December 2010

Posted by Ellen

Back in the mists of time, very shortly after construction of the first low bridge, they must have installed the first device warning boats or wagons or SUVs with roof racks about that low bridge. Over the centuries, some of these warnings have made it into song, as on the Erie Canal: "Low bridge, everybody down. . . ." Many warnings have made it into video; check out "Low Bridge" on YouTube, or for the less high-minded among you, check out "Low bridge crashes" on YouTube. 

One high-tech warning device uses light sensors to detect vehicles too tall to clear an underpass. When the sensors are tripped, bright lights start flashing on a warning sign. In Durham, North Carolina, this sort of setup also includes two video cameras that start rolling whenever the lights start flashing, to record from multiple angles what drivers do in response to the warning. Many of them kept right on driving; on YouTube, you can join the 382,000 viewers who have "enjoyed" "Thirteen crashes in thirteen months" (11 feet 8 inches).

Keeping that bridge in good repair must have gotten expensive, so the railroad decided to armor the trestle with steel beams mounted at bridge-height a few feet in front of the actual bridge. It's much cheaper and quicker to put up a new beam than to fix a damaged trestle. As of 2009, the beam had been replaced once.

Why do people keep hitting the bridges? If you look at the crash videos, you'll notice that most of the vehicles involved are rental moving vans--in other words, fairly tall trucks being driven by people who are used to driving cars that can fit anywhere. I once drove 1,200 miles in a rented truck, and I definitely could have been a statistic--low bridges, gas station canopies, drive-thru bank tellers, etc., were just not on my regular radar.

Why do we have so many low bridges? Apparently, most are railroad trestles which cannot be raised without major track realignments to avoid steep grades. The alternative of lowering the auto road is also impractical in most cases, especially where it might threaten the foundation of the railroad bridge.

But in Griffin, Georgia, they seem to have come up with a low-tech solution that might grab the attention even of a typically distracted driver like me. If the words on the sign didn't stop me, I suspect that the thwack of hitting the sign might make my day.



Posted by Ellen


Young Hanky got himself into this pose all by himself, with no help from Photoshop. The flexible back and seriously sturdy neck would serve him well athletically when he became a high school wrestler, but back in 1998, when this photo was probably taken, he had other interests, notably Beanie Babies. Rumor has it that as of this weekend, he's finished his first semester of college and shipped his snowboard back to Maine for some serious semester break.

Posted by Ellen


This first grade class in East Meadow, on Long Island, New York, had 32 students in 1957, which was probably a typical class size. Schools just couldn't be built fast enough in the 1950s to hold all us baby boomers coming of (school) age in thousands of new GI subdivisions springing up around cities all over America.

The boy standing second from left, wearing a turtleneck, is Norman.

Posted by Ellen


This being Philadelphia and all, we might have a winter this year, but then again we might not. So far, we've had about half an inch of snow and half a week or so of ridiculously cold weather. This is the evening rush hour Thursday on 21st Street.

Posted by Ellen


Ian Hundley sewed the quilt, doubtless inspired by views of the world from airplanes and satellites. But a full century earlier, before there were any airplanes or satellites, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the rhyme for this vision, for an imagination embracing the whole world without ever getting up from bed. His verse concludes:

I was the giant great and still 
That sits upon the pillow-hill, 
And sees before him, dale and plain, 
The pleasant land of counterpane.

Posted by Ellen


The One Liberty Place tower pokes out from behind the rest of Philadelphia late on a winter afternoon.

Posted by Ellen


In the 1850s, John Brown announced to trusted friends and family that he'd been chosen by God to end slavery in the United States. He traveled first to Kansas, where abolitionists and slave-holding settlers were battling for control of the territory. Then he went to Canada to raise money, gather supporters, and lay plans for an uprising.

In October 1859 Brown returned to the United States with a couple of dozen men, white and black, and a plan to organize slave revolts in the mountainous regions of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. From mountain hideouts, abolitionist bands would help slaves attack their masters and conduct guerilla-style warfare against slaveholders and their civilization.

Brown's first target was the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in what is now West Virginia. The men were already well armed, thanks to donations from abolitionists, but additional weapons would be needed to arm the hundreds or thousands of slaves that were expected to join the revolt. Brown's raiders cut the telegraph line, took hostages including George Washington's nephew, captured a train on the B&O railroad line that passed through town, and took the armory.

But the ultimate success of the plan depended on sparking a general rebellion of slaves throughout the area, which never happened. After a few hours, U.S. Marines led by Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart arrived from Washington; Stuart attempted to negotiate a surrender but when Brown refused, the raid was put down in literally three minutes.

During those three minutes, Brown was severely wounded by a sword blow, from which he never recovered. At his trial for treason he lay on a stretcher and barely participated in the proceedings. He was hanged on December 2, 1859.

Slaves did not join him in revolt, but they sang about his body, mouldering in the dust, and about his soul, marching on. Less than two years later, civil war engulfed the whole country, and less than two years after the war began, Lincoln proclaimed that slaves were free.

The military commanders who had quashed Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, Lee and Stuart, resigned their commissions in the U.S. Army and fought for the Confederacy.

This image of Brown's warriors approaching the Harpers Ferry arsenal is from a 1941 series of twenty-two paintings by Harlem artist Jacob Lawrence that illustrate the life and legend of John Brown.

Posted by Ellen


In August 1939, this unemployed lumberjack and his wife showed up in the bean fields of eastern Oregon, hoping for a few weeks' work picking beans. Even though New Deal photographer Dorothea Lange was not expected--and in fact was not permitted--to note the names of the people she portrayed, we actually know a fair amount about this couple, thanks to the tattoo on the man's right arm. It's his Social Security number.

He is Thomas Urs Cave, 535-07-5248, and he must have been among the first Americans covered by Social Security, which started up for many workers--including lumberjacks but not farmworkers--in 1937. Tattooing Social Security numbers was not uncommon among people who may have feared that paperwork would disappear, or that they themselves might wind up in a ditch without identification. Mr. Cave's tattoo is a bit unusual, however, because it's right side up; usually, Social Security numbers were tattooed upside down, for easy reading by their owners.

He was born in July 1912, making him 31 when this picture was taken. He must have lost his logging job sometime after January 1937, when Social Security started up, so he was fairly new to the life of migrant farm labor. Three years after picking beans in eastern Oregon, he was drafted into the army, where he served till early 1946. He died in 1980 in Portland, Oregon, at the age of 68.

His army enlistment records identify him as "divorced," but his death records list a wife named Annie. The woman shown here may be the first wife; she might also be Annie, a girlfriend in the bean field days but eventually a second wife. 

Thomas Urs Cave did eventually collect on his Social Security.

Posted by Ellen

There is a place in Portland where children jump in inflatable bounce houses to fight one another with inflatable swords and pikes and lances. Here, in this plasticized alternate reality, Josh and Emily have at it.

Posted by Ellen


The best singer from my neighborhood here in Philadelphia might be the best singer ever from any neighborhood anywhere: Marian Anderson. A future Good Morning will look at her in the neighborhood; for now, let's get straight to the singing.

We remember Marian Anderson as the artist-entertainer who first broke through the color line in 1930s America. We do not remember her the way she appears in this Richard Avedon photo from much later in her life; she was not the sort of woman who let her hair down in public, literally or figuratively.

Maybe she looked a little like this sometimes down in the basement of the South Philadelphia rowhouse she bought with the earnings from her European concert tours, a basement in which she installed a piano and a champagne cooler and extra soundproofing in the walls. But even in her private music-making, it is hard to imagine her settling for anything less than, or straying very far from, the highest standards of Western highbrow music. Her training had been hard to come by, but she had mastered her art like nobody before or since. That's what Arturo Toscanini said after listening to her in Vienna, and it's what Jean Sibelius said when he begged her to let him write a song for her.

Seventy-five thousand Americans, white and black, gathered outside the Lincoln Memorial on a cold April morning in 1939 to hear Marian Anderson sing for them. Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt had arranged the concert after the Daughters of the American Revolution had refused to let her perform in their hall, which like all accommodations in Washington back then was completely segregated. She would go on to sing at the inaugurations of presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and in 1963 she returned to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to sing for hundreds of thousands of Americans at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, march on Washington.

You can hear her sing at these and other events, from the 1920s through the 1960s, on YouTube. Even though the quality of the recordings is sometimes disappointing and the highbrow diction characteristic of the era's artists can be distracting, you'll hear a voice so silky and deep and glowing that it hurts.

She performed classical recital songs and operatic arias, and her rendition of Schubert's "Ave Maria" was particularly beloved, even though she was an alto, not a soprano. Her concerts also included "Negro spirituals," to which she applied her professional training; she didn't let loose with them but stayed cleanly loyal to the melody, performing them just as carefully and elegantly as she did her European art music. Nobody sings those songs that way any more, but Marian Anderson could pull it off.

Here she is singing "You hear de lambs a-cryin."