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.
When last we met, we were in the middle of a sunny but cold February 2016 excursion into southeastern Ohio, just a couple of miles from the Ohio River itself in Washington County, whose county seat is Marietta. Washington County is one of the more prosperous counties of southeastern Ohio—its per capita income is 25-33% higher than that of neighboring counties—but everything is relative. Central Ohio counties have incomes similarly higher than that of Washington County. You can find prosperity and poverty both along the Ohio River here.
I was born in Pennsylvania but moved to west Texas when I was four years old. I remember nothing of it except a hazy memory of the plane ride with my mother and my sister (my father drove). I did not move again until I went to college at Trinity University in San Antonio, to live in a dorm. During the summer the university sent me a letter with information about my dorm and my assigned roommate. My roommate had one of those ambiguous names that could be male or female, which is relevant, because the dorm assigned to me was the Camille Lightner Women’s Honor Dormitory. Together, these two pieces of information had me a little nervous. However, it turns out the dorm had recently been converted to co-ed and they merely hadn’t gotten around to changing its formal name.
In 1988, I made the biggest move of my life, to Columbus, Ohio, to go to grad school. With the exception of my books and my wargames, every possession I owned was crammed into my 1985 Chevy Chevette. It was so loaded down I almost had to pull it the 1,550 miles to Ohio. The only way I could afford to move my (thousands of) books and wargames was to ship it via freight as scrap paper—meaning if something went wrong, I could kiss them goodbye. That was a nervous waiting period until they arrived at the small apartment I had rented, which would turn out to be miserable and rat-infested. I stayed there two years, then moved into a townhouse apartment in a nicer part of town. I would live in that place for 14 years until I finally bought a house and made my last move, to date. By then I could afford to pay people to move all the stuff—and not as scrap paper, either, so it was in many ways the least painless. After I moved in, I discovered the air conditioning was broken and I had to pay nearly a thousand dollars on my first day in the house to fix it. Even after the house cooled down, I had a hard time sleeping that night, in a strange place that I had just bought, consumed by second-guessing my own decision in the largest purchase of my life to date. But it generally turned out okay. I’m still living in it, 12 years later—though still not fully unpacked.
Sometimes the passage of time becomes abrupt, almost jarring. For example, almost overnight, it seems, people stopped referring to taxis and began referring to Uber. “When did Uber become a thing?” I couldn’t help but wonder. Sometimes it is far less apparent—just as you may not notice that someone you are constantly with has aged. One personal example of this involves the Volkswagen Beetle. Like many families of an earlier age, my family used to play “lovebug,” where occupants of a car would compete to count Volkswagen beetles, the first person seeing one shouting “lovebug!” to claim their prize (there is a less genteel version of it called “slugbug,” the parameters of which are presumably clear to the reader, but we did not stoop to that). Once upon a time, the Volkswagen Beetle—the original Volkswagen Beetle—was everywhere. Then, gradually, it was not everywhere. Eventually, it was hardly somewhere. And that’s when you notice time has passed.
We don’t always take the time to appreciate the little things in life. For example, at the moment of this writing, I have a gnat/fruit fly infestation in my house. I don’t know where the little buggers are reproducing yet and I am probably going to have to tear my house upside down. I normally don’t take the time to appreciate a gnat-free house. I do appreciate the relaxation of going on my little excursions across Ohio, but often not until I am actually on the road. What I dread, to be honest, is having to wake up so early. I am such a night person, that getting up early enough to catch even the trailing rays of the morning’s “golden hour” is certainly a chore. One saving grace of excursions in the winter is that the sun, at least, rises a bit later. I need those minutes.
My fiftieth excursion had been a long, nice day and I was ready to go home. But though I was already heading south for home, there was one stopping point left, as long as the light held out: Steubenville, Ohio. Steubenville is south of East Liverpool, also on the Ohio River, and also a struggling Rust Belt town.
Over 17,000 years ago, on the dark, damp walls of a cave in Lascaux, France, a prehistoric artist left paintings of the animals of his or her time. Today those images still have the power to amaze and to transport those few people lucky enough to view them (access is extraordinarily restricted) back to an ancient bygone era, at least momentarily.
It would be thousands of years before humanity began to construct permanent buildings, at remote places like Göbekli Tepe in Turkey (9,000 to 11,000BCE), but when they did, they put images on the pillars and surfaces of those buildings as well, just as their forebears had done on caves.
Buildings and artwork have thus served, from the very earliest periods of humanity’s existence, as our most potent time machines. And they function as such even in the small-towns and back-country of rural Ohio.