The Art of Thank You

Juniata College

As part of her site specific sculptural installation at Juniata College in Pennsylvania, Maya Lin gave an address to the college on a “reflection of art within society.”  In it she articulated the idea of “a strong, clear vision,” which later became the title of the Academy Award winning documentary about her life.  After her talk, four local Vietnam veterans made a presentation thanking her for “our Vietnam memorial.”  Maya responded, “Thank you very much.  It was meant for all of you and I’m glad you liked it.”

Not everyone liked it.  This was six years after the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the acrimonious process that almost derailed it.  There were complaints about the shape and color of the memorial, about chronology instead of alphabetical order, and about Maya being an undergraduate Chinese-American woman.  Through all that hostility, Maya Lin stood her ground.  By the time of the Juniata event, these four veterans knew she had built for them a powerful memorial, a place where “the memories of our friends and brothers will live forever.”  When they thanked her, she let those four vets know they were the source of the power.  It was a brief encounter, just 170 words, with emotions bubbling under the surface and an expression of gratitude about every 20 words.  Thank you to Maya, thank you to the veterans, thank you to the college.

Fred Astaire thanks his sister Adele for the dance.

Terry Gross, of NPR’s Fresh Air, always thanks her interviewees and they usually respond in kind, sometimes offering a final insight into the person’s character.  Around 2004, Terry interviewed Madonna about her interest in the Kaballah when one of her books was published, possibly a children’s book called The Adventures of Abdi.  I am basing this on memory and a little Internet searching because NPR was unable to supply the audio or the transcript.  Terry, of course, graciously thanked her guest.  As I recall, Madonna did not say thank you in return, implying instead that she was doing Terry a favor by appearing on the show to promote her new book.  It may be a coincidence, and the book did make the New York Times best seller list, but according to Wikipedia, among the series of Madonna children’s books on the Kaballah, The Adventures of Abdi was the least successful.

Some of my readers know that I am a good dancer.  Perhaps this is what makes me sensitive to the art of thank you.  There is an etiquette to dancing with a stranger.  Even rock ‘n’ roll dancing is intimate and at the end of the dance both partners say thank you.  It acknowledges the enjoyed shared experience and ends the encounter so we can each go on to dance with someone else.  Everyone on the dance floor knows this etiquette.  If you mess up, the crowd senses it.  There is nothing so obvious as someone who is rude.

So let me take this opportunity to thank my readers.  I get a lot from writing.  I share my ideas, clarify my thoughts, and express my creativity.  But without readers, it’s just an exercise in putting words together.  Readers have their own motives – the pleasure of reading, the acquisition of ideas, the generation of new knowledge.  As a reader myself, I know we all have much excellent writing to choose from.  It is an honor when you give me your attention.  Thank you.

Photo Credits:
K.hierasimowicz, 2006.  Halbritter Center for the Performing Arts na kampusie Juniata College w Huntingdon.  Wikimedia Commons.
Fred & Adele Astaire. ca. 1906
.  Wikimedia Commons.

Jun 2012

Little Bighorn: A Work in Progress

(Today, June 4, is the birthday of Larry McMurtry.  In addition to novels and screenplays, he wrote a biography of Crazy Horse, who along with Sitting Bull and Gall, led the Lakota warriors at the Little Bighorn.  McMurty also wrote Oh What a Slaughter: Massacres in the American West, 1846-1890, which includes his thoughts about the battle.)

7th Cavalry Memorial

One of the first memorials with names of enlisted soldiers,  the 7th Cavalry obelisk was erected at the Little Bighorn in 1881, just a few years after the 1876 battle.  In the study of American battles, it is second only to Gettysburg, which also featured George Armstrong Custer.  Several books have been written about the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument as an historic site, including Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn Battlefield Since 1876 by Jerome A. Greene.

While primarily about the battlefield itself, Greene also discusses the history of the memorial, to the point of listing every town the granite structure visited in its railroad journey from Massachusetts to Montana.  But he says almost nothing about the names on the memorial.  Turns out that access to the railroad itinerary is simple but those names are complex.  I may be the first researcher to attempt an understanding of the arrangement of names on the Little Bighorn obelisk.

It stands above a mass grave of 7th Cavalry soldiers in Custer’s command, listing 263 men who died with Custer or in other areas of the battle commanded by Frederick Benteen and Marcus Reno.  A memorial to the Indians of several tribes who fought against the 7th Cavalry was erected in 2003.  I will be looking at that memorial in the future.

The 7th Cavalry obelisk consists of two sections, one on top of the other, grounded by a two-layered base.  The sections both have four sides listing names in two columns or centered.  Supplied with a list of names on the memorial by Jerry Jasmer of the National Park Service (NPS), and with photos of the memorial and several lists of 7th Cavalry names, I figured out the general idea for the arrangement.

Officers, on the top West side, are centered, grouped by rank and, for the most part, listed by date of military commission, with rank indicated.  First Lieutenants are listed before Second Lieutenants, but both are grouped under the word “Lieutenants.”  It gets more complex with the remaining soldiers.  The memorial also lists scouts and civilians, to be analyzed in a future post.  Custer brought along a newspaper reporter, a civilian brother, and a teen-aged nephew.  He also had another brother and a brother-in-law in his command.

George & Libbie Custer

The names of the non-commissioned officers and enlisted men begin on the memorial’s lower West section, arranged by Company, rank and alphabetical order within rank, although only their names appear.  Since the first element of the arrangement is Company, you would think that all members of the same Company appear together.  However they are scattered around the memorial, with each section following the pattern of Company, rank and alphabet.

Companies are contiguous within each section, names reading first in the left column and then in the right column.  Only on the South side do names continue in the same order to the lower section. The West lower section contains a Staff member and Companies A – E.  The two South sections contain a Staff member and Companies A – G, overlapping the West side by Staff and five Companies.  The upper East section has Companies E – I and the lower section, Companies G – L.  The upper North section has Companies I – M and the lower section Companies L & M.  The final name, from Company L, is centered.  Most Companies appear in at least two orderings, the exception being Company D, which lost three men who appear together on the West side.  Companies E, G, I & L have  three orderings, four for L if you count that last centered name.

Fortunately, Jerome Greene footnoted his information about the memorial to History of Custer Battlefield by Don Rickey, Jr.  Rickey footnoted his material to the Elizabeth Bacon Custer archive, which she donated to a museum at the battlefield.  George and Libbie had an especially romantic relationship for the Victorian era.  When he died, she devoted herself to honoring his memory.  She wrote books, gave speeches, and arranged for the erection of large statues.  General Montgomery C. Meigs headed the construction of the memorial, keeping Libbie Custer apprised of his progress.  Her archive contains a list of the memorial names prepared by Meigs.

So I contacted NPS at the monument.  The archive requires preservation and recently moved temporarily from the battlefield in Montana to the Western Archeological and Conservation Center (WACC) in Tucson (!), a couple hours’ drive from my home in Phoenix.  The materials should be available sometime this summer.

However parts of the Elizabeth Bacon Custer collection were microfilmed.  Sharon Small of NPS provided me with copies of memorial construction plans and the list of names that Meigs sent to Libbie Custer, but not his accompanying letter.  The names for the soldiers are in almost perfect order – Company, rank and alphabet.  All Companies are contiguous.

Indian Memorial

It looks like a printed document, so Meigs probably sent the same list to the stonecutter in Massachusetts.  And then what happened?  Why didn’t the stonecutter follow the list?  That would be easier than dividing up the names with a few here and a few there from each Company.  Did anyone notice the rearranged names during the transportation and construction process?

The answers may sit in Libbie Custer’s archive in Tucson.  WACC is still working on the collection, so a little patience is needed.  In the meantime, I am beginning to research names on the Indian memorial at the Little Bighorn.  After all, they won the battle.

Photo Credits

7th Cavalry Memorial:  Belissarius, Little Bighorn Battlefield Monument, June 30, 2008, Wikimedia Commons.

George & Libbie Custer:  Mathew Brady, George Armstrong Custer and Elizabeth Bacon Custer, between 1860-1865, Wikimedia Commons.

Indian Memorial:  Michael Brunk, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, July 10, 2011, Flickr.

Jun 2012