On An Old Footpath

Cricket was America’s primary sport before the Civil War you know, says a thick, low, but golden voice. My British friend. Looking delightedly down at my from his 6’4 height, his wizened face crinkles deeper with laughter. This fact he does not let me forget. A few minutes later. You know what America’s primary sport was before the Civil War? Cricket, I answer. More laughter. You’re learning!, he shouts happily. His laugh is a half cackle.

Jack’s thick forearms protrude from usually rolled up sleeves. Very meaty hands belie his non-labor past. He’s RAF through and through, thirty-seven years a pilot and instructor. When I look at his towering frame, easy movements, overall angularity, an angularity cased in thick muscle, I think of the Vikings. His village of Scalby is minutes from the eastern coast on the North Sea. The Vikings surely landed there centuries ago. There is no pure Englishman, just like there is no pure anything else. I imagine Viking blood in this most English of Englishmen.

On an old footpath, I ask him to pose. He leans against the post of the fence, and breaks out a model-worthy pose: hand behind his head, looking off into the distance, one foot crossing over the other. He had instinctively placed his 6’4, 66-year-old body in the position of a sultry female. I snap the photo. What?! You got that? He asks uncontrollably. Delete that! He laugh cackles. I snap again. This one shows his face exploding, in laughter. Yep, I reply. I got that! He then slips into a more socially-acceptable pose, a normal smile, the sultriness has disappeared. I capture that too.

Jack claims Yorkshire is the center of the universe. I’ve crossed the ocean to investigate his claim, and to enjoy this gem of a man. Today we walk along the North Sea, heading south. The sea is on our left. On our right, the countryside, a monochromatic quilt of green shades, and some yellow, pleasantly shaped as squares, dotted with sheep and cows, sewn together with tidy rows of stone walls and lines of shrubs, laid over undulating hills as far as the eye can see. It is friendly and a bit hard to believe. It is soft and kind looking. A blue sky forms the top layer of my vision.

Back in Jack’s blue convertible, he speeds down a winding narrow road. I enjoy the wind and the sun. Finally I ask, what is the name of this road? His full head of flax-colored hair flaps about in the wind. At 66, he really should be happy to have hair. Name?, there is no name, he responds. Trees of a medium height push in on both sides of the road, and the road veers up and to the right, rounding a curve I can’t see around. How in the world do they get their mail here, I shout? The wind carries his answer away, something about areas and numbers. The sun overhead is tremendous; a heat wave for those in Scarborough, Yorkshire. 65 degrees!

We pull into the driveway of his old brick house in Scalby, his hometown – the one surely occupied by Vikings in an age long past – and walk the forty feet to town center. We enter a flower-bejeweled, yet rustic, restaurant. In addition to the ubiquitous fish and chips, Jack declares I must try green mushy peas. So I do. Surprisingly not bad and yes, actually good. After discussing religion and politics at great length, I ask him the most important of questions: what do you associate with the American accent? But before I continue, ask yourself the reverse question, what do you associate with the British accent? Properness, is it not? Properness, manners, rule-following. (Their imperial past belies this but that is a post for another day.) I was delighted at his answer: The Wild West. In his British mind, Americans are rebels; he refers to me as being from the colonies. Thus my accent implies the opposite of what his does: improperness, no manners, rule breaking. Seems American to me!

So, The Wild West has met Yorkshire. And they became fast friends.

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My Soul Arises Indignant

“My soul arises indignant at the avaricious and immoral turpitude which so vile a conduct displays” so thundered James Jackson right after Alexander Hamilton released his “Report on Public Credit”. Did you know finances could be so heart-pounding, moral, and well thunderous? I didn’t. Mr. Jackson also invoked “rapacious wolves” in one sentence. Modern day politicians have a thing or two to learn: their vocabularies are tiny, and one tenth as interesting as their forebears.

But what is “turpitude”? I am told: depravity, wickedness. And “rapacious”? Aggressively greedy or grasping. The first word just makes me think turpentine. I imagine I just demonstrated the smallness of my own vocabulary.

I am making great progress in “Alexander Hamilton” by Chernow, but terrible progress in writing about it. What can I say? Chernow has definitely taken a side, and he did that practically from page one. Yes, the author has an opinion and it is that Hamilton is a spectacular human being. Currently I’m prone to agree. But let’s consider my evidence: all of one book where the author’s personal persuasion is relatively clear.

I’ll close on this interesting note. “For Hamilton, Madison’s apostasy was a painful personal betrayal. [Madison fought parts of “Report on Public Credit”.] … This falling-out was to be more than personal, for the rift between Hamilton and Madison precipitated the start of the two-party system in America.” Who knew?

Alexander Hamilton, Episode 1

Being a good Chicagoan, I have seen and loved “Alexander Hamilton”, the play. Being a nerd, I have started the book which inspired the play. And being a person of drama, I must rank them: the book wins.

Reading Ron Chernow’s Hamilton is like drinking from a fire hose of good words, none wasted. His lack of waste produces force, weight, power. I am even tired sometimes reading his work, but it is a delirious, happy tired. The West Indies are glowing – I can feel their heat – the colonies are barely formed, fractured, confused, and yet I see current American culture nascent in them, and Hamilton is America: young, passionate, unconventional, loud, calculating, risky, informed, and pulsating with confidence (and a host of bad things which can be left for a later post).

Here are the words that piqued my interest, that I simply didn’t know, or that I had once known and am so happy to remember.

purblind
“Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton–purblind and deaf but gallant to the end–was a stoic woman who never yielded to self-pity.”
– having impaired or defective vision

bombazine, de rigueur, bespoke
“Wrapped in shawls and garbed in the black bombazine dresses that were de rigueur for widows, she wore a starched white ruff and frilly white cap that bespoke a simpler era in American life.
– a twill fabric constructed of a silk or rayon warp and worsted filling, often dyed black for mourning wear.
– required by etiquette or current fashion
– dealing in or producing custom-made articles (especially clothing)

betokened
“The dark eyes that gleamed behind large metal-rimmed glasses–those same dark eyes that had once enchanted a young officer on General George Washington’s staff–betokened a sharp intelligence, a fiercely indomitable spirit, and a memory that refused to surrender the past.”
– to give evidence of

disgorged
“Almost by default, the giant enterprise fell to her fourth son, John Church Hamilton, who belatedly disgorged a seven-volume history of his father’s exploits.”
– to discharge or let go of rapidly or forcefully

hagiographic
“Before this hagiographic tribute was completed, however, Eliza Hamilton died at ninety-seven on November 9, 1854.”
– the writing of the lives of saints; idealizing biography

I’m only to page 4 so I will close with this (from the prologue):

In all probability, Alexander Hamilton is the foremost political figure in American history who never attained the presidency, yet he probably had a much deeper and more lasting impact than many who did. Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive… As the first treasury secretary and principal architect of the new government, Hamilton took constitutional principles and infused them with expansive life, turning abstractions into institutional realities. He had a pragmatic mind that minted comprehensive programs. In contriving the smoothly running machinery of a modern nation-state–including a budget system, a funded debt, a tax system, a central bank, a customs service, and a coast guard–and justifying them in some of America’s most influential state papers, he set a high-water mark for administrative competence that has never been equaled. If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America’s future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.