I never worked at a factory. I did, for a few months, between my graduation from college and when I went off across the country to graduate school, work at an oil refinery, which at least is another industrial setting. That was the summer of 1988, which not coincidentally was the last time I was shaven; the refinery prohibited beards for safety reasons. I did a variety of things there; some clerical work, some gopher work, some light manual labor, so I was not bored. I find it difficult to imagine myself in something like an assembly-line job, doing the same thing all day long; I think my personality is not suited for that and it would be very hard on me. Other types of factory work are much more varied.
American royalty is an odd lot. We have “Camelot” and the court of JFK, and we’ve seen the Flivver King (Henry Ford), the Mattress King (from the TV series “Friends”) and the King of the Road (courtesy of Roger Miller). We’ve also had Queen Latifah and Prince. Americans seem to have an odd need for royalty—just witness the lavish attention so many Americans pay to British royalty—but in our own country our de facto royalty seem to be celebrities and the incredibly wealthy. “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt was American royalty and so is Kanye West. Sometimes our American royalty leave odd legacies. One descendent of Vanderbilt is news anchor Anderson Cooper. And we’ll get to meet another American royal and his still-enduring legacy.
Most blogs fizzle out after a few months. So too do most attempted hobbies. So I consider it remarkable that I somehow have managed to keep doing both for some years. I write this in July 2016, more than four years after I started the blog, but the excursion I write about took place in late September 2015, so I still remain behind—but am trying to catch up. Fifty is a big fat round number, so it seems like an opportunity to pat myself on the back a little bit. That’s a lot of trips around Ohio, many thousands of miles clocked, and the past few years have given me an opportunity to explore and learn about my state in ways that I had never imagined.
(with apologies to Tom Waits)
Abandoned houses seem to the the theme of this set of photographs and accompanying rambling commentary. The block on which I grew up in El Paso did not have any abandoned houses; indeed, I’m hard-pressed to think of any in my childhood neighborhood. Of course, El Paso was a rapidly growing city and our house was located in the direction of greatest growth. It wasn’t until I moved to Columbus, Ohio, that old abandoned residences first made an impression on me—not that Columbus had any great number of them, but any older center city residential area will have at least some.
In more recent years, thanks to the great recession, abandoned homes have become such a big thing that squatting in them has also become a big thing, including by some of the extremists I study professionally in my “day” job. But the old homes pictured here are not recently abandoned, at least in the majority of cases. They are older homes and many were clearly abandoned decades ago. Why? In some cases, the buildings became decrepit and new houses were built on the same property. In some other cases, new owners may have bought the land—for farming or grazing—but did not need the house on the land. In some cases, houses fell into decay during the owners’ lives and became more or less unsellable in that state, especially in small towns that might have suffered significant population loss. There are a lot of ways homes can become derelict and I may have seen all of them.
Here are a handful of photographs from an abortive trip I took into eastern Ohio on Christmas Eve in 2014. I am afraid I do not remember what caused me to have to cut this trip short, so I don’t have much of a story to accompany these photographs. If I am not otherwise engaged, I like going on photography trips on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, because everything is usually so quiet and deserted.
We humans are a social species, which I guess why one of the most comforting feelings we can experience is the feeling of belonging. I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I was born in northeastern Pennsylvania, where my father is from, but my parents moved our family to El Paso, Texas, where my mother is from, when I was only four years old.
From the time I was four until the time I was sixteen years old, I never saw any of my father’s family: my grandmother, my aunt and various uncles, their spouses and children, not to mention a variety of cousins, great-uncles and great-aunts, godparents, and the like. We simply couldn’t afford a cross-country trip like that. But when I was a teenager, I had an opportunity to go to West Point, New York, for what was essentially a week-long attempt by the USMA to recruit national merit scholars. We arranged the trip so that I could travel first to Wilkes-Barre and spend time with the family there.
I was nervous about that, as my only contact with any of these folks was through scratchy long-distance phone calls and the occasional holiday card. But to my relief, surprise, joy, call it what you will, from the moment I landed and reconnected with these long-lost relatives, I felt like they were family. I felt like I belonged. Is that DNA? Luck? Maybe we Pitcavages simply have charisma oozing out of our pores. In any case, it was a wonderful feeling.
One of the easiest ways to spot when a historian does not know something is to look for the language they use to try to hide that fact. For example, the sentence “Undoubtedly, George Washington was angry when he got the letter” actually means “I have no idea whatsoever how Washington felt, but I’m going with ‘mad.’” Undoubtedly is one of the most common ways historian admit ignorance, but they have many similar stock phrases, all of which basically boil down to “this is my guess.” The fact is, though, that it is hard to know stuff. Any historian worth his or her salt will be painfully aware of all the little (or not so little) gaps of knowledge in anything they write. Sometimes the line beyond the gaps goes pretty straight, so it is not too hard to leap the gap and still be on the right path. But sometimes you just fall into the gap.
I’ve always been interested in foreign words that have no equivalent in English—unless English decides to appropriate them, such as schadenfreude. If you think about it, without a word to express a concept, we don’t even really have that concept, do we? Our culture is the poorer for it, in most cases. Take the French concept of esprit de l’escalier—literally, “wit of the staircase.” Imagine leaving the apartment of your significant other after he or she has just cruelly broken up with you. As you trudge down the stairs, you suddenly begin to think of all the retorts and responses you should have made—only you didn’t think of them until just now. That is the wit of the staircase. It is a perfect concept—why is there no English word for it?
I have such an odd memory. I remember things that I read or write extremely well, and I have a historian’s command of the irrelevant detail. But when it comes to my personal life, my memory is such an odd jumble. I can’t really compare it with someone else’s memory, of course, having experienced only my own, but it is so fragmentary, so impressionistic. My oldest memories are all just a few seconds long, if that: my mother outside the house trying to use a broom to keep water from the basement, rolling a Hot Wheel down a table (I don’t know if our house was completely level), pedaling a Big-Wheel-like contraption around my grandmother’s store/house, seeing something weird (a bat?) flying around in my bedroom, being in the back seat of our car when my parents spelled the word “i-c-e-c-r-e-a-m.” Things like that. Concrete or sequential memories are much rarer. I do remember one, perhaps because I learned a lesson. I remember watching “I Love Lucy” on television, then us turning off the tv and going somewhere. When I got back, I turned the tv on to finish watching “I Love Lucy” only to discover some other program was on. That was when I discovered that when you turned the tv set off, tv programs kept going. Well, they used to, my young on-demand, streaming darlings, they used to.
That is what you might expect for memories of someone 3-4 years old, but the thing is, that is the way all my memories are. That is the way my high school memories are—momentary, fragmentary, mixed up. That is the way my college memories are. Oh, I remember more things, but what is amazing to me is how much I have not remembered—whereas I can tell you with certainly the most obscure details about World War II, something I never came close to experiencing. In some respects I know more about the world I did not live in than the world I lived in. That’s reality giving me an atomic wedgie, that is. Continue reading
I often think that being a child consists largely of being oblivious to the world around you. Children live in a world within a world, seeing all sorts of things, but comprehending or even noticing only a few. Children often have no idea why parents make certain decisions, for example, unless those decisions are explained to them. Things just happen, or don’t happen. My childhood was certainly this way. Many reasons and significances I only learned years later, or not at all. I’ll give one example. When I was around 12 or 13, my father, an inveterate hunter, took me deer hunting for the first time. Every year he went deer hunting near Caballo Lake in New Mexico with a family friend and relatives of that friend. This time he took me with him. It was very cold, up in the desert mountains in November, but I had a lot of fun (though I did not get to shoot at any deer). I kind of assumed that this was simply the first of what would be a long series of annual deer hunting trips I would now go on. But things did not work out that way. My father never took me again. Not once. To this day, I have no idea why. Had I somehow embarrassed him in front of his friends? Had I done something wrong? If I had, I never realized it. But that was the first and last time I went deer hunting.