Letter from America
It is difficult to imagine Alistair Cooke's coverage of Biden's speech after the latter was inaugurated as the U.S. President on January 20, 2021. In his speech, which was conciliatory in tone, Biden addressed different constituencies. "Today", he said, "We celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause. The cause of democracy."
What a joy it was in those days to listen to the broadcast "Letter from America" by Alistair Cooke every Sunday night over the BBC World Service! The 15-minute broadcast, in Cooke's rich voice, excellent diction and a superb manner of delivery, was mesmerising. His broadcasts dealt with a variety of topics: political, economic, scientific, technological, research and educational developments in the US. As a college-going student in the early 1970s, I used to tune into an old RESA or Philips radio set to listen to him. Cooke would hold forth on the US Presidential elections, the issues, especially that of abortion that dominated the polls in the Bible Belt, stories of enterprising immigrants, the civil rights movement of the Blacks led by Martin Luther King Jr., students' protests against the US' involvement in the Vietnam war, life on the college campuses and so on. I would not forget how he described one of the protesters in a demonstration, as a person dressed in "electric blue".
Cooke began one of his broadcasts in more or less these words. '" 'Wow, you got a manual typewriter!' cried my grandson in joy as he saw me punching the keys on my portable typewriter!" It was the time when desktop computers had already come into use and his grandson had obviously never seen a manual typewriter being used. The school-going grandson, therefore, could not believe his eyes when he saw a manual typewriter.
As Wikipedia says, "From its first edition to its last, it [Letter from America] was presented by Alistair Cooke, who would speak of a topical issue in the US, tying together different strands of observation, and anecdote and often ending on a humourous or poignant note. The series ran from 24 March 1946 to 20 February 2004, making it the longest-running speech radio programme hosted by one individual." The broadcasts lasted thus for 58 years and ran into 2,869 instalments. His last broadcast was less than a month before he died on 30 March 2004 at the age of 95 in his residence in New York.
During the US Presidential elections and the inauguration of the winner, Cooke's broadcasts every Sunday would focus invariably on the polls and the issues that surrounded them. This would last for weeks on end.
We cannot guess what Cooke would have said in his radio broadcasts about the Republican Donald Trump losing the US Presidential elections to Joe R. Biden Jr. of the Democratic Party or about Trump's refusal to gracefully accept his defeat and the insurrection at the Capitol by rioters who were his supporters.
It is difficult to imagine Cooke's coverage of Biden's speech after the latter was inaugurated as the U.S. President on January 20, 2021. In his speech, which was conciliatory in tone, Biden addressed different constituencies. "Today", he said, "We celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause. The cause of democracy."
He added, "So now, on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol's very foundation, we come together as one nation under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries." Biden referred to the difficult times that the US was passing through now: the coronavirus pandemic, racism against Blacks, White supremacy, the climate change and so on. He referenced Martin Luther King Jr. as well.
Biden said, "A once-in-a-century virus that silently stalks the country has taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II. Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed. A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. The cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that cannot be any more desperate or any more clear. And now a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat."
I returned to Chennai on January 18th night from Orlando, a beautiful town in Florida State, USA. There were reports that Trump would settle down and spend a lot of his time in West Palm Beach, near Miami, Florida. This was my fifth trip to the US and third to Orlando. There is nothing great about it. A few lakhs of Indians visit the US every year and many of them do so to stay for some months with their children working in the US. But some impressions of mine remain from this trip.
Life is now more or less normal, at least outwardly so, in the US despite the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the country and about four lakh people dying from it from March 2020. People are going to work, most of the restaurants are open and shopping malls are attracting buyers. But restrictions remain and people abide by them. People wear masks religiously and observe the social distancing at airports, supermarkets, restaurants, churches and other places. Entry into some of the shops is regulated, depending on the number of persons inside. In the Apple store at an upscale shopping mall in Orlando, people wait to be let in and buy their I Phones. Schools, private colleges and universities are open with a mix of online and in-person learning. Christmas celebrations were subdued but there were long lines of cars for many days before December 25 at traffic signals, with shoppers flocking to malls. There were some beautiful decorations, depicting the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, outside individual homes and a few fireworks display.
Domestic flights in the US are packed to capacity - whether they are from Orlando to Dallas, from Dallas to Houston, Austin to New York and so on. In three-seater rows, Delta airlines allows only two people to travel in alternate seats. No seats are vacant in Air India and United Airlines flights from Mumbai, New Delhi or Bengaluru to Newark, Chicago or New York. COVID-19 has not deterred hordes of Indians flying to various destinations in the US to spend a few months with their wards living there. This despite winter prevailing there now. Flights to the US from India started filling up from last September itself.
The state of Florida is a Trump country. As I travelled to the suburbs of Orlando town, to Gainesville, an educational centre, and other places in the state, I saw many small placards erected outside residences, expressing support to Trump during the elections. They continued to remain there till at least January 16, 2021. Gainesville, about 160 km from Orlando, is where the University of Florida is situated. Gainesville attracts a few hundreds of Indian students every year and so it is jokingly called Ganeshville! There are also posters, outside residences and stuck on the windows of restaurants, strongly supporting the "Black Lives Matter" protest.
What surprised me this time were a few instances of the Whites giving me a wide berth on pavements/sidewalks of roads, a private college campus or inside a condominium. Signs of racism resurfacing or a mere observation of social distancing? I was walking on the cement-concrete-slab pavement of Conroy Road in the heart of Orlando town. The pavement was about four feet wide. But the grassy lawns, flanking it on either side, were about eight feet to ten feet wide. The pavement, a few kilometres long, was empty except for me walking on it. A White woman appeared in the opposite direction and when she was some feet away from me, she alertly jumped aside into the grassy lawn, giving me a wide berth! On another occasion, I had gone for a stroll on the pavement of the premises of the condominium of apartments where I stayed. A man and his wife (both Whites) came in the opposite direction, and the woman was pushing a pram with a baby inside. As they came closer to me, the man signalled to his wife to branch out to their left side, where the cars were parked. And they walked away from me, instead of crossing me in our path. On the third occasion, I was entering this residential complex through a narrow, side gate, using an access card. A White woman had gone inside, about 20 feet ahead of me. I had to follow her path to reach the apartment where I stayed. She looked behind a couple of times. When she saw I was walking behind her, she sprinted ahead over a distance of about 70 metres as if to flee from me and disappeared inside her apartment. I must stress here that on no occasion did any Black individual treat me like this.
A visit to the historic Galveston town, about 80 km from Houston, in Texas State, was edifying. It is a beautiful, planned town, with streets running in cardinal directions. This harbour-town was "the playground of the rich" from about 1860s to 1940s, with very wealthy Americans building stately mansions there to stay for a few months. These mansions and churches have attractive architecture. Other than the members of Moody's family, which owned a business and financial empire in the US, the most notable person who came from Houston-Galveston was the billionaire Howard Hughes Jr, “the Aviator”.
Galveston town is now a pale shadow of its former glory but history promenades its nook and corner even today. Dr. N. Ganesan drove me and my daughter from his residence in Houston to the Galveston island, where he showed us the massive mansions where the super-rich such as the Moody's family repaired to live from New York during the harsh winter in New York. We saw the superb mansion in which Howard Hughes lived for some time. The articulate, 60-year old Ganesan has an impressive curriculum vitae. He is a space scientist, who has worked on eight U.S. space shuttle missions for NASA. He is an amazing scholar in Tamil literature and language and the Tamil-Brahmi script. In addition to being a Tamil poet, Dr. Ganesan is knowledgeable about the Harappan civilisation too. He has a B.E. (Honours) from the College of Engineering, Guindy, Chennai and obtained his M.E. in Mechanical Engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. He then earned both his M.S. and Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from Pennsylvania State University.
According to www. names.org, a user from Texas explains that the name Galveston is of Spanish origin and means "Combination of Galvez (Spanish surname meaning "triumphant") and "Town." Another website named galveston.com says, "Galveston was named for Bernardo de Galvez, a Spanish colonial Governor and general. Galvez sent Jose de Evia to chart the Gulf of Mexico from the Texas coast to New Orleans, and on July 23, 1786 de Evia charted an area near the mouth of a river and named it Galveston Bay. Later, the island the city took the same name. Bernardo de Galvez died the same year, never setting his foot on his namesake island."
Dr. Ganesan called Galveston "one of the early port-towns of the US to which very big businessmen came and made massive amounts of money." Galveston island attracted the very wealthy “winter birds” from New York who wanted to escape the harsh, freezing winter that prevailed in New York and live in a place for a few months where a more tolerable weather prevailed, he said. It is these wealthy people who built massive houses for themselves for their stay at Galveston. Restoration work is underway now in many of these spacious residences.
As you go past the town with these beautifully designed houses, elegantly-built churches, government buildings and shops situated on streets cutting one another at right angles, you reach the place where a ferry ride begins. You can drive your car into the deck of the ferry, which rides about three km into the backwaters. You can drive out of the ferry in your car, roam about a desolate place, have food in restaurants and return to the ferry in your car. If hundreds of tourists would enjoy the ferry ride every day and roam about on the other side, the area is deserted now. The fear of pandemic has kept the tourists away. The ferry ride is free. "The Government has been operating it free for the past 150 years", said Dr. Ganesan.
The mighty Mississippi River branches into several tributaries and finally reaches the Gulf of Mexico, near the Galveston island, said Dr. Ganesan. One of those who had a mansion in Galveston town was Howard Robard Hughes Jr. The six-foot and four-inch-tall Hughes was a multi-faceted person. He had a mechanical bent of mind. He loved any contraption that had a motor in it. He was a genius in engineering and an aviation pioneer. He designed several aircraft. He set multiple world records in airspeed. He survived a few plane crashes too. He founded the Hughes Aircraft Company and acquired the Trans World Airlines, famously known as TWA. He was the owner of the Hughes Airwest Airlines and also founded the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He produced a series of films such as "Two Arabian Nights", " Hell's Angels" and "Scarface". He directed films such as "Hell's Angels" and "The Outlaw." He was an influential figure in Hollywood. He owned many resorts and casinos in Los Vegas, During his life-time (December 24, 1905 - April 5, 1976), he was one of the wealthiest persons in the world. He became a recluse during the last couple of decades of his life, staying in a series of hotels. Several biographies were written about him. The famous film "The Aviator" (2004) dealt with the early life of Hughes. The film was directed by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio essayed the role of Hughes.
Dr. Ganesan gave an interesting piece of information: of how meteorology or weather forecasting got a big boost after a powerful hurricane pummelled the Galveston island/town in 1900. On September 8, 1900, a hurricane cut a swath of catastrophic destruction across Galveston, killing an estimated 8,000 people and flattening hundreds of houses. Waves, about 15 feet tall, flooded the town, which was then situated about only nine feet above the mean sea level. Hundreds of businesses perished. Much of Galveston's prosperity was laid to waste. Dr. Ganesan said, "This hurricane greatly helped to develop meteorology...India is essentially an agricultural country. Meteorology is essential to India and agriculture. Satellites have revolutionised weather-forecasting..."
You can bet on the US when it comes to providing high-quality education. I visited Rollins College situated in Orlando town, and the University of Florida, situated in Gainesville. Rollins College is an expensive, private institution. It has a beautiful campus, with buildings kept spic and span. I felt nostalgic visiting Rollins College because it reminded me of Madras Christian College, Tambaram, where I did my postgraduation from 1974 to 1976. Both Rollins College and MCC have tree-lined roads, spacious Departments and "Halls." If MCC has "Heber Hall', "St. Thomas Hall" and the “Selaiyur Hall", which are residences meant for students, Rollins has big buildings named Halls. They include Frederick A. Hauck Hall, Cross Hall, Andrew Carnegie Hall, Pugsley Hall and so on. The Carnegie Hall houses the Department of English, students' accounts services, office of students' records etc.. There is a dainty building named Casa Iberia too.
Gainesville is a university town, with most students, teachers and non-teaching staff of the University of Florida living there. It was a pleasure to visit the university campus with its various Departments including that of Computer Sciences and Engineering, Biotechnology and Religion, College of Arts, a historic Century Tower, a massive Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and so on. The stadium shows the importance given to the sports at the University of Florida, especially baseball and football. There is a sculpture of a bull gator near the entrance to the stadium. This sculpture was erected in honour of the 2006 National Football Championship (which obviously went to the University of Florida) and members of the Bull Gator programme. Every academic year, the university attracts a sizable population of Indian students.
What gladdened me was that there are several benches on the university campus, which (benches) have been installed by former Indian students of the university. A plaque on a bench says, "In loving memory of my parents Gour Benode Mondal and Saraswati Mondal who taught me the value of education. Subrata Mandal (MS-1993 Electrical Engineering, MS-1994 Materials science Engineering)”. A plaque on another bench says, "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever- Mahatma Gandhi. Dedicated by Shama and Neera Barot, July 2017. GO GATORS!"