Remembering the Great Plains skies of my youth where the crystal azure crashes into horizons sweeping 360° in every direction like living in the center of a snow globe. It would have to be a tremendous snow globe. The base diameter would be six miles.
How did I know that?
I had been aboard a 21′ sport boat, sitting somewhere off Old Point Comfort in Hampton Roads. My sister was dating the boat’s owner. One summer Saturday, Gypsy and Cap’n D had invited me out for a cruise. I jumped at the opportunity.
The waters of Hampton Roads are cluttered with the flotsam and jetsam of history. Well, not the waters. Water is the most abundant and fluid element on the planet. Every single drop is billions of years old, having cycled itself through countless permutations of liquid and gas and liquid and gas and, sometimes, solid. The cycle of interlocking currents and evaporation and rain is so huge, and the number of water molecules so tremendous, there is very little likelihood that the water in Chesapeake Bay has ever been there in that combination before.
So it is not actually the water which holds the history, but the land formations which this water gives shape.
But oh! what history that land has witnessed! I can’t possibly communicate how much that means to me.
Hampton Roads is that body of water where the Atlantic Ocean agitates the Chesapeake Bay, stirring a salty-rich brine into the backwash of the James River and York River and Elizabeth River and countless smaller tributaries.
The brine encourages the growth of flat, wide-bladed marsh grass. So much so that the sight of a rising tide licking those grasses, providing the perfect habitat for clams & blue crabs, and the sharp aroma of salt air that enters your nose and settles on your taste buds hangs flesh on my memories of Tidewater.
Up these waters sailed three frighteningly-small wooden ships crammed with English artisans and merchants and second-sons of minor nobility with the King’s tacit blessing to establish a British colony in North America. Spain technically “owned” this land per a Papal decree that meant little to these Anglicans, yet they lived in mortal fear of being discovered and attacked by that waning Great Power.
Then, after founding Jamestown further up the James River in an orgy of pandering to the monarch whose whims operated their purse-strings that puts corporate naming of mere stadiums and amphitheaters to shame, the colonists established a small fortress at Point Comfort. Point Comfort is the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Point Comfort remained fortified for the next four centuries.
The United States completed a moated fortress there in 1834, naming her after President James Monroe, a Virginian. Both Lt. Robert E. Lee and Sgt. Edgar Allen Poe served at Monroe in the early 19th Century.
President Lincoln once visited Ft. Monroe; it was from her that McClellan launched his ill-conceived and worse-executed Peninsula Campaign.
Not far from where we sat at anchor, at the entrance to the Hampton River, Governor Spottswood displayed the severed head of Edward Teach (or Tach, or Thatch, depending on the sources), better known to history as Blackbeard.
Blackbeard’s head had long since gone. Rumor once had it that Spottswood took the skull—once all the flesh rotted from it—gold-plated it, and constructed a goblet used in rites of a secret society upholding the governor’s authority. That sounds perverse enough to be believable.
Even if it hadn’t gone, we couldn’t have seen it. Cap’n D had brought us to a spot in the Bay out of all sight of land. “Three mile. All around,” he said.
“The horizon. You can see in three miles in every direction.”
I filed the fact away. It made a difference.
One thing I have studied extensively is early 18th Century Anglo-American pirates. Mostly 1713 – 1721, following various ripples outward from the privateering crew of Captain Benjamin Hornigold at the end of Queen Anne’s War. I’ve written stories about these men and tinkered with ideas for a novel. So the knowledge that a man at sea level can see just three miles to the horizon informs the importance of crows’ nests and spyglasses for both exploring and plundering. It also shows how close a ship has to get to a land mass to “discover” it. For much of human history getting back to a rock in the middle of the ocean has been pretty much a shot in the dark.
If you can see three miles on the ocean you can see three miles on a sea of prairie grass. The grasses are light green or yellow.
Copses or wider swaths of woodland spread over the hillsides in lush cushions of green. When Lewis and Clark first saw the area where I live they called it “well-timbered”. It was a selling point for folks back east, who might want to settle the region. The trees supplied the simple log cabins many of those settlers called home in the early 19th Century.
I was remembering the Great Plains skies of my youth because I was driving beneath a similar sky. It was a ringing crystal blue no Crayola can replicate, stretched taut between the verdant deciduous canopies dotting the horizon. Above me piles of billowy cumulus clouds accumulated one atop another in a celestial tower, a Heavenly Henge, vaporous wisps appearing to have much more substance than they actually do when one looks out the window of a big old jet airliner. Or whatever,
Of course, that must have been obvious to any of a number of common-sense thinkers observing fog in the not-so-distant past when humans were completely earth-bound. But to verify the observation one needed a means of observing clouds up close.
It wouldn’t have mattered much before the Age of Enlightenment made us realize we need observable, reproducible data to reach valid conclusions. The clouds could be made of whipped cream for all we knew or anyone could dispute. They were what I said they were because who the Hell are you?
I probably shouldn’t marvel at the clouds as I drive down the interstate. I go off on tangents. I was the kid in elementary school who had his head in the clouds. Daydreaming.
The Midwestern sky is like no other, I thought.
Is that true? Or was I just noticing the majesty of the sky in a way that made it seem new, different, unique?
I have lived on the East Coast and the West Coast, in southern Texas and the Midwest—and I’ve seen the sky nearly every mile between coasts, at least across the South and Southwest—so my gut tells me there is a qualitative difference in the skies between locations, even if my memory fails at precise articulation of that difference.
That follows from the influence geology has on the weather. Mountains rip rain out of the clouds. Rivers puts it back. And, of course, through all those permutations, the weather paints the sky.
If I was really remembering the Great Plains skies of my youth they must have been the skies over Salina, in central Kansas. We were there a short time in the late 60s, when my father went to Vietnam the first time.
All I remember about Salina was our house had a basement. And there was a drive-in movie screen we could see from our back yard. And there was a fire at an abandoned farmhouse we passed walking to school.
But I know Salina is in the middle of America’s Breadbasket and the sky there is huge.
My grandparents were all from Kansas, so times I visited them would have breathed that sky. In fact, I spent more time with my maternal grandparents than we spent in Salina. Grampa built a house for us and Mom moved us out of our Salina quarters as quickly as she could. And even after moving to Dad’s next assignment, we returned to Riverton annually.
Cherokee County, where my grandparents lived, is technically in the Ozark foothills, rather than the Great Plains. It was still the same expansive firmament. And I took snippets of it to collage with a thousand other breath-taking skies I have experienced and create the memory of the Great Plains skies of my youth.
But memory is as problematic as consciousness, itself.
I inhaled deeply, exhaling slowly, my eyes lingering over the rich azure as a young lover drinks his half-draped paramour, asleep beneath the thinnest of cotton sheets.
Threescore and ten, I tell myself. We have access to the wonder of this Beauty for just threescore and ten years—more if we’re lucky or blessed—and then we’re gone.
I might as well enjoy it while I’m here.