Category Archives: U.S.

North Carolina Placenames

While visiting old friends and enjoying the fall colors in North Carolina, I’ve been exploring local history and culture—and vittles, from lowly liver pudding to fancy shrimp and grits, and a good variety of local craft brews.

One book I’m a-enjoyin’ is Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina, by Walt Wolfram and Jeffrey Reaser (UNC Press, 2014). It comes with a well-organized website of audio files illustrating pronunciations discussed in each chapter. The printed book provides links to each audio file in two formats: a unique URL (http) and QR code. The book is written for general readers, so the pronunciations are rendered in English spellings that avoid IPA symbols. Here’s a sample of placenames:

Chowan (cho-WONN), Rowan (roe-ANN), Gaston (GASS-ton), Lenoir (le-NOR)

Icard (EYE-kurd), Ijames (IMES), Iredell (IRE-dell), Robeson (ROBB-i-son)

Fuquay-Varina (FEW-kway vuh-REE-nuh), Uwharrie (you-WHAR-ee)

Conetoe (kuh-NEE-tuh), Contentnea (kun-TENT-nea), Corolla (kuh-RAHL-uh)

Chicamacomico (chick-uh-muh-CAH-mih-co), Nantahala (nan-tuh-HAY-luh)

Cooleemee (COOL-uh-mee), Cullowhee (CULL-uh-whee), Cullasaja (cool-uh-SAY-juh)

Guilford (GILL-furd), Hertford (HERT-furd), Wingate (WIN-get), Wendell (win-DELL)

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Filed under language, migration, travel, U.S.

Addiction Treatment Culture

From Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance (Harper, 2016), pp. 114-117:

On designated weekdays and weekends, we visited our mother at the CAT [Center for Addiction Treatment] house. Between the hills of Kentucky, Mamaw and her guns, and Mom’s outbursts, I thought I had seen it all. but Mom’s newest problem exposed me to the underworld of American addiction. Wednesdays were always dedicated to a group activity—some type of training for the family. All of the addicts and their families sat in a large room with each family assigned to an individual table, engaged in some discussion meant to teach us about addiction and its triggers. In one session, Mom explained that she used drugs to escape the stress of paying bills and to dull the pain of Papaw’s death. In another, Lindsay and I learned that standard sibling conflict made it more difficult for Mom to resist temptation.

These sessions provoked little more than arguments and raw emotion, which I suppose was their purpose. On the nights when we sat in that giant hall with other families—all of whom were either black or Southern-accented whites like us—we heard screaming and fighting, children telling their parents that they hated them, sobbing parents begging forgiveness in one breath and then blaming their families in the next. It was there that I first heard Lindsay tell Mom how she resented having to play the caretaker in the wake of Papaw’s death instead of grieving for him, how she hated watching me grow attached to some boyfriend of Mom’s only to see him walk out on us. Perhaps it was the setting, or perhaps it was the fact that Lindsay was almost eighteen, but as my sister confronted my mother, I began to see my sister as the real adult. And our routine at home only enhanced her stature.

Mom’s rehab proceeded apace, and her condition apparently improved with time. Sundays were designated as unstructured family time. We couldn’t take Mom off-site, but we were able to eat and watch TV and talk as normal. Sundays were usually happy, though Mom did angrily chide us during one visit because our relationship with Mamaw had grown too close. “I’m your mother, not her,” she told us. I realized that Mom had begun to regret the seeds she’d sown with Lindsay and me.

When Mom came home a few months later, she brought a new vocabulary along with her. She regularly recited the Serenity Prayer, a staple of addiction circles in which the faithful ask God for the “serenity to accept the things [they] cannot change.” Drug addiction was a disease, and just as I wouldn’t judge a cancer patient for a tumor, so I shouldn’t judge a narcotics addict for her behavior. At thirteen, I found this patently absurd, and Mom and I often argued over whether her newfound wisdom was scientific truth or an excuse for people whose decisions destroyed a family. Oddly enough, it’s probably both. Research does reveal a genetic disposition to substance abuse, but those who believe their addiction is a disease show less of an inclination to resist it. Mom was telling herself the truth, but the truth was not setting her free.

I didn’t believe any of the slogans or sentiments, but I did believe she was trying. Addiction treatment seemed to give Mom a sense of purpose, and it gave us something to bond over. I read what I could on her “disease” and even made a habit of attending some of her Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which proceeded precisely as you’d expect: a depressing conference room, a dozen or so chairs, and a bunch of strangers sitting in a circle, introducing themselves as “Bob, and I’m an addict.” I thought that if I participated, she might actually get better.

At one meeting, a man walked in a few minutes late, smelling like a garbage can. His matted hair and dirty clothes evidenced a life on the streets, a truth he confirmed as soon as he opened his mouth. “My kids won’t speak to me, no one will,” he told us. “I scrounge together what money I can and spend it on smack. Tonight I couldn’t find any money or any smack, so I came in here because it looked warm.” The organizer asked if he’d be willing to try giving up the drugs for more than one night, and the man answered with admirable candor. “I could say yes, but honestly, probably not. I’ll probably be back at it tomorrow night.”

I never saw that man again. Before he left, someone did ask him where he was from. “Well, I’ve lived her in Hamilton for most of my life. But I was born down in eastern Kentucky, Owsley County.” At the time, I didn’t know enough about Kentucky geography to tell the man that he had been born no more than twenty miles from my grandparents’ childhood home.

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Filed under Appalachia, disease, drugs, education

Discovering Hillbilly Identity

From Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance (Harper, 2016), pp. 78-80:

Mom was released from jail on bond and prosecuted for a domestic violence misdemeanor. The case rested entirely on me. Yet during the hearing, when asked if Mom had ever threatened me, I said no. The reason was simple: My grandparents were paying a lot of money for the town’s highest-powered lawyer. They were furious with my mother, but they didn’t want their daughter in jail, either. The lawyer never explicitly encouraged dishonesty, but he did make it clear that what I said would either increase or decrease the odds that Mom spent additional time in prison. “You don’t want your mom to go to jail, do you?” he asked. So I lied, with the express understanding that even though Mom would have her liberty, I could live with my grandparents whenever I wished. Mom would officially retain custody, but from that day forward I lived in her house only when I chose to—and Mamaw told me that if Mom had a problem with the arrangement, she could talk to the barrel of Mamaw’s gun. This was hillbilly justice, and it didn’t fail me.

I remember sitting in that busy courtroom, with half a dozen other families all around, and thinking they looked just like us. The moms and dads and grandparents didn’t wear suits like the lawyers and judge. They wore sweatpants and stretchy pants and T-shirts. Their hair was a bit frizzy. And it was the first time I noticed “TV accents”—the neutral accent that so many news anchors had. The social workers and the judge and the lawyer all had TV accents. None of us did. The people who ran the courtroom were different from us. The subjected to it were not.

Identity is an odd thing, and I didn’t understand at the time why I felt such a kinship with these strangers. A few months later, during my first trip to California, I began to understand. Uncle Jimmy flew Lindsay and me to his home in Napa, California. Knowing that I’d be visiting him, I told every person I could that I was headed to California in the summer and, what was more, flying for the first time. The main reaction was disbelief that may uncle had enough money to fly two people—neither of whom were his children—out to California. It is a testament to the class consciousness of my youth that my friends’ thoughts drifted first to the cost of the airplane flight.

For my part, I was overjoyed to travel west and visit Uncle Jimmy, a man I idolized on par with my great-uncles, the Blanton men. Despite the early departure, I didn’t sleep a wink on the six-hour flight from Cincinnati to San Francisco. Everything was just too exciting: the way the earth shrank during takeoff, the look of clouds from close up, the scope and size of the sky, and the way the mountains looked from the stratosphere. The flight attendant took notice, and by the time we hit Colorado, I was making regular visits to the cockpit (this was before 9/11), where the pilot gave me brief lessons in flying an airplane and updated me on our progress.

The adventure had just begun. I had traveled out of state before: I had joined my grandparents on road trips to South Carolina and Texas, and I had visited Kentucky regularly. On those trips, I rarely spoke to anyone except family, and I never noticed anything all that different. Napa was like a different country. In California, every day included a new adventure with my teenage cousins and their friends. During one trip we went to the Castro District of San Francisco so that, in the words of my older cousin Rachael, I could learn that gay people weren’t out to molest me. Another day, we visited a winery. On yet a another day, we helped at my cousin Nate’s high school football practice. It was all very exciting. Everyone I met thought I sounded like I was from Kentucky. Of course, I kind of was from Kentucky. And I loved that people thought I had a funny accent. That said, it became clear to me that California really was something else. I’d visited Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, and Lexington. I’d spent a considerable amount of time in South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and even Arkansas. So why was California so different?

The answer, I’d learn, was the same hillbilly highway that brought Mamaw and Papaw from eastern Kentucky to southwest Ohio. Despite the topographical differences and the different regional economies of the South and the industrial Midwest, my travels had been confined largely to places where the people looked and acted like my family. We ate the same foods, watched the same sports, and practiced the same religion. That’s why I felt so much kinship with those people at the courthouse: They were hillbilly transplants in one way or another, just like me.

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Filed under Appalachia, democracy, economics, education, language

Foreign Safety Zone, Nanjing, 1937

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2591-2628:

The safety zone, the brainchild of Rabe and a few other foreigners who had stayed behind in Nanjing, started to take form in the first week of December, when it was officially publicized and four committees were set up to take care of food, housing, finance and sanitation. Once the plans for the zone were detailed in the local press, scared Chinese civilians started moving in by the hundreds, convinced that it was only a matter of time until the Japanese took over. A small newspaper’s repeated claim that it was the “duty” of all patriotic Chinese to stay outside the zone and face the Japanese bombs was largely ignored.

The zone was beset with problems from the start, both practical and bureaucratic. Thousands of bags of rice and flour meant for the zone’s future residents were left unguarded and quickly disappeared. Many assumed that they had been stolen by the military. Potentially much more serious problems arose when Chinese military units started digging trenches and setting up field telephones inside the safety zone, which automatically put it at risk of Japanese attack. Chinese officers promised that they would leave, but the situation dragged out, causing impatience among the organizers of the zone. Until the last Chinese soldier had left, they could not put up flags around it, designating it as a truly demilitarized area.

The Japanese refused to officially acknowledge the safety zone, but vowed to respect it. A lukewarm attitude on their part could hardly be considered surprising, but intriguingly some Chinese officers also exhibited direct hostility against the zone. “Every inch of soil that the Japanese conquer should be fertilized with our blood,” an angry officer told Rabe. “Nanjing must be defended to the last man. If you had not established your Safety Zone, people now fleeing into the Zone could have helped our soldiers.” They wanted to leave nothing of use to the Japanese. This included complete destruction of the area inside the safety zone as well. Some nationalistic Chinese officers were also opposed, on principle, as they saw an essentially foreign-administered region in the middle of their capital as an intolerable violation of Chinese sovereignty.

The zone was not the only effort to help alleviate the pain and suffering caused by war. After the outbreak of the battle over Shanghai, the Chinese Red Cross had stepped in where military medicine had failed and set up a number of first-aid teams and emergency hospitals, while also ensuring that wounded soldiers were put up in existing medical facilities. In October, it established a 3,000-bed hospital on the campus of the National Central University, with a staff of 300 doctors and nurses and 400 orderlies. By the end of October, the hospital had 1,200 patients, and carried out more than 50 operations a day, mostly amputations.

However, as the Japanese approached Nanjing, doctors and nurses were transported west up the Yangtze. The entire Red Cross hospital was evacuated, and at the American Mission Hospital, an initial staff of nearly 200 doctors, nurses and trained workers had been reduced to just 11 by the onset of winter. Some were ordered out of Nanjing, while others left on their own initiative, without warning. Wilson, the Harvard-trained surgeon, described in a letter how he had carried out a complicated operation on a bombing victim with the help of an experienced Chinese nurse who doubled as an x-ray technician. “Incidentally that nurse left this afternoon,” he added, “and now we have no one in the operating room.”

With medical facilities close to collapse, a group of foreigners took the initiative to try to improve conditions, and there were small victories. A committee headed by Rev. John Magee, an American-born Episcopal missionary, secured a sizable amount from Chiang Kai-shek and set up a temporary dressing station in the school buildings of the American Church Mission. Overall, it was slow, unrewarding work in a field that many Chinese officials considered redundant. In an attempt to help the injured soldiers who were still piling up on the platforms, a group of foreign volunteers asked the Chinese authorities for ambulances. They were told that ambulances were indeed available, but there was no gasoline and no money to buy it.

Also very active in Shanghai, Nanjing, and elsewhere in East Asia at the time was the Red Swastika Society (世界红卍字会, shìjiè hóngwànzìhuì), a Buddhist/Daoist equivalent of the Red Cross or Red Crescent.

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Filed under China, Germany, Japan, nationalism, religion, U.S., war

China’s Hopes for U.S. or Soviet Intervention, 1937

From Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2002-2015:

At a deep cognitive level, there was a reason why Chiang Kai-shek and others around him wanted to believe that not just Soviet aid, but also direct Soviet participation in the hostilities was imminent. This was how they expected a war with Japan to pan out. The Chinese General Staff’s War Plan A, drafted in 1937, was based on the premise that a conflict with Japan would soon set off a larger conflict between Japan and either the Soviet Union or the United States. Therefore, the key aim for China was to hold out against the superior Japanese until it could be relieved by the arrival of a much more powerful ally, whether Russian or American. This plan was not as naive as it might seem, but was based on the calculation that neither Moscow nor Washington would want to see Japanese power grow too strong on the Asian mainland.

Some of Chiang’s commanders believed that it was partly in order to hasten outside intervention that the Chinese leader decided to make Shanghai a battlefield. It was true that Shanghai offered tactical advantages that the north Chinese plain did not, an argument that had been decisive in getting Chiang’s own generals to accept opening a new front there. However, these advantages would seem to be a small reward considering the risk involved in luring the enemy to occupy China’s most prosperous region. Much more crucially perhaps, Shanghai was an international city and a key asset for the world’s most powerful economies, who would not allow it to become Japanese territory, or so he believed. According to Li Zongren, one of China’s top generals, Chiang expanded the war to Shanghai because the importance of the city might lead to “mediation on the part of the European powers and the United States or even to their armed intervention.”

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Filed under China, Japan, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR, war

Reassessing Admiral Yamamoto

From Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara (Naval Institute Press, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2317-2344:

The great Han Dynasty of China was founded by General Liu Pang in 202 B.C. after he had emerged victorious from a series of many battles in a great civil war. One day, after gaining the throne, Generalissimo Liu was chatting with his chief of staff, General Han Tsin:

Liu: “How do you rate me as a general?”

Han: “I think Your Majesty can command, at most, an army of a few divisions.”

Liu: “And what is your own ability?”

Han: “The more armies of as many possible divisions I command the better I work.”

Liu: “How does it happen that I am an emperor while you remain a general?”

Han: “You are a born leader of leaders.”

Liu was one of the greatest emperors and Han one of the greatest generals in history. Few admirals have enjoyed such high reputation as did Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in World War II. He had great ability, but I feel that his reputation as a naval leader was greater than he deserved. I do not mean to compare Yamamoto categorically with Liu, but in respect of their actual abilities, they are comparable.

Despite Japan’s miserable defeat in the Pacific War, the nation is still inclined to regard Yamamoto as a hero. Postwar writings have criticized other military and naval leaders, but not Yamamoto. If my remarks on Yamamoto seem severe it is not that I have any personal feelings against him; this is just the first writing by a Japanese military man to be at all critical of him.

To me Admiral Yamamoto was a born leader of leaders and for that he deserved the almost religious respect accorded him. But he was not qualified to command a million tons of ships and their crews. It was tragic that he was chosen to head the Combined Fleet.

Many of my colleagues believe that Yamamoto would have been an ideal Navy Minister, and there was a movement under way among certain Naval officers to have him named to this post. Their idea was that Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai should command the Combined Fleet. That move collapsed when Yonai, who strongly opposed war, refused, saying, “I am not a fighting admiral, and would only make things worse with the Army. Furthermore, if such a stiff-necked man as Yamamoto becomes Navy Minister he will surely be assassinated by Army hotheads.”

The real trouble was the Army. When the war began the cabinet was headed by General Hideki Tojo. Admiral Shigetaro Shimada, the Navy Minister, was known to be a Tojo stooge. The Navy chief of staff, Admiral Osami Nagano, was not strong enough to oppose Army plans. In criticizing Yamamoto, his actions and inaction, consideration must be given to all these factors which served to hamstring him.

Throughout his career Yamamoto was known to be a superb gambler. He was skilled in all games of chance, especially poker. His decision to attack Pearl Harbor was a gamble which paid tremendous odds. It is strange, therefore, that Yamamoto never again played his cards for all they were worth, as a gambler should. The lessons of the Coral Sea battle were not applied to Midway, where Yamamoto split his forces—to his detriment—between his prime objective and the Aleutians. Yamamoto was undoubtedly preoccupied with preserving his forces.

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Filed under Japan, military, Pacific, U.S., war

Effects of Arms Control on Japan, 1930

From Japanese Destroyer Captain, by Tameichi Hara (Naval Institute Press, 2013), Kindle Loc. 702-712:

In April 1930, Japan, Great Britain and the United States reached another disarmament agreement in London which established ceilings for auxiliary warships. The 1921 ceilings on capital ships were maintained. This result set Japanese naval officers in a frenzy. They were infuriated at the result which put Japanese naval strength in heavy cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers at 62, 70, and 70 per cent of the United States. And submarine strength was established at parity by the agreement.

It is difficult today to explain why these results were so unsatisfactory to the Japanese Navy. Japan had insisted on at least 70 per cent of America’s strength in heavy cruisers. And parity in submarines was disappointing because Japan then had 77,900 tons compared with America’s 52,700 tons.

All these arguments later proved silly when American industrial capacity produced naval ships in volume which overwhelmed Japan in the Pacific War. But in 1930, Japanese naval officers argued vehemently about the limitation. They insisted that Japan had been forced to swallow American terms at London. They came then to consider the United States not merely a potential enemy, but a probable enemy. All maneuvers from then on were carried out on the theory that the “hypothetical enemy” was the United States.

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Filed under Britain, industry, Japan, military, nationalism, U.S., war