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Entries in Connecticut (3)


Blue Highways: New London, Connecticut

Unfolding the Map

I heard something that shocked me recently.  Those children born 18 years ago have most likely never known cars with anything other than a CD player. Being 48 years old, I remember 45 rpm records.  I also remember the Cold War.  Something as distant in time as those events and the threat of nuclear annihilation only registers on the minds of those younger than 30 if they read it in history books.  About 10 years ago, a young friend, then in her early 20s, asked my wife "so what was this Berlin Wall thing all about?"  For those of us that lived in the Cold War and remember, it was a shadow of terror over our lives that were otherwise lived normally.  This post, as we wait with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) for a ferry in New London, remembers some of that time period.  To pinpoint New London, target the map.

Book Quote

"...I asked where they built the submarines, and he pointed to a dagger of a shadow.  'That black thing is the Ohio.  She's the first Trident.  The orange bull on blocks is the Michigan.'

"'How can anything that big move under water?'

"'They're longer than the Washington Monument.  The Ohio will carry twenty-four missiles, each one with a dozen warheads: two hundered eighty-eight atomic explosions.  One hell of a bitch with twelve sisters coming along behind at a billion dollars each.'  He offered a Chiclet.  'They used to name battleships after states because they were the dreadnaughts of the sea, but there's your dreadnaughts of the next war.'

"'....You think war is finished?  Whatever peace we'll know will come because of things like those devils...Those Tridents are the new Peacemakers...'"

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 6

New London, Connecticut. Photo by Ralph Thayer and hosted at Wikipedia. Click on photo to go to host page.

New London, Connecticut

Recently, on a work trip to San Diego, I took time out from the conference I was attending to spend some time at the Maritime Museum with my wife.  The harbor's star attraction was the USS Midway, a decommissioned and historically important aircraft carrier.  But for me, the highlight of the visit was a tour of a decommissioned Soviet submarine.

I've been, at least somewhat, a fan of submarine films.  Movies like Das Boot, The Hunt for Red October and U-571 are filled with drama and tension.  I suppose such tension comes with the tight, cramped and even claustrophobic environment of a long metal tube submerged for days and weeks beneath the surface of a deep, dark and unforgiving ocean.  One mistake, one faulty rivet or plate, or one engine (or nowadays nuclear reactor) accident could mean a cold, dark and unpleasant death.  In wartime, the stakes and terror can be even higher, and death could come in the form of a torpedo or a depth charge.

The most recent movie I saw on submarines, K-19: The Widowmaker, was about a Soviet submarine much like the one I toured in San Diego.  But only by going into such a submarine can one really get a sense of the conditions in one.  Touring through the sub, I understood why the pay was greater and the honors greater than in other parts of the Soviet Navy.  Pipes and valves stick out in odd places, guaranteeing that if you don't watch your head you will probably crack it open on something.  There were cramped toilets where the sailors had only weekly shower privileges.  Other features: a tiny kitchen with a cook trying to stretch stores as far as they will go, helping men forget with an unauthorized shot of vodka or beer; miniscule berths that sailors shared - one used the berth and slept while the other did his duty; everywhere the smell of diesel and hot machinery.  When I did my tour, I realized that the mother and her son passing through the sub behind me were Russian, and they spoke Russian with each other while looking into cabins and berths.  I closed my eyes and imagined that where once a chorus of Russian voices filled that ship, the strains of Russian now probably echoed infrequently off the inner hull.

It is easy to forget, or not even realize, that from the end of World War II until 1989 the world was at the mercy such metal tubes, whether they rode under the waves or rocketed through the air.  As my studies in international relations remind me, many scholars believe that these engines of war were what saved humanity.  Submarines and missiles, goes the argument, were what kept the peace between two of the most powerful nations the world has ever seen.  Such subs. loaded with nuclear missiles and nuclear-tipped torpedoes, were the trump card of the Cold War.  If a devastating attack was launched, even if the enemy was taken by complete surprise and completely annhilated, its subs could launch a similarly devastating counterattack from off the coasts, destroying the other nation in a matter of minutes.

That was the world I grew up under - nations held hostage to peace under the threat of weapons of mass destruction pointed at each other.  It was called a peace, but it was a damn frightening peace.  Just as two gunslingers, hands at their sides, face each other in the dusty street in movies about the Old West, the United States and Soviet Union stared each other down, weapons in plain sight, each knowing what the other was capable of, each waiting for one to either move or back down.  Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, where the Soviets decided to station nuclear missiles in their ally Cuba, and the United States responding with a blockade.  It was steely-eyed feint and counter-feint, each probing for weakness and backing off if there would be disadvantaged.  For almost five decades, these gunslingers, the US and the Soviets, faced each other until finally, the Soviets blinked, turned and walked into the sunset.

But we who grew up under this peace had no idea that, unfathomably, it would end so peacefully.  When I was old enough to understand the international situation to a degree, I began to have nightmares involving flashes and mushroom clouds.  Nuclear tests were common until banned by international treaty.  Small wars often sprung up in far-flung and distant places, leading to sharp words and threats from the United States and the Soviets.  The Soviet government was painted as evil and ruthless, the Soviet people were described as dour, wretched, and lost.  I thought, like many others, that when the standoff did end, it would end civilization as well.  We just didn't know when.

A common phrase taught to me as a child was "believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see."  When my parents took our family on a cruise to Alaska on a Soviet cruise ship in 1980, I saw Soviets for what they were - people.  I even got a crush on our server, a young Russian girl named Larissa.  At the time, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and I had trouble reconciling the words of our government condemning the Soviet government and the incredibly friendly people, sharing their rich culture with us, staffing the ship.

My studies taught me that the international drama of the Cold War was, in many ways, carefully stage-managed.  Knowing that they faced annihilation and that there would be no winner in a major conflict, the United States and the Soviet Union minimized the opportunities for direct conflict and instead fought through proxies.  The argument that these nuclear-armed antagonists deterred each other from direct conflict therefore has much merit. 

I often hear the same argument made for arming individuals in our society.  The argument goes that if someone knows or suspects that you are armed, they won't harm you because it could lead to harm to themselves.  However, there is a difference between national action and individual action.  Nations are collectivities of people and therefore the risk of irrational action is less.  Nations are rarely impulsive - even the actions of Hitler and the Nazis was a well-thought out plan, and based on self-preservation.  All nations will choose self-preservation over destruction - even Nazi Germany made some overtures toward peace at the very end to try to preserve itself. 

Individuals, however, can have moments of irrationality with no cultural and collective filter to put the brakes on those thoughts.  I think of the times when, in the heat of passion or disappointment or anger, I have done irrational things.  The United States and the Soviet Union managed their conflict in a rational manner and usually considered the potential consequences of their decisions carefully.  The person who kills, or the person who feels threatened whether or not there is an actual threat, can often behave irrationally and give in to impulsive actions.  That's why I cannot buy the argument that a safe society is one where individuals are armed.

But back when I was growing up, I didn't understand such.  And I feared, greatly, that one day my life and my world would end in a flash of light.  It seems that the chances of that were, and remain, low.  I might have more to fear from a greater number of individuals packing heat within my own country than a nation-state packing a nuclear bomb.  I hope I never experience either.

Musical Interlude

The first song for the musical interlude is Yo La Tengo's Nuclear War, a remake of a Sun Ra song.  I like the images the creator of the video put in to accompany the song, as well as the clip of J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist on the Manhattan Project, at the very end.

Of course, leave it to The Beatles to turn a weapon of destruction into a children's song in Yellow Submarine.  The video uses clips from the movie Yellow Submarine, interspersed with footage of swimming Beatles.

If you want to know more about New London

City of New London
Connecticut College (newspaper)
Mitchell College
United States Coast Guard Academy
Wikipedia: New London

Next up: Orient Point, New York


Blue Highways: Mystic, Connecticut

Unfolding the Map

If you are feeling a presence that you can't quite explain, something mysterious and unknown, yet full of meaning, it may mean that you have entered a mystical place, or what you think might be mystical.  We'll find out in this post if Mystic is mystical.  To find this place where the name might mean everything, do some divining at the map.

Book Quote

"I headed toward New London, through Mystic, where they used to build the clipper ships."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 6

Downtown Mystic, Connecticut. Photo by boboroshi and posted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Mystic, Connecticut

I like movies, and my first introduction to Mystic, Connecticut was through the movie Mystic Pizza.  Before that movie came out, I had not been aware of the place.

The word "mystic" has always been, for me, one of those words that almost completely describes what it touches, and yet doesn't describe it at all.  Mystic is a mysterious word (notice that it has the same root, "myst," as mysterious), that conveys a lot of below-the-surface meaning.  It is a word that I have been drawn to every time I read it in print or hear it in conversation.  I think that it probably has that effect on many people.

The title Mystic Pizza therefore caught my eye.  I didn't quite know what to expect, but it turned out to be a coming-of-age film about three young women.  Julia Roberts had her first notable role in it, as did Annabeth Gish and Lili Taylor.  It was a nice movie, and I enjoyed it.  I later learned that my wife did a play as a young girl with Annabeth Gish (who is about her age) in Iowa, and we have recently seen Ms. Gish's parents at events in Albuquerque, where we and they now live.

This tale feels somewhat disjointed, but there's a point here somewhere.  On a trip to visit friends in Connecticut in the mid-1990s, I decided, on the basis of the name of the town and the fact that I had seen Mystic Pizza, to drive down to Mystic and see what all of the fuss was about.  Mystic, as I remember it, was a pretty little town trading on its historical shipbuilding heritage.  I bummed about, looking at things, and of course eating at Mystic Pizza.  Perhaps I thought that the beautiful young starlets would still be hanging about, ready to serve me a plate of hot, steaming pizza slices.  Of course, they were long gone.  But the town was still there, and its name was still an attraction, though it didn't seem any more mystical to me than anywhere else.

But what is a mystic, and how might this moniker fit to Mystic, Connecticut?  After all, mysticism and mystics are very specific things.  Mysticism is the attempt to reach different states of awareness awareness, and sometimes a union with the Divine or a Supreme Being.  In this sense, a mystic is a person who practices mysticism.  All major religions that have existed have had elements of mysticism in them.  Anything that brings one to different states of consciousness, or anyplace beyond what we normally see and hear, is mysticism.  Simple prayer is a form of mysticism, as the goal is to somehow come in contact with a deity or deities.  Meditation can be another form of mysticism in certain faiths.  In my imagination, this definition of mysticism conflated itself with the naming of Mystic, Connecticut.  New England was one of the flashpoints of religious confrontation in the New World as it was being settled, as various forms of Christianity, including forms of mysticism based on Christianity, battled among themselves and also with the harsh environment and the native traditions. I just assumed that Mystic, Connecticut reflected that history.  I also made assumptions based on the literature and history of the times, where people who might have been practicing mysticism were denounced as witches and either driven away or often killed.

Well, it turns out that Mystic, Connecticut sits at the mouth of the Mystic River, and is named for the river.

That still didn't disabuse me of my notions.  In fact, it made my imagination wander even farther.  The Mystic River sounds even more fantastic, more magical, more mysterious, than Mystic, Connecticut.  Certainly, all that history and religion came together to lead to the name of the river.  I tried to imagine how the name of the river came about.  Perhaps settlers, newly arrived to the area, saw the Mystic River heading into the dark forests and hills of Connecticut, areas where mystery reigned, shadows concealed unknown terrors and perhaps wonders and realities that only the imagination could conjure.  If you've ever read Washington Irving or Nathaniel Hawthorne, you know that the areas beyond the settlers' front doorstep were unknown and sometimes terrifying.  Thunder could easily be giants bowling, men could fall asleep for 100 years, and the Devil, bad spirits and witches roamed the dark forests.

Alas, however, I was was to be disappointed.  The Mystic River was a derivation of the Wampanoag Indian word for, quite simply, "big river."  The only mysticism attached to the river and to Mystic, Connecticut was the imagination that I attached to them.

Despite my disappointment at learning the truth, I have to admit that places where our minds wander are often influenced by place and by the labels we attach to them.  Would Mystic Pizza,  Mystic, Connecticut and the Mystic River have captured my imagination if they were entitled Big River Pizza, Big River, Connecticut and Big River River?  Probably not.  In that sense, I got my money's worth out of Mystic even before I saw it and if the reality didn't match my imagination, well, that happens in life.

On the other hand, often the name of a place belies the mystical and amazing experiences there.  For the incredible natural wonder that it is, the name "Grand Canyon" seems to be a little under-descriptive for a place that inspires such awe and wonder that it can almost put one in another level of consciousness.  The near religious experience I had hearing the call to prayer for the first time in Istanbul (was Constantinople) was not something I prepared for in going to a country called Turkey.  Romantic encounters that send one to unimagined heights of love and pleasure often occur with people whose names are simply Fred, Mary, Joe, or Karen.  Names are only identifiers, and the true mysticism of a place or person will come through despite how they are called.  I may have found that Mystic did not live up to my vivid imagination, but I know Mystic is mystical to many.  It certainly is a lovely town with a wonderful seaport museum.  Every place and everyone has the potential to be mystical to someone, and that is what makes our universe special.  You never know when something or someone will bring you to a higher level of awareness, and make you feel like you've touched the Divine.

Musical Interlude

If one song captures the mystic for me, it's Van Morrison's Into the Mystic.  It is one of those songs that feels like it just came out perfect from the beginning, and that it was conceived somewhere on a higher plane.  Simple, but multiply layered and beautiful.

If you want to know more about Mystic

Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce
Mystic Aquarium
Mystic Country
Mystic Seaport
Old Mistick Village
Wikipedia: Mystic

Next up:  New London, Connecticut


Blue Highways: Pawcatuck, Connecticut

Unfolding the Map

We cross into Connecticut... the 31st state on the Blue Highways tour.  I have some connection to Connecticut - I used to go there quite a bit to see some friends but I haven't been there in several years now.  I used to go to New York City a lot, and that would bring me to Connecticut.  This post i about how I was intimidated to drive in New York City, until I actually did it.  To see where Pawcatuck sits, follow the freeway to the map.

Book Quote

"When I crossed the Pawcatuck River into Pawcatuck, Connecticut, just up the old Post Road from Wequetequock, I realized I was heading straight into New York City.  I had two choices: drive far inland to bypass it or take the New London-Orient Point ferry to Long Island and cut through the bottom edge of the Apple."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 6

Mechanic Street in Pawcatuck, Connecticut. Photo by Jennifer and Pat at their Road Trip Memories blog. Click on photo to go to host page.Pawcatuck, Connecticut

It's hard for me to believe, but there was a time when I'd have avoided New York City.

Don't get me wrong.  I understand LHM's reasons for trying to find a way that minimized his exposure to NYC.  After all, Blue Highways states very clearly at the beginning that LHM's purposes is to find the roads less traveled.  He is not, in any sense of the word, a socially anxious person.

He is unlike my parents, for example, who avoided cities if they could help it.  We lived in a rural town with a population of just over 5,000 people.  The biggest city that my parents cared to visit regularly was a town of about 50,000 two hours drive distant, and they only did that for medical reasons or perhaps to do some shopping.  Since the mall was just off the freeway, or in other words easy to get into and easy to get out of, that suited them just fine.  When we did have to go farther, to San Francisco or Oakland for example, that was occasion for anxiety.  I've already written about how horrible it was for them to take a wrong turn or get off on the wrong exit.

I was a little different.  Something in me sought out the challenges of cities.  When I left California at age 22, I went to live in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee was large, about 500,000 people, and it felt like a big city.  Driving in Milwaukee, especially on the freeways, was fun because you had to be aware at all times.  Milwaukee was one of those cities that was built first, and when freeways came around they just threw them into places where they might best fit.  Curves were sharp and one had to watch for exits as they would just sneak up on you and before you knew it, you'd have passed them.  There was even a "bridge to nowhere," that was part of a lakefront freeway that never quite happened.  The freeway crossed the bridge over the harbor area and then, abruptly, ended in the quaint neighborhood of Bay View.

Chicago was Milwaukee times ten.  Miles and miles of freeways seemingly plunked down in the middle and the outskirts of the city.  As I drove through, looking up at the tall buildings, they seemed to almost mock me in my puny car, as if I and the rest of the little ants driving in didn't belong there.  Chicago was always filled with pitfalls.  Exits that one had to watch for on both sides, construction continually happening that blocked exits and made one detour.  Traffic jams that slowed things to a crawl and made a usual half-hour trip past downtown turn into two hours or more.  Aggressive drivers that scared the hell out of the rookie Chicago driver.  Toll booths where you literally tossed coins into a basket and hoped that the little green light flashed on.  Yet I never avoided downtown Chicago.  I could have taken the I-294 loop around the city, but I loved the challenge and I loved the views and therefore I always aimed my vehicle for the heart of downtown.

I never avoided the downtowns of any other city either.  Even if it meant taking less time off my trip, I drove through downtown Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Indianapolis just to see them.  But New York City was a different animal.  I was intimidated by that city.  I had never been there, but just the reputation alone, built up by reputation passed on through books, television, movies and word-of-mouth and other sources had me convinced that one needed to be an expert to drive there.  So it was with great trepidation that I took my first driving trip from Milwaukee to New York.  It seemed simple enough.  I would cross the George Washington Bridge, take the first exit and find a friend's place on the upper West Side just a stone's throw from the bridge.  It was intimidating, but I did it.  When I parked the car, I felt like the member of an exclusive club.  Nobody I had grown up with had ever driven in New York City!

Of course, that's all I did.  And even parking the car was a problem.  The next morning when I got up I was warned that I should check on my car because it was garbage day.  I ran out to find the street empty save for my car, which was adorned with a large ticket and a big red sticker on the the window that declared how my car had impeded that day's city services.  I drove with my scarlet letter to find another parking place and cursed what seemed a huge amount for a ticket.

Being there, however, led me to be courageous enough to drive one of the freeways, at least for a look.  It was intimidating, but doable.  And I got over my fear of driving in New York City.  I must say that I didn't do much penetration of the streets where the taxi-cabs rule.  But, I learned that any city in America is drivable if one pays attention and doesn't take loud horns too seriously.

Today, I like to think I'd drive anything.  My next goal, something I've never tried, is to drive in a foreign country (not including Canada, where I've already driven).  I'd start out with an easy one, where they drive on the right like in the US.  Then, perhaps, I'd try a country like England or Ireland where the traffic moves on the left side of the road.  I must say, I'm probably too intimidated to try driving in a place like Rome, where it seems that it would take years of study to know what the unwritten rules of the road are.  I would have to say the same for India or another developing country metropolis.  There are both written and unwritten rules for driving in those places, but the rules are too convoluted for me to follow and would take being a true native to understand.

But, you never know.

Musical Interlude

I'm going to repeat this song from an earlier post.  I was driving through Chicago and this song, Midnight Oil's Dreamworld, came on WXRT, and it was the perfect song for driving at 65 down the freeway toward the city.


If you want to know more about Pawcatuck

Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce
Wikipedia: Pawcatuck

Next up: Mystic, Connecticut