Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fort Wetherill

I spend a good deal of time thinking about the past. Not my own past so much as the Past, with a capital "P". It's particularly in your face here on Conanicut Island, where I'm spending a couple of weeks on summer vacation. I don't know if it's the pace of development, (slow) which leaves things like a Revolutionary War gun battery facing the West Passage up Narragansett Bay more or less unchanged after 200 years, or just the fact that lots of stuff happened here, but either way, I'm constantly being confronted here with History.

I took a spin around the island the other day on my Flevobike and wound up riding through the state park at the old Fort Wetherill. Wetherill faces Aquidneck Island (Newport) on the East Passage and has been an important part of the coastal defense of Narragansett Bay, like it's counterpart on the West Passage, since revolutionary times. I was struck by a photo on exhibit there that showed the fort as it was during World War II, when it was the site of an antisubmarine net that stretched across to Fort Adams on the Newport side. The net, or the structure that supported it, is clearly visible as a series of white dots that lead across the bay, with a gap at the center that allowed ships to pass. Most of the buildings in the photo are gone now, but several have been nicely restored. The antisubmarine net is gone as well, but scuba divers still explore the remnants.

The net was guarding Narragansett Bay from German U-Boats, quite likely U-boats made by Krupp, the Ruhrgebiet industrial giant so often sited as the greatest contributor to the industrial heritage currently being celebrated with the Kulturhauptstadt activities this year back in Essen. It's true the U-boats wouldn't have been manufactured in Essen: they were made at a separate plant in Kiel, many miles to the north. But I can't help but feel some irony about the whole thing. And looking at the big picture, it's hard not to come away with a sense of optimism about where the world is today.

I guess I'm hopelessly naive in my optimism, but it seems relatively harmless to me. I quite enjoy riding my bike around the island, and in previous years I've had as much fun riding the Industrial Culture Route in Essen, Duisburg, Dortmund and the like. My plan for world peace involves lots of similarly naive dummies who like to ride bikes around and mind their own business. It's got to be better than lots of hard headed realists who want to blown other people up. In all of my thinking about the past, I hope I've managed to develop some insights as well. I've been told those who can't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. And looking at these photos make me think that would be a real drag.

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