Category Archives: Blog

Rosa Parks

One of the most frustrating things about time travelers is that they can take credit for anything. They claim they nudge history along and in making these grand pronouncements, they diminish our heroes. Take, for example, Rosa Parks. White people just can’t can’t seem to let her have her credit.

She boarded that yellow bus without the help of any of you time travelers. None of you whispered in her ear to “stand up for herself.” Not in this timeline. When James Blake moved the sign behind her and lazily ordered her and the other “Negroes” to the back of the bus, her weariness after a long day transformed into a determined resolve that took on historic proportions.

When you claim, at a party, over cocktails, that you helped her along, that you nodded your approval or sat firm in your seat too, it makes you a fool and, frankly a bit of a racist, even if you think you’re helping — even if you only mean to express your awe.

 

Ellis Island 1910

The smell is rank, even for 1910. No one has showered. The lucky ones had time to air on the decks and cut the smell with an odor of briny sea. A family have blotted themselves in cologne, not realizing that stink makes the line move faster. The immigration officers will linger over them in the relief of their perfumed cloud.

The mother, nearing the front, hisses in Greek at her son to stifle his coughs. She pinches his cheeks so he’ll look rosey. The boy growls to sooth his throat and she glares at him. “Are you an animal now?” He stops, but now he is thinking of what animal he will be.

He tells me this later, when I meet him in 1965. Though, to be clear, I meet him first and then loop back to Ellis island to see the small tiger.

 

The Invention of the Cotton Gin

She is brushing her hair and I am watching. It is a moment I have no business witnessing. Eli is there too, watching her with a different kind of interest. She is flattered by his attention, but ashamed as well. This is not a proper moment for the widow. She is both ashamed and glad.

I was careful to arrive after she seated herself across the room. I am witness to history, but I do not need to see every part of it. I need not be that impolite.

Catherine picks a few bits of coarse down from her brush. She stops. You can see she is thinking. She turns. This is the moment I came to see. She talks of cotton and seeds, wheat and chaff. She holds her brush up and rubs the bristles for effect. She entirely avoids mention of how the feathers got into her hair. They both know how. To speak of it would be scandalous.

Eli will say the idea is his. If he were to explain the actual circumstances of the cotton gin’s invention, both he and Catherine would be ruined. He does it not just for the credit, but as a courtesy. He could change the circumstances of her suggestion, but no one would profit from it.

The sad truth is this: It is a wonderful invention. In a better world it would have saved an untold amount of labor. That labor is saved in this world too, but not to the betterment of mankind.

The sadder truth is this: Without the Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, slavery goes on. If you hide Catherine’s brush or you leap from the shadows, causing them both to flee, slavery continues.

The invention still comes, but eight years latter and this time it is made by the hands of a slave named Grafton Cheraw. His inspiration is similar, and coalesces when he watches a brush removing cotton from a slave girl’s hair. He had a keen mind and a hope that his invention might save a good portion of work. It took no small amount of courage to bring the idea forward. He was beaten for it and then was made to better explain.

Grafton gets no credit, no relief and no freedom for his efforts. As the years pass he sees no relief come. There are fewer hands at work separating cotton, but it seems like there are hundred fold more at work in the field. Mercifully Grafton never sees the wider view of history and is spared from truly understanding the scale of it.

The problem isn’t with the Cotton Gin, but lay somewhere inside the hearts of men, clogging their empathy, impurities that are much more difficult to clear.

 

Valley Forge – 1778

Valley Forge Time TravelOn a recent visit to Valley Forge, a low funk wended its way over the snow and cut through the cold. “Firecake farts,” my companion whispered. He’d been here before. Firecakes were made from half burnt flour and water. It was all the troops had to eat. General Washington’s speech was something to behold. “But keep back from that breath,” I was warned.

All these little details, lost to history.

Require them in a Friendly Way to Depart

In 1654, a group of Brazilian Jews fleeing persecution in Brazil, booked passage on a ship to Amsterdam.  They were attacked by pirates, led by a brigand who was almost certainly not known as Old Silver Leg.

They were rescued, in a fashion, by Captain Jacques de la Motthe. The Captain agreed to  bring them to the nearby port of New Amsterdam, for price, suggesting one Amsterdam should be just as good as another. The other choice was to be set in the water to die. The captain sent word to the Governor, Pieter Stuyvesant, asking him allow the refugees to stay in New Amsterdam.

Stuyvesant, who was known as Old Silver Leg, was not a pirate, but he was a complete bastard. He responded by seizing what little the refugees possessed and imprisoned them as debtors either because they had no possessions and could not pay Jacques de la Motthe for their rescue.

Old Silver Leg, wanting to keep things in proper order, asked his bosses at the Dutch West India Company for permission to get rid of the Jews by way of this charming letter:

“The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but learning that they (with their customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians) were very repugnant to the inferior magistrates, as also to the people having the most affection for you; the Deaconry also fearing that owing to their present indigence they might become a charge in the coming winter, we have, for the benefit of this weak and newly developing place and the land in general, deemed it useful to require them in a friendly way to depart, praying also most seriously in this connection, for ourselves as also for the general community of your worships, that the deceitful race — such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ — be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony to the detraction of your worships and the dissatisfaction of your worships’ most affectionate subjects.”

It at this point in history that a number of members of the IUTT have taken it upon themselves to kidnap Old Silver Leg and bring him forward in time to present day New York. I agree: there is some small hilarity and justice to be witnessed, dropping him off in a Hasidic neighborhood, or letting him rant his way through Manhattan and tossed into jail for hate crimes or public urination. However, the IUTT frowns upon moving backwards thinkers forward in time. We are not ghosts from a Dickens Tale and you only spawn time-lines behind you.

Bringing Stuyvesant back to his place after such a trip yields no appreciable result. Old Silver Leg’s request is denied and the Jews are allowed to stay. Stuyvesant still responds by barring Jews from serving in the Volunteer Home Guard and then demanding they pay to have others serve in their place, because Old Silver Leg is a complete and tactically consistent ass.

Kidnapping Stuyvesant a second time also does no good and has, in some timelines, interfered with Asser Levy’s ability to put Stuyvesant’s childish and anti-semtetic policies down in court. It is important to recognize Pieter Stuyvesant’s problems stem from being small-minded and he can not understand that he is in the future when you bring him here.

Please do not bring him here.

If you wish to experiment with the timeline, the IUTT suggest you bring Asser Levy forward instead. He will be mostly pleased.

 

 

 

 

Meditations on a Giant Moa

I’ve only seen a single Moa. It stood at the edge of a forest clearing in a patch of dappled, early morning sun on a warm spring day in 1503. It was more than twice my height and nervous. It barely seemed like a bird. Moa are often depicted in a way that imply feathers, but the enormous creature I saw was shaggy and grotesque, like a horrible Muppet stumping through the trees.

Its sharp eye was deep green and suspicious. It moved off from me with slow massive strides. Thick, heavy talons gripped and released the dessicated leaves and dirt of the forest floor as if warning me not to follow.

To imagine it, you might be tempted to picture  an ostrich enlarged, but the the nearest physical experience in terms of height, strangeness and awe might be a giraffe, if a giraffe were an anxious and irritable bird that half-resembled a dinosaur.