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My five-star reads for 2024

2023 was a really good reading year for me. Many intellectually rich 5-star reads, and a few lighter, more fun ones.

Wendell Berry: Essays, 1993-2017

This would not be a 5-star read for everyone. Berry’s writing style is very accessible, but also idea-dense. He’s an agrarian philosopher. So, he supports a very localized sort of economic organization, in which a community could subsist on its own agricultural production and where processing – such as sawmills, meat-packing, and grain processing – are also local. He also writes thoughtfully on other topics, such as the Gospels, abortion, and the intellectual errors of atheism. His focus is on real lives, lived by real human beings. He doesn’t care for abstract religion, abstract global theories, reductionism of any kind, or – especially – big, untested ideas that we are assured will pay off in the future. I didn’t read every single essay in this collection, and it still took me a long time to read because it is so rich in ideas. If you’re looking for a bit of an intellectual challenge, I highly recommend this book.

Marmee

This book retells Little Women from Marmee’s perspective, in the form of her journals from 1862 to 1868. I generally don’t like books told in the form of either journals or letters, but I loved this one.

Marmee uses her journals in exactly the way I use my own. She describes what is happening in her life – and in the nation, during an important historical era – but she also uses her journals to examine herself and build her own character.

We get a more fleshed-out Marmee in this telling than in Little Women, and some back story on the family’s poverty. I absolutely loved Marmee as a character. She is constantly trying to improve herself, she loves her family fiercely, and she never stops trying to make the world a better place. I especially love the way she showed respect for the destitute Mrs. Hummel, whose cause she adopts but whom she never condescends to.

Lady Audley’s Secret

Funny story about why I read this book. As a child, I was a huge fan of the Betsy-Tacy books. In the fourth book in the series, Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, the girls get in trouble for borrowing Lady Audley’s Secret from Betsy’s mother’s hired girl. The girls’ parents think the book is salacious.

I always thought the name of the book was made up. As soon as I found out it was a real book, I had to read it.

I don’t usually love nineteenth-century literature. I generally find it melodramatic and verbose. But this book really drew me in. Most readers will figure out Lady Audley’s secret within the first two chapters. But there is a surprising twist at the very end. And the fun of the book is watching her second husband’s nephew figure it out and then play cat-and-mouse with the deceptive lady.

Magnificent Rebels

A friend lent me this book. Another intellectually-dense one, but the writing is brisk and sprightly, doesn’t go into too much tedious detail, and is written like a novel, even though it is non-fiction.

Wulf takes as her subject the German Romantics of the early nineteenth century, bringing these philosophers and writers to life as characters. She especially focuses on Caroline-Bohmer-Schlegel-Schelling, a female intellectual who managed to determine her own destiny. We also meet the Schlegel brothers: dutiful diligent Auguste Wilhelm and impetuous Friedrich. And many others, including Goethe, the only guy who managed to stay friends with all of them.

These characters all met in the small German town of Jena in the 1790s. Inspired by the French Revolution and dreams of democracy, they thought and wrote and argued. They were friends, enemies and frenemies. Their story was fascinating, and their influence of how we see ourselves today was profound.

Act of Oblivion

The year is 1660 and the Royalists have returned to power in England Edward Whalley and his son-in-law William Goffe, colonels in Cromwell’s army, must now escape to North America.

This novel reminded me a little of Les Miserables. All of the events flow from the English Civil War, just as all events in Les Miz flow from the Napoleonic Wars. And the Royalist detective Naylor is Javert-like in his determination to track down Whalley and Goffe.

Over the course of many years in exile, Whalley and Goffe stay on the run, moving from one safe house to another and often living in the wild. Naylor is always just a few steps behind them. Meanwhile, Whalley’s daughter and Goffe’s wife, Frances, struggles to raise her children alone and in poverty back in England.

Interesting characters, clear conflict, historical veracity and unflagging action make this book a ripping yarn.

Driving Miss Norma

This book was the selection of my church book club in May. It’s not something I’d have chosen myself and I wasn’t expecting much. I thought it would be kind of silly and sappy. A feisty old lady having late-life adventures isn’t news any more; it’s kind of cliche. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Norma’s true story.

Norma received a cancer diagnosis not long after losing her husband and her daughter in pretty quick succession, and her doctors recommended a course of treatment that sounded brutal. Her son and daughter-in-law, who spent most of their years travelling around in their Airstream camper, offered her an alternative: Come along and travel with us. Make your last months about fun instead of about treatment.

Norma doesn’t just have adventures. She, and her son and daughter-in-law, become closer and experience personal growth through their experiences. Tim and Ramie are careful to always leave choices in Norma’s hands. A beautiful and sensitive story, well told.

Jane Eyre

My favorite book of all time. I first read it when I was 11, and loved it so much that when I finished it I immediately went back to the beginning and read it again! I have read it four times since then as an adult.

Reading the book as a mature woman, I admire Jane as much as ever. But I am appalled by Rochester. He has all the power in the relationship. And yet he plays coy with Jane, trying to manipulate her into self-disclosure while guarding his own secrets.

But Bronte does this amazing thing for a 19th-century woman: she insists, absolutely insists, that Jane must be allowed to make her choice. Her readers and fervent fans such as myself may feel that it is a poor choice. But Bronte insists that we respect Jane’s autonomy. And she delivers subtle messages about abstract morality versus lived morality.

I still love this book, in spite of Bronte’s wordy, flowery 19th-century style. Any book that can speak truth to an 11-year-old child, a middle-aged moralistic parent, and a mature woman expecting to meet her God in the not-too-distant future, is surely a moral, religious and literary treasure. 5 stars in 1967, 5 stars in the 1990s and 2000s, 5 stars in 2023, 5 stars forever. BEST. BOOK. EVER.

Gilead

This was another re-read. 76-year-old Congregationalist Reverend John Ames is dying of heart disease in 1956, leaving behind a much younger wife, and 8-year-old son, and no estate to speak of. As a legacy, he decides to leave behind a memoir for the boy. He starts with his family history, including his Civil War firebrand grandfather and pacifist father. Ames writes movingly of the late-19th-century world of his boyhood, when the wounds of the Civil War were still bright red and painful.

Ames’ memoir-writing is disrupted when Jack Boughten returns to town. Jack is the son of Ames’ best friend. But he was troubled as a child and young man and committed an act so abhorrent that he left town and never returned until now. Ames must wrestle with his strong dislike of this returned prodigal son, and his suspicion that Jack is way to interested in charming his own wife and son.

I loved Ames’ gentle, powerful, moving voice in this book. And it was so full of spiritual insight that I did the same thing on this reading that I did with my first reading of Jane Eyre: I went back to the beginning and immediately read the whole book again!

King: A Life

This biography of Martin Luther King Jr begins with his paternal grandparents. I liked that. I have an interest in family history, and I’m always interested in how our families form us.

Eig does a great job of showing how MLK became the right man in the right place at the right time in American history. He follows his subject through his early life and the birth of the Civil Rights movement. Eig documents the movement in detail, writing it like the epic that it was. He gives credit to others where it is due, but he also focuses on the importance of Dr. King’s moral character, personal magnetism and prophetic vision. I also liked how he brought out the way that the movement continued to form King’s character, which was equally important. He doesn’t gloss over the occasional plagiarism, nor King’s sexual infidelity. He gives us the man in full, a man who was a great leader in spite of his flaws.

The Vaster Wilds

The heroine of this story is an indentured servant. She has no name, but the family she serves call her Zed. Early in the seventeenth century, while still in her early teens, the family brought Zed from England to the wilds of the Massachusetts colony.

The novel begins when Zed is escaping the colony. We don’t learn the exact reason for her flight until later in the story. But the little fortified settlement where Zed lives is failing from plague and famine. On a cold night in March, Zed flees, wearing a pair of stolen boots and carrying with her the tools she will need to survive in the wilderness.

The story of her attempts to survive is told beautifully and brutally. This brave, resourceful girl endures, cold, hunger, and attempted attacks by beasts, both human and non-human. The reader gets a stark sense of what it took for anyone to survive at a starving time of year and utterly alone. The descriptions of the wilderness and the sheer physical work of living in it are magnificent.

Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity

I wish I had read this book ten years ago. My husband and I had begun to feel out of synch with the increasingly conservative positions of the church that we’d belonged to for over twenty years. I still felt like a Christian, but I couldn’t take the Bible literally, and a lot of traditional Christian theology had ceased to make sense to me.

Ultimately, I became comfortable with both loving Jesus and doubting a lot of Christian theology. I became comfortable with not knowing, with living the questions. I came to see faith as a process. My husband and I also found a church that was more hospitable to our evolving version of faith.

All of that would have been so much easier if I’d had this book when I started my journey. It is a great primer on progressive Christianity, an approach almost identical to how I now understand God. But it also goes a lot deeper than I had gone on my own, and gave me some new food for thought.

Such Kindness

Tom Lowe is really, really down and out. After falling from a roof and breaking his hip, he lost his building business, his house, and his marriage. As the story opens, he’s living in subsidized housing, recently recovered from opioid addiction, and spends most of his days lying on a couch made out of wood planks, his hips in agony. His car has been impounded for unpaid fines.

Two events – realizing that he’s hit bottom by contemplating credit card fraud, and the devastation of losing his last link to his previous life as a builder – cause the beginning of a change in Tom. Determined to make contact with his estranged son, he embarks on a journey that will see him walking miles along highways on his burning hips, riding along with a friend on a bank caper, and spending a weekend in jail.

Along his way, he will be awed by the small kindnesses he receives from strangers (and from people with reason to hate him) and begin to glimpse a path back to usefulness for himself.

I loved this book. Tom felt very real. His circumstances are dire, but he manages to complete an inner journey that all of us face as we age: acceptance of what is as opposed to what we hoped for, and how to remain useful and find meaning in life as we age and decline.

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

This is a different kind of time-management book. It starts with the premise that we will never accomplish everything that we need to do. And then it uncovers the fallacies behind most time-management approaches.

In the end, you’re still going to have a to-do list. And Burkeman does give some old-fashioned time-management advice (like, try not to be juggling too many projects at once). But this book is refreshing, because it starts with Heidegger (yes, really!) and then moves on to the central lessons that we have to accept where we are in each moment and we have to accept that our time on earth is limited and we are always making choices.


On Shepherds and Amazement

Something a little different for this blog entry: shepherds. Our associate rector invited me to write third-week devotions for our church’s advent booklet. I used my imagination a bit, and I got so much joy out of writing these devotions that I wanted to share them more broadly.

These seven devotions loosely form a single story. You can read them day by day or all at once. I hope they add some small blessing to your Advent season.

Day One

“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth.” (1 Samuel 17: 34-35)

Before Mary and Joseph, before the prophets, even before the great temple that housed the Ark of the Covenant, there was a shepherd.

David was the youngest of eight sons, and so his father gave him the humblest job: guarding the family’s flock of sheep. Imagine this teenage boy, described in the Bible as ruddy and handsome with beautiful eyes. He has an overabundance of energy and daydreams of doing great things.

The sheep are his only companions. He can tell one from another by a nicked ear or a lame leg, or by wool that is fuller or curlier or grayer or whiter or more yellow than the others. He’s named them. He talks to them. He loves to sing, so he sings to them, made-up songs of overlooked boys who win both epic battles and the hearts of beautiful girls. He runs randomly through the thin grass and the poppies under the baking sun, exciting the sheep to chase. He practices with his slingshot, aiming at a jasmine bush or an olive tree. He gets really good with that slingshot, good enough to fend off the kinds of ravenous creatures that prey on sheep.

Good enough to slay a giant.

David will become a king, father to an even greater king, and ancestor to the King of Kings. He will write songs that we still sing three thousand years later. He will embarrass his wife by dancing before God. He will send one of his best and most loyal officers to certain death in battle, out of lust for that man’s wife. His favorite son will break his heart and die in battle against him. His life will be epic.

But, first, he was a shepherd boy, caring for his sheep and practicing with his slingshot, waiting for his real life to begin.

Day Two

“In that region, there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8)

Have you ever had the experience of thinking it was an ordinary day, not knowing that something huge was about to break on you?

Everyone remembers that September 11, 2001, was such a lovely, ordinary September morning. But as we woke and got ready to go to work or school, the planes were already taking off, heading toward their cataclysmic moment.

On the day my mother died, I woke early and started making coffee and thinking about the day ahead. At 6:30, just as I was taking my first sip of coffee, I got the call that mom had died in her sleep.

But surprising news that turns your day upside down isn’t always bad. Luke 2:8 is the shepherds’ Advent moment. Although they don’t know it, they are awaiting astoundingly good news.

Shepherds works hard. They have to make sure that their sheep find enough water and good grass. Sheep are notoriously stupid, and have to be convinced not to wander off, step in a hole, or trip over a large rock. If a sheep does get hurt, the shepherd has to be enough of a veterinarian to doctor it: set the broken leg, pull the thorn out of the hoof, clean the infected ear.

The shepherds in Luke were probably the best of the best. Some of their lambs were most likely destined to be sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem. The law required that animals for temple sacrifice be born within five miles of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is about five miles from Jerusalem.

So, these sheep required special devotion. The temple lambs had to be less than a year old, male, and flawless. Imagine the pride these men must have taken in their sheep, and the care that they provided.

See them, living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock, just like any night. The stars are bright in a cold sapphire sky. The sheep sleep, occasionally grunting or chuffing, or crying a grumbly, muted bleat. Some shepherds walk their rounds of the perimeter, alert for thieves or predators. Others sit close to their little fires, warming their hands, fending off sleepiness, telling each other stories or keeping counsel with their own thoughts. Maybe some of the older men good-naturedly tease the younger ones about pretty girls or about dumb things they’ve done. There is soft laughter. Their ears are vigilant for the howl of a wolf or the low growl of a stalking lion.

Something amazing is about to happen.

Day Three

“Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:9)

Before the angel appeared, the shepherds may not have known that they were living in the first Advent. But they had been waiting for the Messiah all their lives. In a way, everything since King David had been Advent. 

But they surely wouldn’t have expected to be the first to hear of the Messiah’s coming.

Although shepherding was important work, it was low-status labor, relegated most often to youngest sons (like David) or to young girls. It was dirty, exhausting, dangerous work, done outdoors in all weather. And there was that night shift that probably nobody wanted.

In our modern world, many people still do hard, low-status work. Workers in factory farms, slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants come to mind as the most direct descendants of our shepherds. I think also of the people who pick up our garbage or clean our offices. But I think especially of the aides in nursing homes. Often, they are not native-born and speak heavily-accented English. They work long hours, on all different shifts, for low pay. While my mother was slowly dying of dementia in a nursing home, I learned to be both deeply grateful and deeply awed by their patient, respectful treatment of the helpless elders in their care. Many of them were as tender and vigilant as the shepherds with their sheep.

It is to humble, little-recognized workers like these that the angel appears. Something amazing truly has happened. The Messiah has come, heralded by an angel. Even more amazing: these humble shepherds are the first to know. They are given an importance and dignity that they would never have expected.

As they used to say on late-night TV: But wait! There’s more!

Day Four

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

It is incredible enough that lowly shepherds are the first to hear the news that the Messiah has come. In four short words, the angel announces an even greater revolution: this news is for all the people. It’s not just for high priests, not just for kings and princes. It’s not just for devout Jews. It’s not just for the rich. And it’s not just for the poor. It’s not some bottom-rail-on-top revolution, where the mighty are brought down and the humble are raised up. It’s for all the people.

We know the next chapters of the story. Jesus will grow to manhood, teach and preach and heal. He will suffer and die. But this is still “good news of great joy.” Because we believe the part of the story where he then rises. The angels don’t say that he does that for a few elect, for people who follow the right rules, or perform the right rituals in the exact right way, or adhere to the right theology. That would be a very small god indeed. Our God is not small. He is not exclusive. This Messiah is big and inclusive. He is for all the people.

Day Five

“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place and that the Lord has made known to us.’” (Luke 2:15)

Last year, I joined in an Ignatian Way study group with Jill Gordon, Ann Caffaro, Jan Littrell and Eileen Sharbaugh. I learned the technique of imaginative prayer: putting yourself in the place of a character in the Bible verse that you’re studying. In Week 9, we reached the verses in Luke about the shepherds. I tried to put myself in their place when they made their decision to go to Bethlehem. They couldn’t all have gone. Wouldn’t some of them have had to stay back with the sheep? How did they decide who should go and who should stay? Even after the angel show, some of them might have felt safer on their familiar grassy hill than wandering around town looking for a baby, asking for directions from strangers. I ended up writing from the perspective of a young shepherd who decided to stay back with the sheep.

I pictured him looking a lot like my teenage grandson: tall, skinny and long-haired, all uncertainty and awkward, coltish limbs. I imagined him thinking, “I wish I’d gone. I wish I could see for myself. But I was afraid. I don’t like the big city. And what if it was some kind of trick? What if we got in trouble? It felt safer to stay here with the sheep. But now I feel lonely and disappointed in myself.”

We all disappoint ourselves sometimes. We all feel afraid sometimes. Most of us are backstage when the world’s big events occur. But the angels remind us, again, that our doubts and fears and regrets do not exclude us, that Jesus is for all the people.

Day Six

“So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Luke 2:16-18)

The braver, more curious shepherds went to Bethlehem. There, they somehow found the right place and saw an exhausted mother, a relieved father, and a baby.

Did the baby radiate light or wear a halo, as often depicted? Was he fair-skinned and rosy-cheeked, already plump and cooing? When the shepherds saw the newborn child, what were they seeing?

They were seeing a newborn human child, almost certainly not fair-skinned, and more likely to be howling than cooing. A helpless, hungry little being, with unfocused eyes and flailing limbs. Our God entered our world not fully formed and powerful, but as a needy, vulnerable child.

They were seeing a shepherd, a loving, patient teacher, a friend and guide.

They were seeing a lamb, a sacrifice for all the people.

They were seeing a Messiah completely unlike the one they thought they were waiting for.

They were seeing a miracle, a finite human creature and yet a limitless God.

They were seeing a mystery to be explored in prayer and contemplation over many centuries.

They were seeing love personified.

Day Seven

“There was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” (Luke 2:13-14)

For Christmas of 1995, Al made a stable for the Holy Family figures that my mother had passed on to me. He built a frame, and crafted individual bricks by hand. Over the following years, each Christmas he bought a new figure to add to the manger scene.

The shepherds are there, of course, along with the Wise Men, a little drummer boy, and several fictional characters invented for the purpose of selling expensive figures. We’ve also added quirky things here and there, like a fish our daughter made out of clay one year, and a Lego Christmas tree contributed by our son. It is my absolute favorite Christmas gift that Al ever gave me. Each year, we set it up on the day after Thanksgiving, and leave it out until at least Epiphany.

On at least one quiet evening during Advent, I like to turn off all the lights in the house except the little bulb inside the stable, and sit and just contemplate the scene. Last year, as I sat in contemplation, I noticed the arm position of almost every figure. Their arms are flung open in positions of awe and/or welcome. Even the angel stands with her arms her arms open sedately, as she calmly heralds the presence of a history’s greatest miracle.

Awe is a given in the presence of such a miracle. Welcome is a given. What really struck me was the openness.

I think openness is as much a feature of Advent as waiting. When we are waiting, we might think we know exactly what we’re waiting for. Often, what arrives is not what we expected. The Israelites were waiting for a warrior king, who would lead them back to the glory days of King David. Instead, they got both a shepherd and a lamb. They got both a miracle and a fathomless mystery.

We can be astonished at what a seemingly-typical day brings. A shepherd boy can become a king, or be amazed to receive great news from angels. Stay awake. Stay open. We never really know what we’re waiting for, because our God is epic, endless, astounding, and for all the people.


Old Economy and Al’s Family History

Al and I spent a delightful Saturday last week at Old Economy Village, for Erntedank Fest, a German Thanksgiving harvest festival. We enjoyed the beautiful gardens, the German food, and the high-quality vendor booths. We ended up spending a lot more money than we usually do at craft fairs!

But this was far from our first trip to Old Economy. We got married in the garden forty years ago, and Al’s family has roots there, through his paternal grandmother’s line.

Christian and Amy Loeffler

Christian Loeffler emigrated to the United States from Stuttgart, Germany in the mid-nineteenth century, along with his mother, Margaret. He married Amy Hazen and initially settled on property in Beaver County that belonged to her family. Christian was a stonecutter who did work for the Fort Wayne Railroad and for the Harmonist Society at Old Economy. He and Amy had six children before he died in a work accident in 1862.

Christian and Amy had been living with Margaret at the time of his accident. Apparently, the young widow became more interested in finding new male companionship than in caring for her children. Margaret struggled to care for them while working at the tavern that she owned. And she worried about how her grandchildren would fare if she died. She had connections with the Harmonist Society through relatives, and so she placed the children in their care. The six children were Joseph, Franklin, Christian, Benjamin, Rosina and Charles.

Franklin Pierce Loeffler and His Descendants

Franklin was Al’s great-grandfather. A harmonist family raised him, and he received schooling through the sixth grade. He then served apprenticeships in both shoemaking and cabinet-making. He also learned music and played in the first Economy Band and later the Beaver Falls Coronet Band.

As they became adults, the six Loeffler children all married and left the celibate Harmonist sect. Family lore says that the Harmonists loved the children, and sent them on their way with enough household goods to start their lives. In a published autobiography one of the Harmonists, John Duss, he mentions the children. He wrote, “The Loefflers were all above average in intelligence and ability, all good-looking.”

More than a century later, Al’s father, volunteered at Old Economy for many years in the cabinet shop, doing repairs and teaching cabinet-making. Al’s sister worked as a docent there for several years. The docents that we met on Saturday were delighted to meet a Harmonist descendant. Some of them fondly remembered Al’s father.

Al and Kathy Bashaar (that’s us!)

For us, of course, our afternoon at Old Economy brought back happy memories of our wedding day. In a future blog post, I will write more about the Harmonist Society and Old Economy. But I wanted to tell this more personal history first.

Like the Loeffler children, I lost my father at a young age. Revisiting this old family story made me think a lot about the differences between my experience and the Loefflers’. First, I had a mother who did put her children first and had zero interest in new male companionship.

But I also want to emphasize here that my mother had better choices than poor Amy Loeffler did. Mom received about $6000 a month (in 2023 dollar, about $800 in the early 1970s) in Social Security Survivors Benefits. Combined with her salary from a secretarial job, that allowed her to keep us fed and hang on to the family home. She didn’t face the painful choice of living with her mother-in-law or finding a new man willing to take on her children. You will never hear me complain about government social spending, because I know what it can mean to a family.

And how about Margaret just handing those kids off to the Harmonists? Imagine trying to do that today! Amy would be all over her mother-in-law with lawsuits! But I don’t blame Margaret, either. I can imagine her exhaustion, trying to run her tavern and care for six grandchildren, all while grieving her son. And she knew she wouldn’t live forever. In fact, she did die about four years after Christian. She did what she thought would be good for the children in the long run. It must have been very hard. I hope she visited them when she could, or heard of their health and progress via letters. I hope she’d be glad to know that her descendants remained devoted to the Society that took in her grandchildren.

Sources

Only one source for this post. I am indebted to my late mother-in-law, Katherine Schuring Bashaar, for the thorough family history that she wrote of both sides of Al’s family. And she did it back in the 1970s and 80s, when there was no such thing as the internet. She did it the old fashioned way: lots of trips to cemeteries and poring through dusty old records. Hats off to you, Muni!


Mad Anthony Wayne

Was Mad Anthony Wayne truly mad? Not really. He just had a fiery temper. But legend has it that his ghost still haunts the state of Pennsylvania, where he was born, died, and became the father of the professional U.S. Army.

Wayne had pretty ordinary beginnings. Born in Paoli, PA, on January 1, 1745, he had only two years of education at an uncle’s academy in Philadelphia. In 1765, he worked for a year in Nova Scotia as a surveyor and agent for a land company. When the American Revolution broke out, he was working as a tanner and serving part-time in the Pennsylvania state legislature.

The American Revolution

In January of 1776, barely aged 21, Wayne assembled a militia and received an appointment as a colonel in the Fourth Pennsylvania Battalion of the Continental Army. He participated in the Army’s unsuccessful invasion of Canada later that year, successfully executing a rear-guard action at the Battle of Trois-Rivieres. Wayne also saw action at Fort Ticonderoga and Mount Independence. He protected Washington’s right flank in the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, and endured the brutal winter at Valley Forge. In the Battle of Monmouth, Wayne’s forces held out against a larger British force after General Charles Lee abandoned them.

Wayne’s finest hour as a commander was probably the Battle of Stony Point. He personally led a nighttime bayonet attack, and his columns stormed and captured the British fortification. Although the victory was more a morale boost than a strategic triumph, the Continental Congress awarded Wayne a medal for his courage and leadership.

Even after the British surrender at Yorktown, Wayne continued to serve his country. He helped disband the British alliance with Indian tribes in Georgia, and negotiated peace treaties with native tribes. After the war, he received a belated promotion to Major General and retired to a plantation in Georgia, seized from a loyalist and awarded to him for his service.

The Legion of the United States

This is the site of Legionville, near Baden, about a quarter mile from the Ohio River. Logstown, the Indian town that once stood here, burned in 1754. An Indian burial ground lies nearby.

In 1791, Washington called Wayne back into service. After Arthur St. Clair’s disastrous rout in Ohio, the President realized that he needed a general who could build a disciplined army, and Wayne had earned a reputation for both strict discipline and for seeing to the comfort and well-being of his troops. Wayne established a training camp at Legionville, near present day Baden and Ambridge, and spent the winter of 1791-2 turning a few thousand remnants of the Continental Army and some recruits from Pittsburgh into a formidable fighting force: the Legion of the United States.  

Modern historians rightly point out that Wayne’s subsequent successful campaign in the West was one of many steps in the European genocide of the natives of North America. And that he owned slaves. As it happens, he was a less successful slavedriver than general. He went into debt buying enslaved people to work his Georgia plantation, and ended up bankrupt.

Weirdest Death Ever

Here’s Mad Anthony’s gravesite. Well, one of them . . .

But his death is the strangest part of Wayne’s colorful life story. Wayne’s rival for the position of General of the Legion, James Wilkinson, did not accept defeat gracefully. Wilkinson went out of his way to undermine Wayne and spread gossip about him. When Wayne received intelligence that Wilkinson was being paid as a spy for Spain, he began proceedings to court-martial him. But the court martial never happened. Wayne died on December 15, 1796. Some sources say he died of gout, others say a stomach ulcer. Rumors abounded at the time that Wilkinson had had him murdered. Wilkinson’s career as a spy wasn’t confirmed until 1854, almost forty years after his death.

But the story of Wayne’s death gets even weirder than that. After his death, Wayne was buried at Fort Presque Isle, near present-day Erie, PA. In 1809, his son, Isaac Wayne decided to disinter the body and move it nearer the family home in Wayne, PA. Imagine his surprise when he found the thirteen-year-old corpse in an astonishingly good state of preservation. A local doctor, James Wallace suggested boiling the body to separate the flesh from the bone, and then transporting the bones. Wayne’s flesh and clothing were reburied at Presque Isle, and the bones taken on the 400-mile journey to Wayne, PA.

Oh, wait, though, the weirdness isn’t even finished. When he arrived home, Isaac realized that he was missing some bones. They had apparently fallen out of the wagon along the way. So, Wayne is buried not in one grave, nor in two, but in a 400-mile trail of a grave.

Unsurprisingly, given the bizarre circumstances, legends abound that General Mad Anthony Wayne’s ghost haunts the state of Pennsylvania to this day, rising every New Year’s morning to ride the roads between St. David’s Episcopal Church in Wayne, PA, all the way to Erie, searching for his lost bones.

Coda

As I guess befits a man who is both a ghost and a war hero, and also has a problematic history as a perpetrator of both slavery and genocide, Wayne has several taverns named after him. There’s Mad Anthony Wayne Café, in Wayne, PA, General Wayne Inn in Merion, Pa, and Mad Anthony’s Taproom & Restaurant in Waynesville, NC. There are Mad Anthony Brewing Company locations in Fort Wayne, Auburn and Warsaw, IN. From 1950 until the 1990s, there was a Mad Anthony’s Bier Stube at 1233 Merchant St., in Ambridge, PA, a sniper’s bullet away from where he trained the Legion of the United States 230 years ago.

Sources:

https://www.nps.gov/vafo/learn/historyculture/wayne.htm

https://www.eriehistory.org/blog/a-halloween-story-the-death-of-anthony-wayne

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Wayne

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Wilkinson


The National World War Two Museum

Al lost a 101-year-old friend during Covid. I didn’t even know the guy and I cried during his remote memorial service. He was a veteran of both the CCC and World War Two, a member of what we call the Greatest Generation. If you don’t know how they got that name, I recommend a visit to the National World War Two Museum in New Orleans.

I usually confine my blog posts to books and local history. But Al and I spent a few days in New Orleans recently and were just blown away by the WWII museum there.

Entering the Museum

Before you even enter the museum, it tugs at your heartstrings. Near the entrance stands a statue of Anne Frank, to remind you of the kind of evil the Greatest Generation had to confront. Near the Frank statue is a statuary tableau of a group of pilots preparing for a bombing run.

They look so young, and yet seasoned and tough in a way that nobody under thirty should ever look. The average WWII fighter pilot was only twenty-two years old. Fewer than half of them lived to see the end of the war.

The massive museum consists of five buildings. You could see the highlights in half a day, although you need a full day to really do it justice. And Al is such a history fanatic that we could have spent a second day there.  I recommend buying both the general admission ticket and the extra-cost ticket for the Beyond All Boundaries 4D Experience.

Beyond All Boundaries

Beyond All Boundaries is not to be missed. As advertised, it is an immersive experience of not only sound and visuals, but 3D features and sensory effects as well. For example, when bombs are exploding on the screen, your seat will shake as if you are right in the middle of the bombing. The show provides the background of the war and the events leading to it. It frankly discusses initial American reluctance to join the fight, even after Germany invaded Poland and France and began bombing Great Britain. It then gives and overview of the war itself, including the importance of the home front.

The tone of Beyond All Boundaries is unabashedly patriotic. It portrays the war as a battle of democracies versus autocracies, America as the savior of the free world, and our WWII generation as legendary heroes and heroines. The exhibits in the rest of the museum touch lightly on some of the more complex moral aspects of the war. But the overall approach of the museum is to portray inspiring heroism. Honestly, I really liked that.

Other Museum Highlights

Like most modern museums, the WWII strives to be interactive. After you purchase your ticket, you board a train where you receive a dog tag card. Your card is coded with the name of a WWII participant. You can tap it on many exhibits in the museum, to find out whether your participant was part of the exhibit’s subject, and what he or she was doing. I got Sgt. John Basilone, who earned the Medal of Honor for his bravery at Gaudalcanal and was killed at Iwo Jima after additional acts of superhuman courage.

The whole story of the war is told in multi-media exhibits that allow the visitor to take in as much or as little detail as desired. Many artifacts are on display. There are also video exhibits from the war era, and built environments that let you wander through reproductions of some of the war’s scenes. I especially liked the Battle of the Bulge winter forest.

Planes, Planes, Planes

The museum owns and displays acres of decommissioned military vehicles, particularly aircraft. Al loves that stuff, so he was in heaven. Me, not so much. I get pretty bored just looking at airplanes. They all look the same to me.

My favorite part was in building five, the Freedom Pavilion. There, I found an interactive display that presents the visitor with real moral dilemmas from the war. For example, you are the commander of Allied forces planning for D-Day. If you bomb railyards as well as rail lines and bridges, you increase your chances of a successful invasion, but you will cause more civilian casualties. What would you do? What did previous visitors say they’d do? And what did the real decision-maker do? I could have played that game all day. But the museum was getting ready to close, and Al had already taken about a hundred pictures of airplanes, so it was time to go.

Definitely don’t miss this museum if you are in New Orleans. And don’t worry if you’re with someone who will spend the whole day there. They have a cafeteria called the American Sector, which provides good food, alcoholic refreshment, and period music.

For more information about the museum, check out their website.


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