Oct. 26, 2006

Driving Up the Ohio River on Route 2 in Late Fall

by Larry Smith

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Poem: "Driving Up the Ohio River on Route 2 in Late Fall" by Larry Smith, from A River Remains. © WordTech Editions. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Driving Up the Ohio River on Route 2 in Late Fall

Trees breathe colors in afternoon light
turning the river into a slate of sky.
My wife and I drive a West Virginia two laner
beside the long waters, by an old railroad track.

Fields of alfalfa bordered in brush turn golden brown
as we pass again old faces of houses,
the dark brick and windows of abandoned factories
that lead into quiet towns a few blocks long.

Two old men talk on a street corner,
point to the ground, the sky;
a woman carries her baby and grocery bag
to a blue pick-up truck as evening comes on.

Life flows on like a river apart
from the roadways and bridges.
A sign in a beauty shop reads, "Come on in,"
and we wish we could enter more deeply here.

But we have those slow miles before sleep.
Our car drinks them in passing.
So little we really know, so much we share—
driving up river, heading home.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, a canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. The canal was 360 miles long, 40 feet wide, and 4 feet deep—just deep enough to float barges carrying 30 tons of freight. It was built by European immigrants—mostly Irish—who were paid $10 a month. They were also given whiskey, which was stored in barrels along the construction site.

When the canal was finished, cannons were lined up along the towpath just barely in earshot of each other. They fired one after another from Lake Erie to New York City, finishing the relay in 81 minutes, establishing the fastest ever rate of communication in the United States at that time.

It was on this day in 1776 that Benjamin Franklin (books by this author) embarked upon a diplomatic mission to France, in hopes of gaining support for the American Revolution. Franklin was 70 at the time, and the voyage over the sea was rough going. He had planned to sail all the way up the English Channel to get as close to Paris as possible, but as soon as his ship came within view of the short of Brittany, he hired a fishing boat to take him to land. He made the rest of the journey by coach.

There was a grand ball to announce his arrival, and in the next few weeks, he became the talk of the town. He was applauded in the streets. For those first few weeks, he wore a soft fur cap wherever he went, and French women began wearing wigs that imitated the same style. For the French, he was a symbol of a new kind of freedom that their own philosophers had written about.

At the time, the French government wasn't in the best financial shape, and Franklin had to persuade them that helping the American colonies win would provide them with new trade opportunities in America, and it would also humiliate England, France's bitter enemy. Part of what made his task so difficult was that France was still a monarchy, and the king didn't much care for this new American idea of freedom and representative government.

Franklin was also surrounded by British spies, working to find out whether France would support the rebellious colonies. One of the spies actually was actually Franklin's secretary, a man named Edward Bancroft.

After a year of negotiation, Franklin began to make some progress, and then on March 20, 1778, he traveled to the palace at Versailles to sign a treaty with the king. After the treaty was signed, he was served dinner, and then he was given the honor of standing next to Queen Marie Antoinette while she played at the gambling tables. She considered him too common and refused to speak to him all night.

Historians now regard Franklin's negotiation with France as possibly the greatest diplomatic achievement in our country's history. The revolution would never have been a success without it.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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