Thursday, June 30, 2011

Oh Say Can You See        

July 4th is a big holiday, and it’s not just about fireworks. Here’s a confession: I never realized how much New York City had to do with the American Revolution - sure, I studied this in school, read lots of books since then and saw countless movies – but I grew up in the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, learned about General Herkimer and the Battle of Oriskany and beyond that the rest were just names of faraway people and places. Considering the New World adventures of the early Dutch and English settlements in New York, the importance of the Hudson River as a commercial thoroughfare and the economic dynamics of trade and taxes in the New World it’s not really surprising how much history there is around here. And here’s a less known story that probably should be told and understood more.

During the Revolutionary War, the British had kept American prisoners on ships in Wallabout Bay (between Manhattan and Brooklyn) under terrible conditions. Around 11,500 prisoners died from disease and malnutrition and they became known as the ‘prison ship martyrs’. More American soldiers and sailors died of intentional neglect in these ships than died on all the battlefields of the American Revolutionary War, combined.

The English were short on the cash needed to deal with the Colonies and even shorter on foresight. Because these floating prisons were off the beaten path (as roads back them were probably called) they went for nearly two years before anyone discovered them. By then the effects of this neglect were a reality and the dead and dying were more than could easily be hidden. And as with many things, the consequences of this action went far beyond what the decision-makers at that time could have foreseen. The colonists, who up to that point were not as united as might have been thought, were so outraged by this inhumane treatment that even those loyal to the British began to think that the colonies really did need to break away. The moral of this story: the law of unintended consequences is powerful.

And then:

  • The colonists rallied around this atrocity and drove the British out of the New World.
  • More than a century later a memorial was established in the park that’s at the end of the street I live on – the martyrs were entombed there and a monument was erected.
  • A plaque on that monument reads: “In memory of the 11,500 patriotic American sailors and soldiers who endured untold suffering and died on the prison British ships anchored in Wallabout Bay during the Revolutionary War 1776- 1782. Their remains lie buried in the crypt at the base of this monument which was dedicated on November 14, 1908.”

We think of heroes as those who fight on and live to tell about it. But in reality the things that stir men’s (and women’s) souls are far less than that. Acts of bravery are also found in the suffering and stoicism of those who maintain their dignity in the face of unbelievable odds. Things like this make thoughtful people reconsider their priorities and reset their plans; they create friendships and alliances that were not thought possible; they have the potential to bring about the kinds of change that alters the course of mankind and they create stories that are relived and retold forever (especially on days like the 4th of July). America is not the only country that celebrates its past – but in the scope of Americana, this is a big holiday. It’s one that’s equally important to everyone who calls himself or herself a citizen and it’s one that continually reinforces what we stand for.


It’s too bad that days like this have to be born in revolution but whatever their origins, they should stand as a reminder that nothing good comes easy and whatever is worth doing is worth being passionate about. The American Revolution certainly stirred passions that continue today in celebrations like July 4th and the singing of our national anthem (which started as a poem written by Francis Scott Key that was then set to the tune of a popular British drinking song). As you look around and celebrate this holiday weekend you’ll most likely encounter others whose passions run deep. Connect with them and join in the celebration, join along in the singing or whatever other festivities are happening, reflect on the things that have gone on and which made you what you are today and reach out to those around you and thank them for helping make this a such a special place to live. Oh say can you see: those democratic freedoms that the prison ship martyrs died for so long ago are alive and well. And that’s truly something to celebrate on our country’s 235th birthday.


So, my quote and message this week are about passion:


“There is no end. There is no beginning. There is only the passion of life.”

-Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini, (1920 – 1993), was an Italian film director and script writer. Known for a distinct style that blends fantasy and baroque images, he is considered one of the most influential and widely revered filmmakers of the 20th century.


Is there passion in your life? Of course there are many different kinds of passion: the kind you feel when you fall in love and experience your first kiss, the kind you find when you’re introduced to a cause in which you believe unconditionally and the kind you discover when you’re turned on by the work you do. Each is a treasure, each sets your mind and spine tingling, each steals your sleep because you can’t wait to get back to what you’re doing. These sharpen your focus, define the boundaries of your enthusiasm and commitment, charge your spirit with energy and enthusiasm and stir in you the potential to greatness. When you’re passionate like this, there really is no beginning or end – there is only the … passion. And this kind of passion for life, love or work is way beyond good. Find your passion today and let it light your life!


Hey America: Happy Birthday!


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