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D E C E M B E R 1 9 9 7
by Richard Rubin
WHEN Alberta Martin walked into the centennial meeting of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Richmond, in August of last year, she was greeted with a five-minute standing ovation. Many of the men and women in the audience openly wept. Martin was being honored for two accomplishments. The first was that seven decades earlier, at the age of twenty-one, she had married William Jasper Martin, an eighty-one-year-old man in Opp, Alabama, who in his youth had served with Company K of the Fourth Alabama Infantry in the Civil War. And what was Martin's second accomplishment -- the one that really brought all the people in that hall to their feet? Had she shown an exceptional devotion to the Lost Cause, or to her husband? Hardly. By her own admission, it was not a passion for the Confederacy that drew her to William Jasper Martin so many years ago. Nor, she explained frankly to a newspaper reporter, was it a passion for William Jasper Martin himself. It was his soldier's pension. "The old man drew about fifty dollars a month," she said. "And you know, that was big money back then."
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Indeed, it was not out of some misplaced sense of the romantic that the crowd
applauded Alberta Martin. Quite the contrary. She was being celebrated for that
most pragmatic of achievements, having survived. More specifically, she had
survived to the age of eighty-nine, to the year 1996, to the point where she
was the only Confederate widow remaining on the planet. Alberta Martin was the
last of her kind. Like people everywhere, Americans cannot resist a last.
Witness the case of Albert Woolson, the last surviving Union veteran, who died forty years ago in Duluth, at the age of 109. In October of 1864 -- after his father, a musician, had died of wounds received at the Battle of Shiloh -- the seventeen-year-old Woolson joined Company C of the First Minnesota Volunteer Heavy Artillery Regiment as a drummer boy. By the end of the year he and his regiment had been sent south, where they joined up with the Army of the Cumberland. Their commander, General George Thomas, was known as the Rock of Chickamauga, for his daring stand in a battle in eastern Tennessee the year before; by then, though, Thomas's fighting days were mostly behind him, and his army, including the First Minnesota Artillery, spent the spring and summer of 1865 camping out at the base of Lookout Mountain. Albert Woolson saw little, if any, fighting; he almost certainly never fired a shot in anger. Still, his death, ninety-one years after Appomattox, prompted the condolences of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said that Woolson's passing brought sorrow to the heart of every American. Secretary of the Army Wilber Bruckner attended the funeral and burial, as did Senator Hubert Humphrey, a military honor guard, a bugle-and-drum corps playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and thousands of total strangers.
Some people might look askance at those thousands who journeyed all the way to Duluth to attend the funeral of a man they'd never met. But I won't. I remember a morning about five years ago when I read in the newspaper that there was but one surviving Spanish-American War veteran, a 106-year-old man named Nathan Cook, who was then residing in a Veterans Administration nursing home in Phoenix. My reaction was to pick up the telephone and call virtually everyone I knew, searching for someone who would drive to Arizona with me for the purpose of looking at -- maybe even talking to -- such a man.
I never went. It was too far, my friends said. He might be dead by the time we got there. We didn't even know if they would let us in to see him. What if he was senile? Nevertheless, all of them hesitated a bit before declining my invitation. They understood.
The very next day, in the same newspaper, I read the obituary of A. Raymond Brooks, the last American First World War flying ace.
"Last" is the most democratic of superlatives. To be first, one must be graced in some way -- by birth, circumstance, timing, or an exceptionally ingenious mind. But to be last, all one must do is hang in there. Few of us can aspire to be the first person to walk on Mars, or to find a cure for the common cold, or to run a 100-meter dash in under nine seconds. But we all have a shot at being the last something or other. We just have to keep on doing whatever we've been doing until no one else is doing it anymore. What could be easier?
Bringing up the rear necessarily carries with it, however, a certain responsibility. Lasts are burdened with the sense that if they don't do it, nobody else will. In their case there is nobody else.
No one, perhaps, knew this better than Eva Hart, who died last year on Valentine's Day, at the age of ninety-one. Hart attained some measure of renown for being the last survivor of the Titanic who could remember the disaster (the other remaining survivors had all been too young in 1912 or are too old now to do so). In an interview for a documentary, and later in her autobiography, she recalled being awakened by her father in the middle of the night. She was then seven years old; her father wrapped her in a blanket, carried her outside, and told her to "hold Mummy's hand and be a good girl." She never saw him again. But she watched from a lifeboat as the luxury liner slipped below the ocean's black surface and into the realm of legend. The sight, she said, was something no one could ever forget.
It would be enough for many people to become an interesting footnote to history -- to squeeze a spot on TV and a publishing deal out of it, and then disappear. But as a last, Hart knew she had an opportunity and a responsibility, and so she used her small allotment of fame to lobby for greater maritime safety and the preservation of the disaster victims' dignity. She lambasted the White Star Line for not providing enough lifeboats to save her father and the rest of the ship's 1,500 passengers who drowned. She criticized the commercial venture to raise the Titanic's sunken hull and salvage its artifacts, likening those who would profit from such undertakings to grave robbers. And she kept up her crusade until she died.
Eva Hart's death was not the first loss of a last that year. A month earlier a man named Carlos Westez had died, without much fanfare, in Worcester, Massachusetts, at the age of seventy-six. Westez, a Native American of Catawba ancestry, was also known as Red Thunder Cloud. According to the Catawba Nation, there are still about 2,500 Catawbas around, most of them in South Carolina. But to a certain extent the Catawbas died with Red Thunder Cloud: he was thought to be the last living speaker of the Catawba language, an ancient tongue with no written form. Even when Red Thunder Cloud was a child, it was dying, a victim of prejudice. Catawbas were discouraged from learning and speaking their language, for fear that they would become targets of discrimination and derision. By the time Red Thunder Cloud was thirty-six, there was no one left who could converse with him in the language of his ancestors.
Nevertheless, by all accounts he led a full and happy life -- no easy feat for a man who throughout his last four decades was well aware that he alone was carrying the burden of his people's history and culture. He did his best to keep it alive, telling Catawba stories, performing Catawba dances, singing Catawba songs; he even made a few recordings in Catawba. Since his death Red Thunder Cloud's fluency in the Catawba language and the extent of his Catawba heritage itself (he was not a registered member of the tribe) have been called into question. If he was in fact fluent in Catawba, his death, on January 8, 1996, would represent the official death of the Catawba language, and it is an exceedingly rare thing to know the exact date of a language's demise. If, however, he was not actually fluent in the tongue -- if he merely spoke it to a limited degree, and had committed long passages to memory -- he became a surrogate for the last fluent speaker of Catawba. In either case Red Thunder Cloud's life and death are a stern reminder that America has over the course of the past few centuries lost many languages, and that others -- we can never know just how many -- are on the verge of disappearing permanently. That is, unfortunately, not an exceedingly rare occurrence.
Lasts usually pass on some kind of moral lesson, even if they manage to do so only inadvertently or through the act of dying itself. When Martha the passenger pigeon shut her eyes at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914, an entire nation was chastened. Martha was the last of an indigenous American species that just a century earlier had numbered between five billion and nine billion; the ornithologist John James Audubon once recorded seeing a flock pass overhead that literally blackened the sky for hours. The birds' utter and unnatural extinction, in such a brief period, must rank as one of history's greatest crimes against nature. Like the Native American, the passenger pigeon was a victim of ruthless expansionism -- the birds were killed for food and sport and the protection of nascent corn crops, but mostly, it seems, they were killed because they were an easy target. After her death Martha's carcass was frozen and shipped to Washington, D.C.; there it was stuffed and put on display at the Smithsonian Institution.
Human beings, it seems, are beset by a constitutional inability to appreciate something fully until it is gone. I am reminded of this almost every time I read the obituary of a famous person, because I usually discover something interesting that makes me wish I had met him or her -- that Burt Lancaster got his start in show business as a circus acrobat, or that Ella Fitzgerald is credited with originating the term "re-bop" (from which sprang "be-bop"), or that Timothy Leary was once arrested by a young deputy named G. Gordon Liddy, or that the former congressman Hamilton Fish could lay claim to being, among many other things, the last surviving member of Walter Camp's All-American football team. It almost makes me wish that newspapers would run people's obituaries while they were still alive. How much might we have learned from Arda C. Bowser (the last surviving member of the Canton Bulldogs, the first NFL championship team), or Anni Albers (the last surviving teacher of the Bauhaus School of Design), or Baron Axel von dem Bussche (the last surviving member of the failed "officers' plot" to kill Adolf Hitler in July of 1944), or Curly Joe DeRita (the last surviving member of the Three Stooges)? We will never know, because, with far too few exceptions, we never thought to ask until we read their obituaries. The experience of opportunity forgone is one that, I am quite certain, we will confront repeatedly in the years to come, when we find ourselves reading the obituaries of the last veteran of the First World War, the last Shaker, the last silent-film star, the last sharecropper, and the last Negro League ballplayer. By then, of course, it will once again be too late.
That, I think, is what makes the story of Alberta Martin so special. Her very existence, modest as it was, did not come to light outside Elba, Alabama, until 1990, when news outlets reported that a woman who had just died in South Carolina had been the last surviving Confederate widow. Only then was Martin moved to pick up the phone and alert the media that she, at least, was still very much alive. Six years later the State of Alabama granted her a small pension as the widow of a veteran of a war that had been over for 131 years; it also officially designated the discovery of her "a true joy" -- as did the Sons of Confederate Veterans, somewhat less officially, with their tearful ovation. The joy, of course, is in getting a chance to recognize a last, and everything it represents, before it has passed into history and we are forced to appreciate it from a distance that renders it intangible and irretrievable. Such a windfall gives us the opportunity to tell ourselves that we will be more vigilant about these things in the future, that this instance of overlooking a real live treasure in our midst will be the ... well, you know.
Richard Rubin lives in New York City. His work has recently appeared in The New Yorker, New York, and The Southern Review.
Illustrations by Greg Clarke
Copyright & copy; 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997; But Not Least; Volume 280, No. 6; pages 22 - 25.