November 11, 1918 marked the signing of the Armistice ending the First World War. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent. Ten million men in uniform had died, along with countless millions of civilians. The exhausted Allied nations of Europe were relieved to be free of the bloodshed and dedicated November 11th thenceforward as Armistice Day.
France, Belgium, and Serbia still observe November 11 as Armistice Day; in the British Commonwealth of Nations it is Remembrance Day. Poland celebrates its independence from the former Russian and Hapsburg Empires. Last year was the centennial of the 1918 Armistice and included many moving commemorative events. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who led the United States into the war as a late participant, delivered a stirring address on the first anniversary of the Armistice, and Congress adopted November 11 as a national holiday in 1926.
Armistice Day was renamed Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all the men and women who have served the nation in uniform. Those of you still in school know it as a welcome day off after weeks of intensive academic effort. The First Quarter is over and the end of the First Semester is now in sight. The full week of Thanksgiving Break is right around the corner. It is time to rest and begin to focus on your final assignments and how best to finish the term successfully.
Think of the veterans you know on this day. Our rights and privileges have been protected by their service and sacrifice. Do what you can to support them. Learn about veterans’ issues and elect public officials who will protect their federal benefits. The way we treat our veterans says something about our national character and values. These are women and men who are willing to put their lives on the line for their country. They deserve our thanks and respect.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
Effective teaching depends in large part on continual learning. The demanding duties of being a teacher sometimes make it difficult to find time to be a student. Yet the mind of the educator must always be honed by exposure to new material and methodology. I often told my students that reading is the key to succeeding. Over the course of my twenty years in the classroom, I realized that it was important to take my own advice. Consequently, I determined to augment my social science curriculum through reading in subjects that had hitherto escaped my attention.
This proved easier said than done. For the first nine years of my teaching career, I commuted back and forth to school by automobile, as did most of my colleagues. My time on campus was dominated by lesson planning and classroom management and my time at home by grading, particularly when I was teaching middle school by day and community college classes in the evening. On weekends I participated in living history programs. On winter and summer breaks I traveled or caught up on rest and errands. There was little time for reading. I owned an extensive library in my chosen subjects but was unable to make much use of it. I was simply too busy.
I had not always been too busy to read. As a college and graduate student in the 1980s I read hundreds of pages a week. I did not own a car in those days and took public transportation back and forth to school. I rode the MBTA while earning my M.A. at UMass/Boston and the BART when I was studying at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. In Washington, D.C. I took the Metro and in San Francisco I took the Muni. Whenever I boarded a bus, shuttle, train, or plane, I took a book with me. Reading occupied much of my free time. I even read during breaks when I began working full-time in the early 1990s. But when I began my teaching career at the end of that decade, my time for reading disappeared.
The irony of this dilemma did not escape me, and I wanted to do something about it. By my tenth year I was teaching high school in a tenured position and weary of commuting by car. The opportunity then arose to travel back and forth to school by train and I decided to take advantage of it. Gas prices were high at the time and the monthly train pass was cost effective. I had to leave home a half hour earlier and returned a half hour later, but I would have time during the thirty minutes in the train car to rest, catch up on the news, or read. My school was only a few blocks walk from the train station and I could use the exercise.
That walk exposed me to the elements, and I learned by trial and error how to adapt my wardrobe. I carried my papers in a shoulder bag and wore a wool hat in winter and a broad-brimmed straw one in summer. I brought along a portable umbrella, sunscreen, a water bottle, and proper footwear. I kept my work shoes in my classroom and changed into them when I arrived on campus. I also had to be mindful of heavy automobile traffic when I waited at lights to enter crosswalks. Traveling to school this way had its challenges, but I enjoyed the adventure of it and the opportunity to catch up on reading.
I began with the books I already owned and then added what I needed to my home and classroom libraries by ordering new material online or making purchases at local bookstores. Any expense that related to my career as an educator could potentially be counted as a tax deduction, so I kept meticulous records of receipts for my accountant. I focused on authors whose work highlighted the subjects I was teaching. United States and world history formed the bulk of my material, but I also explored studies in geography, religion, political science, current events, and economics.
Some of my favorite authors included British geographer Simon Winchester, American journalist Rick Perlstein, and historians Candice Millard, David McCullough, H. W. Brands, and Donald L. Miller. I read biographies, memoirs, dispatches, regimental histories, classic novels, anthologies, textbooks, travel guides, illustrated atlases, collections of speeches, and autobiographies. I obtained a library card and checked out whatever my local branch had to offer. Some books were heavier than others, and I had to be careful not to take on too much weight for my walk from the train station to school and back. On rainy days I had to carry my books in a plastic bag in one hand and my umbrella in the other.
My commuter train had seating areas with tables and electrical outlets, and I sat in these seats as often as I could. This allowed me to charge my smartphone and use it to look up information. I could spread out paperwork on the table and take notes on what I was reading or catch up on grading tests, homework, classwork, and essays. I often wore earbuds and listened to music and other audio files. The train was punctual most of the time, but the inevitable delays due to rail traffic, accidents, or mechanical trouble provided extra time in which I could work. I also read while waiting on the platform for trains to arrive. My latest book became my constant companion during my daily commute.
This was a welcome respite from the thousands of miles and many hours I had to drive during my first nine years as a teacher. For the next ten years, I took the train almost every day, unless I had to remain at school after the last train because of extra-curricular duties. My car sat safely in the parking garage at my home station and I enjoyed walking through the restored historic downtown district in which my school was located. My monthly pass allowed me to ride the local commuter rail service as well as the Amtrak trains that used the same routes. I made new friends and acquaintances among my fellow commuters, some of whom shared my reading interests.
My colleagues in the Digital Arts and Humanities Program helped me plan an annual field trip into downtown Los Angeles to visit the museums there, and we decided to ride the train as a group. I was able to secure a school rate for the three teachers and thirty or so students we took every year. Many of the kids had never traveled by train before and enjoyed the experience immensely. I even inspired some of my other colleagues to begin commuting by rail themselves. My social science colleagues in particular were intrigued with my return to regular reading and began finding time in their own schedules for new books.
Technology changed the nature of reading as an activity over the course of my decade on the rails. The decline of local bookstores and newspapers as part of the “retail apocalypse” of the new millennium made it more challenging to obtain new reading material, at least in traditional form. Amazon became an excellent resource for rare books and educational videos I could use in class. I incorporated new material I was reading into my slideshows and lectures and came up with new lesson plans for my students. The rise of smartphones and online classrooms allowed for new ways of learning. I tried to make connections between these innovative digital platforms and traditional books and magazines.
When I retired from full-time teaching last year, I gave away much of my collection of books to the local public library. Many of them were volumes I enjoyed reading during my years on the train. I was happy to share with others the resources I had used to augment my own knowledge and understanding and that of my students. Websites, podcasts, sound bytes, downloads, blogs, and online forums have their place, but none can substitute for the experience of holding a book in one’s hands and turning its pages to follow an engaging story. I tried to teach that to my students and continue to support the work of public libraries through my donations and patronage.
Read what you can, when you can. If you commute to school using public transportation, bring a book along with your other personal effects. There is always something new to learn, especially in the study of history and the other social sciences. If you still drive or walk to work, find time elsewhere in your schedule to sit down with a good book. Follow book reviews online. Experiment with new authors. Reread old classics. Check out books from your local public library. Reading is indeed the key to succeeding, in personal as well as professional development. In our busy, distracted, digital world, taking quiet time for learning and reflection can make a positive difference.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
Community service is an integral part of a well-rounded education. Many schools include it as a graduation requirement, particularly for honors students with a weighted GPA. Getting involved in your community increases your awareness of social issues and helps in advancing personal development. Most religious and civic service organizations offer programs that give young people the opportunity to learn and serve. Balancing your academic load with extra-curricular activities can be challenging, but the rewards of service are worth the effort.
Start with your own school and neighborhood. Learn about campus clubs and discover which ones involve serving the community. Ask your relatives, neighbors, and local clergy and elected officials what needs to be done. When I was a student in Virginia in the 1970s, I helped with a summer educational program for mentally disabled adults at my church and participated in neighborhood clean up efforts with my scout troop. As a senior in high school, I joined the Key Club and rode in bike-a-thons to raise money for heart disease research. All these activities made me feel as if I were making a difference in improving the quality of life in my community.
On campus activities such as cancer awareness days and blood drives provide opportunities for you to do your part. Cultural clubs can call attention to civil rights issues as well as artistic expression. Canvassing for local candidates can familiarize you with current political debates and help you form your own opinions on important public issues. Visiting your local courthouse and attending the grand openings of new businesses are other ways to make your presence known as an active member of your community.
Religious organizations in particular offer a myriad of charitable activities in which young people can participate. Local churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and other congregations sponsor soup kitchens and food banks for the needy, shelters for the homeless, counseling and health care programs, recreational and educational events, and opportunities to visit the elderly, the homebound, the hospitalized, and the imprisoned. Those of you who are religious can ask your clergy or other members of your community how you can get involved. If you are not religious, these groups will still welcome your participation. There is always a need for more dedicated volunteers.
I was heavily involved in church work from 1982 to 1992. I taught adult classes on issues of war and peace and sang in both folk and traditional choirs. I led an inner-city youth group in Berkeley, California in the mid-1980s and assisted a local pastor in visiting the sick and the infirm. In Honolulu, I spent an intern year preaching and teaching and helping with a local food program for the homeless. I served as a student hospital chaplain for patients with cancer and HIV/AIDS as well as for those participating in a substance abuse rehabilitation program. In 1984 and 1989 I worked in outdoor summer camps with at-risk children as a recreational and educational leader. I served for over a year as the co-pastor of a two-point parish in central Kansas.
Local service organizations such as the Lions and Kiwanis sponsor regular activities to help the community. All welcome the participation of young people, particularly high school and college students. Whether the activity is trash cleanup, fundraisers for health care research, listening to those in need, literacy classes for newcomers and the poor, writing to members of Congress or uniformed personnel overseas, or collecting canned goods for the local food bank, there are always possibilities available for someone seeking active community service.
Not all service roles are strictly volunteer. If you have time for a part-time job while you are in school, consider one that would allow you to help others in some way. Working as a paid staffer in a food bank or nursing home will offer you non-monetary rewards beyond your paycheck. Make use of your skill set. If you are bilingual, think about working for a business or non-profit organization that serves the immigrant community. If you have construction or home improvement skills, go to work for a contractor who participates in low-income housing projects. If you are facile with words, write for a public advocacy periodical or start your own blog.
Whatever you decide to do, make the most of the service opportunities in your area. Everyone has something to offer. Identify your skill set and contribute to the common good. Doing so will round out your educational experience and strengthen your college applications. But most importantly, you will know that you are helping to improve the quality of life in your community. As the old saying goes, making a difference is just as important as making a dividend. There are always opportunities to make a difference. Open your mind and your heart to finding your place in that effort.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
Freedom of the press is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. This pillar of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is also linked to freedom of speech, expression, and association. We are free to say and think what we want, to listen to and wear what we want, to join or unjoin the associations of our choice, and to choose our own personal and business relationships. But with this freedom comes responsibility. The other side of freedom of expression is critical thinking. As students of history, politics, and economics, it is important that we stay informed of what is going on in our nation and our world. Ignorance is not bliss in the social sciences. Information is power.
America is a country obsessed with the news. Early observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) and others noticed the proliferation of periodicals as well as societies, clubs, and associations. By 1800 there were 200 newspapers in the United States. By 1860 there were 3,000. Giant steam presses and the telegraph revolutionized the journalism industry. 500 artists and correspondents were sent out to cover the Civil War (1861-1865). They sent innumerable dispatches home for printing and sketches for engraving. By the end of the war, photography had joined the ranks of the burgeoning media frenzy.
Radio emerged from the First World War, and by the end of the Roaring Twenties everybody had one. Television followed in the 1950s. The original three networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC were joined by PBS in 1967 with the signing of the Public Broadcasting Act by President Lyndon Johnson. This legislation also created the framework for National Public Radio, which began broadcasting in 1971. Local affiliates gradually grew over the following decades, many of them on college campuses. Today there are more than a thousand NPR stations serving over 30 million listeners.
I became one of them in the fall of 1983 as a graduate student at UMass/Boston. I began listening to WUMB Radio 91.9 FM from my apartment in Wollaston near Quincy. The mixture of folk music, entertaining shows, and comprehensive news grabbed my attention immediately. I especially enjoyed listening to All Things Considered with Robert Siegel, Susan Stamberg, and Noah Adams. The news was commercial free and focused on in-depth analysis of complex political, social, and economic issues in a way I had never heard before.
I was an avid television news follower during my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, especially during the year my uncle was flying a helicopter in the Vietnam War. But radio news had not come under my radar. Radio was for music and television was for news. But then I went off to college in 1979 and no longer had a TV. The campus radio station at UC Santa Cruz, KZSC 88.1 FM, broadcast mostly reggae and other world music at the time, but I don’t remember listening to NPR during my time there. KZSC carried the Pacifica Evening News, as did KPFA 94.1 when I lived in Berkeley a few years later. Pacifica programming had a left-leaning slant that counterbalanced the more conservative orientations of popular AM talk radio.
I appreciated NPR’s more measured approach to political discourse and the detail into which it delved to uncover the causes, course, and consequences of current events. Prominent Democrats and Republicans as well as independent and third party candidates were interviewed during election season and in debates on contentious issues. Small business and large corporations were covered. World news was given as much attention as local and national. Thematic series were developed. Special music and other cultural programs appeared and grew. Profiles of artists, writers, and independent filmmakers attracted a growing audience.
The cable television revolution of the 1980s and beyond offered a myriad of new choices for the discerning viewer. Fox News began to offer a more conservative perspective, as did MSNBC for more liberal viewers. CNN and other Turner programs grew exponentially, covering stories that the mainstream networks had ignored for decades. Television coverage became increasingly complex in both technology and analysis. The growth of the internet in the 1990s and smartphone technology in the new millennium led to further transformations in the media. Online journals, blogs, and podcasts competed with traditional newsprint.
I took advantage of all these new outlets as they each made their appearance. My personal favorite remained NPR, however, and I found my local station wherever I lived. In the Bay Area I listened to KPFA in Berkeley and KQED Public Media. In Honolulu in 1989-1990 I listened to Hawai’i Public Radio. During my year in Kansas I followed Radio Kansas out of Hutchinson Community College. I listened to Capital Public Radio when I lived in Sacramento and Valley Public Radio when I was in Bakersfield. In Orange County I had KPCC and KCRW on the radio during my commute. When I moved to San Diego last year, I immediately found KPBS.
I paid extra attention during Presidential election years, beginning in Boston with the Reagan-Mondale contest in the fall of 1984. During my decade in church work and my twenty years as a classroom teacher, I remained informed and encouraged my students to do the same. News programs helped me produce better essays and papers as a student, better seminars and lectures as a teacher, a comprehensive genealogy scrapbook project, and a more informed choice at the ballot.
NPR entertained me on long drives and allowed me to consider important issues in greater depth and detail. Morning Edition and All Things Considered occupied my daily commute for years. Weekend Edition helped me wind down after a hectic week at work. Jazz, classical, folk, and world music programs formed the backdrop of my day to day ops and social gatherings. Special educational and cultural programs like The Thistle and Shamrock and The Thomas Jefferson Hour entertained and inspired on a regular basis.
Now you can listen to news podcasts on your iPhone or Android device. Opinion pieces, blogs, and online forums number in the millions. Search engines allow for comprehensive browsing. Sound bytes are an effective marketing tool for potential new listeners. YouTube channels give anyone the opportunity to contribute to public discourse and the dissemination of information. Attracting new online followers can lead to better programming. Many entrepreneurial startups add new media options to the menu every day.
The exponential growth in news coverage over the last fifty years has offered the contemporary reader and listener an endless smorgasbord of choice. This is a good thing in light of the First Amendment. It can also be daunting and perplexing. The best approach as a media consumer is the same as that of a serious student of history and other social sciences. Consider as many perspectives as possible while forming your own opinion. The more you listen, the more you will learn. Thomas Jefferson identified an “enlightened citizenry” as the foundation of a strong democratic society. Staying informed is an important part of achieving and maintaining an enlightened mind.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
I knew I was Irish from an early age. The story was that my surname had been O’Feeney in the old country, then Feeney when English language schools were imposed, and finally Finney once the family reached America. When I delved into genealogical research in the early 1990s, I discovered that some of this was true. The parish records I obtained from Tulsk and Elphin in County Roscommon listed my great-great-great-grandfather as John Feeney in 1840 and one of his sons as James Feeney. By the time James and his son George were listed in La Crosse County, Wisconsin in 1870, the surname was Finney.
More research revealed a sadder story. While tenants, the Finneys (Feeneys) were Catholic “middling farmers” who had enough money of their own to get out of Ireland before a terrible blight ruined the potato crop and led to catastrophic disease and starvation. My other Irish side, the Lynches of County Clare, did not. Records show them arriving in Canada in 1849 on a “coffin ship,” a filthy ex-slaver put to new use carrying hordes of desperate Irish famine victims as ballast. Many of them died of cholera or typhus on the hideous journey, including my great-great-great-grandmother and one of her sons. But the other children survived, including 13-year-old Mary Ann Lynch, who settled with her father and remaining siblings in Chicago and married James Finney in 1856.
This dramatic personal story became the core of a decade-long obsession with Irish history and culture. I devoured every story and song I could find throughout the 1990s. This was a decade in which things Celtic were very popular. Tartan was back in. Irish pubs proliferated. Movies like Titanic, Rob Roy,Michael Collins, and Braveheart drew huge audiences, as did the stage show Riverdance. Irish bands U2, the Corrs, the Pogues, and the Cranberries dominated the charts. French Breton harpist Alan Stivell, already popular in Europe for mixing traditional Celtic music with progressive rock (I first became a fan in Boston in 1984), enjoyed a revival on both sides of the Atlantic with a series of new albums.
Since early 1992, I had been listening weekly to Fiona Ritchie’s The Thistle and Shamrock on my local NPR station and collecting books and CDs. I read Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger (1962) and books on the Ulster Plantations, the Battle of the Boyne, the Penal Laws, the 1798 United Irishmen, the Young Irelanders, the Irish diaspora in North America and Australia, the Land League, the Fenians, the Gaelic Revival, and the Easter Rising of 1916. I learned Irish songs and a little of the Irish language and held boisterous St. Patrick’s Day parties every year. I couldn’t get enough of “the Auld Sod.”
So when the opportunity to actually go there in person presented itself at the end of the decade, I leapt at the chance. By that time I was teaching high school, and a colleague of mine, who was also Irish American and an avid fan of Irish history, helped me organize an educational tour for our spring break in April of 2000. We signed up twenty kids and seven of their parents and grandparents and even took along a friend of ours who was a bagpiper. The itinerary included tours of greater Dublin, the Ring of Kerry, Galway City, Limerick, the Cliffs of Moher, Blarney Castle, Powerscourt Gardens, and the Waterford Crystal factory.
What interested me the most, of course, was the opportunity to see the land of my ancestors and visit notable historical sites. I read up on many of these as we flew over the Atlantic and landed in Shannon Airport on the western coast of Ireland. I was overcome with emotion as I stood on my ancestral ground for the first time after so many years of study and anticipation. Fulfilling a promise we had made to an Irish priest back home, my colleague and I knelt and kissed the ground, much to the amusement of our traveling companions.
We did not linger in Limerick. We boarded a short flight to Dublin and were soon walking the busy streets of the Irish capital. I took in the road signs, the eclectic crowds, the tall buildings, and especially the streets, where driving on the left took some getting used to as both a passenger and a pedestrian. Our tour guides wasted no time. They took us into the very heart of the city, where we walked the stately grounds of Trinity College and marveled at the intricate knotwork of the medieval Book of Kells in the majestic grandeur of the Long Room. I had been studying the Book of Kells and Celtic knotwork for years. I couldn’t believe I was now seeing it with my own eyes.
Our hotel was located along the banks of the River Liffey across from the famous Guinness Brewery in St. James’s Gate. From there we visited Kilmainham Gaol and stood on the site in the stonecutter’s yard where the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were executed. We went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, founded at the end of the 12th century and the heart of the Anglican Church of Ireland since the Reformation. The inaugural performance of Handel’s Messiah was held there in 1742 when the great satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was Dean. The cathedral holds Swift’s tomb as well as King William III’s chair and the battle flags of Irish regiments who served in the British Army.
Later that day we went to Glasnevin Cemetery with its forest of Celtic crosses and majestic O’Connell Tower, dedicated to the “Great Emancipator” Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) who fought for the civil rights of Irish Catholics. We paid our respects to several other notable figures of Irish history who are buried there, including Constance Markievicz (1868-1927), Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891), James Larkin (1876-1947), Roger Casement (1864-1916), and Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1831-1915). At the grave of Michael Collins (1890-1922), our bagpiper played a lament, attracting an appreciative audience of cemetery visitors and staff.
The next day we visited O’Connell Street and the General Post Office, where Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) and the other Easter Rising leaders had made their headquarters. Bullet holes could still be seen in its walls, and a bronze plaque commemorated the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. We walked across the Ha’Penny Bridge and lunched at the Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub (founded in 1198). I was enthralled by the architecture, the street buskers, the shops, and the statues and monuments to historic figures. On the way back to our hotel, we walked past the neoclassical dome and columns of the Custom House, where a fire set by the IRA during the Irish War of Independence burned many priceless historical documents in 1921.
From Dublin we headed west across central Ireland. I marveled at the legendary beauty of the rolling green landscape, even more enchanting in person than it had been in pictures. No wonder Irish people are said to be able to distinguish between the seventy shades of green. In County Tipperary we visited the Rock of Cashel, an impressive medieval castle church and traditional home of Irish kings. As we drove west, we stopped in quaint little towns and slowed the bus on several occasions while herds of sheep crossed the road. The wooly animals were painted with different colors to identify their owners and separate them when they returned home in the evening. These “commuters,” our tour guide informed us, were known locally as “an Irish traffic jam.”
After several such charming delays, we arrived at last in the international city of Galway. I was particularly interested in seeing this part of western Ireland, as I knew that my Finney (Feeney) ancestors hailed from Connaught. Some came from the windswept, barren mountains and lakes of Connemara and others from the green farmlands of County Roscommon. In Galway City we visited colorful storefronts and pedestrian thoroughfares of the Latin Quarter and Shop Street. Here I heard native Irish (Gaelic) speakers for the first time when I passed two elderly gentlemen in woolen golf caps, wreathed in pipe smoke as they conversed. I felt I was hearing the voice of ancient Ireland at last.
We headed south from Galway and drove through the Burren to see the dramatic Cliffs of Moher, where we climbed the O’Brien Tower and listened to our bagpiper serenade the birds above and the crowds of tourists below. A strong Atlantic wind whipped his hair and the tassle of his pipes out like the pennant on a ship. As I watched the waves crash against the cliffs, I remembered seeing this stunning vista in one of the scenes from The Princess Bride in 1987. The Cliffs of Moher have been featured in many other Hollywood movies in the years since then, including the popular Harry Potter series.
Returning to the area around Shannon Airport, we visited Bunratty Castle and Folk Park in County Clare and enjoyed climbing its narrow staircases. We toured the shops and a dirt-floored pub called Durty Nelly’s and then attended a musical show at a nearby restaurant. The band allowed me to step to the microphone and sing “She Moved Thro’ the Fair,” a traditional Irish lament I had performed a few years earlier when I sang with a progressive rock band in Sacramento. It was an unforgettable moment. The band leader smiled when I finished the song and said, “I can hear Ireland in your voice.”
We continued on to Muckross House near Killarney and drove into the sweeping landscape of the Lakes of Killarney. The bilingual Irish road signs and rugged slopes of MacGillicuddy’s Reeks filled me with awe and stirred the imagination. As we drove through a rocky landscape filled with the ruins of 19th century cottages, I thought of my Lynch ancestors and the pain and suffering they must have experienced as they faced the decision of leaving their native land. We passed the childhood home of Daniel O’Connell and monuments to Brendan the Navigator and victims of the potato famine. This entire stretch of Irish countryside filled me with a deep sadness.
Moving into southern Ireland, we visited Blarney Castle in County Cork, where most of our party climbed the stone battlements and allowed ourselves to be hoisted upside down to kiss the famous Blarney Stone. Whether or not we were granted the legendary “gift of gab” as a result, most of us were certainly chattering excitedly when we saw the showroom of the marvelous Waterford Crystal factory on our way back to Dublin. The stunning Times Square Ball, constructed from over 500 crystal panes for use in the recent Millennium New Year’s Eve celebration in New York City, was on display and being worked on by the skilled Waterford artisans.
The final leg of our tour took us to the elegant Powerscourt Estate and Gardens, impressive in their grandeur but also a solemn reminder of the powerful Anglo-Irish “Ascendancy” class that ruled the country for centuries. The Grecian and Asian themes of the gardens were well designed and maintained, but certainly not Irish in the traditional Celtic sense of the word. I felt like Tommy in Brigadoon, already slipping away inexorably from the fairy tale land of my dreams. But my reverie was interrupted by last minute duties as chaperone. We stayed our last night in a fine hotel near Killiney Bay and boarded our plane home to the United States the next day.
I watched from my window seat as our plane departed from Irish soil and kept my eyes fixed on the receding landscape as we ascended. Passing clouds obscured my view, but parted just long enough to catch a final glimpse of the verdant peninsulas of Galway and Kerry stretching their fingers of land into the Atlantic, as if they were waving a poignant farewell. My feelings in that moment were profound grief mixed with gratitude. Perhaps I had somehow accessed ancestral memories during my week there. My forebears loved their green native land, as I had come to do during my visit, but were undoubtedly thankful to escape its sad history and embrace a new life in America. I returned to my own native land strengthened and inspired by their example.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
I moved to Virginia in March of 1973 in the middle of the sixth grade. We were living in Memphis, Tennessee and my father was offered a job at Madison College (renamed James Madison University right before I moved to California in 1977) in Harrisonburg, a small town in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley. Four years earlier, the state tourism board had adopted the new slogan “Virginia is For Lovers.” The round black buttons with the white letters and red heart were everywhere when we arrived.
I would learn over the next four and a half years that Virginia was (and is) especially a place for history lovers. Eight U.S. Presidents were born there, including four of the first five. The first permanent settlement in English-speaking America was established there at Jamestown in 1607. Virginia grew from trade in tobacco, iron, and slaves to the most populous and powerful of the thirteen British colonies, and played a major role in achieving American independence from Great Britain. The preserved buildings and historical recreations at Colonial Williamsburg seek to capture the feel and significance of this bygone era.
Jamestown and Williamsburg are located near the Atlantic Coast, and I visited them both when my parents took me to Virginia Beach for summer vacation. Harrisonburg, however, is located in the northwestern portion of the “Old Dominion,” and it was there where most of my childhood historical adventures took place. The town had a population of around 14,000 inhabitants at the time (today there are close to 50,000) and was surrounded by rich farmland and the parallel forested spines of the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Harrisonburg itself sat in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain, a popular hiking spot in summer and ski resort in winter.
I settled into my new school and formed friendships. I still had a few months of the sixth grade to finish before moving on to Thomas Harrison Junior High School, named after the 18th century settler who founded the town. Once in junior high, I began visiting local historic and cultural sites while delivering newspapers for the Richmond Times-Dispatch (see painted rock below). American history was my favorite class in school. I joined a local Boy Scout troop and attended a Presbyterian church that met in an old farmhouse used as a hospital in the Civil War.
My mother was an avid history buff, and took me with her to several noteworthy places in the area, beginning with Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s stately home in the hills above Charlottesville. She was a big admirer of Jefferson and his eclectic interests. I saw evidence of these in his extensive gardens, the titles in his library, and the collection of artifacts and inventions that were displayed in every room. I marveled at the map brought back by Lewis and Clark and the scientific instruments of Jefferson’s private study. The grounds were lovely and serene and filled with flowers at the time. We had lunch at the nearby Michie Tavern, built in 1784 and a local gathering place during the first decades of the Commonwealth.
I also visited historic homes in the northern part of Virginia, including George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Stratford Hall, the childhood home of General Robert E. Lee. Like Monticello, these houses were well-kept and filled with period furniture and fascinating exhibits. I made several trips to the museums of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC during my time in Harrisonburg, particularly the National Museum of American History, where I saw the gigantic Fort McHenry garrison flag, known throughout the world as the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The museum remains a major attraction today, along with its sister museums scattered throughout the nation’s capital.
Living in the Shenandoah Valley brought the sights, sounds, and tastes of the past alive. There were so many historic churches, storefronts, farms, schools, and battlefields that I was unable to take them all in as quickly as I wanted. The Highland Maple Festival in nearby Highland County showcased colonial arts and crafts and local bluegrass music. Grocery stores had iron horse hitching posts in the parking lot to accommodate the buggies of the local Mennonite community. Farmer’s markets offered delicious and wholesome produce from fertile fields that had been feeding the Valley for two centuries. My mother was enraptured by the recently published Foxfire book series that highlighted traditional Appalachian recipes, crafts, and medicinal remedies.
There were many recreational activities of which I took advantage. Hiking and camping in the mountains of Shenandoah National Park, canoeing down the Shenandoah and New Rivers, bicycling up and down the hilly country roads, and spelunking in local caves were all fun pastimes I enjoyed, especially in spring and summer. I attended high school football and minor league baseball games. I worked in a summer day camp for disabled adults at my church. There were art activities, live music, and holiday festivals all year. Fourth of July fireworks in the nearby village of Elkton in the Bicentennial summer of 1976 were particularly memorable.
Living in such a rich historical environment inspired me to create. I wrote a novel set on the 18th century frontier. I joined a Dungeons and Dragons role playing group in 1975, the year after the paperback rule books were first published by Tactical Studies Rules, Inc. (TSR). I acted and sang in school plays and musicals. I helped my mother dig, plant, and harvest in our extensive backyard vegetable garden. Afterwards we canned fruit together. I wrote letters and poetry. I collected records, costumes, and miniatures. It was a prolific time for a young artist.
In my sophomore year at Harrisonburg High School, I signed up for an independent study course that allowed me to explore a local historical topic in detail and create a special project. I decided to design a board game on the French and Indian War (1754-1763) which I entitled The Fall of New France. I met with history professors at Madison College and began drawing a playing board and pieces, as well as uniforms of the participants (see below). Virginia played an important part in the colonial struggle between England and France. Young George Washington experienced his first taste of battle at Jumonville Glen and Fort Necessity, just over the border in southwestern Pennsylvania, and spent the remainder of the war defending the Virginia frontier.
The historical period that commanded my greatest interest, though, was the American Civil War (1861-1865), in which the Shenandoah Valley formed a major theater of operations. After Virginia seceded from the Union, the Valley provided vital food, horses, and other supplies to the Confederate armies. As such, it became a target for repeated Union invasion. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s brilliant Valley Campaign of 1862 hurled back several Northern attempts to seize the Valley. I remember visiting the monument to slain Confederate cavalry commander Turner Ashby in the woods near Harrisonburg. Ashby was somewhat of a local legend and was the namesake of our rival high school.
I visited local Civil War battlefields at Port Republic and Cross Keys and attended my first reenactment in the Bicentennial summer of 1976. Winchester to the north of Harrisonburg changed hands more than 70 times during the war. The Cedar Creek Battlefield was an interesting destination in the middle of a rich pastoral landscape, as was the New Market Battlefield, where the May 15, 1864 charge of the Virginia Military Institute cadets is reenacted annually. I enjoyed watching the 1965 film Shenandoah with Jimmy Stewart, which was staged as a Broadway musical while I was living in the Valley.
Elsewhere in the state are the battlefields of Manassas, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, and the cluster of sites at Richmond National Battlefield Park, where the outcome of the war was decided in the climactic standoff in 1864-1865 between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. I also enjoyed visiting the Revolutionary War battlefield at Yorktown, which figured prominently in McClellan’s 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Numerous restored 18th and 19th century homes are scattered across the state and show how prominent civilians lived and struggled during these pivotal periods in history. I walked the halls and grounds of many of them during my years there.
I had plans to finish high school in Harrisonburg and stay local for college, perhaps at the iconic University of Virginia campus designed by Thomas Jefferson in Charlottesville. But then my father was offered a job at California State University, Long Beach in the summer of 1977, and my time in the Old Dominion came to an end. I have returned only once in the years since then, in August of 1983 when I was visiting Washington, DC before my first semester of graduate school in Boston. Harrisonburg still looked much the same, including the brick house where I lived as a teenager with its sloping acre of grass and willow trees.
It has changed considerably since then, according to stories from friends and colleagues and information I have seen on the internet. I can still recall the dogwood blossoms in spring, the fireflies of the humid summer, raking leaves in the cool autumn air, and sledding down the nearby hills in winter. But most importantly, my time and experiences in the Shenandoah Valley and other parts of Virginia nourished my love of American history. From these roots grew a fruitful career in teaching and reenacting. Whether or not I see the Old Dominion with my own eyes again, I will always treasure my memories of its natural beauty and rich past.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
Some of my favorite scenes in historical epic films like Gone With the Wind and War and Peace are the ball scenes. I always enjoyed watching the men in their tailcoats and dress uniforms swirl the ladies in their hoop skirts and gowns around a glittering dance floor. I imagined myself being one of those graceful gentlemen, filling my dance card with waltzes, polkas, and quadrilles and dancing the night away to the stirring strains of Strauss, Berlioz, Lanner, and Waldteufel. I wanted to be the romantic lead in my own movie.
Although I was fond of costuming and dressing up as a kid, I did not have much background in ballroom dancing. I remember learning the Virginia Reel and some square dances in junior high in the Shenandoah Valley, but I never had formal dance training. Then I moved to southern California to finish high school during the height of the national disco craze. I learned some moves and took some dates to Disneyland, where at that time a spectacular disco dance show was held during the summer on the stage beneath the Space Mountain ride. By the time I went off to college, disco was fading in popularity. My dancing days were over, or so it seemed.
Seventeen years later, I joined a Civil War reenacting unit and began participating in living history events in northern California. Our group held a winter ball at the historic Hotel Del Monte on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. After several months of marching through mud and heat in a dusty uniform and field kit, sleeping on the ground under a dog tent, and firing my musket, it was time to clean up and make myself presentable on a dance floor. While only officers attended balls in the Victorian era, all our members to invited to participate in the event, including enlisted men such as myself.
While I had managed to clean off the mud and dust and polish my shoes and buttons, my performance on the dance floor was somewhat lackluster. I navigated successfully through the group dances such as the opening Grand March, the quadrilles, and the closing Virginia Reel (which I remembered from school in Virginia), but I fared less successfully in the waltz, polka, and schottische. There had been a rudimentary dance lesson at the beginning of the evening, but watching an expert perform something with apparent effortlessness and trying it yourself are two entirely different things.
My dream of reenacting those famous Hollywood ball scenes had been dissipated by the reality of trying to avoid stepping on my partner’s feet or colliding with other couples moving across the floor. I enjoyed those first few balls as a soldier, particularly the costuming and venues. I attended two at the Hotel Del Monte and one in a rustic lodge in the California Gold Rush town of Murphys, all in the late 1990s. I was part of a company and had a ready made set of friends, acquaintances, and potential dance partners. But my skills on the dance floor remained undeveloped.
By the end of 1999 I began developing an artist correspondent impression as part of my budding teaching career and gradually withdrew from my military unit. I no longer camped at the venue with my company, and when I did stay overnight I usually booked my own hotel room nearby. I did not have a regular dance partner and stopped attending winter balls. I went to a few of the Saturday evening outdoor dances at some events, but more often than not I left the field after the final battle and went home to finish my sketches and dispatches.
Then I met Jill. She was dressed as a Union vivandiere, following the troops into battle and helping to dress the wounded. We became friends and I learned that, among her many other talents, she was a professional ballroom dance instructor who had been operating her own wedding dance business for many years. She designed first dance choreography and had a background in both ballet and competitive ballroom dancing. She was also a professional web designer and had worked for many years creating an online presence for a variety of performers and entrepreneurs. She created a beautiful website for my correspondent impression and began teaching me dance steps.
I had found the dance partner of my dreams. In addition to teaching me basic salsa, tango, swing, foxtrot, and rumba steps, Jill helped me navigate the “period dance” floor at reenacting events. We became members of a local living history organization together and attended their winter ball at the R.M.S. Queen Mary in Long Beach, California in January of 2005. The famous ship was now a hotel and her grand ballrooms, cabins and decks formed the ideal venue for an historic celebration. Jill wore a lovely new ball gown and I had a new tailored black woolen suit.
Never mind that we were dressed in Victorian garb on a ship first christened in 1934 and associated more with World War II than with the War Between the States. If we wanted to be “period correct,” we would have been dancing on the 1863 full-rigged ship Euterpe (rechristened Star of India in 1906 and now part of San Diego’s Maritime Museum). Notwithstanding this historical disconnect, we had a great time at the event. My waltz, polka, and schottische steps began to steadily improve under Jill’s tutelage. She taught me how to navigate the dance floor, how the center was reserved for couples dancing at a slower pace and the outer ring for speed.
When we returned to the Queen Mary for another winter ball in January 2006, I was holding my own, no longer stepping on feet and deftly avoiding mid-floor collisions. I began to acquire other ballroom skills as well, such as how to put together my ensemble, proper table and social etiquette, and the art of conversation. I had considered none of this when I portrayed a soldier. All I needed to know then was how to demonstrate the manual of arms, how to march and wheel into line of battle, how to salute and obey orders, and how to load, fire, and clean my musket. Now that I was moving in a different circle, I had to learn to move properly.
By this time I owned a proper tuxedo with tailcoat and several period cravats and vests. Jill had an impressive collection of ball gowns and other accoutrements. We had a circle of new friends who attended the cotillions and balls with us and formed our regular partners in the quadrilles and other group dances. We attended two outstanding events at the Mission Inn in Riverside (see image above) in the winters of 2007 and 2008. We also drove north to Pasadena’s Masonic Temple to participate in regular events there. Other balls were held at Riley’s Farm in the foothills of Oak Glen and at church halls and country clubs across southern California.
Declining attendance and rising operational costs in the wake of the Great Recession put a damper on the expensive reenacting hobby in general and the ball season in particular, and by 2009 there were not as many grand dance events to attend. We did go to a spring cotillion in Orange County for many years (see image below), but by the end of summer 2011 we decided to retire from the hobby altogether. We packed away our ball costumes and focused on other things.
Seven years later, we decided to leave Orange County and move to San Diego and the scenes of some of our former adventures. I retired from full-time teaching and Jill relocated her wedding dance business. After several years of helping her demonstrate steps for her couples on a part-time basis, I began doing so regularly. We dusted off our Victorian costumes and attended a local Viennese ball at Balboa Park (see top image). I continued to work on my dance skills, focusing particularly on aspects of technique such as shifting weight and proper positioning of head, hands, and feet. Jill had been cast in several television programs and films during her time in Orange County and we began discussing the idea of using our reenacting gear for new purposes.
Historic dances are both fun and instructive, and local groups across the country and the world still participate regularly in them. They are windows into a forgotten time and opportunities for exercise and interaction among people who share a common interest in the past. The internet can direct you to the activities in your area and people to contact if you want to become involved. For those who wish to be transported into a world of elegance and grace, the period dance floor is always waiting.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
I grew up back East with a romanticized view of the West, fed by a childhood obsession with the Lone Ranger, Zorro, and classic western movies. Whenever tedium, frustration, or restlessness overtook me, I would escape into the forbidding cinematic landscapes of Sergio Leone, where gritty gunslingers would square off against each other to a dramatic score by Ennio Morricone. Somehow the “Wild West” seemed like a place where problems had simple solutions, courage and individualism were rewarded, the past didn’t matter, and dreams could come true.
Such a perception certainly drove the growth of the West in American history, from the Oregon Trail and the California Gold Rush all the way to Hollywood and the Silicon Valley in our time. I was no different. When my father announced in 1977 that we were moving from the Shenandoah Valley to southern California, I was ecstatic. I had images of movie stars and Mickey Mouse, suntanned surfers and endless summer. No more shoveling snow in winter, no more scraping mud off galoshes in spring, no more sweating all night in drenching summer humidity. I would be footloose and fancy free in La La Land.
The trip west in August of that year provided enough awe-inspiring sights to reinforce such optimism. From the vast expanses of west Texas to the Painted Desert and Grand Canyon, the West seemed to live up to everything I expected it to be. I had never seen mountains in Appalachia over a few thousand feet in height, so when my eyes first took in the massive dome of Sandia Crest outside Albuquerque, I thought I had landed on another planet. The warm, vibrant colors of Santa Fe and Sedona, the thrill and terror of sudden flash floods, the brilliant artwork of Hopi and Navajo artists, and my first taste of authentic Mexican food all intoxicated my senses.
This rapture was soon checked by the vast, scorched landscape of the Mojave Desert, which we had to cross in August during daylight hours to reach our final destination on time. Several hours of nervously watching the temperature gauge on our rented Ryder truck and pit stops in 100-degree roadside rest areas were followed by a grueling ascent up the slopes of the San Bernardino Mountains. When we finally reached the top of the crest and beheld the sea of smog stretching out below as far as the eye could see, my heart sank. This was not the West of my dreams. I had arrived in an overcrowded, noisy, congested, polluted inferno.
To be fair, this was the Inland Empire during summer rush hour, which even in 1977 was intolerable. If I had arrived at sunset on a Sunday or amidst the green hills and wildflowers of early spring, I might have had a more favorable first impression of the place. Nonetheless, my maiden view of southern California was not a Ma Joad moment out of The Grapes of Wrath. After we finally made it to Long Beach and settled into our new rented home, my initial shock did not wear off. Orientation week at my new high school of 3,000 students was overwhelming (having come from a school in Virginia a quarter of that size). I got lost on campus and stumbled home in tears of bewilderment.
I did find my bearings eventually, making new friends in class and learning my way around. While not everyone was a movie star or a surfer, I did get to see Hollywood and spent the summer after graduation riding the waves in Huntington Beach. I got to meet Mickey Mouse when I visited Disneyland and later worked there as a custodian on one of my college winter breaks. Summer was not endless in California, but there was little humidity (at least in those days) and I did not have to shovel snow in winter (I visited the snow in Yosemite and Mount San Jacinto instead). I went off to college in the northern part of the state and realized that California was actually several states in one.
My interest in the “Old West” had not abated, however, and when I finished my second graduate degree in 1991 and moved to Kansas to begin my working career, I took with me the images of the recently released Dances With Wolves. During my fifteen months on the prairie, I felt a little like the character of Lieutenant Dunbar, stranded in an alien yet fascinating place and seeking a new “tribe.” I found it in the stories of my ancestors (see my blog entry on “Climbing the Family Tree”), and returned to California in the fall of 1992 ready to begin my life anew.
I lived for six years in Sacramento, working in office jobs and exploring the historical sights of the surrounding region. There were and are many shadows of the Old West there, from Old Sacramento and Sutter’s Fort in the state capital to the Empire Mine and Columbia State Historic Park in the Sierra foothills. I visited them all and enjoyed their educational and inspirational value. I spent some time with my late cousin Agnes in her historic 1852 farmhouse in the hills above Sutter Creek and listened to her stories of Gold Rush California as well as family history anecdotes.
During my time in Sacramento I became involved in the reenacting hobby, and attended some events in historic western locales, including Nevada City and Murphys. Some of these areas still evoke days gone by with their wooden sidewalks, historic storefronts, and forested country roads. When I moved to Bakersfield in 1998 to begin my teaching career, I determined to continue my search for signs of the Old West. My new living history impression of artist correspondent permitted me to render each event in whatever likeness and direction my imagination took me.
One of my favorite venues was Fort Tejon State Historic Park, a restored 1850s outpost in the mountains south of Bakersfield. I joined the Fort Tejon Historical Association and participated in monthly reenactments there over the entirety of my seven years in the area. The fort was only a half hour drive from where I was living and working and many drawings of my sketch portfolio were completed there (see the image below). The adobe and wooden buildings, ancient live oak trees, and well-kept grounds were inspirational to me as an artist and still attract thousands of visitors every year.
After my partner Jill (who came up with the title for this blog entry) and I began reenacting together at the end of 2004, we chose several southern California venues with a connection to the Old West, including Wooden Nickel Ranch in Menifee, Old Town Temecula, the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum in Vista, and Calico Ghost Town near Barstow. These sites have restored 19th century buildings and machinery and hold annual events that highlight local history. Costumed reenactors and performers entertain large and enthusiastic crowds. Imagination has been combined with commerce, just as it was when the West was young.
Near the busy Las Vegas Strip is Red Rock Canyon, a dramatic and breathtaking wilderness area that boasts many natural and educational attractions. For three years (2006-2008), Jill and I attended a reenactment at scenic Spring Mountain Ranch at the foot of the mountains there and presented to a local Civil War round table group. As you can see from the sketch below, I found the setting of the event extremely inspiring. The crisp mountain air, wild burros, restored ranch buildings, and pristine desert vistas lent themselves to imaginary western journeys filled with danger and daring. It was hard to believe that such a wild place could be found so close to the bustling boulevards and crowded casinos of “Sin City.”
In June of 2009 Jill and I visited the central plaza of historic downtown Sonoma, once an important outpost of Spanish and Mexican Alta California. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo (1807-1890) once owned tens of thousands of acres and held great political and economic power in the region. We visited the presidio he built there as well as his home at Lachryma Montis, all that remains of his once vast estate. The Bay Area cities of Vallejo and Benicia are named after him and his wife. Vallejo’s story is a sad metaphor for what happened to the thousands of Spanish-speaking people whose lands were annexed by the United States in the wake of the Mexican-American War and the California Gold Rush.
Old Town San Diego, which has been California’s most popular state historic park for the past fifty years, attracts thousands of people every month to its restored adobe and wooden frame buildings, special holiday events, and scores of specialty restaurants and shops. Old Town has been a favorite destination of ours for many years. Like Sonoma, this state park at the other end of the network of historic California missions presents a different version of the Old West, focusing on the commerce and culture of the early Californios and their impact on the growth of the area. It combines education with business and tries to preserve a time in California’s history that has largely passed into legend.
Of course, most of these sites have been restored and refitted with modern conveniences to meet the needs of contemporary tourists. The rather nasty side of the “real” Old West of cholera, dysentery, illiteracy, corruption, swindling, violence, theft, starvation, drought, prostitution, and racial intolerance is not something most visitors are looking for. Calico, for example, went from a booming silver town in the 1880s to an abandoned wasteland twenty years later, its population decimated by disease, disappointment, and despair. This is not the West that appears in movies and dime novels.
But people see what they want to see, and the West of the silver screen is still popular. From recent remakes of The Magnificent Seven and True Grit to this year’s feature film reviving the story and original cast of HBO’s Deadwood series, tall tales of lawmen, outlaws, settlers and soiled doves continue to command large audiences, both at home and abroad. For all its failures and faults, the American West still represents wide open spaces and exciting possibilities. For my part, I have no plans to leave it anytime soon. As an adopted Westerner, riding off into the sunset has become a way of life that works for me.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
In the fall of 1982 I was in my senior year of college at UC Santa Cruz and uncertain what to do after graduation. I was busy working on my thesis on the nisei soldiers of World War II (see my blog entry on “Ghosts of Manzanar”) and wasn’t giving much thought to my long term future. Faced with the sluggish economy of the early Reagan years, I decided to postpone the issue of career choice by applying to graduate school. I had enjoyed the American Studies program at UCSC and began researching other schools that offered a higher degree. I narrowed my search to five: four doctoral programs and one which offered the Master’s level only. I took the GRE and sent off my applications and transcripts.
Two of the doctoral programs accepted me in the spring but offered no financial assistance. Another rejected me outright and the fourth never responded to my application. The M.A. program in American Civilization at UMass/Boston was the only school that accepted me with financial aid. They proposed a full tuition waiver and part-time work as a research assistant for the entirety of my enrollment in the program. With few other alluring prospects and eager for a change of venue, I heartily accepted the offer.
I graduated with honors from UCSC in June of 1983 and headed home to southern California. For my trip to New England, I booked a “drive-away car” that belonged to a professor at Middlebury College in Vermont. This was a popular way to get across the country in those days for young people like me who did not own their own vehicle. All I had to do is pay for gas and deliver the car to its owner in the same condition in which it was entrusted to me. In early August 1983 I set out eastward, mostly along Interstate 80 through the Upper Midwest. This stretch of the country was new to me and I enjoyed driving through the Rocky Mountains and the sea of corn from Nebraska to Ohio.
When I reached New York State, I headed north to visit one of my favorite childhood destinations, Fort Ticonderoga. This historic bastion on the heights of Lake Champlain played a pivotal role in both the French and Indian War (when it was called Fort Carillon by the French under Montcalm) and the American Revolution. I had not been here since I was a boy, and I was excited to walk again along the stone battlements and see the cannon, uniforms, muskets, and other displays that are so well preserved there. The day was bright and sunny and the spectacular views of the lake remain vivid in my memory.
I then headed up Route 9 to the Plattsburgh Ferry, which took me across Lake Champlain to Grand Isle, Vermont and down U.S. 7 to Middlebury, where I delivered my car to its owner and rented a vehicle for the remainder of my trip. I reached the interchange to Interstate 90 in western Massachusetts and made the final leg to my uncle’s home in Pembroke, just south of Boston. I set to work right away combing the classifieds for apartments and eventually found a second story flat in Wollaston, an old working class neighborhood near Quincy. I borrowed my cousin’s truck to visit the place, met my new roommate, and moved in with my typewriter, portable radio, undergraduate library, and modest assortment of mostly winter clothing.
A week later my classes began. Having no car, I took the MBTA Red Line from Wollaston Station to JFK/UMass Station at Columbia Point. A shuttle took me from the train station to the university campus, a stark collection of red brick high rises hugging the windy Boston Harbor coast next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a tall, angular white and black frame structure designed by noted architect I. M. Pei (1917-2019). I met Dr. Irving Bartlett (1923-2006), the founder and head of the American Civilization program, and thanked him for reading my senior thesis on the nisei soldiers of World War II and deciding to take me on as a graduate student. After visiting the campus bookstore, I registered for my fall schedule and settled in for a new semester.
My time in Boston was taken up for many months with lecture and discussion, term papers, and hundreds of pages of reading. I met Dr. Gordon Zahn (1918-2007), a retired sociology professor at UMB and a famous Catholic peace activist, who turned me on to the story of Ben Salmon (1888-1932), the World War I conscientious objector who became the topic of my Master’s thesis. Dr. Thomas N. Brown (1920-2009), a noted scholar of Irish-American history, agreed to serve as another faculty advisor. I also met Dr. James C. Turner (now a professor emeritus at Notre Dame), who was working on a biography of Harvard intellectual Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908) and to whom I had been assigned as a research assistant.
My first jaunts through metropolitan Boston were in this new capacity. Dr. Turner sent me to Harvard’s Houghton Library to review Norton’s papers that were housed there. The MBTA Red Line continued north from Columbia Point through downtown and west across the Charles River to Cambridge, where I disembarked at Harvard Station and made my way across the historic Ivy League campus. The modest brick buildings and manicured quads belied the world renown of the famous Americans who had attended there, including seven U.S. Presidents (Barack Obama – who is my age – became the eighth when he enrolled in Harvard Law School five years after my time in Boston).
I presented my credentials from Dr. Turner to obtain permission to handle the rare manuscripts and dove into hours of poring over handwritten documents. I wore thin plastic gloves to protect the fragile century-old sheets of paper from the oil of my fingertips. As my own research on Ben Salmon progressed, I spent a lot of time in the grand interior of the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. By the end of my first semester, all this close detail work had compelled me to get my first pair of reading glasses. I visited the student optometry clinic at Boston University near Fenway Park and obtained my first prescription for a very reasonable price, then jumped right back into my grueling reading regimen at a renewed pace.
I did take a few trips outside Boston in that first semester, including a visit to New York City and Thanksgiving with my mother’s cousins on the Jersey Shore. I took another drive-away car to Chevy Chase, Maryland, then took the DC Metro to the Smithsonian Museums I remembered so fondly from childhood. The 20th Anniversary March on Washington was taking place and I heard speeches by Coretta Scott King and Gloria Steinem. I drove down Interstate 81 through the Shenandoah Valley to Harrisonburg, my first time there in six years, and saw the house where I lived for four and a half years during junior high and high school.
Back in Boston, I made my way downtown to Boston Common and toured the Massachusetts State House, built at the end of the 18th century, and the historic Beacon Hill neighborhood behind it. The narrow, gaslit cobblestone streets and stately, well-kept Georgian brick row houses brought me back to an earlier time in American history. Facing the State House on the Common was the moving Robert Gould Shaw Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), which was dedicated in 1897 to the bravery of the African American 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and their young white commanding officer. Shaw was killed with scores of his men in a doomed assault on Confederate Battery Wagner in Charleston on July 18, 1863. Their story was later immortalized in the 1989 Edward Zwick film Glory.
Boston is known worldwide for its historic Freedom Trail, which includes tours of the State House, Boston Common, the Park Street Church, and the Granary Burying Ground, final resting place of John Hancock, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and many other heroes of the American Revolution. I made my way to Faneuil Hall and the Old State House, site of the infamous Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. Not far was the U.S.S. Constitution Museum, commemorating “Old Ironsides” and her victories for the fledgling American navy in the War of 1812. As I stood on the plaque at Filene’s in Downtown Crossing that read HUB OF THE UNIVERSE, it was hard as an historian to disagree with such a perception of this amazing city.
By the new semester in January I was getting my feet wet as a graduate student and then freezing them every day as I walked back and forth through the snow and ice from my apartment to the Wollaston MBTA Station (double woolen socks did little to ameliorate my notoriously poor circulation, even at the tender age of 22). I entertained myself by listening to WUMB Radio 91.9 FM (the UMass/Boston NPR station); attending retreats at the Paulist Center, the MIT Chapel, and St. John’s Seminary in Brighton; exercising at the UMB campus gym, going to movies at the discount theater in Wollaston, and browsing through a basement used book seller in Harvard Square. The Red Line took me where I wanted to go and I took advantage of the many opportunities for adventure and enlightenment.
When the snow finally began to thaw, I ventured further afield to see more of New England and beyond. I visited western Connecticut (see above photo) and drove through New Hampshire and Vermont to spend a few days in Quebec and Montreal. I went to the end of Cape Cod and visited Walden Pond in Concord, where a pile of stones commemorated the site of Henry David Thoreau’s secluded cabin. The demands of my academic load prevented me from seeing some of the more well-known historic sites, including Salem and the living history displays at Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation. But I was privileged to enjoy two autumns in New England with their brilliant changing foliage, an exhilarating celebration of the senses I will not soon forget.
At the end of April 1984 I joined my roommate on a road trip down the length of Interstate 95 to Florida, and thence across the entirety of Interstate 10 to California, where we parted ways and I headed north to see old college friends in Santa Cruz. One of them offered me a job as a bilingual counselor at a CYO summer camp in Sonoma County (see my blog on “Teaching as Vocation”) and I spent nine weeks there working with several groups of 9-10 year old boys from a group home operated by the Archdiocese of San Francisco. I enjoyed my summer in the California sun and contemplated plans to enter seminary after I finished my thesis at UMB. By that time I had taken an interest in the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and a career in the ministry.
When I returned to Boston at the end of August in another drive-away car (this one belonging to a Harvard medical student), I was well into my Ben Salmon thesis and done with my work as a faculty research assistant. I worked as a work-study intern at a local peace organization and finished writing my first draft. By the end of the fall semester I was done with my coursework and left Boston and New England. I finished my thesis in Oakland, California in the spring of 1985 and rewrote it three years later in Berkeley for a book contract with Paulist Press.
I have not been back to Boston since. My time there was a seminal event in the gradual evolution of my teaching career. The American Civilization graduate program at UMass/Boston turned out to be an ideal honing ground for secondary teachers. Many of my classmates were already teaching at Boston area high schools and others eventually joined the faculty of the UMB program itself. The question of future career that had perplexed me in Santa Cruz was resolved in the long run by my training in Boston. I never anticipated in 1983 that I would enter the classroom fifteen years later as a professional educator and remain there for two decades. But that is what happened, and I am grateful for it.
The effects of the experiences I had in Boston formed the foundation of a lifelong vocation in the learning and teaching of history and the other social sciences. For those of you considering applying to one of the area’s more than sixty colleges and universities, I highly recommend a visit there. The historical treasures of greater New England continue to offer transformative learning opportunities to all serious students of America’s past.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.
The 18th century British essayist and literary critic Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” I only came to fully appreciate these words after spending a week in the city myself. My experience there was so transformative that I cannot remember the pre-conceived notions about the place I harbored before I went. London is truly a world city, and in it I was introduced to the world in unexpected and enlightening ways.
My maternal grandfather was born in London in 1911. His mother was from Three Bridges, Sussex south of the capital and his father came from Rye, New York. They met while she was on holiday with American relatives on the Jersey Shore in 1910. My grandfather was raised in Staten Island, but his mother eventually retired to England, and as he grew older he traveled regularly to London (see photo below). Later in life he moved to the American Southwest, but he took his British cultural roots with him.
He died in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1991, the same year I moved from the Bay Area to Newton, Kansas and began devoting a lot of time to genealogical research (see my blog entry on “Climbing the Family Tree”). I focused largely on my Irish and German roots at first and gave little thought to my English ancestry until my mother showed me a photograph of my great-grandmother and a series of fine engravings done by her father, a Victorian era London artist named Owen Hanks. This piqued my interest, and I began looking for an opportunity to learn more.
It arrived in the fall of 2003. I was in my sixth year of teaching in Bakersfield, California and my third teaching 7th grade world history. The state curriculum covered the medieval and renaissance periods as well as the age of exploration and rise of European empires. This had not been the focus of my studies in college and graduate school (my major was American Studies), so I was doing a lot of reading and watching documentary films (my favorite was Simon Schama’s outstanding series A History of Britain) to stay ahead of what I was assigning my students in their textbook. So when the opportunity to spend a week in London over my winter break presented itself, I welcomed the chance to see first hand some of the places I was studying.
I flew out of Los Angeles and arrived at Heathrow Airport on Christmas Day 2003. The movie Love Actually was in theatres and posters advertising its release were emblazoned on many of the bright red double-decker buses. Garlands, tinsel, bells, and red ribbon were everywhere. The weather was cool but clear, peppered by the proverbial London Christmas rain shower. I took an entertaining ride in a classic black London cab and arrived at my hotel in Bloomsbury near Tottenham Court Road. That evening I treated myself to a pint and some chips at a local pub and celebrated my arrival in the historic British capital.
My hotel was within walking distance of the British Museum, and I spent several days exploring its stimulating exhibits. I was particularly taken with the Celtic ironwork and jewelry, the collection of African and Asian artifacts, and the overall floor design that resembled the spokes of a gigantic wheel. The Museum was celebrating 250 years and its halls were filled with evidence of the expansion of British power and influence across the world over the course of that period. I took a circuitous route back to my hotel through a light rain, visiting a local bookstore and making note of several historic homes marked by the iconic Blue Plaques. As I took in the sights and sounds of centuries, I had no doubt that I was standing at the heart of the English-speaking world.
I wasted no time in taking in as many sights as I could. I made liberal use of the London Underground, known locally as “The Tube,” and visited Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, and the theatre district of the West End. I took photos of the statues of Lincoln, Cromwell, and Churchill in Parliament Square and conversed with a crowd of protestors decrying the war in Iraq. I toured the stage and gift shop of the restored Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, where Shakespeare had produced so many of his classic works.
Walking past the site of the original Globe, which was under renovation at the time, I visited Southwark Cathedral and the outdoor vendors of the Borough Market. The Anchor Bankside and Brewery and other historic pubs and restaurants were fascinating historic stops. I also went to the Golden Hinde, the 1577 restored sailing ship that carried Sir Francis Drake around the world at the end of 16th century. I wanted to take in every attraction and read every monument.
The highlight of the week was my tour of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which I reached by crossing the Thames on the Millennium Bridge with its sweeping views of river traffic and historic dockside buildings. The exterior of St. Paul’s was being renovated at the time and its western face was covered with a large canvas painted in the outlines of the building. I took a series of pictures of the courtyard statues, including that of Queen Anne (1665-1714), who was the reigning monarch of Britain when the new St. Paul’s was completed in 1710. Looking up to the massive 365-foot cathedral dome, I immediately saw the inspiration for the United States Capitol and so many other neo-classical structures in the States.
The interior of St. Paul’s was indeed breathtaking. The beautiful dome, stained glass, monuments, and chapels were overwhelming in their grandeur and intricate detail. St. Paul’s remains an active church serving the entire city, and I joined the rest of the many visitors in maintaining silence in this hallowed space. As a history teacher, there was so much to see and photograph. The tombs of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, tattered 18th and 19th century regimental flags, monuments to the cavalry regiments of the Crimean War and the British generals killed at the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, and a myriad of other memorials occupied my interest for more than an hour.
Then I went downstairs to the Crypt. Here was (along with Westminster Abbey, which I was only able to photograph from the outside due to the immense crowds waiting to get in from a driving rain) Britain’s equivalent to Arlington National Cemetery. Florence Nightingale, General Gordon, Lawrence of Arabia, Lord Kitchener, and so many other historic figures were entombed or memorialized in the dark chambers and corridors. I felt as if chapters of a history textbook were opening before me and taking on three-dimensional form.
I was particularly excited to come upon the memorials to Britain’s Victorian era “Bohemian Brigade” – famed correspondent William Howard Russell (who covered the Crimean War, the American Civil War, the Indian Mutiny, the Franco-Prussian War, and many other campaigns), combat artist Melton Prior (see image below), and a bronze plaque remembering the British journalists killed in the Anglo-Sudan War between 1883 and 1898. I stood there for several moments in silent reverence and reflection.
London is a walking city, and there was much to see by strolling through its historic neighborhoods. I enjoyed the peaceful lawns and paths of Hyde Park and watching the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. I visited the Victoria and Albert Memorials and the statue of Charles I and the Nelson Column in Trafalgar Square. I toured the grounds of Kensington Palace, including the statue of the young Queen Victoria (1837-1901), and watched a holiday juggling performance in Covent Garden. The historic shops, pubs, restaurants, and homes were all interesting to see and photograph.
London is also an international city, and the people, businesses, and restaurants I saw and visited all bore witness to the worldwide reach of the once-mighty British Empire. The people of London reflected the same diversity as the cultural and historical exhibits I toured at the British Museum. Immigrants from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), Singapore, Malaysia (formerly Malaya and Sarawak), Burma (now Myanmar), Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, the Middle East, and the islands of the Caribbean and the South Pacific had all left their mark on the character of this vibrant metropolis.
There was so much to see. Sadly, I ran out of time before I could tour the National Portrait Gallery, Kew Gardens or the Imperial War Museum, but I did visit several of the London War Memorials, including the Cenotaph at Whitehall and the Royal Artillery Memorial, with its evocative wall of names reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C. I took pictures of monuments dedicated to suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). I took in a show and a New Year’s Eve party in the West End and had a long conversation on Victorian drawings with one of the curators at the British Museum. All in all, it was a wonderful week.
I returned with much new material to share with my middle school students, and later with my high school sophomores when I taught modern world history for ten years in Orange County. But my week in London yielded much more than curriculum resources. I connected with my English roots and gained a new appreciation of British influence on the development of today’s world and my own identity as an American. Dr. Johnson had been right in 1777. For anyone interested in history, literature, art, science, fashion, music, world cultures and cuisine, and international commerce, there is no tiring of this cosmopolitan and historic city along the Thames.
Copyright (c) 2019 Torin Finney. All rights reserved.