Why do we stargaze?

The Last Stargazers: The Enduring Story of Astronomy’s Vanishing Explorers by Emily Levesque is a book that deals more with the down-to-earth practical mechanics of being an astronomer than it does the objects they study cast all across the sky. 

Emerging technologies are changing so many facets of our lives and the field of astronomy is no different. The heart of Levesque’s book is capturing stories from an era that is soon behind us. New telescopes and the mechanics of observing have likely changed even since its publication now that https://webb.nasa.gov/ is live.  

How does one become an astronomer in the first place? I suppose that’d be a common question, particularly if you’re writing a book that is more about astronomers than astronomy. 

“In all the time I spent interviewing friends and colleagues for this book, I never once asked anyone how they got interested in astronomy. I wasn’t writing about our origin stories; I was interested in the quirks and hijinks and wacky stories that come from the odd type of work we do. The vast majority of astronomers that I spoke to told me anyway.” (~Emily Levesque)

When Levesque talks about how seeing the sky made her want to become an astronomer even without knowing exactly what that meant, I understood the appeal. “Space is cool!”

When I was young, we lived in a sparsely populated rural area in Nebraska where the lack of light pollution made the night sky especially beautiful. Once, my father and I were driving home on a particularly clear night when he pulled over so we could lie on the hood of the car to admire the sky. The story goes that I got scared by the enormously bright sky, that it was too big and made me feel too small. I’m not sure I’ve completely gotten over being awestruck by a bright night sky, but sadly truly clear nights are rare where I live now. 

About midway into the book, she talks about the graduate student, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was so integral in the discovery of pulsars. The pulsar has featured heavily in sci-fi shows and any time there is a kernel of real science in science fiction I think it’s delightful. 

Pulsars are the sorts of things I had been expecting Levesque to cover in her book. While she touches on some of the discoveries made, she does so mainly in relation to the methods of observing and uses for the different types of telescopes. I wanted more information about red supergiants and galaxy formations and things of that nature. The controversies surrounding the Mauna Kea Observatories’ ecological and cultural impact were interesting and important to consider but felt much more grounded on Earth than what I had in mind when I picked up this book. 

One of my favorite anecdotes wasn’t about the astronomers at all, but about how they’d discovered how to measure gravitational waves. These waves squeeze and compress spacetime.

“Gravitational waves fall into that wonderful realm of physics where things exist simply because the math of the universe insists they should.”

~ Emily Levesque

Scientists have known about them since Einstein but have only recently been able to detect them. There are now things called Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatories (LIGO) scattered throughout the world that detect them. 

I enjoyed her stories about studying the stars and the anecdotal tidbits about astronomers’ telescope time. Levesque’s book demystifies the profession and shares insights into the life of an astronomer while showcasing some of the techniques and technology used over the years that have increased our knowledge of the cosmos. The human side of science shines through. And don’t forget pulsars! Pulsars are fascinating. Below are some links about them:

A Gentle(wo)man and a States(wo)man

Aunt Harriet was my grandmother’s aunt who lived in Cornwall, CT. She lived to be 102 years old and the breadth of changes to our world she’d seen over her lifetime is staggering.

  • Harriet Lydia Clark
  • b. November 11, 1894
  • c. January 7, 1997

She was an educator and a legislator and a local historian. Her online obituary briefly sums up some of the milestones, but it’s hard to sum up a person in just a few lines.

Portrait of Harriet Clark, high school or college

CLARK. Harriet Lydia Clark was born in East Cornwall, Nov. 11, 1894, daughter of Andrew Miles and Mary Lydia (Brown) Clark. Her formal education included Cornwall District 16, Gilbert (Winsted) Western Connecticut State University, B.S. from Boston University, 1923, and M.A. from Columbia University in 1942. Her 40 year teaching career extended from East Cornwall, College Farm in Warren, West Side in Goshen to Danbury High School 1923-1953. She served four terms in the State Legislature where she was on the Education, Constitutional Amendments and Personnel Committees 1956-1965. Co-compiler of “History of East Cornwall”, she wrote many stories and was a founder of the Cornwall Historical Society, member of the Owls, Cornwall Grange, long active in the Camp Fire Girls, and was the oldest living member of United Church of Christ in Cornwall. Funeral services will be celebrated on Saturday, (Jan. 11), 1 p.m. at the United Church of Christ in Cornwall. Calling hours will also be on Saturday from 10 a.m.- 12 p.m. at the Kenney Funeral Home, 41 Main St., Sharon. Memorial contributions may be made to the United Church of Christ, Cornwall, 06753.

Obituary (courant)

One of the tales my father often tells about her is when he once asked her to what she attributed her long life and she replied, “I never married.” I think about that often these days. In many ways she was ahead of her time, in other ways, she was a product of her time.

I remember visiting when I was a young child. I was advised by my parents to be on my best behavior. That wasn’t anything new, they always wanted me to be on my best behavior (somewhat like ‘crying wolf’, am I right?) but my grandmother ALSO gently appealed to me to behave properly when we set off for Mohawk Farms and that was something unusual. Aunt Harriet was the matriarch of our family – something my grandmother became after Aunt Harriet’s passing –  and we were to treat her with respect.

She was hard of hearing and tended to yell when she spoke, making her stern nature even more intimidating. But Aunt Harriet loved children and would tell us to go run around in the yard and see if there was anything ripe on the raspberry bushes. It’s not my fault I tracked in mud after that!

The last time I visited Aunt Harriet, I was in college.  She had difficulty raising her voice then but commanded such respect from those around her that I noticed even the next generation of children quieted down to listen to what she was trying to say. 

I know my mother and her sisters and cousins have plenty of other stories – some I may not have even heard. I remember a woman who was a bit of an enigma, one who was warm but also formidable.

Clearing webs from the hovel*

Last week I attended an outdoor concert. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed live music until that fist chord came over the speakers and a hush went over the crowd.

It was the Indigo Girls (https://www.indigogirls.com/), who I’ve seen live before – although it was years ago.  Like me, they’ve aged a little. Which made everything all that much more comfortable. The Indigo Girls songwriting and performances are a rich style of storytelling that feels a bit like having drinks with an old friend. Both in hearing stories you’ve heard before and in having a few new ones to share.

The duo sang familiar tunes like *Hammer and Nail (1990) which focuses on not being overwhelmed with everything wrong with the world but rolling up your sleeves and getting to work and Shame on You (1997) which criticizes attitudes about ‘illegal immigration’. One source says the song was inspired in part by a documentary ‘Displaced in the New South’ – I can’t vouch for that, but watched parts of the film and it’s a plausible connection. https://www.folkstreams.net/films/displaced-in-the-new-south

They also performed songs from their new album that was released in 2020. An album I had somehow missed, but have spent the last few days catching up on. One of the songs I found particularly interesting and relevant to this blog – The song is ‘Shit Kickin’ (let’s be honest, the title is catchy as well). It touches on family history and delving into the past while advising you to be honest about it.  

Granddaddy was a preacher
Built that church from the sign to the steeple
I didn't know him except by his journaling hand
If you can find him you can love him
But girl you gotta be honest about him
You'll be fightin' them weeds for the rest of your days

Another one they performed from their new album was ‘When We Were Writers’, which feels like the bit where they are telling their origin story. In it, I heard how going down memory lane is all good and well, but that there’s still a fire that burns inside and this life isn’t over yet.

I sometimes find their discussions and write-ups about their music to be nearly as impactful as the music itself. They had this to say about their latest album:

Look Long considers the tremendous potential of ordinary life and suggests the possibility that an honest survey of one’s past and present, unburdened by judgement, can give shape to something new – the promise of a way forward.”

https://www.indigogirls.com/bio

The opening set was performed by Lucy Wainwright Roche (https://lucywainwrightroche.com/). Her performance was interspersed with commentary and tidbits – small stories about her family or her dog. I enjoyed her music and she has an incredible voice. 

The video below is not from the concert I attended, but Lucy Wainwright Roche has been touring with the Indigo Girls before – here she’s performing one of my favorite IG songs with them.

Overall a wonderful evening spent outdoors on a lawn chair. It reminded me to slow down, breathe, and listen. And enjoy the music.

Comforts

Bertha, who gave up comforts and security / To follow the man she loved into the mountains;

Bertha was one of the names considered by my parents when it came naming me. When I was younger, it was told as a joke – as in “be thankful, we could’ve named you this unpopular name or that unpopular name”, both being names of my parent’s grandmothers. I’m sure I would’ve rebelled against ANY first name when I was younger, so the joke lands flat. In fact, I did rebel and I have gone by my middle name since I was 11 years old. I site this particular branch of my family tree as precedence for this and have no regrets.

Great-Grandma Clark was born Bertha Marion Branch on September 10, 1885 in New London, Connecticut. She had a younger sister, Aunt Clarice. Her father died when she was four years old. The following year, her mother remarried.

Bertha attended college at Willimantic Normal School (today called Eastern Connecticut State University) where she received a teaching diploma in 1906. Her first posting was at a school in Niantic, Connecticut.

She married Ernest Dwight Clark on June 22, 1911 and spent her honeymoon camping in the mountains of West Virginia. Camping as a honeymoon isn’t my idea of romantic, but to each their own.

Bertha & Ernest Clark, Summer 1911

The couple moved to Virginia where her husband worked for the U.S. Forestry Service. They had four children; Helen Melissa (Aunt Melissa – note the use of her middle name here) was born on November 10, 1912, Ernest Dwight Jr. was born on May 19, 1916, Hazel Elizabeth (my maternal grandmother, family called her Betsy when she was younger) was born on April 19, 1919, and Sarah Barbara (Aunt Barbara, see the trend?) was born on April 12, 1922.

The family moved back to Connecticut in the summer of 1926. In addition to being a mother of four children and managing a household farm, Bertha taught school in a one-room school house. My mother recalls hearing that she struggled to get a teaching position at the time because she was a married woman. The thinking was that married women shouldn’t work outside the home. Her husband had to “raise a stink” about her being able to get a job. It’s refreshing to me to hear that she had a supportive husband and that she was able to pursue teaching.

During WWII, her two eldest children served in Europe. Her only son died in the war. She saved their letters home, which seems like a lost art in some respects these days. I have over fifty letters that Aunt Melissa wrote to her mother over the course of the war.

Great-Grandma Clark died when I was 8 years old. I recall her as a quiet woman, gentle and quick to smile. At some point, I inherited the doll’s tea set you see pictured here. It has been carefully wrapped and carted around with me through several moves. It’s not worth much nor is it in particularly good shape. Several pieces don’t match, paint has worn off in places, and there are small chips and nicks – but it is one of my most beloved possessions.

framed photograph of myself and Great-Grandma Clark from Summer 1977

Below is a recipe that’s been passed down from her daughter Hazel, to my mother, and then to me. These were handwritten and I transcribed it to my own recipe collection some years ago. I recall that I included added notes in parentheses, but am uncertain if the added notes are my mother’s or my grandmother’s – perhaps both? This is the sort of recipe that assumes the baker knows how to make a pie crust and gives helpful instructions similar to the adage to “cook until done”.

Grandma Clark’s Pumpkin Pie Recipe

  • 3/4 c. brown sugar
  • 1 tbl. flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2/4 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. nutmeg (or more)
  • 1/4 tsp. ginger
  • 1 1/2 c. cooked pumpkin (or squash)
  • 1 1/2 c. milk
  • 1 well beaten egg

Mix dry ingredients, add to other. Bake in hot oven (450 F) for 10 minutes. Reduce to slow (325 F) and bake until firm. Usually takes a long time. We use not quite so much sugar – either brown or white and about 1/4 c. molasses for good old flavor.

I made this last fall and it was smooth, creamy, and full of nostalgia, bringing to mind family who are gone but not forgotten.

Tangents and Detours

I’ve not kept up with this blog as I had expected to, but have by no means abandoned it. A combination of new responsibilities at work and the general mental fatigue everyone seems to be facing have limited the amount of time I’ve spent here. 

What I have spent time on is gathering genealogical material from others in my family and organizing it into my own ancestry account. This seemed the most logical place to keep track while building my family tree, at least for the time being. While doing so, I found myself going down rabbit holes I hadn’t intended to find.

In most cases, building my family tree on the site was relatively easy. Members of my family have been interested in genealogy over the past three or four generations, so we have a lot of material already researched. My mother, by connecting with other archivists several years ago, was able to trace one line back to the 1400’s.

I’ll let that sink in for a moment. And by sink in, I mean I want you to stop and consider the amount of white privilege it entails to be able to easily trace ancestors back that far. 

Photo by Daniel Watson on Pexels.com

Speaking of being white, have you ever done those DNA tests? Ancestry and 23andMe are two common ones.  According to the DNA ethnicity results, my genetic background does not contain any Native American markers. Yup, I’m white.

I bring this up in conjunction with my next question. Do you know that story that goes around some white families – the one about there probably being some ‘Native’ relative? It’s usually a woman and she was probably important, unique, or special in some manner. My family had this story, only it was vague (unlike other ancestors stories, which were specific) and came with the caveat that we were never able to prove it. Which is weird, right? In hindsight. To put it right there in the tale that it you couldn’t prove it? 

The story even went so far to imply the reason it couldn’t be proven is she had “Christianized” her name to obscure her heritage because of the bigotry prevalent at the time.  Of what time? I have no idea. Centuries ago, apparently.

Anyway, I admit that as a child I liked the idea of being related to this woman and felt it made me ‘special’ in some way, too. Now see how truly harmful these sorts of narratives are, how they are laced with a combination of both white guilt and white supremacy. I’m thankful these things only remained stories – and that no one in my family claimed this identity (as far as I’m aware) in any official sort of way. 

What else do my family tales have wrong?

Another thought that crossed my mind as I was digging into some of this material was a conversation I’d had with my grandmother when I was in college during the early 1990’s. My roommate at the time was from an upper-middle class family in Connecticut. Their home was a large, old farmhouse. It had been remodeled and gentrified before that was all the rage.

When I visited, she showed me where there was a secret staircase that led to a small room in the attic. The claim was that it had been used as a stop on the Underground Railroad, helping hide runaways while on their way further north to Canada. I told my grandmother this story and asked her if any of the abolitionist members of our family had any similar tales. Her reply was vague and dealt more with the political support and church’s stance of the time. She also made an off-hand comment about being careful who I spoke with in the family because not everyone would want to talk about it.

Over the years I’d dismissed this conversation as unimportant, not understanding the possible significance. It wasn’t uncommon for my grandmother to be vague or unwilling to discuss certain subjects. In fact, I’d nearly forgotten the conversation entirely until recently. Recently I’d been thinking of what she said as it related to the social media habits of a branch off that side of the family tree.

According to an NPR article, the U.S. removed nearly 100 Confederate monuments in 2020. A relative took to social media decrying the trend – claiming that “our heritage is being destroyed”. Why they wanted to maintain statues of those who fought and lost the Civil War, I can only hazard a guess (…it’s racism…). I no longer have any idea what this person is saying on social media, but can imagine that their opinions regarding the any educational idea that included racial equality would be along the same vein. 

This made me curious about what else could be lurking underneath that particular branch of the family tree. If the mere thought of providing education on the true history of our country makes someone uncomfortable – what other truths might there be? Is it generic white fragility gone wild or could there be some unsightly blemishes on our family name? Why was my grandmother so vague?

A few months after having this thought and I have yet to find a slave owner in my family tree. That’s not to say one won’t turn up. My family has been here since the Mayflower arrived. As some of the original colonizers, the very act of our being here so long has contributed to the society we have today – including its structure of racism and white supremacy.  

Our histories, both in the textbooks and at the dinner table, have been written in a way that absolves us as white people from any wrong-doing. It forgives harmful actions in the name of some sort of ideology, turns the victim to the aggressor, or glosses over the facts entirely. Acting like the truth is too harmful for children to learn is simply a projection of one’s own fear and discomfort. 

When I look at my family tree I see names of people I’ve loved and of people I’ve heard about my entire life who died before I was born. Any historical truth I might uncover wouldn’t change that. History sheds light on the stories we’ve been told, places them in time and offers context.  As a society we can’t understand where we are unless we understand how we got here.  And if we don’t, how can we ever move forward?

Anyway, that’s what got me a little off track recently. I’m still working on this project, I’m just finding interesting and distracting detours along the way.

Slam Poetry & New American Best Friend

Last year I went on a few book buying binges. In one of my hauls, I purchased a book of poetry called ‘New American Best Friend’ by Octavia Gatwood

I like poetry, but don’t read it often. Every time I do, I think I should read more because I enjoy it.   Poetry feels much like music – the “story” tends to be in snippets of emotional impact, often without the form or structure of a chronological story.  It’s not comprised of facts. It’s not deprived of facts. You have to sit with poetry a bit, digest it slowly before it can be realized. 

The majority of the poems in ‘New American Best Friend’ revolve around a coming-of-age theme. Such stories are popular in a lot of fiction no matter the audience age. They are the demonstration of how a person came to be who they are and ultimately help us understand ourselves, which is the key to any good story. Even if the tale being told resembles nothing like our own life, becoming a person is something we can all relate to.  I’ve always found that if a coming of age story has good bones, it will likely resonate. 

I recently read some reviews (aka. Goodreads comments) that criticized Gatwood’s work, calling it ‘period poetry’ and that no one thought it made her special.  I have to wonder what makes other women so angry about a poem to feel the need to leave a review like that. 

While unsurprising, it saddens me to think we still have a such a stigma about female bodies and that the thought of those bodies growing from childhood to adulthood is somehow shameful or gross. The misogyny colliding with the objectification of women is so routine and so ingrained, that it hardly makes a ripple. 

If the idea of period poetry is abhorrent to you – have you considered why?  I’m not talking about a casual dismissal where it’s simply not interesting. I’m not particularly interested myself, but it doesn’t disturb me to read about it. It doesn’t offend me. And questioning why it’s embarrassing – well, that isn’t new either.

So yes, the first poem in this collection might’ve turned off some readers. I cannot imagine that wasn’t intentional. I applaud the poet for putting it right out there in front. It’s like saying ‘if you can’t handle this, you can’t really handle me’. Forewarned is forearmed and you can’t say she didn’t warn you. 

One of the poems is ‘Ode to My Bitch Face’, which I had first encountered while browsing poetry slams on YouTube – a pandemic hobby of mine which is the thread that brought me to this book. This poem reignited in me all the anger I’ve ever felt when someone says “why don’t you smile” while simultaneously letting me know I’m not alone in feeling so judged and on display- under surveillance. There’s a sisterhood out there and we can commiserate. 

Parts of ‘Ode to My Bitch Face’ remind me of that famous quote attributed to Margaret Atwood that ‘men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them’. Whenever I mention that quote, I know some feel I’m being overly dramatic – but it’s a hard truth and this is the society we really do live in. Women do spend an incredible amount of energy to maintain a feeling of safety in every day life. 

While I’m not sure I can wrap up on a happy note, nor can I say I particularly enjoyed all the poems, they did leave an impact.

They made me consider and reflect.

They made me angry, they made me laugh, they made me feel a little sad and a little less alone. 

And isn’t that the point of poetry anyway?

Scotch Shortbread

I love hearing about those small holiday traditions that families carry. Ones that aren’t necessarily common or unique, but ones that are held because it’s “family tradition”. For my family, they come about because it was how so-and-so did something and how we collectively remember that person. It’s how we hold them close to us, even if they’ve been gone for some time.

My childhood holidays always include my father’s cookies. He has some staples he makes each year and some new ones he’ll try. One that remains constant, and is “tradition”, is Scotch Shortbread. His mother made it for the holidays and he’d adopted the practice long before we lost her in 2011.

His mother was named Ella, but went by the nickname ‘Sally’. She was born in 1912 in Fraser, Colorado. Her mother died three days later. The extended family took to raising her, from her grandmother to her uncles. From everything I’ve ever heard, there were a lot of lean years. “We didn’t notice The Depression,” I once heard her remark. Implying they’d been scraping by before that, and knew what being hungry meant.

Grandma Sally, 1940

She married my grandfather in 1942 and they had three children. He was a rancher, she became a rancher’s wife. Or, perhaps more accurately, she also became a rancher – I know she worked just as hard. After retirement, the pair of them got a big truck and large camping trailer. They toured around the country. After my grandfather died, she traded it in for a smaller RV that was more manageable for one person. She eventually gave up the nomadic life and moved in with my uncle. She lived to be 98.

the last time I saw my grandmother, August 2009

I’m thinking about her in particular today as I make her Scotch Shortbread. The smell coming from the oven is sweet and buttery, warming my home with holiday vibes. I’m also thinking of my dad, who is traveling across country right now to visit. I am thankful to be able to share some Scotch Shortbread with him when he and my stepdad arrive.

Below is the magical recipe, original and in my grandmother’s handwriting. I can think of few things that contain so much love with so few ingredients.

Scotch Shortbread
9" pan

2 c flour
3/4 c powdered sugar
3/4 c cornstarch
1 c butter

Work together and pat out in pan about 3/4" thick.
300° until brown
(my father's handwriting adding "about 1 hr.")
  • Is it my grandmother’s shortbread recipe? Yes.
  • Is it my father’s shortbread recipe? Yes.
  • Is it my shortbread recipe? Yes.

Happy Holidays, may it be filled with your own version of Scotch Shortbread.

A Room of One’s Own

Thinking about women and stories led me to revisit Virginia Woolf’s book, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. This book is derived from lectures she gave at Cambridge women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, in 1928 on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’.  It has been an influential work in feminist studies with a central theme that women need a room in which to write. The room is both literal and figurative. Woolf maintains that women of the past had neither the space, time – nor financial means to acquire either – in order to pursue writing.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor…”

– Virginia Woolf

Woolf begins by comparing the women’s college to the men’s, the decadence and luxury afforded to the men’s college, including the size of their libraries – finding the women’s college lacking. She doesn’t do this in a malicious way, or in any way that’s rude to either college. She doesn’t push to attack the men for having so much, nor shame the women for having so little. 

What she does focus on, is the lack of opportunity. While discussing famous women authors of the 18th century, Austen and Brontë, she notes how one of them wrote on small scraps of paper, constantly hiding her scribbling away because what was a woman doing, writing? 

If women, perhaps, did write… well then what was the point? Certainly anything they wrote about wasn’t as important as what men wrote about. War and sports outweigh fashion and drawing rooms, regardless of how steeped either are in observations of human nature.

And yet, creativity and persistence will find a way.  On Jane Austen, Woolf remarked “here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That’s how Shakespeare wrote.” 

Another one of Woolf’s observations struck me as interesting. A flaw she found in some of the earlier women writers was that they didn’t write in their own voice. That whether their work implied they were protesting that they were as good as any man, or if it were self-deprecating in saying they were ‘only a woman’, she concludes that one had “altered her values in deference to the opinions of others.” 

How many women still do a version of this today in the work place?  How magnified is this for women of color? How many women modulate their voice in order to be heard, in order to not be vilified?

Woolf herself comes from an upper-middle class British family, so tends to focus on the same. She does talk of a woman named Mrs. Aphra Behn, who made a living writing in the 17th century. Mrs. Behn was not of the upper-middle class, but a woman who made a living writing out of necessity to support herself. A feat as it wasn’t a common practice for women to be educated, particularly those not in the upper class. “She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote.” By being paid, she showed that women could make a living by writing.

“Money dignifies what is made frivolous if unpaid for.”  

– Virginia Woolf

But is it just about a room? Space to write? “Women never have half an hour… that they may call their own”, a quote Woolf attributes to Florence Nightingale, resonates today. Not just with me, but with other women juggling life demands during these pandemic days. Sonia Feertchak suggests that “digital space has replaced the physical one” and that working from home has most of us dividing up not only our space, but our time. 1

I think the demands on our time isn’t necessarily a women-specific issue today. In addition to work and family we have dozens more mundane tasks to deal with every day that are soul-sucking time-wasters – planning meals, exercising, calling the cable company, preparing for holidays, laundry, running errands – the minutiae becomes an avalanche, crowding out space even for those of us who do have a room of our own.  Keeping the room and remaining solvent is another matter.

In chapter five, Woolf starts with a brighter outlook. She considers the library of her day and all the books written by women that she didn’t find in the libraries of the past. 

How far have we come in the past 90+ years? I am thankful to see more and more women authors in the ranks of the top sellers, but it doesn’t seem like a level playing field yet. And what about all the voices who still don’t have a room of their own?

You can read ‘A Room of One’s Own’ free at Project Gutenberg. https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200791h.html

  1. www.philonomist.com

‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, Flight Nurses, and French Luxury Liners

The first Army Nurse I knew about was Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan from the TV show M*A*S*H which aired from 1972-1983. For those of us old enough to be around then, the series finale was an ‘Event’ – the likes of which is rare in televised entertainment today.  Forget about streaming services, most households didn’t have a VCR and recording a show wasn’t yet a common thing. You watched it when it aired or you missed out. 

I watched the series finale with both my parents and it involved lots of popcorn and kleenx – those who experienced the event know what I’m talking about. I can’t recall us doing anything like that together before or since.  (We have done many things together over the years, sitting in front of the TV just isn’t one of them as we don’t share that interest.)

Anyway, Margaret Houlihan. That was my introduction to what an Army nurse was like. I’m still a little smitten with her, in that way I’m smitten with competence and the balancing act women do to be seen as equals while maintaining their ‘feminine’ habits and hobbies.  She was allowed to be both lusty and capable and, as in the video above, she was fierce!

Loretta Swit, the actor who portrayed Margaret Houlihan, remarked in a 2004 interview about what made her character so enduring that “she made a very strong statement, not only for the profession, but for women in the military.” 1

Aunt Melissa (aka. Lt. H.M. Clark or Helen Melissa Clark) wasn’t a nurse in a mobile unit like the one portrayed in the show. She was an air evacuation nurse, carrying wounded from one place to another.

Before World War II, the U.S. military didn’t evacuate wounded soldiers using aircraft. But advances in flight made it possible to treat wounded away from the front lines with trained medical personnel and fully equipped hospitals – leading to an increased survival rate.  The key was to get those wounded soldiers airlifted.

After a pilot program (forgive the pun) in 1942, the U.S. established formal training for medical air evacuation at Bowman Field in Kentucky in 1943. 2

Aunt Melissa was part of the eighth class to go through the program and graduated on January 21, 1944. From there, she was transferred to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey to await deployment. 

Her detachment sailed from New York on March 13, 1944 on the SS Île de France.  They arrived in Scotland on March 22.

The Île de France was a civilian ship – an extravagent Art Deco luxury liner – that had managed to leave France before the outbreak of war.

Lest we all think that my Aunt Melissa travelled in luxury during the war, I should note that the Île de France was retrofitted in 1941 as a troopship which “entailed removing her peacetime decor and painting the ship all gray, as well as installing berths for 9,706 soldiers, new kitchen facilities, a complete overhaul of her machinery, and the scrapping and replacement of her entire plumbing system.” 3 An account of the crossing noted that there wasn’t a convoy attached, so the ship zig-zagged across the Atlantic deploying occasional depth charges to avoid mines. It certainly doesn’t sound like a luxury cruise. 4

inscription from Aunt Melissa’s WWII scrapbook

Several years after the war, just before she was to be scrapped – the Île de France became a movie star.  Or, at least, that’s how I’m choosing to interpret her ending.  She featured in the 1960 disaster file, ‘The Last Voyage’ where she was filmed as she sunk.

  1. televisionacademy.com (2004 interview with Loretta Swit)
  2. legendsofflightnurses.org (The Story of Air Evacuation)
  3. www.scharch.org (Ile De France)
  4. https://archive.org (The Story of Air Evacuation, 1942-1989 by World War II Flight Nurses Association — History of the 816th MAES pgs. 85-86)

Army Nurse and Social Reformer

The Army Nurse Corp wasn’t founded until 1901, but women have tended the sick and wounded in various capacities since the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, Dorothea Dix was appointed as the Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army. I was initially drawn to her story as she was first a teacher, like my Aunt Melissa who trained as a teacher before she became a nurse. However, Dorothea Dix’s teacher and nurse stories are subplots to her main focus of advocating on behalf of the mentally ill, the disabled, and the imprisoned. 

Dorothea Dix wasn’t formally trained as a nurse. Her experience lay more in advocating for the mentally ill.  In fact, her stint in the war seems to have been one of her least successful endeavors. She was at odds with other administrators and doctors alike.  

Edith Horton, author of ‘A Group of Famous Women’ said “Many of the surgeons and nurses disliked her. They said she was severe, that she would not listen to any advice nor take any suggestions. The real cause of her unpopularity, however, was that she demanded of all about her entire unselfishness and strict devotion to work. Very severe was she with careless nurses or rough surgeons.” 

Sidenote: Edith Horton’s work was originally published in 1914. Reading the foreword and introduction of her work, I can see her intent was to instill a certain ideal of morality and fortitude. Considering her intended audience, I’m taking her opinion of Dorothea Dix with a grain of salt.

Born in Maine, Dorothea moved in with her grandmother at a young age. Accounts seem to differ on why she didn’t remain with her father – one source suggested alcoholism while another talked of him having a fixation on writing and publishing religious tracts. Whatever the cause, living with her grandmother doesn’t sound like it was much of a picnic. Stern and demanding, her grandmother seems to have molded Dorothea into a formidable force of nature.

As a young woman, Dorothea began tutoring children. She expanded this to founding a school and writing a book ‘Conversations on Common Things’.  At one point, she arranged to teach Sunday school to twenty women incarcerated in Cambridge. This seems to be the catalyst to her championing improved conditions for the mentally ill. When this shift in her life happened, she was thirty-nine years old.

Her ability to effect change and bring attention to the horrid conditions during a time when women couldn’t vote shows she’s a political savvy activist. Whether due to the actual horrible conditions she brought to light, the force of her personality, or a combination of both, she convinced the state legislature to improve conditions.

When Henry B. Stanton went before the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1837 to demand that the state urge Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, he had no qualms about his right to speak.” I AM A MAN: and I address myself to MEN,” he declared. But Dorothea Dix, appealing in writing to the same legislative body six years later on behalf of the insane poor, meekly apologized for her intrusion.

https://www.jstor.org/stable/41389368 

After that first success in Massachusetts, she spent years working to establish more humane conditions for those in mental asylums. She had several successes in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Illinois.  

One of the first hospitals she helped establish in 1848 was the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum (aka. New Jersey State Hospital). She died there in 1887. It is still in operation today – Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

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