Seeing Ghosts

Found this on my phone, taken the morning after the tragedy.

As we enter the Holiday season, please join me in extending heartfelt prayers for the souls of those lost, for their families and loved ones, and for everyone touched by this gut-wrenching catastrophe.

It haunts me still, it will probably haunt me all of my life.

Grapevine Canyon

I pulled off of Interstate 5 at Grapevine looking to see if I could find history. To my delight, I found it, almost hidden, all but forgotten,  and ignored by tens of thousands who drive past it each day.

This, from the mouth of the Grapevine Canyon in the San Joaquin Valley, is a forgotten vestige of what was once the main highway between northern California and southern California: a two-lane road winding up Grapevine Canyon to Lebec, then over and along a series of ridges until dropped into Castaic north of Los Angeles in a tangle of descending hairpins.

Perilous in the best of times, any kind of seasonal weather made the road treacherous if not vicious. During the Depression, there were sections of the road that had a “passing lane” that could be used by cars coming from either direction, with what in hindsight were predictable results. As a little girl, my mom had a friend whose father was a California Highway Patrolman. He used to enthrall their group of friends with horror stories about the accidents he saw along what was then called The Ridge Route.

The evolution of America as a nation over the past three centuries has been enabled by transportation links, from the Baltimore Pike, the Cumberland Gap, and the Erie Canal to the Oregon Trail, the Transcontinental Railroad, Route 66, the Interstates, and, what was arguably World War II’s greatest legacy, the most extensive civil aviation infrastructure on the planet.

Too many of those stories are on the verge of obscurity. This is unfair. They deserve to be told, and heard, by a generation that takes such links for granted, if for no other reason than to better understand the nature of the sinews that hold our naturally centrifugal country together.

The Aero-Bomberos of Buenaventura

A tiny LZ in city park. Trecherous 45-knot winds. Blowing debris and embers. And still, this guy lands on a dime, takes on fuel, takes on water, and heads off to make water drops on the fire less than two miles from this spot. We sat and watched this scene at Ventura Community Park for probably half an hour. Two helicopters were bombing the fire in this division area, each making a drop every five minutes.

There was not a single firefighter on the lines of the Thomas fire without gigantic cojones, especially on this first morning when it felt like absolutely nothing could stop this hell-beast from burning the entire county, or the state. But the people with the biggest ones of all were the men and women making air drops from helicopters in conditions that kept fixed-wing bombers on the ground.


Overshared Economy

When one digs down into Uber and Airbnb, one is provoked to ask whether it might be past time to take a good hard look at the entire “shared economy,” sector by sector, and ask whether it might not be so much bunk.

Or, at the very least, a means by which to impoverish tens of thousands of people and strip them of their social safety nets, all in order to enrich an fortunate few.


As an American I hate so much of what the Confederacy stood for: racism, division, greed, narcissism, reactionary politics, and the implicit belief that a good nation could rise on the flesh and bones of people in fetters.

Yet the misguided attempt to wipe from the face of the earth any memorial to the Americans who died in that conflict offends me as an historian.

We should never forget, nor allow our children to forget, that good, well-intentioned people die in the name of bad causes, and that it is not their cause that needs to be remembered, but the hubris that led them to the slaughter.

The problem lies not in statues or monuments, but in the way we use history and memories to teach.

History is back

A great problem with too many of us is that, subconsciously or otherwise, we bought into this idea that the tectonic political changes of 1989 had brought about a world where the rules had changed. This is the essence of Francis Fukuyama’s treatise “The End of History,” but the problem went even further. We began to believe that the normal rules that applied to business, to markets, and to nations no longer applied.

In the end, we will find that history does not end, even if sometimes it seems to take a sabbatical. Despite a flirtation with the contrary, the past decade has proven that the world is not on a path to liberal democracy and global markets: Russia is still the rapacious yet insecure bear; that China is still the nation and culture of Confucius, Mencius, Sunzi, and Mao; that businesses must still make money; nationalism still trumps globalism; and that markets cannot soar forever purely based on exuberance and a near-term lack of better investment alternatives.

History is back, and if you don’t watch out, it will maul you. It’s a great time to be an historian.


A Little More Patton

As a teenager, I was a huge fan of General George S. Patton, Jr. I saw him as a tactical genius, a straight-talker, and a fellow Californian. He was a lot of what I wanted to be at sixteen.

Time and deeper study have toned admiration down to appreciation. Patton was an anachronism, albeit a useful one.

There are days when I read about another careerist undermining the service for the sake of his own reputation that I wonder if we need a little less ticket-punching and a lot more talented non-conformity.

Happy 120th Birthday, Georgie.