Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Garden of Travel: Independence Day in Cincinnati

            The Fourth's not such a big deal here, the van driver tells us, as he takes us from the airport to our hotel downtown (not far from the Ohio River) on a visit to our son. The airport is in the state of Kentucky, which, like Ohio, did not exist at the time of the Declaration of Independence. It's the day before the Fourth of July, but the airport is not very crowded. I had feared it would be a busy, crowded, anxious travel day -- not so much. Not even in Logan, which is ordinarily bad to the bone. Our van driver has all sorts of things to tell us about living in Cincinnati, since he used to live in Salem, Mass.

            "They have their big parade on Labor Day out here," he tells us.

            Whoa, I think. A big labor town?

            He doesn't know why. He has family in Mass., and keeps up, but has somehow missed the earth-shaking fact that the surviving Marathon Day bomber has been sentenced to death. Do you mean the Boston bombing attack is not a drop-dead, stop what you're doing lead item news on the local networks?

            We cross the Ohio River, long famous as the boundary of freedom for escaped slaves at the doorstep of freedom. I have to remind myself that 'border state' Kentucky remained in the Union during the Era of Illegal Secession. Abe Lincoln was born in Kentucky. George Washington never set foot in Kentucky. Nor did he make it to Cincinnati, though Washington loved 'the Ohio,' since it represented the universal dream of 18th century, independence-hungry American patriots: to get rich on owning new western land. In Washington's time, that new western land was called 'the Ohio country.'

            As a career move Washington joined British General Braddock in an ill-considered military expedition into the 'Ohio country' (their goal was the place where Pittsburgh stands now) where the Redcoats were slaughtered by the French and their Indian allies waiting for them in ambush. Dying in Washington's arms, Braddock was reported to have said, "We shall know better how to deal with them next time."

            In this year of "The Color of Change," of police killings and a racist massacre in the Old South, it seems we are still trying to learn how to better deal with divisions among ourselves. How do we cross that river beyond which certain horrors will cease to grow up among us liked ugly, deadly weeds. I hear of urgings that President Obama in some official POTUS cap and gown should formally apologize for slavery. By all means, and to all the world. In our famous Declaration we copyrighted the word "equality," but our behavior showed we didn't really mean it.

            On Independence Day I am a cranky Yankee. But Ohio has no Adams family, no Virginia class of mansion-bred Founding Fathers, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, slave-owners all. Kentucky-born, Illinois favorite-son Lincoln had no slaves, but like most Midwesterners, was no abolitionist himself. Even Walt Whitman, my favorite 19th century American, a New Yorker and world class egalitarian, had a soft spot for the rural 'Southern way of life.'

            Still, it's understandable that Ohio, still Indian territory at the time of the American Revolution, despite French and English intrusions -- the British holding back American settlers from the region in an attempt to keep some tribes on their side -- has no major Independence Day glitter. No freedom trail. No Cincinnati massacre to rival Boston's. No Minutemen. No 18th century historic houses; though no slave quarters either. No sites connected to the founding fathers and their best friends and colleagues. Though plenty of German beer -- far superior, at least to American taste, to anything that Sam Adams could have produced.

            But the city draws its name from Washington's heroic career as Revolutionary general and the newly independent country's first President. His generation of idealistic leaders found models in the "classics" studied for their wisdom by 18th century gentlemen. When he stepped down from the head of the army at the war's end to allow for the civilian rule of a new government, his officers recognized the example of the Roman general Cincinnatus and formed an organization dedicated to the republican ideal of unselfish public service, calling themselves the Society of the Cincinnati.

            Here's another Revolutionary connection. Even today, the Wikipedia tells us, "Cincinnati in particular, and Ohio in general, is home to a disproportionately large number of descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers who were granted lands in the state."

            The place goes back to physical origins around 1800, became a city in 1819, grew to a major trade and manufacturing center, and an important stop on the Underground Railroad. That cheek to jowl border and deep economic ties with the South made Ohio fertile ground for a movement to end the Civil War. The Union Army declared martial law in the city when Confederate raiders struck North. The Union was preserved.

            We did in fact see some fireworks during our visit with Saul. They were visible from Fountain Square, the mid-town public space, for music and the like, though launched behind an electric billboard, as if somebody had been given the wrong map. They were however effectively loud. Even louder, and by all accounts more spectacular were the Friday night fireworks launched by the Cincinnati Reds in their Great American Ballpark after a game. The Reds got pounded Friday night. Fireworks anyway. Saturday night, lost again. More fireworks. Unfortunately, our nice and very reasonably priced downtown hotel had no view of the waterfront .

            However we do it, Independence Day is always worth celebrating.

            We can't underestimate the accomplishment of simply starting up a new country and keeping it together. Think of Sudan: genocide, secession, civil war, massacres. Remember the break-up of Yugoslavia: massacres, hate. Independence Day in 1947 for Indian and Pakistan: grand scale massacres.

            In fact, keeping this country together was no easy job. Remember the American Civil War: a million casualties.

            Guided by Saul, we saw revived city streets in Cincinnati, beautiful old neighborhoods, historic houses, river views, parks. The place that moved me is the one that memorializes that catastrophic blot on the 'stability' and unity of the new independent nation we celebrate each year in the Revolutionary month of July. In a city cemetery of monuments to the prosperous, a quadrant of grass dedicated to some portion of many American lives lost to that war.    

            Coming home from our visit, I wrote a poem that has since been published in the July edition of the Verse-Virtual online literary journal. Here's the link: