the new law were ramps in public buildings, elevators and lifts in schools and public transportation, accommodations to allow disabled students to attend mainstream schools, and state telephone relay services for the hearing and speech impaired.

I went to work for one of them. In December of 1992 I was hired as a bilingual agent at the California Relay Service (CRS) in Sacramento. The position involved relaying individual calls back and forth in English and Spanish between regular telephone users and hearing and speech impaired callers. I had very little previous experience with the deaf and mute (sordomudos in Spanish) and knew next to nothing of American Sign Language (ASL). While the job did not require fluency in ASL, our training included some linguistic coursework as well as cultural sensitivity, and many of my direct supervisors were deaf with bilingual interpreters.

Until the state relay contract was taken over by MCI Telecommunications in 1996 and relocated south of Sacramento, CRS was run by Sprint in a large corporate building near the ARCO Arena (now the Sleep Train Arena) on the north side of the city, then home to the Sacramento Kings basketball team. I was one of several hundred operators manning computers in cubicles with headsets to receive calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. In accordance with the mandate to provide equal access, we relayed every kind of call imaginable and maintained strict confidentiality to protect the privacy of our customers.

In those days (before texting on handheld cellular phones), most of our hearing impaired customers typed their part of the conversation on a TTY machine, which we would read to the hearing party after initiating the call. The spoken response would then be typed back to the TTY user. “GA” or “Go Ahead” would prompt the other party to speak and “SK” would end the call. I learned a lot very quickly about deaf culture and the variety of people who struggle with hearing loss. Many are born deaf, but others lose their hearing or speech because of illness, accident, military service, excessive workplace noise, or age.

Not all of our hearing impaired callers used a TTY. Others used amplifying devices on their regular voice phones, and still others wore hearing aids or cochlear implants. Many of our voice customers had never received a relay call before, and I was disappointed to discover that some of them would hang up rather than wait for me to explain the process or read what was being typed. Other hearing customers would speak too quickly for my typing fingers (even at my maximum speed of 90 words per minute!) to keep up with them. I gained a new appreciation for some of the challenges faced by hearing impaired people in a hearing world.

I carried a yellow cone to identify me as a bilingual operator and was asked to take over calls where translation between English and Spanish was required. Most were originated or received in California, but weather or power outages would sometimes reroute traffic to us from Texas and other western states. Our flexible work stations included innovative ergonomic adjustments that helped mitigate the risk of repetitive motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. This helped us deal more effectively with crises like the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, which had a profound effect on the deaf community in California and inundated us with an unusually high call volume.

During my four years there, I came to appreciate the beauty of ASL when interacting with my deaf supervisors. Many of them were Gallaudet graduates who shared their considerable knowledge of deaf history with me. I learned about hearing impaired celebrities such as Cal Rodgers (1879-1912), the first man to fly across the United States, and Juliette Gordon Low (1860-1927), founder of the Girl Scouts. Thomas Edison (1847-1931) suffered from severe hearing loss for most of his life, and many of the experiments of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) were undertaken with deaf and hard of hearing students.

The popular 1986 film Children of a Lesser God, directed by Randa Haines and based on the Tony Award-winning play by Mark Medoff, garnered leading lady Marlee Matlin the Academy Award for Best Actress and called public attention to deaf culture and education. Matlin was the first deaf actor (and remains the only one to this day) to win Hollywood’s highest award and continued in a distinguished career in film and television. She has also served as a celebrity spokesperson for a number of deaf causes, including closed captioning and Congressional support for the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders.

Heather Whitestone of Alabama was crowned the first deaf Miss America in 1995. Many other well-known celebrities suffer from partial hearing loss, including talk show host Stephen Colbert and Star Trek star William Shatner. While there have been no deaf members of the United States Congress to date, Congressmen John Rutherford of Florida and Mark Takano of California stepped forward last year to co-chair the bipartisan Congressional Deaf Caucus in an effort to improve communication between legislators and their hearing impaired constituents.

Deaf Americans now run large companies and serve in every profession. They have won many important victories over the years in politics, business, and education. Interpreters and closed captioning are now regular features on television and in film. ASL is offered as an elective in the language arts departments of schools and universities across the country. Civil rights for the disabled in general and the hearing impaired in particular have expanded in the last fifty years, and the stigma once attached to physical or mental disability has been marginalized in many arenas of American public life.

But there is still much to be done to increase awareness, tolerance, and opportunity. Ignorance and prejudice remain in many private attitudes toward deaf culture and other disabled communities. Speech impediments, anxiety disorders, PTSD, and learning disabilities are still seen by many as crippling roadblocks to a successful and fulfilling life. As teachers of young people, we can do much to disable the structure of this discrimination. But first we must come to terms with any lingering archaic ideas we may have and be willing to embrace new ways of thinking and interacting.

Classroom activities that highlight deaf history and incorporate ASL into interdisciplinary assignments can both illuminate and inspire our students. Seek out and utilize both parental and administrative support. Partner mainstream students with classmates who have special needs to achieve deeper levels of analysis and comprehension. Call attention to important historical figures from deaf history to fill out a more diverse picture of our national story. Take advantage of the many resources now available to emphasize deaf history this month. Doing so will allow you and your students to have a rich and rewarding learning experience.

Copyright (c) 2020 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.

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Florida’s Atlantic Coast

Daytona Beach on Florida’s “Fun Coast” has been a popular vacation destination since the early 20th century. It was known as the “Surf Coast” when I visited in the 1970s. Colloquial parlance refers to the area simply as “Daytona.” The NASCAR Daytona 500 has been held at the nearby International Speedway since 1959.

In April of 1984, my Boston housemate Glenn and I rolled into Florida on Interstate 95 to complete the first leg of a circuitous road trip across the country. I had just finished my first year of graduate school and was returning home to southern California; Glenn was moving back to Los Angeles to try to rekindle his music career. His Econoline van was so stuffed full of boxes that we barely had room to occupy the driver and passenger seats. We visited Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale before heading west on Interstate 10 across the Gulf Coast to New Orleans. From there we continued through 900 miles of Texas and arrived in Orange County by the end of the month.

As a Master’s student in American Civilization at UMass/Boston, I was eager to visit Florida after reading a recently published book by journalist Joel Garreau entitled The Nine Nations of North America. In it he argued that most of the state remained part of “Dixie,” the Old South that had formed the Confederacy in 1861. The sub-tropical southeastern corner, however, was linked to a cultural and economic region he called “The Islands.” This unique melting pot included the Caribbean archipelago as well as the coast of Latin America. Garreau identified offshore financial centers, drug cartels, and the rich diversity of music, language, cuisine, and custom as characteristics which set this place apart from the rest of the country.

My 1984 visit was the first time I had been to Florida in eight years. My family vacationed at Walt Disney World over Christmas break in 1976, only five years after the park opened. I remember riding the Monorail through the tunnel-shaped hotel, taking a boat out to Discovery Island, and enjoying dazzling holiday entertainment in the Magic Kingdom mixed with patriotic red, white, and blue fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle. This was in the days before Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Little did I know at the time that I would be working four years later as a custodian at Disneyland in Anaheim, California on one of my college winter breaks.

My visit to Walt Disney World was only the last of several family trips to the Sunshine State. The first was in the summer of 1965 when I was approaching my fourth birthday. My father was on summer break from his position as an adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio and my mother wanted me to meet her relatives in southeast Florida. Her grandfather and aunt lived in Palm Beach and her cousins were in nearby Jupiter. We made the long drive down to Florida and enjoyed playing in the warm Atlantic waters and listening to “Pop” Schneider tell us stories of deep sea fishing and riding the rails from Cleveland to Spokane in his youth.

My first trip to Florida’s Atlantic Coast was in the summer of 1965 when I visited my mother’s relatives in Palm Beach. Here I am with my younger sister, sporting authentic vintage mid-century style. Photo Copyright (c) Torin Finney.

We returned to Florida several times over the next decade, particularly after we moved from faraway Ohio to much closer North Carolina in 1968. I remember running on the wide expanse of Daytona Beach and sitting on cannon at the old Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine. The fortress was completed in the late 17th century when Florida was still part of the Spanish Empire. It was attacked by English colonial forces in 1702 and 1740 but never taken by force. The nearby city of St. Augustine with its charming colonial architecture was established in 1565, making it the first permanent European settlement in what later became the United States.

The Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida was completed by the Spanish in 1695 and renamed Fort Marion by the United States in 1821. It was designated a National Monument in 1924 and came under the stewardship of the National Park Service in 1933. I visited there often as a boy from 1965 to 1975.

My mother’s connection to Florida was typical of many northeastern families in the 1950s and 1960s, when Miami and points north became popular escapes from frigid winter weather for tourists, retirees, the wealthy, and college kids on spring break. High profile celebrities such as gangster Al Capone and the Kennedys had been wintering in southeast Florida for generations. Speculative real estate booms beginning in the “Roaring Twenties” brought thousands of people to the area. My great-grandfather moved there in the 1950s and immediately took up charter fishing for marlin and swordfish. We displayed one of his large catches in our home for many years after his death in 1970.

Florida played a key role in the American Civil War. A slave state since 1845, Florida was the third Southern state to secede from the Union. 15,000 Florida men joined the Confederate Army and blockade runners defied Union warships to supply them with arms and ammunition from Bermuda and the Bahamas. Jacksonville and Pensacola were occupied early in the war by Union troops, but Confederate forces continued to operate in the state throughout the war. The most prominent battle was fought at Olustee near Jacksonville on February 20, 1864. The battlefield is now a state park and hosts an annual reenactment.

I was much interested in this historical period as a boy and read many books on the subject, including the classic American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War, written by historian Bruce Catton (1899-1978) and published in 1960. This is where I first learned of Florida’s role in the conflict, from its many smugglers’ inlets to Florida Senator Stephen Mallory (1812-1873), who became Confederate Secretary of the Navy. Lewis Powell (1844-1865), the would-be assassin of Secretary of State William H. Seward, fought in the Peninsula Campaign and the Battles of Fredericksburg and Gettysburg with the 2nd Florida Infantry (CSA) before joining Mosby’s Rangers in 1864 and John Wilkes Booth’s conspiracy the following year.

Other Floridians fought for the Union, including thousands of escaped slaves and Seminole guerrillas looking to settle old scores. Florida’s proximity to the Caribbean opened her 1,350 miles of coastline to arrivals from a wide variety of places, a trend which continues to this day. The large Cuban American community in the Miami area that grew exponentially in the 1960s was joined by other newcomers from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Trinidad, and the Virgin Islands. The 1980s brought thousands more seeking a safe haven from the violence in Central America. By the end of the 20th century Florida was one of the most diverse states in the Union.

Like most other Americans of all ages in the 1960s, I was fascinated by the space race unfolding between the United States and the Soviet Union. My Democratic parents were supporters of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and encouraged us to watch the series of manned rockets launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral. I visited the Cape and the adjacent Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island during my family trips to Florida in the 1970s. I remember how popular the NASA astronauts were and how the nation was glued to the television whenever they were being interviewed or prepared for launch.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Merritt Island was visited by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and 1963 and named for him shortly after his assassination. I visited there often during family vacations in the 1960s and 1970s.

As a history teacher, I followed the vote in Florida in Presidential races very closely, particularly during the contested election in the year 2000 between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush. Florida had also been a swing state in the election of 1876 that resulted in a narrow victory for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for the end of federal Reconstruction in the South. Martin Luther King led a desegregation campaign in St. Augustine in 1963-1964 which lasted until President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. A monument to the “St. Augustine Foot Soldiers” was unveiled in 2011 to honor those who risked their lives and livelihoods in the fight for civil rights.

I have yet to see some of the other equally fascinating places in the Sunshine State, including Tampa, the Keys, and the vast wild expanses of the Everglades. I would welcome the opportunity to travel there one day. In the meantime, I still have visceral memories of the wide beaches of Florida’s Atlantic Coast, with their grassy dunes, soft sands, and warm waters. The swaying palms, tropical breezes, and exciting Latin rhythms were intoxicating to my senses then and continue to attract thousands of visitors, immigrants, and snowbirds to the state every year.

Every time I see a Florida license plate with its oranges and state silhouette, I smile and recall those distant days in the surf and sun. I know I am not alone in harboring these heartwarming associations. Despite destructive hurricanes and divisive politics, Florida is still seen by many as the Fountain of Youth at the end of the rainbow. From the quaint bungalows of Key West to the exciting nightlife of Miami to the posh resorts of Palm Beach, the allure of this magical place captures the imagination as much today as it did when the first Spaniards set foot on its soil five centuries ago.

The Plaza de la Constitucion in downtown St. Augustine, Florida includes several historic churches and other buildings and hosts an outdoor market that has been held there since the founding of the town in the 16th century.

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The Father of Waters

The Old Warren County Court House in Vicksburg, Mississippi was built in 1858 and was a principal target for Union artillery during the siege of the city in May and June of 1863. In 1972 I visited the site, which has been an historical museum since 1948.

When President Abraham Lincoln received the news that the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, Mississippi had finally surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on the Fourth of July in 1863, he remarked with relief, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” The fall of Vicksburg opened the Mississippi River to Union naval forces and split the Confederacy in two. Many historians consider this event to be as pivotal (if not more so) in turning the tide of the American Civil War as the Battle of Gettysburg or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

I well remember Vicksburg’s Old Court House, cobblestone streets with gas lamps, and miles of trenches and monuments. I visited there in 1972 when I was eleven years old. My father had accepted a faculty position at Memphis State University (renamed the University of Memphis in 1994) the year before and our family moved there from Raleigh, North Carolina. I attended the fifth and sixth grade at the Memphis State Campus School, where I played clarinet in the orchestra and participated in the CLUE program. I remember portraying Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a theatrical production and creating a slideshow on “The Dogfight of Hamel,” where the Red Baron (1892-1918) met his dramatic end.

The tiger statue at the University of Memphis Campus School. I attended fifth and sixth grade there in 1971-1973 and participated in the CLUE (Creative Learning in a Unique Environment) program.

We lived in a rented home on Deloach Street close to the university campus. History was my favorite subject and I spent most of my free time reading and watching historical dramas on television. The BBC miniseries on The Last of the Mohicans which aired on PBS that year was one of my favorites. My parents supported my interest in history and took me and my siblings on several road trips during our time there. I remember visiting the Shiloh battlefield on the way to my mother’s relatives in Bedford County south of Nashville. The walking tour through the Hornet’s Nest and the Bloody Pond fascinated me and inspired my first series of Civil War battlefield drawings.

I learned much about Memphis history at the Pink Palace Museum, formerly the home of Piggly Wiggly grocery store founder Clarence Saunders (1881-1953). The city fell to Union forces after a dramatic gunboat battle on the Mississippi on June 6, 1862. I discovered later that my maternal great-great-grandfather Michael Schneider (1842-1900) was among the Union troops that occupied the city afterwards. His regiment, the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, had participated in the Battles of New Madrid and Island Number 10 which brought federal troops to the gates of the city. He remained in the Memphis area until moving eastward to participate in Sherman’s 1864 Atlanta Campaign.

Nine Union gunboats of the Mississippi River Squadron defeated the eight rams of the Confederate River Defense Fleet at Memphis on June 6, 1862, opening the lower Mississippi River to federal shipping as far south as Vicksburg. My maternal great-great-grandfather Michael Schneider participated in the Union occupation of Memphis as a soldier in Company G of the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry.

There was much to see and do in Memphis. Elvis Presley (1935-1977), Johnny Cash (1932-2003), and many other rock and roll stars cut their first hit songs at Sun Records on Union Avenue. I visited the studio as well as Graceland, Elvis’s stately home in Whitehaven near the Mississippi border. Shortly thereafter I caught a fleeting glimpse of Elvis as he was exiting his limousine to enter the hospital where my mother worked as a nurse. I also saw Ray Charles (1930-2004) perform during his 1972 tour through the South. Memphis has long been a hotbed of musical activity with its proximity to the blues tradition of the Mississippi Delta. Many still refer to the city as the “Birthplace of Rock and Roll.”

I saw Ray Charles perform live in Memphis in 1972. The city has long been associated with the blues and a long series of famous rock and roll stars, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins.

I also went to the Lorraine Motel on Mulberry Street, the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination on April 4, 1968 during a strike by the city’s mostly black sanitation workers. Racial tensions were still high in the city three years later, and my father told stories of overhearing racist remarks among some of his white colleagues. MSU had integrated in 1959 and was working toward increasing African American enrollment. My own school participated in the busing program which was arousing so much controversy in communities across the nation, particularly in Boston. The handful of African American students who came to our primary school were well received, but the public secondary schools had trouble.

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 is now the National Civil Rights Museum, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The Museum opened in 1991 and was renovated in 2014.

Memphis at that time was firmly in the hands of a long entrenched white power structure. Segregation in public facilities had been outlawed for less than seven years. The roles played by notable black leaders such as muckraking journalist and suffragette Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) were overshadowed by the revered icons of “The Lost Cause.” The 1905 equestrian monument to Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest (1821-1877) overlooked the mighty Mississippi in the riverfront park that bore his name. Conflict over the statue became emblematic of the city’s racial strife. The park was not renamed until 2013, and the statue itself remained until 2017.

The Memphis State Tigers men’s basketball team rose to the top of the Missouri Valley Conference in 1972 and reached the NCAA finals in 1973. My father took me to several exciting playoff games in the Mid-South Coliseum before the Tigers were defeated in the championship match in St. Louis by the UCLA Bruins. That time in Memphis was also a stimulating environment for a young musician and artist interested in history. The Red Baron slideshow I created for the CLUE program involved taking individual photographs of my original drawings and assembling them into a sequence with narration recorded on a cassette player.

I spent a lot of time in the public and school libraries and read many books on the important role of the Mississippi River in American history. Populated by numerous communities of indigenous tribes, the region was explored by Hernando de Soto (1495-1542) for Spain and Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle (1643-1687) for France, both of whom lost their lives there. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was launched further north in 1803, and Mark Twain (1835-1910) immortalized the Mississippi Valley in his memoirs, novels, and short stories. Memphis itself grew during the early 19th century from the riverboat trade in cotton and slaves and was considered a key point in Confederate defensive strategy until the fall of the city in June of 1862.

My time in Memphis was cut short after only nineteen months by a job offer my father received from Madison College in Harrisonburg, Virginia in March of 1973. I was sad at the prospect of leaving the CLUE program and my friends before the school year was over, but my parents explained the move would be in my best interest. Public junior high schools in the city were engulfed in racial conflict, and they could not afford to enroll me in a private school. Accordingly, we packed up and left the city during my spring break and drove to the Shenandoah Valley, where I would spend the next four and a half years of my life exploring the historical sites of the “Old Dominion.”

I have not returned to Memphis since. I crossed the Mississippi River further north in later years while traveling back and forth between California and New England, and yet again when I was living in central Kansas. But I never again crossed the Hernando de Soto Bridge that spans the river between Arkansas and Tennessee. My time along the “Father of Waters” was a memorable part of my childhood. Years later, I incorporated the stories, sights, and music I experienced there into my U.S. History curriculum. “Bluff City” will always be there guarding the powerful currents of the “Big Muddy,” inviting fans and aficionados of American popular culture to come there for an enlightening education and exciting entertainment.

Elvis Presley purchased Graceland in 1957 and lived there until his death twenty years later. It was opened to the public in 1982 and receives thousands of visitors every year.

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