Road Blog: ‘Bivouac of the Dead’


We’ve spent the last several days making family visits in New Jersey and Pennsylvania: with Kate’s mom and sister in Monmouth County, N.J., with Kate’s cousin Rose north of Philadelphia. Yesterday, we made a long, looping drive back to New Jersey to the home of one of Kate’s closest high school friends, Lisa. On the way, we stopped in Scranton to visit the cemetery where Kate’s dad, Paul Edward Gallagher, is buried.

We’d visited the place, Cathedral Cemetery, just once before, in the summer of 1995. In the interim, I’ve discovered how difficult it is to find gravesites when you’re not intimately familiar with a cemetery’s layout (or even if you are). When we arrived, the cemetery office was already closed for the day, so we couldn’t get directions to the exact spot. I had a vague image of the part of the cemetery where the Gallaghers are interred, and we drove slowly around the place until I found a spot that looked right. We got out and went walking in different directions to see if we could find the site. I figured we’d never find it. But after looking for 15 or 20 minutes, Kate texted me that she’d found the place.

We went through an exercise I’ve gone through before, trying to note landmarks to remember for the next visit years hence. So: that group of five trees to the east of the site. The bee-hive shrine to the west. The prominent Mullaghy plot next to the Gallaghers. And I took pictures for a visual guide. I’ll look up the place on Google’s satellite maps and put an X on the spot. Assuming there is a next time, I’m sure I’ll feel lost again, at least for a little while.

During our search we also passed a section of the cemetery reserved for veterans’ graves. Civil War veterans and veterans of wars up through Vietnam. The largest group was from that first war, though, and a tablet had been put up with a stanza of a poem, “Bivouac of the Dead,” that reportedly appears at Arlington National Cemetery and many other burial places of Civil War soldiers. It’s by Theodore O’Hara, a Kentuckian who wrote it to honor the state’s dead in the Mexican War. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War (click the image below for a larger–readable–version).


Road Blog: Finding President Garfield


I have a minor obsession with the assassinated President James A. Garfield. What drew my attention to him was one doleful fact about his passing: He lingered for 80 days after he was shot in July 1881. He succumbed to infections caused by the insistent and non-sterile probing of his most serious wound by a succession of doctors searching for a bullet. Alexander Graham Bell attempted to use a primitive medical detector to find the slug. He failed, perhaps because Garfield was lying on a newfangled metal-coil mattress. A medical historian summed up the case a few years ago: “Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In today’s world, he would have gone home in a matter or two or three days.”

Instead, Garfield languished. Two months after he was shot, he was taken to Long Branch, New Jersey, a seaside resort filled with the rich and famous of the Gilded Age. Sort of a 19th century version of Malibu or the Hamptons. Those caring for the president are said to have thought maybe the sea air would help effect a cure. Or maybe they knew better and just wanted the guy to be comfortable before the inevitable occurred.

Garfield was taken on a special train to Long Branch. His condition was so fragile that there was widespread discussion of how fast the train ought to travel on the trip from Washington to protect him from unnecessary jolts (the decision: slow. The 238-mile trip took about seven hours). Doctors thought it best that Garfield not be transferred to a horse-drawn coach from the train, so teamsters and citizen volunteers built a 3,200-foot temporary rail line from a nearby station to the 20-room Francklyn Cottage in the hamlet of Elberon, where the president was to convalesce. The line, built in less than a day, was tested by running a locomotive over the fresh tracks. Twice, the engine derailed because a curve in the line was too short, and that section of the rails had to be relaid. The third time, the tracks stayed in place, and they held up for a final test before the president’s train arrived.

Garfield arrived on September 6, 1881, and he was duly installed in his seaside abode. He died on September 19.

We’ve been visiting Kate’s family, which lives in the general vicinity of Long Branch, for the last couple of days. Late this afternoon, we decided to drive over and see if we could find any trace of the Garfield story. One remnant you come across if you do some quick web research is a “tea house” that’s said to be built from some of the ties from the temporary railroad. It’s supposed to be the only building with any connection to the Garfield story that’s still standing. I saw online that the tea house resides outside the Long Branch History Museum, so we went looking for that. We more or less stumbled upon it around sunset and saw that the museum consists of the former St. James Chapel, a.k.a. Church of the Presidents, and several tiny frame structures (including the Garfield tea house) on a lot surrounded by a flimsy chain-link fence.

We also noticed that a little semi-private-looking lane nearby was named Garfield Road. We decided to take a walk up that street to see if there was anything related to the president there. What I was imagining was a plaque saying “this is the place where. …” Around a corner of the lane, we encountered something just a little grander, a granite marker (pictured above) on a little patch of lawn outside someone’s shore house. It’s a wonderful scene in a way: to one side, someone’s got the garbage out for pickup. On the other, there’s a “children playing” sign. And in the middle, the simplest acknowledgment that one noted life came to an end here:

Twentieth president of the United States
Born Nov. 19, 1831at Orange, Ohio
Died on this site, Sept. 19, 1881

Here’s a brief explanation for how the marker came to be, by way of a nice little 1981 historical essay in The New York Times:

“In 1961, as a result of a campaign begun in 1957 by 8-year-old Bruce Frankel of Asbury Park, a granite marker was erected on the site of the cottage. Mr. Frankel, a lawyer, now lives in Fort Myers, Fla. and is still an avid reader of Presidential history.”

Road Blog: Late Starts, and Walking New York

Advantage to flying east from the western edge of the continent late in the morning: One can enjoy a leisurely morning. Coffee. Walking the dog. Getting the house a little ready for the neighbors (hi, Marie and Steve) who will be looking after things (and the dog) while we’re gone. Finishing packing.

Disadvantage to the late start: You reach your destination pretty late. And even later if your plane is delayed, the way ours was yesterday. We climbed off the jet around 11:45 or so and reached my brother’s place a little after 1 in the morning. The fatigue of the late hour was offset by the exhilaration of finding a parking space within a block of his apartment building near the Brooklyn Bridge.

The late arrival meant we were up until all hours talking with John, my sister-in-law Dawn, nephew Sean, and niece Leah. Then we had a late start this morning (or some of us did–John and Dawn were up pretty early). Eventually, Kate and I went out with Eamon and Sakura (our son and daughter-in-law) and Sean and Leah for lunch, a hike across the Brooklyn Bridge, a visit to the World Trade Center memorial, another hike up to Chinatown for dinner (with John and Dawn), then the eight of us finished with a stroll back to Brooklyn by way of the Manhattan Bridge.

Weather: beautiful. Warm and just enough humidity to remind us what that is without beating us over the head with it. Experiences: wow, were the streets crowded. I need more time to absorb the World Trade Center site. All I can say now is that the site is somber and restrained; that was a pleasant surprise.

Here’s a clutch of pictures from the day:

‘Conquering Beautiful Stages’

Thirty-nine years ago this week, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.”

I saw “Man on Wire” a few years ago, then again last night while we were packing for our big trip east. I love Philippe Pettit’s description of his obsession “to conquer beautiful stages.” But there’s something powerfully elegiac here, too, especially in the first three minutes or so of the clip below, a montage of the construction of the World Trade Center (the soundtrack is Michael Nyman, “Fish Beach“).