March 1, 2009

Side by side in the James River just off Newport News are the carcasses of two proud ships that once fought on opposite sides. And soon we may be able to take the measure of their gallantry from archaeological treasures they’ve yielded.

If funding can be found, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum will exhibit artifacts from the Cumberland, one of the Union ships sunk by the ironclad Virginia (formerly Merrimack); and the Florida, a notorious Confederate raider that was dubiously rammed and sunk.

The exhibits would be centerpieces, coincidentally, of a facility that served both sides in the war, the massive powder magazine on the grounds of ancient Fort Norfolk. The Norfolk Historical Society is seeking funds to restore the magazine.

The stories of the two ships are compelling.

The sloop-of-war Cumberland, built in Boston in 1843, unluckily offered the first demonstration of the superiority of ironclad ships when the Virginia, running at full speed, buried its iron ram into the wooden ship’s starboard side. Then, as the Virginia drew back and the Cumberland slowly sank, the gunners on the doomed ship, decimated by murderous enemy fire, continued to give battle until their guns were submerged. Those who could escape dove and swam ashore, but 121 sailors could not and went to watery graves in the James.

“No ship was ever fought more gallantly,” said an admiring adversary.

The Florida was one of the most audacious Confederate ships ever afloat. Secretly built in England the same year that the Cumberland went down, the steam- and sail-powered cruiser sank or took as prizes 24 merchant vessels during one period and 13 during another, all the while running blockades to escape capture. But when the Florida put into port in Bahia, Brazil in 1864, with the captain and most of the crew ashore, a Union ship rammed her and towed the captured ship to Newport News. It was briefly an international incident, with Brazil demanding its return.

But before that could happen, a troop ferry “accidentally” collided with the Florida and sent it to the bottom. There’s no proof, but you wouldn’t be alone in suspecting that Union commanders gave the order to put the troublesome Confederate raider out of action.

Both wrecks were almost immediately visited by salvage crews who removed cannon and other valuable items. Then they were left to the whims of the rip-roaring tides that visit Hampton Roads every day. But in recent years, several things have happened. Clive Cussler, with a nod from the government, found them and brought up several artifacts. Then, in the late 1980s, watermen using clamming tongs, removed hundreds of brass fittings and parts, melting them down and converting the ingots to “CN” (Confederate Navy) belt buckles and such. The government took watermen to court, convicted them and turned the artifacts over to the Navy.

There are over 600 items in storage on the base, and a couple of weeks ago I got to experience a preview of what might eventually be on display, thanks to Naval Museum curators.

The items run the gamut of 19th century ship technology: gunlocks, bullet molds, brass screws, a sword handle, different kinds of fuses, some of them dated. A 9-inch shell for a Dahlgren cannon. A pipe with an oyster shell protruding from its bowl. A lantern lens, a sword, Light blue-green medicine, mustard, pepper bottles, an ink well.

There are anomalies like a glass souvenir from Bunker Hill, no doubt from a sailor who picked it up when the Boston-built Cumberland was in port there. There’s a shell from a Brooke gun, the type that was used on the Virginia. The only way a Brooke shell could be in the wreck of the Cumberland, you realize, was for it to be fired into the ship in the heat of battle.

And then there are leather shoe soles. They were probably worn by a sailor who gave his life for his country, one of the curators tells me. The Cumberland, like other military wrecks, is hallowed ground, a burial site for so many sailors who were present at the birth of a new and deadly type of naval warfare.

The Naval Museum has a few of the artifacts at its main facility in Nauticus, but here are hundreds more, salt-saturated witnesses to the audacious courage of sailors from both navies.

Illustration: Sinking of the Cumberland. Courtesy of the Mariners' Museum.

Feb. 22, 2009

An exhibit that opened Saturday at Nauticus takes us fathoms deep into the world of Navy diving, and deeper still into a life of dogged courage and determination.

It’s the story of Carl Brashear, a man who overcame poverty, racism and what should have been a career-ending injury to rise to the elite rank of master diver and whose career was celebrated in a hit movie, “Men of Honor.”

“Dream to Dive: the Life of Master Diver Carl Brashear” takes visitors through the improbable arc of Brashear’s life, from his upbringing as the son of sharecroppers in rural Kentucky to his Navy career and the challenges he faced throughout his life. It includes a daily showing of the movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Robert De Niro.

It’s quite a story,

Brashear quit school after the seventh grade and worked at add jobs, including gas station attendant. In 1948, the year President Harry Truman ordered the military services integrated, he joined the Navy. Two years later, after seeing a Navy diver in full dive gear about to salvage a downed fighter jet, he found his improbable dream and was accepted to dive school.

Overcoming constant harassment by classmates and even death threats, all the while getting his high school equivalency diploma, he became a diver. It’s one of the most demanding careers in the military, calling on almost super-human strength and endurance. He rose to the rank of first class diver, but then, in 1966, his career seemed to come to a sudden end.

Do you remember the incident in January 1966 when, during refueling operations off the coast of Spain, a nuclear bomb accidentally fell into the Mediterranean? Brashear was on board the salvage ship Hoist when the bomb was found and nearly lost his life as it was being recovered.
While the bomb was being lifted from the sea floor, the tow line broke loose, whipping back over the deck with a portion of pipe rail still attached. Brashear was able to get several sailors out of harms way before the rope and pipe struck him in the lower left leg and nearly severed it at the knee.

He almost died of blood loss but hung on through long hospital ordeals. While at Portsmouth Naval Hospital, he suffered from persistent infection and gangrene. Faced with a long recovery, possibly three years, he stunned doctors by insisting that his leg be amputated so he could get on with the nearly impossible journey back to diving.

"I can't stay here three years,” one of the panels in the exhibit quotes him as saying.” I can't be tied up that long. I've got to get back to diving.' They just laughed, 'The fool's crazy! He doesn't stand the chance of a snowball in hell of staying in the Navy. And a diver? No way! Impossible!'"

But there was a way, through hard work and retraining.

“Sometimes I would come back from a run and my artificial leg would have a puddle of blood from my stump,” he told an interviewer in 1989. “I wouldn’t go to sick bay, they would have written me up….I’d go somewhere and hide and soak my leg in a bucket of hot water with salt in it – and old remedy. Then I’d get up the next morning and run.”

The exhibit, the first full-scale retelling of his life, includes rarely seen photos of him undergoing rehabilitation, running with his new leg, doing pushups and deep knee bends. He fought his way back, becoming not only the first full-time diver amputee but the first African American to rise to the rank of master diver.

Brashear lived in Portsmouth while in service and in Virginia Beach after retirement. He died in July 2006.

Several members of his family were expected for the opening yesterday. One of his sons, Phillip Brashear, a retired Army helicopter pilot and president of the Carl Brashear Foundation, says he learned a life-long lesson from his father. “Being true to yourself and realizing that whatever you put your mind to you can achieve. “

As Brashear once put it, “I ain’t going to let nobody steal my dream.”

Photo: Brashear preparing to dive during the 1960s. Courtesy of Nauticus.

Feb. 15, 2009

On nice days like we’ve been having, you can stand on a curved, grassy rampart that overlooks Norfolk Harbor and imagine the ebb and flow of history. This is the seaward wall of Fort Norfolk, one of the most historic, but least celebrated, forts in America.

But this unassuming bastion, which has assumed many lives during more than 200 years of existence, may soon take on a new role as a magnet for tourists and anchor for part of the city that is ripe for development, the Fort Norfolk-Atlantic City area.

After years of patient prodding by the Norfolk Historical Society, plans to turn the fort’s powder magazine into a museum for rare naval artifacts have gained the backing of both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum – in short, the Army and Navy.

The magazine, a massive structure of domed, vaulted bays supported by granite pillars, would become a showcase for what is now a warehouse of historic items. Included in the collection are pieces salvaged from the USS Cumberland, one of the Union ships sunk in Hampton Roads by the Confederate Ironclad Virginia in 1862. Others are from the CSS Florida, a captured Confederate raider that was sunk in Hampton Roads near the Cumberland wreck.

One of the most memorable things about the magazine is the sound effects created by the honeycomb of domes. A footstep sounds like the crack of ice on a frozen lake. A shouted word echoes for several seconds. A muted voice can be heard dozens of yards away.

“Can you hear me?” asked Louis Guy, president of the Norfolk Historical Society on a recent tour of the fort. He was speaking in a normal voice at what should have been shouting distance but could be clearly heard.

Norfolk Historical recently restored an 1810 Carpenter’s Shop and officers’ quarters at the fort, both with the help of generous grants. Restoring the magazine would be a major undertaking, costing an estimated $1.5 million, a tidy sum these days.

But to passionate historians like Guy, it’s worth beating the bushes. “I think it’s too fine an opportunity for us to miss out on,” he said.

The origins of the Fort Norfolk go back to 1794 when Congress authorized President Washington to build fortifications to protect 19 major seaports along the east coast. It’s the only one of those early forts still standing.

First built of earthen walls with wooden supports, it was hurriedly upgraded with masonry walls in 1810 after a second war with Britain appeared imminent. Those white-painted walls survive today.

When war did come, Fort Norfolk might have been captured, but it was spared by defenders at Craney Island – many of them recruited from the fort – who drove off British invaders. The fort was again upstaged by events. Because of the British attack, Fort Monroe and Fort Wool were built and took over defending against possible enemies.

Fort Norfolk fell into disuse until taken over by the Navy in 1849 as a weapons annex to Gosport Navy Yard. That’s when the powder magazine, with four-foot-thick walls, was built on the fort’s parade ground.

So dangerous was the operation that the magazine was equipped with a heavy bronze door to ward against sparks. The door still guards the magazine.

A set of narrow-gage rail tracks ran from the front of the magazine to the wharf, where powder and shells could be offloaded from rail cars to ships. This system became enormously valuable to the Confederacy. Just after Virginia seceded from the Union, the fort, along with its ammunition, was seized. On its way out to do battle with the Union blockade, the Virginia stopped by to take on its lethal ordnance.

The fort served both sides in the Civil War, both as a river battery defending the city and the Confederacy’s chief naval station at Gosport, then, after Norfolk fell to northern forces, as a Union prison. Graffiti left by captured blockade runners can still be seen on the walls of what was once the officers’ quarters.

After the war, the fort was returned to the Navy for use as an ordnance depot. It was taken over by the Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District, in 1923. The four-acre fort is tucked in behind the Corps’ waterfront headquarters. Visitors must show IDs and hunt for limited parking spots, although that will improve when the Corps, as part of the agreement with the society and Navy, moves the entrance checkpoint and adds new parking.

Still, this gem of a place, still watching over the harbor, is virtually unknown to the city. Until, perhaps, now.

Sketch of Fort Norfolk from the Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812.

Feb. 8, 2009

It was Jan. 30, 1936 in Philadelphia when Tootsie Bashara, a 21-year-old boxer from Norfolk, let his guard down in the first round and his opponent, world lightweight champ Tony Canzoneri, landed a vicious right uppercut. Bashara dropped to the canvas and stayed down for a nine-count.

Then, in the third, after a hard left jab opened a cut in Bashara’s eye, the fight and the dazzling boxing career of the “jawbreaker” from Lambert’s Point were over.

Fred “Tootsie” Bashara began boxing at the age of 14. One of three boxing brothers, he was the most successful, winning, by one count, 59 matches in a row. It was a time when “fistic warfare,” as one newspaper called it, was enormously popular. The papers in the 1930s were full of stories about this or that match, all written glowingly about the top contenders in each weight class.

So respectable were the fights of the era that many were held as benefits for the Children’s Clinic Athletic Association, an offshoot of what would become the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.

Like other sports today, boxing was considered a way up the ladder, especially for inner city immigrants. As Fred Bashara Jr., Tootsie’s son, puts it, “In Norfolk during the Depression, if you didn’t work at the shipyard, what did you do? A lot of guys went into fighting.”

Tootsie’s father, Habib, a circus strongman from Lebanon, had emigrated here illegally. At least there were no records showing his arrival. His growing family, with five daughters and five sons, lived at the abandoned Louisiana House at the Jamestown Exposition grounds until being forced out by the Navy. Among Habib’s many enterprises was a fruit stand on what was to become Hampton Boulevard.

Bashara runs an insurance agency on upper Colley Avenue not far from where his father, in later years, opened “Tootsie’s,” a drive-up restaurant where beer was served at the curb. He showed me some of the many scrapbooks his father assembled, bulging with newspaper clips and fight notices. His square-jawed, battered, but still handsome face fills the pages.

“Bashara never won any national titles,” one story summed up, “but he fought some of the best in the game. Fighting in the lightweight class, the stocky slugger rose from a mere unknown amateur fighter to one of the leading boxers in the South.”

Among the clips is the account of how Tootsie broke the jaw of one opponent “with a series of right hand smashes,” although the battered fellow somehow stayed on his feet through eight rounds.

But the limelight had a way of spoiling those unaccustomed to its glare. Tootsie was a “vicuna coat boxer,” as his son puts it, a fast-living lady’s man who married at least five times. “When I was a little boy, I remember having footie pajamas on and my mother was standing at the door crying as my father went out for the night.”

Loosely inserted in one of the scrapbooks is a 1931 contract in which Tootsie agreed to allow his manager, Carl Tranberger, to handle all money received for each fight except $20 “for spending money.” The manager would pay his sister Marie $5 a week for room and board and pay off his debts. “I further agree that I will not run any other bills unless satisfactory with Mr. Tranberger of whom I will first obtain consent.”

He was at the top of his game, lightweight champion of Virginia, when Canzoneri’s glove found his eye. His brother Tommy had lost an eye in the ring, and Tootsie, advised by a doctor that he could lose his, decided to hang it up. But he had already begun a second career as professional golfer, and soon took over as golfing pro at a club in Elizabeth City. At one point he also ran a beer distributorship in Newport News.

One of his proudest accomplishments was arranging, with brother Tommy, a “Salute to Pearl Harbor” vaudeville and boxing show that raised more than $1 million in war bonds shortly after the start of World War II. He died in May 1994 at the age of 80.

Fred Bashara didn’t know his father well because Tootsie had left home when he was young. What had he left him, other than the ability to hit a speed bag?

Well, maybe a lesson in how far grit and determination will get you.

Back when he was in the Air Force in Tacoma, Wash., Bashara and some friends stopped by a bar where the walls were covered with pictures of boxers. When the bartender asked for an ID and recognized his name, he pointed to a photo and said, “Are you Tootsie’s son?”

“My buddies and I had all the beer we wanted on the house and heard some great stories about the ‘manly’ sport.”

Photo: Tootsie Bashara. Courtesy of Fred Bashara.

Feb. 1, 2009

I stopped at the 7-Eleven on Newtown Road the other day, the one close to the expressway exit, and bought a cup of coffee. Then I went for a walk into history.

Nearby, the old railroad tracks cross. On the Norfolk side of Newtown Road, crews are busy rebuilding the roadbed for light rail. On the Beach side, at least for now, there’s just old track. Miles of it, as far as the eye can see.

The first thing you notice is the crossties, thousands of them slowly rotting away to nothing, and occasionally a loose spike. I picked one up. It was irregular, rough-hewn, like it may have been hand-made. How long ago, I wondered. Dozens of years, maybe a century.

I wondered, too, about the railroad section gangs, the so-called Gandy dancers, who worked the tracks; four of them at a time, a friend tells me, who alternated sledgehammer blows as they drove the stakes home. Drove the stakes and sang songs in time with the music of the hammers.

The other thing that strikes you is the oyster shells. They must have been used by the millions to build the roadbed.

That’s all it takes, some shells and a rail spike, to take you back. This is where, in 1883, a group of investors ran railroad tracks to the lavish hotel and cottages they were building on vacant oceanfront land. They were calling the place Virginia Beach.

The group was headed by one of the true movers and shakers of his time, Marshall Parks Jr. He was born in 1820 at Old Point Comfort where his father, Marshall Sr., had built the stupendous Hygeia Hotel. The son would be no less ambitious. “Commodore Parks,” as most called him, founded the Albemarle and Chesapeake Canal Co., which built the canal that runs through Great Bridge. After moving to Norfolk, he served both on City Council and the state legislature. And then this.

He and his group founded the Norfolk and Sewell’s Point Railroad in 1872, thinking their first rail line would run out toward what is now the naval base. But seeing the opportunity to lure people to the oceanfront, they changed the name to Norfolk and Virginia Beach Railroad and Improvement Co., the “improvement” being the lavish Virginia Beach Hotel and several cottages.

At first, they’d build the rail line from the eastern side of Broad Creek, rambling through farmland and timber stands almost to the ocean front, then turning north to about 16th Street. One of the stops along the way was the brand new town of Oceana. The train, steam-powered and running on narrow-gage, three-foot-wide tracks, made its debut on July 16, 1883. But the venture flopped almost immediately, going into receivership the next year and again in 1886, changing the name to Norfolk and Virginia Beach Railroad Co. in 1887. The number of name changes and mergers is mind-boggling, but ultimately it morphed into present-day Norfolk Southern.

NS has a cool train museum on the ground floor of its Norfolk headquarters that includes photos of the original Virginia Beach line.

It didn’t take long, back then, for the tracks to jump across Broad Creek and extend all the way to Main Street in downtown – 17.8 miles. The line was electrified in 1904 and, sometime in that period, changed from narrow to four-and-a-half-foot standard gage.

Before long, it was running 16 trains a day and special excursions on weekends. Light rail, you might call it. But that all ended as shell roads gave way to hard surface and horse carriages to cars. Passenger service ended in 1948, although freight trains carried gravel for construction and newsprint for newspapers into the beginning of this decade.

Now the city is negotiating with Norfolk Southern to buy the right-of-way, and I wonder, looking down that long lonesome section of track, when trains will again come this way.

Photo: Norfolk & Virginia Beach Railroad locomotive No. 2, “Milton Courtright.” Courtesy of Norfolk Southern.