Category Archives: History

Lessons from the Life of Nelson Mandela

By Johna Till Johnson

Nelson Mandela

“We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right” — Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is dead.

It’s hard to believe—not that he’s dead, but that it happened today.

His life was so epic, so mythic, that it’s hard to believe he was actually alive in our time. He has always seemed to me to be one of the heroes of yore, the kind that doesn’t live any more in these diminished times.

And although I know shamefully little about South African politics or history, I’ve always been captivated by one part of his story: that he spent 27 years in prison—a significant chunk of his life sentence—before not only being set free, but becoming President of South Africa.

I often try to imagine that: being sentenced to life in prison, and actually spending 27 years, a lifetime by itself, imprisoned under brutal conditions.

How do you keep believing in yourself, your cause, and in the possibility of having some kind of impact on the outside world? What keeps you from just giving up, as year after year goes by, with no hope, or reason to hope?

Only Nelson Mandela knew the true answer, and now he’s gone. But as I try to imagine it, here’s what I imagine:

–That after the first shock of the realization settles in, you recognize that although you can’t control your circumstances, you can control your response to them. (And really, that’s no less true in the outside world—we think we have control over circumstances, but how much of your day do you actually spend reacting to them, rather than creating them?)

–That you never give up hope that the dream itself will exist one day, whether or not you are there to see it. And you take faith and nourishment from that dream, and from your ability to believe in it.

–That you remind yourself constantly that your adversaries are humans, too, and seek a genuine connection with them. (Mandela learned Afrikaans in prison, and ultimately succeeded in making friends with the guards.)

–That you refuse to let your failures define you. By then, Mandela had failed many times in his life—he didn’t pass his law examinations, his first marriage ended because of his unfaithfulness, and the fact of being imprisoned (no matter how unjustly) had to have felt like a failure. But none of those defined him. What defined him was his belief in the dream.

These are all easy to write, and inspirational to think about.

But living them—day by day, hour by hour, moment my moment—must have been difficult.

Each moment he had to have made up his mind to resist hopelessness and embrace the dream, to work passionately towards his goals while detaching himself from the desire to be present when they were achieved.

And do all that not once, or twice, but over and over again—there are a lot of moments in 27 years. That takes not just inspiration, but persistence (stubbornness, if you will) and consistency.

There are many lessons here, but this is the lesson I take away from the life of Nelson Mandela: The way to survive, and triumph, is not just to believe in your dreams, but to work doggedly, persistently, with a strong heart, towards achieving them. Day by day. Moment by moment. And focus not on your failures, but upon your efforts.

RIP Nelson Mandela.

And thank you.

Book Review: From Pigeons to Tweets

By Johna Till Johnson

From Pigeons to TweetsFrom Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications, by Clarence E. McKnight and Hank H. Cox. History Publishing Company, Palisades, New York, 2013.

Okay, I know I have weird tastes in reading material. But when I picked up “From Pigeons to Tweets”, I didn’t expect what I actually got.

The subtitle is “A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications”, and the author is Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight Jr. (along with journalist Hank H. Cox).

Given that, plus the relatively staid promotional blurbs from a range of military luminaries, I was expecting a dry treatise on the history of military communications technology.

That would have been interesting enough. I’m fascinated by military technology in general, and military communications technology in particular. (I told you I have weird tastes!)

What I got was (in part) a rollicking and thoroughly absorbing memoir by a man who rose to the highest ranks of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps (the branch that focuses on communications technology) and who had a reputation for hands-on effectiveness in setting up communications systems. (“McKnight could communicate from Hell,” says one of his colleagues—as a compliment.)

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Where Is This?

By Vladimir Brezina

Once upon a time, I used to visit quite often a certain place that has lately been in the news.

Here it is in January.

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And in May.

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And in July…

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Where is it?

I’ll give you a hint:

The Telegraph: Scientists: This is Richard III

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Update February 9, 2013: This is Bosworth Field, about 15 miles west of Leicester, England.  On August 22, 1485, this happened here:

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In the Battle of Bosworth, the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, King Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England, was killed, and Henry VII, the first king of the Tudor dynasty, came to the throne.

Richard’s skeleton has now been discovered buried under a car park in Leicester.

A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!

Happy Birthday Bayonne Bridge!

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

This past week marked the 80th birthday of the Bayonne Bridge, prompting me to muse about my lifelong love affair with bridges—some in particular.

I love bridges. I’m not entirely sure why. Partly it’s the look of them: They seem almost alive, taking off in a leap of concrete, stone, or steel,  somehow infinitely optimistic and everlastingly hopeful. Partly it’s their function: Bringing things together, connecting people and places that were previously divided. And of course, bridges often cross moving water—another of my favorite things.

But though I love them all, some bridges in particular hold a special place in my heart.

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The Other Islands of New York City: A History and Guide, by Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller

By Vladimir Brezina

The Other Islands of New York City: A History and Guide, by Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller. Third Edition 2011.  The Countryman Press, Woodstock, VT; distributed by W.W. Norton, New York.

How many islands are there in New York City? Even lifelong New Yorkers would have trouble answering this question. Several of the islands, of course, are home to millions.  A few other islands have mythical fame: Liberty Island, Ellis Island, Rikers Island… But next to them, sometimes just a stone’s throw away, are many other islands.  Some have long supported their own small human communities; others have colorful histories but today are inhabited only by birds and rats.  This unique book tells the histories and human stories of 45 of the “other” islands of New York City.

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