Confessions of a Train Passenger

Amtrak in Western Pennsylvania

I watch and listen to strangers. At the park. In restaurants. In stores. On the train.

Several years ago, I rode the Amtrak by myself from Washington, D.C. to Pittsburgh. The Capitol Limited. I sat in the coach section.  A man and woman sat behind me. They were both white and slightly older than myself. This couple – especially the man – talked throughout the ride. To each other. To the conductor. Also, the man talked to numerous folks that I never saw – on his phone.

I never spoke to this couple, and yet I learned much.

The man grew up in Connellsville, PA. He most recently lived in Louisiana. He and the woman had just taken the Amtrak from New Orleans to Washington. Now, they travelled from Washington to Connellsville on the Capitol Limited.  At which point they intended to show up with no prior notice at the home of the man’s parents in Connellsville.

The man had not seen his parents for 17 years.

You see, this is why the man spent large amounts of time on his phone during our trip. He needed someone to give him and his woman a ride from the train station to his parents’ house.

So that he could show up unannounced on his parents’ doorstop after 17 years.

In between these phone calls, the woman asked the man if he thought that his parents would like her.

The Amtrak stopped in Connellsville before it reached Pittsburgh. This couple disembarked and I never heard from them again.

Later, I thought about posting a “Lost Connection” ad to see if I could learn the ending of this story. Post it where, though? Facebook? Reddit?

Or maybe somebody who knows the ending will Google “Amtrak” and “Connellsville” and find this blog.

(This is a redux from the blog that I created with my husband Jonathan, www.jennyandjonathangetmarried.com. I will shortly pull more of my favorite stories out from the crypt. I want to share more of my favorite moments and places with you fantastic readers.)

Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber

Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber Induction Ceremony, June 2015, Downtown Pittsburgh

This is a photo of the induction ceremony for the Black Rock Negative Energy Absorber at the 2015 Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. The ceremony and the festival occurred in Point State Park (at the Point) in downtown Pittsburgh in June 2015.

See, the festival occurs each year during the week of my husband Jonathan’s birthday. So, we usually spend Jonathan’s “birthday weekend” at the festival. We plant our camp chairs at the festival and view whatever programming appears.

In 2015, we showed up at the festival about noon on “birthday Saturday” and looked at the schedule. We actually arrived a few minutes before the start of this “induction ceremony,” which happened directly in front of our chairs. So, we watched this ceremony.

Now, the festival commissioned Rudy Shepherd to create this artwork. At this “induction ceremony,” the artist (pictured above) spoke about all of the negative energy that he designed this artwork to absorb.

This ranks among my favorite artwork from the festival!

Now, if you’re not familiar with Western Pennsylvania, know this: downtown Pittsburgh marks the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, and the mouth of the Ohio River. That’s why Pittsburgh exists. George Washington served in two military campaigns in the 1750’s to claim this land for the British.

After the second campaign, the very piece of land in my photo became the British Fort Pitt.

A lot of blood spilled over this piece of land.

If you want to read a bunch of depressing stories about Fort Pitt and the founding of Pittsburgh, you don’t have to work too hard on your Google search. There’s even a Lore podcast shout-out to the Fort Pitt smallpox blankets.

If you want to read “upbeat” historical fiction about this, then I recommend the novel The King’s Orchard by Agnes Sligh Turnbull.

Anyway, I have a rock that I took from the Great Lakes that I can use as my own negative energy absorber.

I Grew Up Near the Flight 93 Crash Site

This isn’t a political post.  I’m not going to repeat any rumors, conjectures, or hearsay. This is my personal experience on September 11, 2001.

Flight 93 crashed less than 10 miles from my parents’ house in Somerset County, Pennsylvania. I grew up in that house. In September 2001, I was between apartment leases, so I lived in that house with them and some of my sisters.

I worked at my first post-college “office job” in downtown Johnstown, PA. Johnstown sits just north of the Somerset County line.  Even though Johnstown is a third class city, the region south of it (in Somerset County) is pretty rural. My parents lived thirty miles south of Johnstown. When I commuted between my parents’ house and Johnstown, I drove through one traffic light.

I remember that a few days before 9/11, a resident of Davidsville (a “Johnstown suburb” that is actually in northern Somerset County) crashed his ultralight in somebody’s yard. This was not the first time that the guy crashed his ultralight. I saw this all over the local news. I was under the impression that the guy was okay.

On the morning of 9/11, I went to work at my employer’s office in Johnstown. We gathered in a conference room for our weekly meeting. Someone at the meeting mentioned that an airplane had crashed into a skyscraper in New York City.  We proceeded with the regular business of our meeting. We returned to our cubicles.

One of my co-workers turned on a television located on the other side of the office to watch the news coverage in New York. I ended up in front of the television. I watched the first tower collapse.

The television coverage also referenced a plane collision at the Pentagon.

The owner of the company that employed me walked over to the television and told his employees to get back to work.  I went back to my desk. One of my co-workers walked past my desk to tell me that the second tower had fallen.

THEN, the daughter of the company’s owner rushed through the office. She announced loudly that an airplane had just crashed in Somerset County.

I said, “No.  That wasn’t an airplane. That’s an ultralight. This guy in Davidsville keeps crashing his ultralight.”

The company owner’s daughter said, “No, it was an airplane that crashed.”

Really? In Somerset County?

I emailed my good friend E. who worked in downtown Pittsburgh on that day. E. told me that her office was being evacuated.

Well, it just so happens that a United States federal courthouse sits in Johnstown. So, public officials announced an evacuation of downtown Johnstown.

Even though my employer had told me only an hour or so previously to “go back to work!,” I got to evacuate my office.

Here’s the problem: I lived south of Johnstown, in Somerset County. And, we had just learned that an airplane crashed south of Johnstown, in Somerset County.

There was very, very  limited information available online about the airplane that had just crashed in Pennsylvania. We didn’t have Twitter back then. I didn’t own a smartphone, and I didn’t use any social media. I heard rumors from my co-workers that the main highway and a bunch of other local roads were closed south of Johnstown, but I didn’t have any concrete information about this.

Finally, I couldn’t call my parents. I tried, and none of my calls went through. So many other people tried to make phone calls at that same time!

I got into my car and turned on the radio. The local radio personalities didn’t have any helpful information for me. So, I decided to just drive towards home and see if I hit any road closures. I reasoned that if I came upon any, I could just detour on a back road. (I didn’t own a smartphone or a GPS system. However, I learned how to drive on a series of farm roads between my parents’ house and Johnstown. I reasoned that I could just “wing it” on the back roads of rural Pennsylvania if I needed to do so.)

It turned out that the local authorities closed the main highway just north of downtown Johnstown, but they left the highway open south of Johnstown.

So, I made it home by taking my usual route.  I didn’t actually see any barricades or any sign of the crash.

Then, someone drove past my parents’ house in a pickup truck with a bed full of gas cans.

A few days after 9/11, my employer at that time wrote a letter to the local Johnstown newspaper proposing that a memorial to the Flight 93 passengers be installed next to the convention center in Johnstown. The newspaper printed his letter.

Look, I know that my story isn’t very exciting. I don’t have firsthand testimony to support anybody’s theory of WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.

However, I won’t forget the day that I watched television coverage of three airplane collisions into nationally known buildings, and then learned that a fourth plane had crashed “somewhere” between my workplace and my home.

The Theater Formerly Known As Stanley

This is the main chandelier that sits above the Benedum’s balcony. I took this photo after the Benedum staff lowered the chandeliers for cleaning.

The Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Pittsburgh opened in 1928 as the Stanley Theater.

Every year or so, the Benedum staff lowers the chandeliers for cleaning. Last month, Jonathan and I attended a theater “open house” held during such a cleaning. We saw the chandeliers up close!

The Benedum staff treated us to a short history talk at their open house.

Fates and Traitors

This spring, author Jennifer Chiaverini released Resistance Women, a novel about the German Resistance in World War II. The protagonists in this novel included Mildred Fish Harnack, a Wisconsin native whom the Nazis arrested for spying. Adolf Hitler personally ordered Harnack’s execution. Resistance Women reached bestselling lists and garnered accolades this summer.

I didn’t read Resistance Women (yet). Instead, I read Chiaverini’s 2016 historical fiction Fates and Traitors: A Novel of John Wilkes Booth.

In case you’re not an American, actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC, in April 1865.

Fates and Traitors” told the story of Booth and these four women who “loved” him (according to the book jacket):

1.) his mother Mary Ann Booth;

2.) his sister Asia Booth Clarke;

3.) his secret fiancée Lucy Hale (the daughter of an abolitionist Republican senator from New Hampshire); and

4.) boardinghouse owner Mary Surratt. The United States government executed Surratt over her alleged role in the Lincoln assassination.

Now, before I get into too much detail about Fates and Traitors, I want to use Chiaverini’s work to explain one reason that I love historical fiction so much.

Chiaverini’s published historical fiction highlighted these families (among others): the Booths, the Lincolns, the Chases (Salmon P. Chase and daughter Kate Chase Sprague), the Grants, and the Byrons (Lord Byron and daughter Ada Lovelace). 

The historical characters in Chiaverini books discussed the characters from other books.

For instance, several of the historical figures from Chiaverini’s other books (including Abraham Lincoln) went to see the Booth brothers perform prior to the Lincoln assassination. Several of the historical figures from these books enjoyed reading Lord Byron’s poetry. Several of the historical figures from these books gossiped about Kate Chase Sprague’s political ambitions for her father. Several of the historical figures from these books observed Mary Lincoln’s fine wardrobe. In Fates and Traitors, John Wilkes Booth stalked both the Lincolns and the Grants prior to the Lincoln assassination. In another Chiaverini book, Mrs. Grant observed John Wilkes Booth stalking her.

 I learned from my reading that nobody’s family dynamics are perfect.

I personally enjoyed Fates and Traitors. However, the first part of the book moved slowly. I learned about the large Booth family. Family patriarch Junius Brutus Booth Sr. was named after one of the assassins in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Junius Sr. established a highly successful Shakespearean stage acting career in London and Europe. Junius Sr. and Mary Ann fled to the United States to avoid a scandal. Junius Sr. reestablished his acting career in America to great fanfare and acclaim.

The Booth family struggled with one family crisis after another. (Pardon the cliché, but the Booth family created a lot of family drama!)

Three of Junius Sr.’s sons (Junius Jr., Edwin, and John Wilkes) followed their father into acting. I’m under the impression that historians considered Edwin to be a more accomplished actor than his famous father.

Asia raised her own large family and also established herself as a writer and poet. She produced several memoirs about the Booths.

I recommend this book to readers of Civil War historical fiction.

Jenny’s Recap of Tall Ships Erie 2019 Festival Weekend: Part 1

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog post, my husband Jonathan and I spent this past weekend in Erie. We attended Tall Ships Erie 2019 on Saturday. We slept on our sailboat at our Erie marina on Saturday night. We cruised past Tall Ships Erie 2019 on Sunday. Then we sailed on the open Lake Erie.

Jonathan plans to blog a detailed pros-and-cons recap of the festival on our other blog, so I won’t go into much detail about the festival here.

This was our third one-day trip to an Erie tall ships festival. We attended for one day each in 2013, 2016, and now in 2019.

I want to be clear that in my experience, this festival involved significant crowds and significant walking. We even encountered large crowds in the lines for the shuttle buses and the ice cream stand. In fact, the ice cream stand ran out of waffle cones and several flavors. I was so relieved that I could still get my chocolate cherry ice cream!

For each trip, we purchased the one-day passes that permit us to walk past the boats but not to board and tour the ships. These are the lowest-cost passes.

During all three festival years, we observed significant lines to tour most of the ships. For instance, this year the festival included Santa Maria, a claimed replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship. We heard someone at the festival say that a two-hour wait existed to tour that ship.

Here is the Santa Maria as it looked on Saturday:

Santa Maria

We also observed significant wait times to tour Picton Castle. Here is Picton Castle‘s bow:

Picton Castle

Here is Picton Castle‘s Stern:

Picton Castle

On Sunday, I took several photos from the water as we cruised on our own sailboat to Lake Erie. I will post my water photos shortly.

“Tall Ships Erie” Duck Deflated

I attended Tall Ships Erie 2019, a tall ships festival on Lake Erie in Erie, Pennsylvania, this weekend. This festival happens every three years.

The 2019 festival heavily promoted a giant, inflatable, yellow duck as one of the festival’s attractions. The festival also promoted the appearance of a “baby” inflatable yellow duck.

Here is what the featured, “mama” duke and also the “baby” duck looked like when I visted the festival on Saturday.

On Sunday, we cruised past Erie Tall Ships 2019 on our way to sail on the open lake. The topmost photo of this blog post shows what the duck looked like when we past it shortly before noon on Sunday.

Here is another photo that I took of the duck on Saturday, within a few moments of the photo that I took above. In my opinion, the duck struggled to stay upright.

Poor duck!

Now, the “baby” duck that sat on the water in the promotional materials that I saw for the festival actually sat on the dry land!

Here is a photo that I took of the “giant duck” at Erie Tall Ships 2016:

I will post some tall ships photos from Tall Ships Erie 2019 this week.

Betrayed by Technology?

I promise you that I actually blogged today about a woman writer and history. However, if you wanted to read straight history right now, you could just go to Wikipedia or something. So today, I took a page from Sarah Vowell’s playbook and wrote about myself for a few paragraphs before I got to my actual topic.

I grew up without internet access as a country girl in Somerset County, PA. At some point, I got the idea that everyone from Fox Chapel (a Pittsburgh suburb) was rich and sophisticated. When I was in high school, I met this guy who actually lived in Fox Chapel. I thought that the guy was All That because he came from Fox Chapel. (Looking back, he was probably just trying to get by in teenage life, like me.) Anyway, one day he and I and a bunch of other people our age had a discussion about how to keep in touch. The Fox Chapel Guy said something to the effect of, “And of course, there’s always email.” Well, I had never before heard of email. However, I didn’t want to look like a bumpkin. So, I didn’t say, “What’s email?”

In the years since high school, I changed from the girl who had never heard of email to the woman who felt betrayed whenever Technology did not behave the exact way that she expected Technology to behave.

Case in point: my mother-in-law passed away in 2016, and then my own mother passed away in 2018. Both losses devastated me. I announced both deaths on Social Media shortly after they each happened. I felt betrayed by Social Media when I decided that the Social Media reaction to my mother’s death was not as strong as the Social Media reaction to my mother-in-law’s death.

Here’s another example of how Technology let me down: I don’t use Twitter extremely often. However, I thought that I was brilliant because I curated my Twitter feed to follow the PA Turnpike, the National Weather Service, the Pittsburgh Port Authority (since I take public transit to Pittsburgh for work), the local emergency management office, etc. (Also, whenever we travelled through Ohio, I followed the Ohio Turnpike’s Twitter feed that day.) However, on the day that we had a major flash flooding event and I depended on Twitter to plan my trip home, Twitter broke.

(Technology doesn’t always betray me. I’m shy, so I hated it whenever I showed up for a social event and I didn’t see anybody that I knew extremely well. I used to sit alone and feel like a loser. Now that I own a smartphone, I can sit alone, play on my smartphone, and not feel like a loser.)

When I read about history now, especially history from the Industrial Revolution, I pay a little bit of attention to the ways that Technology changed the story. Especially communication-related Technology.

I read part of “The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant (Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant).” Julia Dent Grant (JDG) was born in 1826. In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the United State’s first telegram over a wire from Washington to Baltimore. (Congress partially funded this.) In 1845, JDG’s father, Frederick Dent, travelled from their home in St. Louis to Washington for business. He sent a telegraph to Baltimore. JDG wrote that her father received an answer within an hour and that “it savored of magic.” The event was such a big deal that Frederick Dent brought the telegraph repeater tape back home to St. Louis to show the family.

Now I’m going to skip ahead in the memoirs to 1851. At this point in the memoirs, JDG is married to Ulysses S. Grant and they have an infant son. Julia visited family in St. Louis while her husband was stationed at Sackets Harbor, near Watertown, in New York State. JDG planned to telegraph her husband from St. Louis, and then travel with her nurse to Detroit. Then, she would release her nurse and meet her husband in Detroit. Finally, she would travel with her husband from Detroit to Sackets Harbor. I am under the impression that the trip from St. Louis to Detroit to Watertown was all by train.

Well, JDG telegraphed her husband in St. Louis per the plan. She left St. Louis and travelled with her nurse to Detroit. She dismissed her nurse and waited for her husband in Detroit. Her husband never showed up. JDG eventually travelled alone with her baby to Buffalo, hoping to meet her husband there. Her husband wasn’t in Buffalo, so she continued on the train to Watertown. From Watertown, she had to hire a carriage (the Uber of the 1800’s), and travel to Madison Barracks, the military installation at Sackets Harbor. The entrance to Madison Barracks was closed, so she had to yell to get a sentry’s attention.

The telegram that JDG sent to her husband from St. Louis arrived at Sackets Harbor IN THE NEXT DAY’S MAIL.

That’s right – at some point in the journey, the telegram failed to perform its basic function as a telegram. The telegram became snail mail.

After JDG’s husband was promoted during the Civil War, he travelled with his very own personal telegraph operator. (In fact, the Grants learned about President Lincoln’s assassination through a personal telegraph received by the personal telegraph operator.)

By the end of the Civl War, the Grants had come a long way since their days of “snail-mail telegrams.”

Other people have actually written entire books about how telegraphs and semaphores affected the Civl War.

Here’s one of my favorite parts of JDG’s memoirs: At one point during the war, JDG asked her father, Frederick Grant, why the country didn’t “make a new Constitution since this is such an enigma – one to suit the times, you know. It is so different now. We have steamers, railroads, telegraphs, etc.

I just find this so fascinating because JDG witnessed her country’s tremendous changes that resulted from Technology. She wondered how all of these Technology changes affected her country.

I, personally, spend a lot of time wondering about how Communication Technology in general – the telegraph, the internet, whatever – changed our national culture and also changed each of us as people.

Do you wonder about this?

I forgot about Jessie Benton Fremont!

In my last blog post, I completely forgot to mention Jessie Benton Fremont (1824-1902).

She was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton and also the wife of John Fremont.

My high school history class didn’t teach me this story about Thomas Hart Benton: Benton served as an aide-de-camp under General Andrew Jackson in the war of 1812. Benton got into a dispute with Jackson over something.

One day in September 1813, Jackson was in Nashville. Benton and his brother Jesse Benton (not to be confused with Jessie Benton) arrived in Nashville. Jackson found out. Jackson headed towards the hotel where the Benton brothers were staying. Jackson reportedly yelled, “Now show yourself, you damned rascal!”

Jackson ended up in a gunfight against the Benton brothers. Jesse Benton (Jessie Benton Fremont’s uncle) shot Andrew Jackson twice. Jackson almost lost his arm in this gunfight. Jackson survived. Jackson’s arm also survived.

Jackson later won the Battle of New Orleans and eventually became POTUS.

Thomas Hart Benton later became a United States Senator for Missouri.

Jessie Benton eloped with John Fremont when she was 16 or 17 years old.

John Fremont was the Republican party’s very first presidential candidate and also a governor of California. He served as a general in the American Civil War. Fremont emancipated all of the slaves in Missouri without authorization, before POTUS Abraham Lincoln issued his own Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln removed Fremont from his command.

Decades later, Jessie Benton Fremont wrote several books about her husband’s adventures and her own in the American west. Her earnings from her career as a writer supported her family during a financial crisis.

As I mentioned in my prior blog post, I’m curious about the events and “influencers” who made it acceptable – trendy, even – for the high-status women of the Civil War to strive for their own writing careers. After all, Dolley Madison didn’t write a memoir about that time that she fled the British.

Presidents’ Wives and Generals’ Wives

I wrote this blog post about privileged married women from elite families who wrote about their experiences during the American Civil War.

I recognize that women of color, women across the socioeconomic spectrum, unmarried women, and LGBT women also wrote stuff. However, this specific blog post is about privileged married women from elite families.

Now, in this earlier Parnassus Pen post, I blogged about Juliette Magill Kinzie. Kinzie wrote several books about the Kinzie family’s role in the history of Fort Dearborn and the founding of Chicago. (Here’s a magazine article that mentioned the controversy regarding Kinzie’s book about the Battle of Fort Dearborn.)

(This article from the Chicago Tribune speculated that Kinzie’s father-in-law, the trader John Kinzie, committed Chicago’s first murder. Kinzie’s granddaughter, Juliette Gordon Low, later founded the Girl Scouts of the USA in Savannah, Georgia.)

Kinzie lived from 1806 – 1870. She published her first work in 1844. I bookmarked Kinzie as an example of a woman from a well-connected family who upset the status quo as a woman writer BEFORE the Civil War.

(Incidentally, Kinzie’s husband and sons were Union Army officers during the American Civil War. Her son-in-law was a Confederate Army officer. Her family knew General William T. Sherman socially.)

Then, I came up with a list of elite wives and widows who wrote their own memoirs and first-hand accounts in the decades AFTER the Civil War.

For instance, Mary Boykin Chesnut (wife of former U.S. Senator and Confederate Brigadier General James Chesnut, Jr.) revised her Civil War diary several times, hoping to see it published. Chesnut passed away in 1886. She didn’t live to see her diary published. However, the diary was published decades later to great fanfare.

Varina Howell Davis (wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis) was friends with Mary Chesnut. According to Wikipedia:

Davis became a writer after the American Civil War, completing her husband’s memoir. She was recruited by Kate (Davis) Pulitzer, a distant cousin and wife of publisher Joseph Pulitzer, to write articles and eventually a regular column for the New York World. Widowed in 1889, Davis moved to New York City with her youngest daughter Winnie in 1891 to work at writing.

Then, Wikipedia had this to say about Varina and Jefferson Davis’ daughter, Winnie Davis:

Later in the 1880s, she appeared with her father on behalf of Confederate veterans’ groups. After his death, she and her mother moved in 1891 to New York City, where they both worked as writers. She published a biography and two novels .

In 1899, Julia Dent Grant (the wife of Commanding General of the United States Army and POTUS Ulysses S. Grant) finished her own memoir. She became the first First Lady to write such a thing.

(Per this Washington Post article, Mrs. Grant couldn’t find a publisher for her memoir during her lifetime. The memoir was published decades after her death. I purchased it in Kindle form, so I can read it on my iPad.)

I know that Varina Davis became acquainted with Julia Grant after both women became widows.

So, I wonder how much of an influence the elite woman of both sides of the Civil War had on each other in regards to their individual writing careers.

Here are some other elite women who wrote books after the American Civil War:

In the 1880’s and 1890’s, Elizabeth Bacon Custer (the widow of United States Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer) wrote several articles and books about her husband’s military experiences.

LaSalle Corbell Pickett (the widow of Confederate General George Pickett) wrote three books between 1899-1913 about her own husband’s military career.

Now, I realize that in earlier time periods, society didn’t look favorably on women who wrote books – or even drew attention to themselves! I read one novel about the antebellum south which noted that respectable women expected to have their names in a newspaper only three times: at birth, marriage, and death. As far as I know, Dolley Madison never wrote a book about that time that she fled from the White House before the British burned it down. (Also, if you have time to kill, Google “Rachel Jackson” and “presidential election of 1828.”)

I know that U.S. Grant finished his memoir less than a week before he passed away in July 1885. I know that quite a few of the prominent men from the Civil War wrote their own memoirs. However, in this blog post, I don’t care greatly about the books that the men wrote. I care about the books that the women wrote.

I’m curious about the events and “influencers” who made it acceptable – trendy, even – for the high-status women of the Civil War to strive for their own writing careers.

You readers are all fabulous. Please come back soon.

Edit: I forgot all about Jessie Benton Fremont! See my next post.