Beginning outside the boarded-up windows of Columbine High School and ending almost twelve years later on the fields of Shiloh National Military Park, Hallow This Ground revolves around monuments and memorialsphysical structures that mark the intersection of time and place. In the ways they invite us to interact with them, these sites teach us to recognize our ties to the past. Colin Rafferty explores places as familiar as his hometown of Kansas City and as alien as the concentration camps of Poland in an attempt to understand not only our common histories, but also his own past, present, and future. Rafferty blends the travel essay with the lyric, the memoir with the analytic, in this meditation on the ways personal histories intersect with History, and how those intersections affect the way we understand and interact with Place.
About the Author
Colin Rafferty teaches creative writing at the University of Mary Washington. His website is colinrafferty.com.
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Hallow This Ground
By Colin Rafferty
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2015 Colin Rafferty
All rights reserved.
A for Absence
Memory fails me, us. Our emotions fade until, like reconciling lovers, we no longer remember what upset us in the first place. But a physical object — the monument — reminds us every time we encounter it, holds up the event we have forgotten so that we might recall what happened, so that we do not forget. And the monuments we call memorials are for things that we'd rather forget: our failings, our accidents, our regressing into our primitive selves. Happy things we have little problem remembering, but with sorrows, mistakes, we must worry the wounds.
The body provides us with our own histories, of the moments when we breach our boundaries, inflict damage upon ourselves or have it inflicted upon us by others. The scars that cover us tell us our story. American Unitarian minister and social reformer Minot Judson Savage wrote that "a man's truest monument must be a man," and although he meant morally, that a man must craft his own history through his own actions, I cannot help but think of the crisscrossing scars that mark our bodies.
They are there, even if we cannot see them in certain light or from certain angles. Each one of us, covered in the history of our lives, both how we were injured and how we repaired ourselves. The scars are our own personal monuments. They take, generally, two shapes — either a circle (a sewing needle, a vaccination, a bullet wound) or a line (paper cuts, scratches, a knife's blade across a vein). In the vanishing language of Morse code, disappearing because it is merely sound and touch, lost in the instance after it occurs because it lacks a lasting physical presence; in that code a circle followed by a line — dot-dash — is A. Alpha, the beginning. We begin our lives with the wound of the umbilical's severance, leaving behind a physical reminder of our origin, the evidence of things not seen.
After college, aimlessly existing in a city, I worked at a record store, a job I hated for the snobbish cool of my hipster coworkers. One day, while I was closing the cash register drawer, the thin skin of my wrist caught on the metal corner. The drawer cut a narrow line, no more than an inch long, diagonally. It bled for a bit, then scabbed over.
I should have forgotten that time of my life by now, forgotten the Bauhaus-loving coworkers and junkie shoplifters and the pay that barely kept me from homelessness. It has been more than a decade since that regrettable job, more than a decade since I worked a job for just two months, and yet as I write this I can look down at my right wrist and see the scar that cash register left. And decades from now, I will look down at my right wrist and still see it.
The ordinary made extraordinary by what happened. Abstract time, fixed in a physical place. The ordinary made memory by the monument. The invisible, given shape and memory by the monument.CHAPTER 2
On the 25th of March, we took a miserable farewell of our distressed brethren, the heart of every one being so overloaded with his own misery as to have little room to pity another.
R. Thomas, "Preservation of Nine Men," Interesting and Authentic Narratives of the Most Remarkable Shipwrecks, 1835
On the eighth of November 1975, a storm forms in Oklahoma and begins moving northeast, picking up speed and intensity. The next day, it passes over Kansas City, over the older suburb of Mission, on the Kansas side of the state line, over a brown house on Nall Avenue where my parents, Tom and Kathie Rafferty, live. Maybe my mother, twenty-five years old and six months pregnant with her first child — me — looks up at the darkening sky and worries. Maybe she feels me moving inside her, pushing her abdomen outward, growing and moving each day. Maybe she stays inside the entire day, unaware of the system passing overhead, not knowing or even caring where it comes from or where it will go.
Ships are certainly far from her mind on this day in Kansas City. She and my father rarely cross the Missouri River, the only major body of water for hundreds of miles. The storm will pass over her, my father, and me, and move on toward Iowa and Wisconsin, growing and moving. Two days after it forms, the storm will arrive at the Great Lakes, bringing with it heavy rains and gale-force winds, all the power it has carried since its birth in Oklahoma. Not long after the storm passes over us, it will strike down twenty-nine men, drowning them in their ship in the middle of the largest lake in the Western Hemisphere, leaving their bodies floating inside the ship, still wrapped in their lifejackets. Then it will continue over Canada, its power fading, until it dissipates, vanishes into the thin air from which it formed.
* * *
Whitefish Point is, quite literally, the end of the road. At the town of Paradise, Michigan, State Highway 123 turns west toward Tahquamenon Falls State Park, and a Chippewa County road, marked as a thin gray line on the state map, continues north until it ends in the parking lot of Whitefish Point's biggest tourist attraction, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. The coast of Lake Superior is just a few yards away.
I have traveled to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to see a monument that I cannot see: the memorial to the twenty-nine men who died on the Edmund Fitzgerald when it sank in a storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. Twenty years later, divers seventeen miles off of Whitefish Point brought up the ship's bell, polished off two decades of rust so that it gleamed again, and hung it as the centerpiece of the museum's collection of artifacts.
But they realized that in removing that bell, they would leave an absence in the ship's wreckage, and they refused to disturb the grave. So they cast another bell, the same shape and size as the Fitzgerald's original, and engraved on it the names of the men who died. Then, after the first bell had been brought up, they lowered down the new bell, and divers with acetylene torches welded it in place.
It's there still, accessible only to divers who are willing to expose themselves to Lake Superior's killing chill. I stand on the shore of Lake Superior in the cold wind of July and look out on choppy water, trying to guess where, seventeen miles north, a memorial sits fixed for the ages 535 feet underwater, a memorial that truly was, as the inscription says but never means, for the dead. I think about the thirty thousand people dead in shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, about the twenty-nine men who died when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, and of one man in particular: the ship's steward, an Ohio native named Robert Rafferty.
* * *
On the ninth of November 1975, the Fitzgerald, a 729-foot-long cargo vessel, took on just over twenty-six thousand tons of taconite pellets, a low-grade iron ore, at the docks in Superior, Wisconsin. It then set out for Detroit, but to reach it the ship would have to cross Lake Superior. The National Weather Service had issued an alert concerning gale-force winds on the lake that same day, but the Fitzgerald, along with several other ships, pushed onward. And why not? The captain, Ernest McSorley, was experienced, as was his crew. His ship, the largest cargo ship ever built when it was launched in 1958, had made the trip plenty of times.
But the barometer kept dropping and the waves kept getting higher. The weather service issued new reports, warning of high winds and thunderstorms on the lake. By the afternoon of the tenth, the winds were up to hurricane force — the Arthur M. Anderson, the ship nearest to the Fitzgerald when it sank, recorded sustained winds of sixty-seven miles per hour. Waves kept crashing over the bows of both ships, and loaded as they were, it wasn't long before the ships began to pitch and yaw in the waves.
It's difficult for me, and maybe for most people who grew up landlocked, to imagine a boat longer than two football fields being thrown about in a storm. As I look out from Whitefish Point toward the invisible banks of Canada many miles away, I try to imagine eight-foot-high waves rolling through a snowstorm and the building panic as the crew realized how bad the waters were becoming and how much worse they might become.
At 4:30 pm on the tenth, the Fitzgerald radioed the Anderson and asked them to help them with navigation, as their radar had stopped working. At 6:30 Bernie Cooper, captain of the Anderson, saw two waves at least thirty feet high crash over the deck of his ship. His ship was about forty-five minutes away from the Fitzgerald, which had already reported a bad list an hour earlier.
At 7:10 the pilot of the Anderson radioed the Fitzgerald to inform them of another ship on radar, and asked how they were doing.
"We're holding our own," the voice on the other end replied.
A few minutes later the Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson's radar screen. There was no distress call. Two lifeboats, both damaged in a way that suggested they'd been torn from their davits instead of launched by crewmen, were found the next morning, after the Anderson and a few other ships whose men were brave enough to risk searching for survivors had sailed through the storm. No bodies were ever recovered.
* * *
Once its respiratory system develops enough, a baby in the womb will begin to breathe, in a manner of speaking. Its lungs will take in the amniotic fluid of the uterus, learning how to inhale and exhale. For nine months a child lives underwater.
When we are born, we scream, proving to the world that we've made the change from water-breather to air-breather. We never make the return trip.
The word "amniotic" descends from the Greek amnion, a sacrificial plate to hold a victim's blood. On November 10, 1975, two males with the same last name drew their breath, filling their lungs with fluid. One waited to be born; the other would soon die.
* * *
When I first arrive at Whitefish Point, the power in the museum has failed. According to the staff at the gift shop, this happens fairly regularly — in fact, the same thing happened for a few hours on November 10, 1975, although power was restored before the Fitzgerald sank — and the staff tell everyone to wait for a while. People mill around in semidarkness, past sweatshirts and postcards. In a display case, a scale model of the Fitzgerald is available for sale.
True to the staff's word, the lights flicker back to life after about fifteen minutes, and I head out of the gift shop, across the lawn, and into the Shipwreck Museum.
My ticket — eight dollars and fifty cents — grants me admission to not only the Shipwreck Museum but also the Whitefish Point Light Station, the oldest active lighthouse on the lake; the Whitefish Point US Coast Guard Lifeboat Station; and a video theater that shows a short film about the Edmund Fitzgerald every twenty minutes or so.
The museum itself is simply a single large room filled with artifacts and paintings of ships tossed at sea, recreations of those last desperate moments before they slipped beneath the waves. In the center of the room, sparkling in the light, is the Fresnel lens of a lighthouse, designed to intensify lamplight in the days before the incandescent bulb.
I'm reading a nineteenth-century survivor's tale when the nondescript orchestral music playing softly overhead winds down and a song starts up. The guitarist picks out a simple pattern of notes on his strings, and somewhere in my memory a light flickers on — I've heard this song before, but can't place it anywhere.
"The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead," a man's voice sings from hidden speakers, "when the skies of November turn gloomy."
You've got to be kidding me, I think. They're playing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"? They're playing Gordon Lightfoot? Really?
Although the ballad's at a fairly low volume, and I'm doing my best to ignore it, I still can't help but notice when, at the end of some verses, Gordon sings the song's title in 8 time — the WRECK of the EDMUND FitzGERALD!
The song is now firmly lodged in my brain, where it won't leave until I've driven back over the Mackinac Bridge and off the Upper Peninsula.
More distracted than before, I move in a circle around the room, coming closer and closer to the present day in the museum's chronology. The final exhibit, of course, is about the Edmund Fitzgerald. A painting of the ship hangs on the wall, all storm-tossed gloom and drama, and the accompanying text tells the story of the storm that sank the ship nearly thirty years earlier. Rafferty's name — Robert's, not mine — is on a list of the crew. At sixty-two, he was the third-oldest man on the boat, after the captain and the first mate.
Turning away from the exhibit, I see the museum's main attraction: the Fitzgerald's bell, brought up by scuba divers ten years earlier. It shines, practically glows, in the light, looking brandnew, not removed from twenty years underwater. The ship's name curves across the metal, and for a moment I want to reach out and touch it, to ring the bell and hear the sound that Rafferty must have heard dozens of times each day. I want to make some sort of connection with Rafferty. Like most memorials, the bell, raised from the ship he died on, is the aid for remembering and connecting with the lost.
On board a ship a bell marks the passage of time, ringing to mark out the hours. This bell marks stopped time, the moment, just after 7:10 pm, on November 10, 1975, when the Edmund Fitzgerald slipped under the waves off of Whitefish Point. It remembers the stopped minute, the moment when everything changed. As with all memorials and monuments, it charts, like measurements on a ship's charts, the intersection of time and place.
But this bell, surrounded by artifacts from other shipwrecks, crushed compasses, and faded life rings, is the ersatz memorial for the living to see and navigate their memory by. The true memorial to the dead of the Edmund Fitzgerald hasn't been seen in years, could only be seen by a few. The memorial bell, the one 535 feet beneath the waves, serves its function the same way that the plaque one of the Apollo crews left on the moon does; we know it's there, even if we can't reach it. And in a time when everything seems mutable and changing, a time when a ship large enough to hold fifty thousand gallons of fuel can vanish from the face of the earth in less time than it takes to pick up a radio and call for help, the impossible monument, the one we cannot see, reassures us that it remembers.
* * *
I am Colin Rafferty; I am not Robert Rafferty. I am not his son, not his nephew, not his cousin. I am from Kansas City; I am not from Ohio. I grew up landlocked; I am not a sailor. I get seasick, badly, while on a boat. I am a reiteration of Robert Rafferty; I am not a reiteration of Robert Rafferty. I am of his family; I am not of his family. I was born when he died; I breathed in the sea while he choked on it.
* * *
Mark L. Thompson, in his book Graveyard of the Lakes, theorizes that Captain McSorley would have ordered his men to don lifejackets and wait in either the forward recreation room or the mess room, depending on where they were when the call came. Since Robert Rafferty was the ship's steward, he most likely would have been in the mess room when the ship went down, and would have either drowned or been crushed by the pressure of the water rushing through the ship.
Rafferty and I might be related, though I can't prove it beyond a hunch and a guess. My several-times-great-grandfather Owen Rafferty came over from County Roscommon, Ireland, during the mass emigrations of the potato famine, and my branch of the Rafferty family passed through both Ohio and Illinois before settling in Carroll County, Iowa, for a number of generations. They came on boats, and once they'd arrived, they moved inland, far away from the seas that tossed them for weeks. They moved to a state where waves meant corn and soybeans, not water. Not something that could drown.
Excerpted from Hallow This Ground by Colin Rafferty. Copyright © 2015 Colin Rafferty. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Afterwards: an Introduction
A for Absence
A for Ancestry
A for Answers
Notes Towards Building the Memorial
A for Anatomy
Bystanders: The Yellow Flowers
Victims: The End of the World
Perpetrators: Undrawn Lines
A for Ache
The Definite Article
A for Accident
This Day In History
A for Accumulation
What I Was Doing There
Phantoms (a Correspondence)
Reflecting Mirror: Orlando, the Day After
Hallow This Ground
Aftermath: a Conclusion
What People are Saying About This
Equal parts elegy, tragedy and history, Rafferty traces the distance between regret and remembering, and by doing so, writes his own monument; one that reminds us of what we’ve lost, and what we don’t dare lose again.
Colin Rafferty has written about the spaces between before and after, time and place, memory and imagination, fact and story. He acts as a guide across our land and beyond to show us how we stand before the monument or the memorial to remember what has been forgotten, to imagine what happened, and to separate history from mythology. These essays reveal how the words "On this site" can never bring back all that happened, but they can resurrect the phantoms that haunt our history, both private and public. Hallow This Ground is a stunning and moving tour through history and memory, loss and love, and ultimately, through the desire to wonder after what's true so we might better know ourselves.
Thoughtful and insightful, Rafferty deftly and playfully weaves cultural and personal narrative into a book that is not just enlightening, but a pure pleasure to read. Colin Rafferty is an excellent guide down the rabbit hole and into this wonderland of physical objects our culture has built to help us remember both disaster and heroism.
These essays, wondrous in their scope, travel far and wide to deftly inquire something this reader never really consideredwhat is a monument? The effect of following Colin Rafferty through shipwreck sites, presidential birthplaces, death camps, and into his growing understanding of body, memory, and self, is nothing short ofdare I say it?monumental.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
One of the most memorable books I've read in a long time. Insightful, personal and besutifully written essays . Great book!