Two Wars

May 31, 2020

We did chores the day the death count hit 100,000. Everyone knew it was coming. Meanwhile Lowe’s and Home Depot have been packed every day. The crowds, like us, are forcing life forward, finding meaning in those everyday things that used to get pushed off.

We felt the solemnity and sadness, and then anger evoked by that dark milestone, reached two days after Memorial Day, which is solemn like no other.  That morning we quit the chores to visit the Manassas National Battlefield, a spectacular but quiet place of 5,000 acres that summons the somber meaning of the day. The place honors all Americans who died at Manassas, near Bull Run, at the start of America’s greatest agony. Manassas recognizes a tragedy that, like the nation’s current nightmares, was avoidable.

wp-15909350028048603658474407415731.jpgWe walked the field slowly. The First Battle took place on July 21, 1861. July 21 also is Sandy’s birthday. I said I doubted her parents, in Deep South Tennessee, noticed that when they welcomed her into the world, although the historical consensus is that the battle was a rebel victory. So was the second battle in the same vicinity about a year later.

You sense, walking among the historical markers, the staged artillery and caissons, that the theme of the place is pitched to the Confederate forces, their leaders, and tactics. The battlefield is dominated by the giant statue of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, whose Virginia Brigade of the Army of the Shenandoah held high ground against Union artillery fire and infantry charges. Gen. Bernard Bee is credited with shouting “Look at Jackson standing like a stone wall—rally behind the Virginians!”

A few hundred yards from Jackson’s huge image is a stone structure honoring Col. Francis Bartow, commander of the 21st Oglethorpe Light Infantry of the Georgia Militia, the first Confederate officer killed in the Civil War. The monument was erected by Bartow’s men weeks later. Still further along is a marker noting the spot where Col. Wade Hampton of South Carolina, commander of “Hampton’s Legion,” was wounded. He survived four more wounds during the war and rose to lieutenant general. After the war he became a leader of the Redeemers, a white supremacist movement that fought Reconstruction. Hampton was elected governor of South Carolina in 1876 after a bloody campaign. Many streets, schools, and parks in the state are named after him.

Around noon on July 21 as blue and gray artillery dueled, a Union officer directed fire on Henry Hill House, believing it concealed rebel snipers. The shells fatally wounded the homeowner, 84-year-old Judith Henry. She is buried nearby. Eight weeks after Lee surrendered to Grant in April 1865, Union soldiers erected a 20-foot-tall monument to “patriots of ’61” next to the house.

wp-1590857543255597299539642953225.jpgEventually, Union troops retreated towards Washington in a disorganized mass over roads clogged by civilians who came to watch, expecting an easy Union victory. Casualties were light at First Manassas, fewer than 2,000 dead and wounded for each side—compared to the butchery yet ahead.

Estimates of Civil War dead for both sides range from around 620,000 to 800,000, far more than any other conflict in which the U.S. has engaged. Many wounded men died because of primitive battlefield medical care, others from disease or abuse as prisoners at the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Ga., and the Union prisons at Camp Douglas, Ill., and Elmira, N.Y.

Some 155 years later, we’re still numbed by the Civil War horror. We’ve learned to recite the causes:  slavery as an economic institution and the mantra of states’ rights that animated affluent landowners, and the rigid downhome loyalties that transfixed common people who never owned slaves. A month after Lincoln’s election in November 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union, followed in February 1861 by the six Deep South states that established the Confederacy. Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas followed.

On April 12, 1861, rebels fired on Fort Sumter. The war began. Faithful only to states’ rights, Southern leaders pushed for war. Robert E. Lee, Jackson, Beauregard, Longstreet, Stuart, Pickett, and others abandoned their oaths of loyalty to the United States to fight with the Confederacy. Lee had served as superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy from 1852 to 1855.

Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va., April 9,1865, ending hostilities. The day began at dawn with the rebels still fighting near Petersburg. When Lee recognized that his army was cut off, he said, “There is nothing for me to do but go and see General Grant, and I would rather die a thousand deaths.”

Grant accepted Lee’s surrender, allowing his men to keep their horses and mules and the officers their sidearms. He provided food to Lee’s starving troops and promised, in writing, that they “would not be disturbed so long as they observed their parole and the laws of the place where they reside.” When Lee rode away, Union soldiers cheered, celebrating, but Grant stopped it, saying “The Confederates are now our countrymen.” Grant’s adjutant, Ely Parker, a Native American, speaking to Lee, said, “We are all Americans.”

That moment of nobility didn’t last. Shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, Southerners jealous of their perquisites, like Hampton, attacked Reconstruction and emancipation, abetted by segregationist President Andrew Johnson. For some Southerners, that war never ended.

We’re counting the casualties of today’s very different war. They are the elderly, the immune-suppressed, the victims of respiratory illnesses who have been going first, followed by the fit and healthy, medical personnel infected in hospitals, lacking enough masks, gowns, and ventilators. It’s the states’ problem, Trump said. In February Trump shrugged it off at his nightly vaudeville act-briefings. On March 13: “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”

No one today doesn’t know the story of the 100,000. The fight today is about wearing masks, reopening bars, barbershops, and beaches, carefully or recklessly. Today’s war isn’t about slavery, states’ rights, and treason. It is about those who acknowledged the responsibility of leadership, who recognized the onrushing pandemic, who faced the enemy—and others, who ran from the field.


The Park

May 25, 2020

Sandy and I headed to Prince William Forest Park. It was still semi-closed, we entered on a fire road on the north side. Our running group goes in that way, usually every other Saturday. We’ve noticed it’s more popular lately.

Right now the park is the best we can do together in the way of getting out. She’s not up for mountain camping. Years back we visited Montana’s Tobacco Root Mountains for running events. In 2016 I broke my ankle, but then ran races in Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Georgia.  Things fell apart for a while. Now it’s pretty much only Prince William, a national park at the southern end of the county. It’s not Yellowstone or even Shenandoah, but it’s ours, sort of.

We know without much reflection that going to wild places to breathe the sharp air of the wilderness is an act of hope. The woods calls us to contemplate its mystery, that may then lead us to stumble, maybe unconsciously or unwillingly, into awareness of another dimension, the life of the spirit. If we get there, we may encounter the presence of God. But hope by itself is real, it sustains us—even today, while the national nightmare inclines us powerfully to despair.

The Works Progress Administration, using Civilian Conservation Corps labor, developed the park in the 1930s around old pyrite mines. You can see the ruins of the mine structures, crumbling and overgrown. Another nugget: in the early 1940s the park was used as a training area by the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. To have some fun with that, a local running company, Athletic Equation, organizes an OSS/CIA ultrarunning event, a 50-mile night race in early June. I finished it two years ago—sign up now!

The park abuts the Quantico National Cemetery, a place of stunning beauty. It’s Memorial Day, but the traditional ceremony won’t be held. Since we’ve lived in the county we’ve gone every year, until now.

Our idea was to get some fresh air, exercise, and serenity. But when I get to the place I vector back, way back, as we old guys do.  In August 1971 I landed next to the park at the Quantico Marine Corps Base for Officer Candidate School. After commissioning I moved nearby to Officers Basic School, called TBS.

The park is on the cusp of the TBS training area, both stretch across thousands of acres of county forest. Almost any weekday on the park trails you can hear small-arms firing as the newly commissioned lieutenants qualify at the range, and mortars while they work through their field exercises.

In 1972 the TBS syllabus included jungle counterinsurgency. The command built a mockup Vietnamese village near the base. We did some training there but remained basically clueless about guerrilla tactics. When I finished TBS in May my classmates who selected infantry went straight to Vietnam. I stayed in Q-town for Officers Communications School before shipping to Okinawa in September.

A lifetime later, after Sandy and I landed in Prince William County, we drove down to the base. I showed her and the kids the former site of the OCS barracks, long ago demolished. The obstacle course and parade deck remained. In following years I often visited the Combat Development Center for work.

img_20190505_1243317482795200650325628733.jpgWe took the kids hiking in the park, letting them explore and throw stones in South Fork Creek. We tramped stretches of the North Valley and South Valley trails. I think we still have pictures. Four years ago our son, daughter-in-law, daughter, and son-in-law came home. We drove to the park and walked the Birch Bluff trail. Our daughter carried our first grandson in a kind of backpack. The younger boy had not shown up yet. Now both kids are hiking in South Carolina.

We pushed on down the fire road. Soon we arrived at an intersection with an eastbound trail that leads to campgrounds. The straightway, called Burma Road, continues into the park. Two signs appear, one directing hikers to the trails, the other advising “Be Bear Aware.”

We hiked up Burma, which rises gently then makes a wide turn into another straightway. It’s a slow slog. Trees that had fallen across the trail have been cut and pushed to the side. We heard birds and the rustling of squirrels, but otherwise the only sound was our footfalls. We’re not deep into the park, but the woods become thicker. The oaks and maples create a soft overhead canopy, the branches sway gently. The streaming sunlight scatters a vernal glow through the upper limbs. This is what we came for.

Prince William isn’t spectacular, really, just gently rolling woods. No soaring peaks or giant waterfalls or thundering rapids, explosive geysers, or dense mountain forest. No majestic herds of buffalo or grazing elk, no threatening grizzlies. None of that. It offers a place to breathe easier for a while. You count your blessings if you can make it to a park, any park.

Like everyone else, we’ve picked up the grim habit of talking about the news. We are living through an epochal tragedy. Only three great wars killed more Americans. We’re all witnesses.

We’re pressing forward, tackling the tasks before us, the mundane and the sublime. The perennial list comes up: painting, patching, then the kitchen and bathroom, sprucing up the yard. We’re getting to them in our haphazard way. We want to get on the road again, maybe to Colorado to see our youngest, Kathleen, our cowgirl. She’s the skier and snowboarder, the explorer, who hikes Rocky Mountain trails that make Prince William’s look like city promenades. She’s working as an aide at an assisted living facility, scarier for us than for her. She tested negative for covid. “Steady. Steady,” I tell myself.

We passed a few others, lone runners and groups of two or three. Some wore masks. I rattled on about the trail network, something like 50 miles, in my calculation. Sandy nods politely.

Then we’re alone. We finished the Burma rise and picked up the next leg, Taylor Farm Road. We moved a bit faster. The trail ahead faded into the deep green, the woodland chapel. A stiff breeze rose. Halfway down Taylor Farm we held up and listened. No words. For two hours we’ve stepped back from the complications. We headed back up to Burma. The trail holds us a while longer, then lets us depart.

Two Books

May 18, 2020

I finished two books preoccupied with evil. It’s a common theme in literature, after all. We don’t often hear of or read books, fiction or nonfiction, in which nothing unfortunate or tragic occurs. These books, one a novel, the other non-fiction history, are about evil, although they’re both also about other things. Both authors set out to write first-rate literature. Neither wrote with any prurient intent. Both are hard to put down.

By coincidence both the novel and the history take you to Oklahoma, which Sandy and I passed through on our “On the Road” roadtrip nearly two years ago. We weren’t there long; we spent one night at a state park not far over the border from Missouri. We stopped at cafes in small towns. We took pictures of an oddball attraction, the “Blue Whale,” somewhere east of Tulsa along U.S. 66. I recall the cheerful helpfulness of the welcome center clerk and the hospitality of the café servers, all proud of their state, eager for us to see it.

Many years earlier I visited Enid for a conference at Phillips University, since then shut down. I had a job offer from Phillips Petroleum in Bartlesville, which I didn’t take. Sometime later I visited Fort Sill for work. But really, no other connection. I don’t know much about the state. On the upside I know about Mickey Mantle, Merle Haggard, Reba McIntire, others. Everyone remembers the horrific 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City.

The Oklahoma setting isn’t really the point, except perhaps that the stories are set in small, and (to me) isolated communities, not to be unkind. Both books, in their different ways, report on ugly truths. And they’re really not unique. Similar stories have unfolded on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or Georgetown that presume to a veneer of social polish. Perhaps lonely rural places more readily summon demons.

Anyway, the books are All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, a novel by Bryn Greenwood, and Killers of the Flower Moon, non-fiction history by David Grann. Both won rave reviews. They’re getting their hiccup of critical attention.

Greenwood writes of a grotesquely dysfunctional family destroyed by the drug trade in a small, decrepit place. She tells a difficult story of methadone producers, spousal abuse, adultery, murder, adult-child sexual contact. The writing is taut, the story mesmerizing. Grann’s Killers reports on cold-blooded murders of Osage tribesmen and women in the dusty oil barrens of northeastern Oklahoma in the early 1920s: people shot, poisoned, blown apart, bodies left in swamps and ravines, the indifference and incompetence of local law enforcement.

A lot is going on in both Greenwood’s novel and Grann’s history. But both dwell on evil. It percolates through the fast-paced, complicated stories. They introduce dozens of characters. But the sense of the presence of evil dominates, overwhelms. Both work through it in different ways. I nearly set down Ugly and Wonderful Things, intending not to pick it up again. We confront in both a sliver of humanity that repels us.

Greenwood’s and Grann’s stories, apart from complex story lines, finely drawn profiles, and clipped references to obscure places eventually take us, maybe against our will, to a cold lesson: the unreality of evil. We set these books down wondering: is all this actually possible? After all, we sometimes find ourselves stunned in disbelief by singular human acts: the Holocaust, for one. Unreal, because evil is the black negative of good.

If that seems abstract, well, we sense innately, without even trying, that to exist, to have being, to have life, is good. Life—existence—is the fundamental baseline of “good.” We account for evil by recognizing and acknowledging it as a deficiency of our nature. At the risk of becoming more opaque, evil, itself, does not exist.

In another way, “good” can be looked at on a kind of a sliding scale, with St. Francis of Assisi/Abraham Lincoln/Mother Teresa/your grandmother at one extreme, and Hitler/Stalin/Mao at the other, with everyone else who ever lived at some point between those extremes. The people at the “evil” extreme, like those at the “good” end, existed, they were real, and so even they share some connection to “good.”

Is this just philosophical thumb-sucking? We may quibble with semantics, but we know evil when when we experience it or witness it. To again flog Greenwood and Grann, good and evil are starkly, graphically clear. Good is what we know of and hope for and defend. Evil is an ominous, mysterious darkness.

wp-15897396461027009976353569739492.jpgTo relieve the headache of thinking like this, we can look at the world around us and the books we sometimes read. Greenwood’s and Grann’s books, to name just two, are stories of evil. But their descriptions of evil acts, like the evil we know of ourselves, never is sustained. In time evil acts are overcome. What we perceive as evil, because ultimately it is unreal, may persist through years, decades, centuries, but never triumphs.

The abstraction can seem overwhelming, but we can make moral judgments. We suffer from a pandemic because of a virus, nothing but a fact of biology. Today in the U.S. the virus has killed nearly 90,000. Millions wait in breadlines and struggle to fend off landlords and banks. The moral content, which we can call evil, lies elsewhere, in human failure: a corruption of a quality we call humanity—indifference, cowardice, evasion of culpability.

Leaping back to the literature, readers who suffer through Greenwood’s squalid story eventually are rewarded. She writes, as fiction writers should, of what she knows, which is a certain side of life in a small, poor, isolated place. That is her story, but not her purpose. She signals she understands the value in recognizing evil for what it is. She understands her subject, and reminds us of what we know.

Dover Beach

May 11, 2020

I wanted to get to my sunrise again. It had been a couple of days, the paint was dry. I’ve blended wisps of light blue with the mix of brilliant yellows and oranges that fills the horizon as the sun emerges. Often, gray clouds drift high above the sea, then close to the horizon. The sunlight is reflected by the clouds, edging them in its glow and highlighting the deep grays where the light fades. The clouds cast shadows, and mottle the surface with faint stripes between the darker grays of the waves as they wash the beach.

I can’t paint depth. I could never achieve the subtle dimensions you see in Andrew Wyeth’s portraits of country people in rural Pennsylvania. I’ve done portraits of Sandy, she doesn’t care for them. I like the way they turned out, but we’re not going to hang them in the living room. Landscapes and sunrises work for me.

Sunrise, after all, is what we get on the east coast. When we walk on the beach early in the morning, we’re listening and watching. The waves crash, but they seem to crash quietly. The water is drawn back with that soft hissing sound, to return with the next wave. Then, sunrise.

Meanwhile, in the real world: unemployment is now officially around 15 percent in America; unofficially, around 23 percent. The pandemic is still with us. The federal government can’t seem to wish it away.

The Victorian poet and essayist Matthew Arnold lived through the boom years of England’s Industrial Revolution and witnessed its tragedies. He knew of the horrific working conditions in coal mines and factories, the appalling abuses of child labor, the spread of overcrowded, disease-ridden slums, the growth of cynicism, the loss of religious faith.

He wrote “Dover Beach” in 1867. He describes the unceasing rhythm of the surf breaking against the beach sands:

Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,                                                                                            Begin, and cease, and then again begin,                                                                                   With tremulous cadence slow, and bring                                                                                  The eternal note of sadness in.

For Arnold, the lonely roar of the surf at midnight spoke of the tragedies of his time. Today, we, most of us, think of a walk on the beach at sunrise as an escape from the hard stretches of life, a few moments that communicate serenity and peace. For me, and others, it tells of the nearness of God. I look for those rare mornings when broad strokes of sunlight are cast against pale blue of the dawn sky, set off by the richer, deeper blue of a tranquil sea that massages the beach rather than crashing against it.

I took the photos I’m working from on our rushed two-day junket to Virginia Beach a year ago, when we wanted a break from the ugly routine of radiation and chemo. It was a hard time. Apart from the treatments, the weather was rotten, every day cold and drizzly. So we got a hotel room and left town. It poured for the entire drive. Our room faced the beach. That first night the white foam of the breaking waves, whipped by a howling wind, lit up the darkness.

We awoke to silence. The wind had died away, the surf had calmed. We walked out on the beach, a few others already were there. The horizon was pale orange, the sky a pure, milky blue. We hiked down to the water’s edge. The surf lapped at the sand. By then the sun had risen brilliantly above the sea, the sky was radiant with light and warmth. The air was fresh and clear. For a little while, we were in a different world.

Sitting in the front room where I keep the paint gear, I looked over the half-finished canvas. The sky needed more color. I tried to correct the mistakes. I tapered the gray of the clouds into the sunlight by mixing black and white with a dab of yellow, dipping the brush quickly in the brush cleaner, wiping off the excess, then testing it.

I daubed the canvas lightly. The color isn’t exact, but it’s close. Sometimes “close” is what’s going on in nature. Often I’ll stare at a photo but can’t recognize the color I’m looking at. I added a little white, a little yellow. Oil paint is forgiving, up to a point. You can wait for your mistakes to dry, then try delicately to fix them. The texture has to be right. Paint slopped on too thick will stay too thick.

The surf is tough. In the photo, waves seem simple—they’re waves. I looked at what I did. Lines, not waves. Yet I sketched them in, stretching across the sea exactly as they appear. Or seem to appear. I stepped back a few feet, now they’re waves. I added a few more and stepped back again. Lines again, not waves. I touched up the sky. The reflection of the rising sun across the water didn’t exactly meet the reflection on the shore. I extended the yellow-orange-white mix just a tad, hoping to make it more natural. It gave the horizon a bit more brightness.

The sky still looked flat, two-dimensional. I bounced my fingertip off the surface to check the dryness. I went back with the gray and touched up the waves, extending them slightly. From five feet away, then 10 feet, it looked okay. I picked up the canvas by the edges and walked it out to the living room and balanced it on a chair for a new angle.

wp-15891530070986034528676473431767.jpgSitting in from of an easel is exhausting. Getting images and color right is like a long hard run without moving a muscle. I’m trying show the world I see, that everyone sees. We can argue with each other about politics, comfortable in our prejudices. We can’t argue about the appearance of the world around us. Nature is nature.

I wouldn’t call my sunrise art. But anything short of what is real is incomplete, illusory, artificial. When we’re satisfied too easily, our sense of the real is diminished. When I’m at that point with the sunrise, I’m still searching. I see failure and dishonesty in the headlines every morning, as Arnold saw them in the abuses of mid-19th century England. They led him to darkness and desolation:

“And we are here as on a darkling plain                                                                                 Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,                                                           Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

The images of “Dover Beach” are real. I’m struggling to create something very different,  something I hope brings at least an intimation of the joy that a solitary morning on the beach can convey, and that endures. My sunrise isn’t there yet. Maybe tomorrow.

Great Things

May 4, 2020

I sat in the backyard thinking about Cornelius Vanderbilt, the warrior tycoon. With no education, he became the richest man in America. He controlled railroads and steamship lines that transformed America into an industrial power and created jobs for millions.

It was sunny and pleasant, and the hostas around me were in lush, full bloom, thanks to all the rain. But I wasn’t looking at the plants. I was thinking about leadership: character, integrity, humanity. Political leadership is only a narrow strain, but demands those qualities, which enable great things.

Like most people, we spent part of the week absorbing the disinfectant-as-cure story and a related one, about 30 states reopening businesses without meeting the federal criterion of a “downward trajectory” of covid-19 cases for 14 days. Like everyone else, we then tried to refocus on our own lives. For upwards of 30 million, that means unemployment, which means two things: obtaining, then living on government assistance, and waiting in lines at food banks.

“Refocusing” doesn’t allow minding our own business. Everyone’s business now is everyone else’s business. We now think first about our interactions with others when we leave the house.

Suddenly, contact can be dangerous. Social distancing means staying home and reminding others to stay away. We all know people who ignore it. In public, some wear masks, many don’t. Some step to the side to maintain six feet when others pass, some are oblivious. A few days ago I fumbled to get my mask on properly before going into a Stop-N-Go; no one else was wearing one or standing even three feet apart. Oh well. “It’s only ‘guidance,’” Trump says.

Paying attention to how we get along matters because our connections make us human. They define us as persons, members of families, clubs, churches, a nation. Those connections impel us to respect each other, subordinate our preferences and priorities to others’ welfare, others’ rights.

Or so we thought. Early on, the pandemic sensitized Americans acutely to the courage of health-care workers, first responders, and others who raise our spirits as they work in swamps of contagion. The spontaneous serenades and applause outside hospitals evoke joy and hope.

Those demonstrations competed with outbreaks of selfishness and failure: the fundamentalist ministers who brought crowds into their churches; the partygoers who set off conflagrations of infection; Vice President Pence, declining to wear a mask when visiting the Mayo Clinic. Pence’s failure was more egregious: not ignorance but obtuseness.

It appears now that the disease and the following economic cataclysm is ripping away the layer of civility that had people cheering the docs and nurses and practicing social distancing. The debate over when and how to reopen has been coopted in many places by gangs carrying automatic weapons and Confederate flags.

In some dark minds there’s a reason for carrying AK-47s to the state house, and it’s not unemployment. Trump is tweeting about the “good people,” and he’s not referring to the health-care workers. He’ll need votes in November, and right now he can find them wearing camouflage gear.

He and the rest of us are facing Depression-type conditions, maybe past the election. But this isn’t the Depression. We’re fighting a pandemic, not a replay of the 1929 Crash and world economic collapse. We can debate the role of the Federal Reserve in financing trillions in coronavirus impact, but the Fed is in deep water: the enemy is a disease, not high interest rates. The crowds marching on state houses are not the people who get to work from home, but they are among the ones who get sick. Reports are showing up about virus deniers now among the dead.

We’re watching nervously as those close-contact businesses reopen, especially as the unfit, the seniors, and immune-compromised among us crowd into restaurants and barbershops.

Trump is clear about one thing: this isn’t what he signed up for. We can’t be sure how prepared FDR was when he took office in 1933. Historians still debate whether his policies really eased the Depression. But for all the quibbling, he was a leader.

Back to Vanderbilt. I had just set down The First Tycoon, T.J. Stiles’ monumental, meticulously detailed biography, as I try to make good use of my stay-in-the-house time.

Vanderbilt (1794-1877) started working at age 11 on his father’s two-masted sailboat. Before reaching 50 he controlled rail and steamship transport between New York and New England. After the 1848 Gold Rush he created steamship lines to California through Central America. In the 1860s he seized control of all rail links between New York and the rest of the country.

At 80 Vanderbilt nearly singlehandedly ended the Panic of 1873, which led to more than five years of economic contraction that cast hundreds of thousands of Americans onto bread lines. While his fellow millionaires were going bankrupt, Vanderbilt covered the debts of railroads linked to his own, and purchased thousands of shares of stock to bring industry back to life. When he died his estate was calculated at more than $100 million in then-year dollars.

wp-15883450629934256029884055154228.jpgVanderbilt was a hard-edged man who fought his way to the top, putting dozens of competitors out of business. His railroads opened Eastern and foreign markets to Midwestern farmers and Western cattlemen, and moved oil from Cleveland’s refineries and steel from Pittsburgh’s mills to Eastern cities and ports. While other Gilded Age millionaires built monuments of luxury, in his later years he donated huge sums to charity, including $1 million to establish a university to help the South off its knees during Reconstruction, Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

He never gave speeches. His social life revolved around his wife of 55 years and his 13 children. He indulged in horseracing, but lived simply. He never held grudges, and built friendships with his bitterest competitors.

To say he “cared about others” would reduce his life to a smarmy cliché. Vanderbilt cared about people by doing great things for the nation. In the time of the pandemic, we could use leaders who seek to do great things. We could use another Vanderbilt.