Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Mathews Men Today


East of Gloucester, Virginia, I followed the road less traveled into Mathews County. It is a rural area along the lower Chesapeake Bay, and whose settlement by the English dates to the early 1600s. The Methodists still employ a travelling minister, preaching at small, white-walled clapboard churches at the crossroads. The Baptists also have a presence in this area. Post offices are located at each hamlet, measuring no more than 200 square feet apiece. The average home is an early 20th century sturdy-sized residence on a small farming plot. Manors are titled in the English style, with names like “House of Payne” and “Moon Pi”.  Washingtonians vacation here, drawn by the quaintness of a timeless county. I bought a cantaloupe (“Local ‘Lopes”) sold on honor from the back of a pickup truck parked in Mathew’s town square.

What drew me here was a phenomenal story of the Mathews Men, or local watermen who served their country as merchant mariners in World War Two. Over the course of history, necessity drove man to sea. As agriculture was commoditized in the early 20th century, and with a rural depression beginning in 1920, seafaring was a path to economic security for men who were adept at sailing boats on the Chesapeake Bay; and whose wives had the strength and fortitude to lead the family and manage the farm during their husbands’ long absence at sea.

World War Two heralded the end of an era in the maritime culture in Coastal Virginia, and the beginning of the new. During the War, inland shipping, already on a decline during the Great Depression, was supplanted by improved highways and construction of the Big Inch oil pipeline from Texas oil fields to New Jersey refineries. While some fishing boats continue to ply from the peninsula, fortunate proximity provided another lucrative line of work. In 1952, the Coleman Bridge opened, connecting the backwater of Mathews County to job opportunities at the shipyards in Newport News, the Fort Eustis Army Base, and the Langley Air Force Base. Mobility was further enhanced with the opening of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel in 1957, allowing highway access to commercial heart of Norfolk, Virginia. Electricity and indoor plumbing had arrived shortly before this fortuitous decade.

Even with these improvements, the disjointed, unsigned roads would have intimidated outsiders until the arrival of GPS navigation. It was on one detour that I came across the cemetery in Onemo, where the extended Hudgins family is buried. The hamlet bearing this family’s name is several miles north. On several tombstones of master mariners were etchings of the fishing boats they had owned and operated. Buried here were souls “known only to God”, presumably lost mariners recovered from the Chesapeake Bay. Confederate flags marked the tombs of Civil War veterans- the war had taken an awful toll on young men, leaving a number of women of the generation unmarried. Even so, the Hudgins were known for their racial tolerance: seafaring was a multicultural pursuit even in those days.  

The hands-on seafaring experience that honed the Mathews Men has been superseded by increased technical sophistication and academic rigor. While the sons and daughters of Mathews continue to sail as deckhands and oilers onboard oceangoing ships, the town no longer raises ship’s captains in the way that New England towns still do. In the 1960’s, building on the work of existing deep-sea maritime academies, the Great Lakes Maritime Academy and the maritime program at Texas A&M in Galveston opened to serve the focused educational needs of inland and near-coastal mariners. Although the “Mid Atlantic Maritime Academy”, a trade school in Norfolk, Virginia, serves Navy and Coast Guard sailors transitioning into the civilian maritime sector, there is no collegiate- accredited maritime program in Virginia, or any Atlantic state south of New York. Mathews, Gloucester, and the surrounding region possess a maritime heritage predating the American Revolution. This is something worth preserving.

 Read: The Mathews Men, William Geroux, 2016. 

Dedicated to Trenton Lloyd-Rees, Maine Maritime Academy, Class of 2019.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Flash: That Time a Kennedy Lost


“Kennedy Loses”, a “Massachusetts First”, announces The Hill. That Kennedy is Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, grandson of Senator and US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who lost a Senate primary in Massachusetts this past week. “This isn’t a time for waiting, for sitting on the sidelines,” the now 39-year old congressman announced as he entered the race against incumbent Senator Ed Markey.

By running this race, Joe Kennedy was thought to be tacking one step ahead of 46-year old Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, a potential primary contestant for a future vacant Senate seat, who has a national profile. Joe Kennedy wagered his congressional seat, making this contest an all-or-nothing stake.  He started with a significant lead in polling, which recently had flipped for the incumbent. Kennedy’s strengths were said to be in working-class and minority communities, yet ultimately he lost in other traditionally working-class areas like seaside Gloucester.

Characteristic confidence and charisma did not save Joe Kennedy. Ed Markey, 74, outmaneuvered the red-headed youngster on the issue of youth. He obtained endorsements from progressive environmental groups, and ultimately claimed college towns like Cambridge, Amherst, and Dartmouth; in addition to Boston.  

In New England, there is a certain respect for established systems and patience, and waiting one’s turn. While the 1773 Tea Party took place in Boston, the modern-day fighting words of “Defeat, Retire, Kick Out” are not used in Massachusetts. In contrast to the West and New South, non-compete clauses are still enforced in the state, preventing the type of start-up culture seen in California. In a political machine, it is expected that participants start young, and wait their turn before advancing; in exchange for the benefits of incumbency. Instead of congratulating Kennedy for “sticking it to the man” and holding the veteran politician accountable, one commenter stated that Kennedy “put his personal ambition above the welfare of the country and waged a pointless and divisive campaign that diverted money and attention from places where both were needed”.

Ed Markey, who had served in Congress since the 1970’s, won election to the Senate in 2013 to fill John Kerry’s seat, as the latter became Secretary of State. (Joe Kennedy was born in 1980, and entered Congress in 2012). Markey entered Congress at a time when the average age in the body was decreasing. This anomaly occurred from 1960 to 1980; meaning that later Boomers and Gen X’ers did not continue the trend of youthful participation in politics. It is possible for Joe Kennedy to fail upwards, as there will be state races to compete for in 2022. Notable, no close Kennedy family has run for governor.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

It’s a Sid Davis Production

In the middle decades of the 20th century, Sid Davis was a prolific director of educational films seen on projectors in school classrooms across America. The nationwide impact of his short films was recognized by the New York Times, where after his lung cancer death at age 90, he received a page-long obituary in 2006. This film empire was all achieved on a low production budget, where economies included using a single vehicle as a prop. Sunny, new and well-maintained schools and parks served as the background, adding a priceless air of real-life to dramatic stories.

Various Southern California School and Police districts sponsored Sid Davis’ work, including Inglewood, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles County. The orderly suburban paradise, with its authority figures of parents, teachers, and police officers; was often held in contrast to Los Angeles’ skid row, which contained drunkards, pool halls, prostitution and nightlife. This dichotomy served as a backdrop for the dire consequences of straying from social conformity, which to its furthest ends included manslaughter and unmarried teen pregnancy. “You had an anchor in a social institution, now you feel adrift”, Sid Davis remarks about a high school dropout.

Despite his stiff morality, Sid Davis makes no appeals to religious authorities: his films are presented for a secular audience. His prime filmmaking years coincided with the Kennedy presidency, and the famous 1962 Supreme Court case on school prayer (Engel vs Vitale). Sid Davis’ films feature a racially diverse cast, first in the pool halls of Los Angeles, then later in integrated suburban settings.

Sid Davis films are a product of their times. For example, a teenage drunk driver is let off with merely a warning and phone call to his parents. Sid Davis’ most infamous short would be 1961’s “Boys Beware”, warning boys about the dangers of pedophiles, who were labelled exclusively as “homosexuals”. The corresponding film “Girls Beware” warned about casual sex, and received better reception among present-day audiences. Other films contained the results of cutting-edge research on the adolescent mind: One short, “Age 13”, features a low-income Hispanic teenager as it sensitively addresses the adolescent grieving process.

Sid Davis’ films present a top-down, “Do as I say, not as I do”, “Father knows best” attitude consistent with the era.  A 1970 film, “Keep Off the Grass”, presents a father, holding a cigarette and a cocktail, chastising his son for marijuana use. Sid Davis explains the difference: the casual drinker is unwinding after a productive day, and the marijuana user seeks to detach from any responsibility. Public Service Announcements and social guidance films for youth today tend to focus on the effects of peer pressure, instead of the expectations of authority figures.

The Bottle and The Throttle: