Alabaster Cities, Fireworks, a Condo Disaster and Tears

Cheez-It(r) 'Big Cheese' carving inspired by Mt. Rushmore. (2007)

Grant Hamilton's cartoon comment on William Jennings Bryan's 1896 'Cross of Gold' speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.Patriotism comes in many flavors: cheesy, sour, salty: and that’s enough ‘flavor.’

Maybe too much.

My country’s Independence Day celebration, our Fourth of July, started me thinking about patriotism.

Also screwball notions, drought and Florida’s pancaked condo.

But mostly, the impending holiday is probably why part of an old song has been on my mind’s playlist this week:

“…O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!…”
(“America the Beautiful,” Katharine Lee Bates, 1911 version, via Wikipedia)

So that’s what I’ll start with.

Professor Bates’ train ride from Massachusetts to a job in Colorado Springs inspired “America the Beautiful.” That’s what I’ve been told, at any rate.

Her itinerary explains amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties. But I figure “alabaster cities” needs explaining. That phrase arguably happened because she stopped by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.1

Expo 1893

Charles Dudley Arnold's photo of Chicago Expo 1893; Court of Honor, Columbia fountain.
(From Charles Dudley Arnold, via Meisje L. J. Connor, used w/o permission.)
(“Court of Honor with Columbia fountain in the midground”
Meisje L. J. Connor, “World’s Columbian Exposition 1893: Architecture and Innovation in Context” (2011))

The Columbian Exposition’s nickname was “White City.”

Mainly because the Beaux-Arts city of the future’s buildings had white facades.

That was in 1893.

The exposition was a big success.

Apart from a fire that killed 16 people, and an assassin who killed Chicago’s mayor.

After that, Chicago’s “White City” became a potential white elephant.

Folks talked about upgrading “White City” buildings with real marble. But that’d be expensive. Besides, it might not be the best use of prime Chicago real estate.2

Then, in 1894, a couple fires settled the question.

Chicago’s “White City” in Retrospect

Charles Dudley Arnold's photo of Chicago Expo 1893; Court of Honor, Columbia fountain.
(From unknown artist, via, used w/o permission.)
(Fire in the “White City:” Peristyle, Music Hall, Casino and Manufactures Building (1894))

A contemporary account said that the fire started in the Casino. Then it ran along the Peristyle into the Music Hall. Whether or not that’s fraught with figurative fancies and rife with significant symbolism — is another topic.

Off the cuff, I’d say “not.” But I could be wrong. A key term there is “fancies.”

Despite the passing of generations, Chicago’s big exposition wasn’t entirely forgotten.

In 1995, someone got 15 minutes of fame by saying that the “White City” stood for male chauvinist racist oppression.3

I’ll grant that America in 1893 wasn’t like my country in 1995. Or 2021, for that matter.

We’ve made changes. Some of those changes have been for the better.

But I won’t let Sixties sensibilities interfere with enjoying and appreciating a song suggesting that America isn’t a complete wash.

Besides, I think “patriot dreams” make sense. Make that can make sense.

Songs and Pigeonholes

Scott Adam's 'Dilbert' strip: Dogbert's Good News Show. ('We'll all die!') (1993)
(From Scott Adams, used w/o permission.)
(Dogbert’s good news show. Made sense in 1993. Still does.)

I wouldn’t mind if professor Bates’ song became my country’s national anthem.

Partly because I think patriot dreams matter at least as much as bombs bursting in air.

That may need explanation, or maybe not; in any case, I’ll back up about six decades.4

I was in my teens when McCarthyism’s dying gasps mingled with lyrics like these:

“…If the mind is baffled
When the rules don’t fit the game,
Who will answer?…”
(“Who Will Answer?” Ed Ames (1967))

“…Go ahead and hate your neighbour
Go ahead and cheat a friend
Do it in the name of heaven
You can justify it in the end….”
(“One Tin Soldier” Dennis Lambert, Brian Potter (1969))

“…Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace….”
(“Imagine,” John Lennon (1971))

To this day, the words “patriot” and “conservative” register as ‘crazy person lost in yesteryearning’ — unless I think about it. Which is a reason I make thinking a priority.

I don’t call myself a conservative, liberal, libertarian, or whatever: mainly because today’s sociopolitical pigeonholes and my beliefs aren’t a good match.

I’m a Catholic, so my views on capital punishment, marriage, and staying healthy line up with liberal, conservative, undecided — and that’s yet another topic. Topics.

So, being Catholic, can I be a patriot?

Yes, but it depends on what the word means. I’ll take Merriam-Webster’s definition:5 “one who loves and supports his or her country.”

Love, Faith and Respecting Authority — Within Reason

Edison Lee comic: does anyone even know what truth looks like any more?Because I’m a Catholic, I should act as if loving God and my neighbors matters. And I should see everyone as my neighbor. No exceptions. (Matthew 5:43-44, 7:12, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1789)

That means getting involved in public life — in whatever ways my culture and circumstances permit — recognizing humanity’s solidarity, and respecting authority. Within reason. (Catechism, 1778, 1915, 1897-1917, 1939-1942, 2199, 2238-2243)

That’s easier when my reason and emotions are in sync. But, easy or hard, using my brain is a good idea. (Catechism, 1777-1782)

Seeing my country’s version of government as something that works is okay.

Thinking that everyone should be an American? And that America’s constitutional republic with a strong democratic tradition6 is the only proper political system?

Not so much.

There isn’t one ‘correct’ form of government. Different cultures and eras have different needs, and that’s okay. (Catechism, 1915, 1957-1958)

But, getting back to “am I a patriot?”

On the whole, I like being an American. I think recognizing humanity’s solidarity, doing what I can with my neighbors, and respecting authority — within reason — makes sense.

So, yes: I suppose I’m a patriot.

Washington the Ascended??

Detail of 'The Apotheosis of Washington,' United States Capitol rotunda; Constantino Brumidi. (1865)
(From Constantino Brumidi, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Detail of the U.S. Capital rotunda’s “The Apotheosis of Washington” fresco. (1865))

But that emphatically does not mean I think George Washington is a god, sitting between the goddesses of victory and liberty.7

Or that American presidents execute a divine mandate, trampling Tyranny and Kingly Power while wearing imperial purple.

Even if I hadn’t become a Catholic, spending my teens in the Sixties would have discouraged the notion.

Besides, the way Washington the Ascended is holding that blade, I get the impression that he’s about to stab Victory’s leg. And that’s yet another topic.

Celebrations, Somewhat Subdued

Juneau's harbor: boats and fireworks.A bunch of thoroughly fed-up British subjects signed a Declaration of Independence 245 years ago this Sunday.

I think that’s something to celebrate.

Even though it touched off a war with an 18th century superpower, and indirectly launched centuries of political squabbling. With the occasional brouhaha and one internal war.

But here in Minnesota, we’re discouraged from celebrating. With fireworks, that is. There’s a drought in progress, so sparking a wildfire is easier than usual.

Folks in the Miami-Dade area nixed municipal fireworks, but for another reason.

God Wills It?!!

Marco Bello/Reuters's photo of Surfside, Florida, Condo: bunk bed in what's left of a bedroom. (June 24, 2021)
(From Marco Bello/Reuters, used w/o permission.)
(“A bunk bed is seen in a partially collapsed building in Surfside near Miami Beach, Florida, U.S.” (June 24, 2021)

Maybe someone’s said that Minnesota’s drought and the Surfside Condo collapse are “God’s will.”

I won’t.

That’s because I’m a Catholic. We’re told that God doesn’t make bad things happen.

“…57. If God is omnipotent and provident, why then does evil exist?
324, 400
To this question, as painful and mysterious as it is, only the whole of Christian faith can constitute a response. God is not in any way — directly or indirectly — the cause of evil….”
(“Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (2005)

I can’t, and won’t try, to summarize “the whole of Christian faith” — but I’ll skip lightly over one or two points.

Free Will

Walt Kelly's Pogo characters and 'Deck Us All With Boston Charlie.' (1961)Like every other human being, I have free will. I can decide what I do, or don’t do. (Catechism, 1021-1037)

God is the Almighty, infinitely good, and “a mystery beyond words;” beyond time and space, “here” in all places and all times. I’d explain how that works, but I can’t. I don’t fully understand God. Nobody, other than God, does. (Catechism, 206, 230, 268, 284, 300, 385, 639, 647-648, 2779)

Basically, God’s God, I’m not.

Now, let’s say that I decide to throw a lit sparkler into dry grass.

That’d be daft, but I could. Free will, remember?

Next, let’s say that God puts out the wildfire I started.

Maybe a highly localized downpour, miraculous evacuation of oxygen from the area: whatever. It’s possible, but I’d say very unlikely.

So, in this hypothetical scenario, I’ve acted like a nitwit arsonist and started a wildfire. Is that “God’s will?” Is God responsible for the property damage and loss of life that may result?

I don’t think so.

And I doubt that ‘it’s God’s fault’ would be my best defense during subsequent trials.

Happily, that’s a hypothetical situation. I won’t be lighting any sparklers this weekend, and wouldn’t chuck them into tinder if I did.

There’s precious little reason for celebration where about half a condo collapsed.

Children, grandparents and parents went to bed Wednesday night and either didn’t wake up, or woke up while their homes fell.

That empty bunk bed may be the most eloquent image from the disaster that I’ve seen.

“…She Heard the Sound of the Tower She Lived in Collapsing…”

Surfside condo collapse: six moments in 21 seconds, from surveillance footage via BBC News. (June 24, 2021)But I’ve run into some not-entirely-bad news, like this:

“…she put her pills and her credit cards in her purse and lit the candle for the Lady Guadalupe, considered a national symbol and matriarch for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, as well as an important Catholic figure….

“…Believing the feeling came from an open balcony door, she went to her living room to try to close it. But then behind her she saw a crack coming from the ceiling, quickly snaking down the wall and opening fast.

“Something inside of me said run,” Monteagudo said. ‘You have to run to save your life.’

In moments, she put on the first clothes she could find, grabbed her phone and her purse, blew out the candle and ran out of her apartment, she said.

“Once in the hallway, she found quiet: no panic, no alarms and no one else running.

“She knew not to take the elevator but didn’t know that the emergency stairs were just beside her unit, so she went to the farthest set of stairs instead….”
(“A Florida woman saw a crack forming in her condo and told herself, ‘You have to run to save your life’,” Madeline Holcombe, CNN (July 1, 2021))

Monteagudo multi-tasked on her way down the far stairs.

“…as she was flying down the six floors of stairs, pleading with God to let her see her sons and grandsons again, she heard the sound of the tower she lived in collapsing. If she had been in the stairs closest to her home, she likely would have been crushed, her son said….”
(Madeline Holcombe, CNN (July 1, 2021))

Monteagudo’s survival is good news.

But it raises questions.

Some Live, Some Die, I Don’t Know Why

Champlain Towers South condos before and after aerial photo. From BBC News, used w/o permission.Why did God answer her prayers — but, apparently, not those of folks who had a few moments before being crushed?

Why did God let a building with so many folks sleeping in it collapse? And why did the Almighty let folks who could have prioritized repairs on the condo — not do so?

I don’t know.

As I keep saying: God’s God, I’m not. And we should all be very thankful for that. I’m not qualified. Not even close.

Now, the usual allegedly-related stuff:

1 A song and a professor:

2 World’s Fair, Chicago:

3 Expo 1893, legacy:

4 Remembering the Sixties, briefly:

5 Definition:

  • Merriam-Webster dictionary

6 My country, very briefly:

7 I am not making this up:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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2 Responses to Alabaster Cities, Fireworks, a Condo Disaster and Tears

  1. irishbrigid says:

    Wrong word: “So, being Catholic, and I be a patriot?”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!