July 26, 2009

Scene I On a ship at sea: A tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning heard. Enter a Ship-master, and a Boatswain.”
Master: Boatswain!
Boatswain: Here, Master: What cheer?
Master: Good, speak to the Mariners: Fall to’t, yarely, or we run ourselves aground: bestir, bestir.
What I’m reading, in a softly lit glass case, is the title page of William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” It’s in a 1623 copy of the playwright’s First Folio, on loan from the Library of Congress.
In another case, courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum, is a copy of William Strachey’s account of the wreck of the Jamestown-bound ship Sea Venture in Bermuda. In it, Strachey describes “a dreadful storm & hideous.”
These rare manuscripts are on display in “Jamestown and Bermuda, Virginia Company Colonies,” at Jamestown Settlement. They lend authenticity to the intimate connection between Shakespeare’s storm-tossed drama and the shipwreck – and between America’s and Bermuda’s first English settlements.
On July 25, 1609 – 400 years ago yesterday – after days of being pounded by a hurricane, the Sea Venture was driven onto coral reefs that surround Bermuda and, miraculously, all 150 passengers and crew made it to shore. Among them, besides Strachey, were Captain Christopher Newport, Admiral George Somers and Thomas Gates, the newly appointed Governor of Virginia. They lived off the land, built two smaller ships and, 10 months late, set sail for Jamestown.
Two lucky fellows, who had apparently been agitating to stay, got their wish, and thus accidently the Virginia Company’s second colony was established, with more settlers soon to follow.
The Atlantic islands were a lot more appealing than Jamestown. As one observer put it, Bermuda, once thought to be dangerous and forlorn, was “in truth the richest, healthfullest, and pleasing land (the quantity and bigness thereof considered) and merely natural, as ever man set foot upon.” And all because of that storm. Bermuda’s motto, Quo Fata Ferunt, means “Wither the fates carry us.”
The Sea Venture was accompanied by eight smaller ships, all of which survived the storm and made it to Jamestown – just in time for the “starving time” winter of 1609. The 450 or so people, leaderless without Gates, Newport and the others, were decimated by disease and starvation. It was so bad, the handful of survivors so gaunt and pathetic, that the leaders decided to abandon Jamestown and return to England. This would have ended the first English settlement in America had they not run into a new rescue mission headed by Thomas De La Warr.
There has been much debate over whether the Bard of Avon actually wrote the plays, but in fact the connections between the Sea Venture and The Tempest make the strongest case that he did.
Shakespeare was well acquainted with Strachey and others whose accounts of the wreck were rushed into print soon after they got back to England. I did some further exploring and found a paper by American scholar David Kathman that compares the play, written in 1611, and the accounts.
“Strachey describes the storm as ‘roaring’ and ‘beat[ing] all light from heaven; which like an hell of darkness turned blacke upon us…The sea swelled above the clouds, which gave battel unto heaven.’ In The Tempest, Miranda describes the waters as being in a ‘roar,’ and says that ‘The sky it seems would pour down stinking pitch, But that the Sea, mounting to th’ welkins cheek, Dashes the fire out.’”
“Strachey tells how ‘in the beginning of the storme we had received likewise a mighty leake.’ Gonzalo says the ship in the play is ‘as leaky as an unstanched wench.”
And so on. There are almost two dozen similarities that link the real and imagined tempests.
The Jamestown Settlement exhibit, which runs through Oct. 15, dwells less on the Shakespeare link than it does on the accidental ties between Virginia and Bermuda.
There are comparisons of the histories, economies, government and cultures of the two places. And, fascinatingly, there are numerous artifacts –on loan from the government and museums in Bermuda – that have been recovered from the wreck of the Sea Venture, including pitchers, jugs, spoons, brass ornaments, pipes, shot and cannonball.
On a tour of the exhibit, Jamestown Settlement historian Nancy Egloff quoted curator Dan Hawks: “These objects were on their way to Virginia,” she said. “Now they’ve finally made it.”

Painting: “Sea Venture in the Storm,” by William Harrington. Bermuda Maritime Museum.

July 19, 2009

Do you remember when steamboats departed from piers all over this region, for Baltimore, Richmond, New York? When ferries ran between Portsmouth and Norfolk? Between Norfolk and Cape Charles? When trains pulled into the station on East Main Street? When electric trains left daily for the Oceanfront, and trolleys for Ocean View?
For that matter, do you remember the Ocean View Amusement Park? The “Rocket” roller coaster, the Ferris Wheel when it faced the bay? Doumar’s when it was in Ocean View? The Rosele (pronounced Rosalee) Theater? Florence’s Drug? Do you remember the hurricane of 1933 and how it ripped up the boardwalk? The separate beaches for African Americans ?
Do you remember when you could buy fresh Lynnhaven oysters from the back of a pickup truck on Shore Drive.? When, sometime in the mid-fifties a freighter ran aground near what became the Duck Inn? Hundreds drove out to watch, and an enterprising fellow named Chick opened a hot dog stand.
Do you remember when Norfolk and Portsmouth were much bigger cities, with almost nothing but truck farms surrounding them? When Princess Anne, Norfolk and Nansemond counties were virtually all farmland punctuated by vast acres of woods? When Wards Corner was a gas station owned by a fellow named Ward?
Memories are fragile things, vanishing each time one of us fades from the scene. Yet they are the fabric of the rich history that inhabits this region. Local history is not just great battles or presidential visits. It’s your stories. Your photographs. Your photographic memories. Your memoirs, published or unpublished. Let’s not let them die.
What’s your memory of what it was like in Hampton Roads during the war years, when your brother or your sweetheart was over there? Did you pass the time by meeting friends and strolling with your baby carriages on the old boardwalk at the Beach? Before they went and after they returned, did you dance at Navy Y? Or at the Cavalier when the big bands came to town?
How about your memories of working at the USO, at the shipyard?
Do you remember how huge high school football was in the 1940s and 50s after Foreman Field was built, the rivalry between Maury and Granby high schools, the Thanksgiving Day parade? “Fall in the air, sweaters and football,” recalls Fred Bashara, who encouraged me to write this. “That’s what a small town Norfolk was. It seemed like the whole city followed one football team or another.”
After the war, with the GI Bill under their belts, thousands took flying lessons and the region was a checkerboard of small airfields: near the present Southern and Janaf shopping centers and DePaul Hospital. Creeds and Pungo had Navy practice fields. Operations at Norfolk Municipal Airport were taken over by the Army Air Corps during the war.
Do you remember in the 1930s when the Charity Red Jackets was the most feared semi-pro baseball team in the Tidewater League? When the Norfolk Tars won four minor league titles in a row, or when Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford took to the field? When the Tidewater Tides and the Cubs played in Portsmouth?
In another era, what was it like graduating from high school during the draft and realizing you might soon be fighting in some God-forsaken jungle? Or graduating from high school and discovering the world as you knew it was changing, that a career was a much bigger option and divorce a greater likelihood? That new laws guaranteed you the right to better education, better jobs and access to the voting booth?
And on and on. These are not my stories, dear readers, but yours. If you remember, as Uncle Sam used to put it, I want you. Drop me a line.

Dancers at the Cavalier Hotel and Beach Club, 1940s, by Carroll Walker. The Virginian-Pilot.

July 12, 2009

They were grim years. Hobbled by the Great Depression, America in the 1930s was in a downward spiral that seemed to have no bottom. But on the Peninsula, thousands of workers defied the odds, pushing, prodding and bending steel into the shape of behemoth ships.
While they were doing this, building passenger ships, aircraft carriers and other vessels, an accomplished artist by the name of Thomas C. Skinner was capturing their efforts, turning out painting after painting of what it was like in the cavernous work spaces of Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company.
At the same time, in order to train new workers, the company was documenting their techniques on film.
The remarkable thing about a new exhibit at the Mariners’ Museum is that Skinner’s near life-size canvases are presented side-by-side with the recently restored films that mirror identical skills. A painting of workers laying out patterns in the cavernous lofts in the factory is echoed by a similar, moving black-and-white image. Scenes of workers pouring molten lead into a mold, bending white-hot steel strips into the shape of a prow, or turning a glowing propeller shaft are similarly juxtaposed.
Celebrating its 75th year, the museum’s “Building Better Ships,” pays tribute to its intimate relationship with the sprawling shipyard, now Northrop Grumman Newport News. The exhibit, like the environs of the shipyard, sprawls through cavernous museum rooms, beginning with the shipyard’s founding.
“It was my original intention,” confided Collis P. Huntington, founder of Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, “to start a shipyard plant in the best location in the world, and I succeeded in my purpose. It is right at the gateway to the sea. There is never any ice in the winter, and it is never so cold but you can hammer metal out of doors.”
Huntington, one of the driving forces behind the nation’s transcontinental railroad, was intrigued by the natural deepwater harbor at Newport News Point. In 1881 he ran tracks there from the once-bankrupt Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. Then, 15 years later, in order to repair ships that began calling at the coal piers, grain elevators and cargo wharves that sprang up at the point, he began what was to become the largest privately owned shipyard in the U.S .
There are historic photos of the shipyard at the beginning. There is a propeller from the 1902 SS Virginia, a huge model of a passenger ship, a film clip of a launch, a puzzle that kids can assemble showing how a ship takes shape, other photos of workers gathering at shipyard pay windows and pouring out of the factory at quitting time.
One of the most intriguing displays is one that tests your knowledge of tools used in ship construction. It’s ingeniously interactive: you answer a question by touching one of the tools, and a computerized touch sensor delivers the answer and, if right, displays a short film.
What was used, for instance, to bend hot steel plates into ship shapes?
If you touch the head of a sledge hammer, a vintage film shows workers swinging the hammers one after another like the fellows who once drove railroad spikes.
But the most striking part of “Building Better Ships” is the presentation of Skinner paintings.
The American marine artist, born 1888 in Kentucky, was hired by the shipyard in 1932. This must have been due to the influence of Archer Huntington, the step-son of the founder, who became a world-class art collector. Skinner was given a studio in the yard where he turned out dramatic paintings, as the exhibit points out, “that served to promote prosperity during the Great Depression and celebrate America’s industrial might.”
Served up beside the films might be the ultimate way of presenting, and appreciating, historic works of art.

Illustration: Thomas Skinner painting showing the foundry at Newport News Shipbuilding. Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum.

July 5, 2009

The Military Aviation Museum has come in quietly, like a night landing of an Able Dog Skyraider.
This World War II–Korean War Navy bomber is one of 23 vintage military aircraft that now fill two hangars and an exhibition hall at the museum three miles south of Pungo. Even though the museum has been open since May last year and its hangars and checkerboard water tower plainly visible from Princess Anne Road, and even though there have been a half dozen newspaper stories about it, many, like this writer, are just waking up to its existence.
The museum, along with its “Fighter Factory,” a maintenance facility in Suffolk, is home to one of the largest private collections of old-time warbirds in the world.
Although you may not have been there yet, you might have caught a glimpse of its presence. Three of the planes, including a classic P-51D Mustang (“Double Trouble”) piloted by museum owner Gerald Yagen, made a dramatic flyover at Harborfest yesterday. And several get-acquainted events are in the offing.
This Saturday, July 11, at 6 p.m., the museum is sponsoring a “South Pacific Hangar Dance, with big band music, hula dancers and swing dance instructors. The following Wednesday, July 15 at 8:30 p.m., there will be a showing of the 1968 British spoof, “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines.”
Visitors can stroll, as I did a few days ago, through a gleaming assemblage of Navy and Army Air Corps planes, including many storied aircraft like Yagen’s Mustang, a shark-faced Curtiss P-40 flown by the “Flying Tigers,” a Boeing Stearman Navy trainer and a giant PBY Catalina boat plane. There are replica WWI German fighters, including the type used by the infamous “Red Baron.” There’s an RAF Spitfire, three strange-looking Russian “Polikarpov” fighters, an antiaircraft gun, a German buzz bomb, a 1911 Wright flyer and a “paradummy,” a three-foot fake parachutist used to fool the Germans during the D-Day landing. And much more.
Tom Owen, a former airline pilot who serves as a volunteer docent, stood before the Stearman, the classic yellow biplane “Kaydet” that the Navy used as its primary trainer. More than 10,000 were built between 1933 and 1945. “They were known as the Yellow Peril because any other pilot flying in the vicinity knew the guy in the front seat was inexperienced and the guy in the back seat was trying to keep the guy in the front seat from killing him,” Owen said.
We stopped at the impressive Catalina, with a high wing that makes it look like a space creature. “If you grew up around here, you would have seen them,” Owen said. “This is the airplane that spotted the Bismark after she sank the (British battleship ) Hood. She spotted the Japanese fleet off Midway, enabling our surprise attack. It’s also the airplane that found remnants of the Indianapolis after she was sunk. They landed on the water and put the crew all over the airplane to keep them away from sharks.”
One sign that this is much more than a static museum: the drip pans that catch oil under most of the planes. That’s because, at any given moment, 20 of the 23 aircraft could be wheeled out of the hangars, taxied down the grass runway and lifted off into the blue Virginia Beach sky.
“They’re being maintained to fly,” said David Hunt, the museum’s director. “That’s the big draw. You listen to people talk, and they say it’s nice to see that the planes aren’t cordoned off. And the next big wow is ‘You fly all these planes!’”
Upstairs, display cases include period uniforms. There’s a movie theater in which I caught part of the star-studded “Battle of Britain,” with RAF pilots valiantly fighting for control of British air space during World War II.
This is just the beginning. The Virginia Beach City Council recently approved the addition of five more buildings, including a two-story air tower from England that will be reassembled brick by brick, a German Luftwaffe hangar, a World War I replica hangar, a spare parts hangar and a maintenance facility, a “Fighter Factory,” which will be shifted from its present location in Suffolk. Twenty more planes will also move over to the Beach.
The museum should not be a stranger to lower Virginia Beach. Many of the same planes flew out of nearby airfields at Creeds and Pungo during World War II. The fields were abandoned in 1945, but the presence of the planes ought to revive a few memories. Let me know what you remember.

Photo: Stearman trainer in flight. Courtesy of Military Aviation Museum.