Lakehurst

•November 14, 2008 • 1 Comment
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The site of the crash of the Hindenburg, May 6, 1937

What is remembered? Are you? Am I? And if either of us is, do we get to decide how? Or is that left up to those same timeless forces that drive us to the strange crossroads of our lives? That is, do we have no more control over our legacies than we have over our lives? I don’t know.

I am standing on a lonely windy field in the Pine Barrens, a field that reminds me of those endless stretches of flyover that Easterners take great pride in not being able to name, a field that is hardly thought of by any beyond the nearby town or those stationed here at the Naval Base. But this is where the Hindenburg crashed, in less time than it took you to read these two paragraphs.

You can’t imagine how big it was. They will tell you numbers as you stand at the memorial and it will all be meaningless to you. They may say that it was only 80 feet shorter than the Titanic, but what does that mean? They may say it was eight hundred feet long but who can grasp that, really? It is not until you stand in the hangar that was built for it that you begin to understand, and you are literally stunned. The hangar – in which the Hindenburg barely fit – is enormous. It’s colossal. It could house three 747s. It’s more than thirteen stories tall. And as you get dizzy looking at the ceiling, you begin to imagine something this big crashing from the sky in a burning, twisting heap. Because it’s like that, like a building dropping from the sky. A lighter than air building that was no longer lighter than air.

The trip across the Atlantic had been surreal – a vast grey mist enveloped them as they hovered over an unseeable ocean. Maine had been no better, enshrouded by thick fog, and the weather had only broken briefly as they sailed across Manhattan, allowing them a moment to wave at the tourists on the Observation deck of the Empire State Building as they made their way down to Lakehurst to land.

But Lakehurst could not take them yet. The wind was whipping at 23 knots, and so they were advised to ride out the storm by heading to the shore, sailing over the beaches at Toms River, Seaside Heights, Asbury Park. At five Commander Rosendahl, who was in charge at Lakehurst, ordered the 92 navy and 139 civilian personnel out onto the field to receive the Hindenburg. At 6 came the heavy rains that drove them all back in doors. At 6:12 the skies began to clear and Rosendahl signaled for the Hindenburg to come in. No response. Two more messages. Finally word that they were at Forked River, 14 miles to the south. And then at 7:00 they see her, up from the southwest, passing over the site.

But time was running out. The next storm was coming in fast. Pruss makes a full speed turn to the left to circle the field. By 7:11 he is down to 590 feet, still at full speed. At 7:14 he’s dropped another 200 feet, and begins to slow down finally as he approaches the mast. At 7:18, he makes an uncharacteristically fast and sharp turn to finally line up with the mooring tower, and many people now think that this probably caused a bracing wire to snap, slicing open one of the rear cells, releasing hydrogen. The tail begins to drag uncharacteristically as they descend, so they drop ballast once, twice, three times. Now the mooring lines hit the soaked Lakehurst landing field, grounding the ship. And then there’s a flash. And the rest is history.

It’s practically standing still now. They’ve dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and they’ve been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It’s starting to rain again. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just enough to keep it from — It’s burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it’s falling, it’s crashing! Watch it! Watch it! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! It’s on fire — and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames; and the — and it’s falling on the mooring-mast. And all the folks… this is terrible; this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh my Jesus! Its flames… Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it — it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It’s smoke, and it’s flames now and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring-mast. Oh, the humanity! And all the passengers screaming around here. I can’t even talk… Their friends are out there! It’s — I can’t talk, ladies and gentlemen. It’s just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. And everybody can hardly breathe. And the screaming! Listen, folks; I — I’m gonna have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.

And that was it. It was over. The Hindenburg. Air travel by Zeppelin. Even Lakehurst – who never asked to be remembered this way. Who barely is. All of it, in 34 seconds.

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112 Mercer Street, Princeton, New Jersey

•September 22, 2008 • Leave a Comment

The home of Albert Einstein from 1935 to 1955

Was it even remotely what he had been expecting? People have such peculiar perceptions of America, and back then when the century was still young, and when the mythology of this city on a hill that we were manufacturing was beamed from Hollywood into the brains of Europe and the world, did they expect gold? Did they expect silver dollars in the streets, and a manservant in every doorway bearing an uncanny resemblance to William Powell? Did they expect endlessly rolling lawns and country club views? Or were they merely relieved to have escaped the anxiety and pressure of the Reich? Of the threats of obliteration? Of terror? And did this comfortable white house with its simple black shutters and doorway, only have to be what it was, a safe place? A home base as if the gathering storm of World War Two was some horribly awry game of tag, to which Einstein had some how managed to get home from, even as he saw others who had not.

Or did it even matter? Was this a man who lived so inside the endless complexity of his own brain that he was unaffected, unperturbed by the outside world? Burlington, Berlin, Bombay, it wouldn’t have mattered. No, I can’t believe that. Because it was here that he wrote to Roosevelt about the atomic bomb. Because it was from here that he argued with Bohr about the universe. Because it was from here that Brandeis wanted to name a university after him, and from here that Israel lobbied him to be their first president. No, he did not come here to hide. And yet, when he walked up these steps the first time, suitcases in Elsa’s hands, the dust of Europe on their shoulders, when he looked at that front porch, from which he knew he’d watch cars pass until his death, what did he think?

And you realize: you have no idea. For here was a man in his fifties who had revolutionized the world in his twenties. A man who, in the intervening years, the popular world had made a celebrity the likes of which we, even in our celebrity-obsessed world, can not even begin to imagine, but whom the scientific world in that same interval, had dismissed as a relic. As a performing elephant. Who looked upon him as a sort of Willy Loman, body hunched over from fatigue, best years long gone.

For what more could he say? What more had any scientist ever said? In the history of science, no one had ever had a second act. They were like great comets, and the most you could hope for was to watch them bask in their own dying embers.

You look at the house and you think it looks not unlike the man himself would probably look if he were a house. Unintimidating. Lacking in pretension. Transplanted. Yes, “transplanted” – the house was moved here from Alexander street in 1875, right before Einstein’s birth. But with it’s narrow porch and effortless windows (windows, it should be noted, that have blinds and, it would appear, shades, on the inside. Well, it is a private residence after all), you can almost imagine Andy and Barney sitting out on a dry summer evening, strumming lazily under the stars.

So why here? In this unaffected house on this Norman Rockwell street in this sleepy college town? Why not New York? Or Los Angeles? Or Washington? Some place more accustomed, more capable of providing the infrastructure for notoriety. More experienced at catering to the kind of world celebrity that he shared with only a handful of people. Why here?

Because here, there was quiet. Finally. Here at long last was the opportunity to experience what he had been searching for his whole life. To be left alone. Imagine that. That he had to come to America, the land of the frenetic twenty second luminary, the land of flash and noise and static, to find this peace and quiet. He had to come here, to be left alone with his brain. To a place where the distractions of life could be minimized. Where his fall from favor was actually a blessing. Where he could dive deeply day after day into the places only he and perhaps five people alive could go. With no worries of success, with no worries of survival. Because he was past those. He had published the theory of relativity – he had had his success. He had escaped the Nazis – he had had his survival. But here. Here there was just thinking, deeper and deeper, to the places no one knew existed, and that heretofore he had only had glimpses of. What a revelation that must have been for him! What an inexpressible blessing. No wonder he believed in God! No wonder he believed that God did not play dice with the universe! How else could he explain being here?

And as you stand on his curb, looking at the small lawn he looked at, the porch he relaxed upon, the trees that shaded him, you wonder if even he could have understood all that when he stood on this porch the first time? Did his genius go that far? To how a tree-lined street of colonial homes in a small American town was vital to unlocking the deepest mysteries of the universe?

Grover’s Mill

•August 10, 2008 • Leave a Comment
Memorial Plaque

Memorial Plaque

I have a very vivid memory of an event that happened twenty-four years before I was born. There was a TV movie called “The Night That Panicked America”, about Orson Welles’ broadcast of “War of the Worlds”. Near the end of the movie, when the hysteria had reached that nearly unbearable level, and the main family that we’ve been following through the story, the family that has made the terror real to us, is sitting in the middle of the Lincoln Tunnel, stranded, trapped by traffic and god knows what else. Lights are bearing down on them, like the lights they’ve heard the Martians had, the terrible lights that created their horrible heat ray that had already killed so many. And you can see the terror in the father’s eyes. And he has his children in his arms as he cowers by the corner of his car. And the children are covered in his coat. And his eyes, they’re as large as saucers. And the gun in his hand is pointed at his children’s head because he can’t bear the idea of them being subjected to the gruesome nightmares of intergalactic death that are wandering through his brain. And he’s shaking. And the child is asking what’s going on, what’s going on? Is asking why can’t I see? Is saying it’s hard to breathe in here daddy. And the gun is shaking, and the finger is pulling on the trigger, and the lights are getting closer and closer and closer. And the sweat on his face is blurring his vision. And something seems to be emerging from the lights, and he’s trying to summon the courage to save his children. And then he realizes that it’s a police officer and that those are police lights. And the cop tells him it was all just a radio show. Tells him that he should take his family out of this tunnel. Tells him he should go home.

And I’ve often wondered what happened to the hundreds, some say thousands, of men like that, men who became hysterical with fear, who were convinced that the end was nigh, who had endured the unfathomable depths of the Depression, who were reading about Hitler taking over Germany, who had seen their world transformed in so many ways – good and bad – what happened to those men? Were they ashamed? Were they amazed at what lengths they had pushed themselves? Did it make them more suspicious? More circumspect? Did they spend the rest of their lives second-guessing their instincts after that night? Or did they just file this experience away in some dark corner of the brain, never to be spoken of again?

I don’t know. So I went to Grover’s Mill to see if I could figure it out.

Grover’s Mill was where Orson told us that the Martians had landed. I don’t know what it looked like then, but my guess is not much different from what it looks like now: a tiny little crossroads, not even a town or a village, a few miles from Princeton. Howard Koch who wrote the script for the radio broadcast, picked it at random from a roadmap of New Jersey. There’s a pond and some beautiful old houses that give the place a timeless air, and there’s a park with a modern jungle gym, and some picnic tables and barbecue grills and a plaque commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the broadcast.

It’s a nice plaque, as plaques go. There’s Orson in the middle of it, hand raised in clarion call toward the microphone. There’s a family gathered around their Crossley Cathedral. Are they excited? Are they enthralled? Are they afraid? It’s hard to tell. And up at the top, of course, are the Martians, their evil tentacles emerging apocalyptically from their flying saucer.

I stood there and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck start to stand up, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. Why? Nothing happened here. It’s not like walking among the crosses at Normandy where you can feel the heavy weight of so many souls. Nothing happened here. There were no Martians. There was no heat ray, no dead bodies, no invasion. All there was was panic. Simple mass hysteria. And that’s when it hit me. That’s when I realized what Grover’s Mill really was: the perfect monument to the twentieth century.

This is the monument to the power of technology. To the power of technology when allied with the creative imagination. This is a monument to the incendiary volatility of ideas, ideas borne of the marriage of technology and imagination. This is a monument to the power of hysteria, a monument that honors the birth of the kind of mob mass-rule panic that we who have witnessed what came after 1938 now take for granted. And when you stand here, amidst the suburban houses and the idle geese on the idyllic pond, when you stand here, down the street from the ancient water tower that the locals shot up in their midnight panic that night, when you stand here and you feel the hairs on the back of your neck start to tingle, you can say to yourself, I know what that is. It’s the twentieth century spinning around me like a mad angry dervish. It’s only the twentieth century.

Washington’s Crossing

•July 6, 2008 • Leave a Comment
The Delaware River

The Delaware River

They think I’m mad, these few who are here on the banks of the Delaware. They think I’m out of my head. Me, I just think I don’t know what I’m doing.

The land is low and the river winds through it effortlessly. Trees cling to its banks, and the further down you go you realize just how close Pennyslvania is. A short walk if it froze or something you could probably swim in summer. I move off the grass and right down to the water’s edge, and ducks scatter from nearby brambles and brush, gliding out into the river, and then, as I keep walking, taking flight.

I am surprised by how clear the water is. I would have thought that a river as industrial as this would be dark and milky. But it’s clear – you can look right down and see the bottom. I can look right down and see my feet. I can see my feet because I have taken off my shoes and I have waded into it to give myself some impression of what it was like on that Christmas Day. But it isn’t working. For even though it’s January, it’s only about forty degrees out. So while the water is damn cold, amazingly it’s not cold enough. And the river bank is a mess of mud that I am slipping and sliding in. If this were 1776, it would be as immovable as granite. Plus I didn’t just walk twenty miles across equally frozen Pennsylvania farmland after sleeping under the stars in little more than rags. I drove here in my car.

Why? To figure out why, or maybe just how. How is it that on an insanely cold night, in the middle of the kind of Noreaster that the volunteers from Marblehead and Maine thought they’d escaped, did this happen?. Why was it here, on this improbable river bank, after escaping from New York with a riskiness that would make later generations recall Dunkirk? Why here, after being chased all the way across New Jersey as winter began to roar, dispirited, hopeless, winless, with the British sniping at them from behind, and with naysayers and backbiters sniping at them from everywhere else. Why here? Upstream from where the best troops that money could buy where warm and comfortable and well-armed.

I look out across the river and try to imagine it that night, and all I can think of is the painting. Emmanuel Leutze’s great masterwork, with Washington in the front, Monroe holding the flag, and great island-sized ice floes in the river. But you can’t trust Leutze, because he was a man with a mission. Standing in his studio in the middle of Europe, he wasn’t thinking about this riverbank. He was thinking about Europe. Thinking about using this great painting to rally the revolution going on around him. To inspire them with the trials of the past. To inspire them to create the paradise of the future.

All admirable goals, but, as I begin to lose feeling in my toes, I start to realize, not the point. Because these men were not thinking about the future. They were not even thinking about the past, really. They were thinking about the present. The miserable, horrible, nasty, brutish and short present.

Thomas Paine understood that. Because he walked out of New York with them. Walked in the trail their bloody footsteps made down the Palisades, across the Piscataway and the Raritan. That’s why he wrote that these are the times that try men’s souls. And why he wrote that he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Not tomorrow. Not seventy-five years from now in a studio in Bohemia. Right now. Because there was no more tomorrow for these men. If there was, do you really think they’d have tried it? Do you think they’d have loaded frightened horses and heavy artillery onto leaky flatboats in the middle of a blizzard? That they’d have stood virtually barefoot in a foot of freezing water – all for the privilege of walking through a blinding snowstorm into their likely deaths at the hands of the same German troops had already kicked their asses in New York? These are not the actions of men with something to live for. These are the actions of men hopelessly bound to the present. For whom the past was as useless and meaningless and stupid to them as the future was. This was about the now. And they hadn’t been beaten in the now, yet.

And maybe that’s why, years later, after having his fill of revolutions, Paine returned to a house not far from here. Maybe he wanted to be near the memory of the miraculous nowness of that night. Maybe he thought he could capture it’s magic. I don’t know.

But ultimately, that’s why this place is important. Beyond everything else that we think about when we think about Washington crossing the Delaware. Beyond the inspirational painting. Beyond even the war that was won. What this place reminds you is that you can change the present. It doesn’t say it will be easy. It doesn’t say it will be glamourous. It doesn’t even say you will always be successful. All it says is that it is possible.

And knowing that, I wonder: what do I do now?