United We Burn


CHARLES EINSTEIN put in much flying time last year while covering the San Francisco Giants for the San Francisco EXAMINER. His newest book, A FLAG FOR SAN FRANCISCO, was published in July.

The most illuminating short history of the United States is available these days in the seat pockets of the planes, piston and jet-powered alike, of a major airline. The unwary passenger, reaching for the unfolding air atlas that the carrier supplies, will come upon a section called “Points of Historical Interest” and subtitled “A ‘thumbnail sketch’ highlighting some of the areas served by United Air Lines.” What follows, especially to the reader who tends to skim — and that reader, one might rightly guess, represents the majority in this particular kind of audience — can only be described as highly unnerving on any variety of levels, ranging from the conscious to the subliminal.

United is the largest airline in the world operating wholly within the borders of its mother country, but this proclaimed domesticity is a sham. According to the thumbnail sketch, and contrary to the supposition held jointly by the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Department of State, the areas served by United Air Lines seem to be under the fist of foreign occupation, chiefly British. The format, which gives the name of the city followed by the briefest of descriptions, frequently only one sentence in length, includes New York (“English captured 1664”), Pittsburgh (“British captured and named Ft. Pitt”), Boston (“Site of Battle of Bunker Hill, Boston Massacre”), Washington, D. C. (“invaded by British in War of 1812, Capitol burned”), Richmond (“Benedict Arnold pillaged town in 1781”), and Allentown, Pennsylvania (“Hiding place of Liberty Bell”).

Certain other privateering nations have tried to match John Bull in extending their tentacles into the New World, with results duly inscribed in the traveler’s atlas with respect to such widely separated points as Los Angeles (“Important in early Spanish and Mexican rule”), Milwaukee (“German immigrants stimulated development”), Detroit (“Important outpost, French and Indian war”), Kansas City (“Founded by French trappers and traders”), and Boise (“Largest Basque community in U.S.”). Not even San Francisco could escape the incursions of the alien, blunder though he might (“Bay discovered by Portola after having been missed by explorers for 200 years”).

It is when United’s historians come down to a one-sentence description of a place that their observations become most trenchant. Elmira, New York (“Home of Samuel Clemens ‘Mark Twain‘ during his greatest writing years”) is, by that lone observation, far better pinpointed for accuracy than, let us say, Clemens’ other haunts, such as Hartford (“Capital of Connecticut Colony 1665”), New York (“Erie Canal greatly stimulated growth”). San Francisco (“western end of Pony Express line”), St. Louis (Not served by United Air Lines), or Reno, although the story of Reno in United’s damning text assuredly calls a spade a spade (“Founded 1868 . . . developed with discovery of‘Comstock Lode’ . . . greater development after gambling legalized and quick divorce laws established”).

Reno, in any event, seems to have exhibited a greater penchant for longevity than Buffalo (“Important as western terminus of Erie Canal . . . settled in 1803 . . . burned by British 1813”). Sic transit Buffalo.

There are the British again, lighting matches as usual. There again is a case of destruction by the torch, topically illustrated as well in the histories of Chicago (“Suffered 8200 million property loss in fire of $1871”), San Francisco (“Earthquake and Great Fire in 1906” ), and Seattle, which at least experienced a lifetime longer than Buffalo’s. Whereas Buffalo’s life-span, according to the above, was ten years, Seattle’s was thirty-seven, as the complete history of that city in United’s atlas depicts (“Settled as lumber town 1852 . . . named after Indian Chief Seattle . . . expanded with Alaska gold rush . . . fire 1889 destroyed business district” ).

Not all cities burn to the ground, despite the historian’s obvious bent. Nor is pyromania confined to the British: witness Atlanta (“Captured and burned by Sherman”). Frequently some of our most notable cities endure, and something, even though not exceeding ten words in length, can be found to be said for each. Sometimes the propagandist must dig deep. Take the entire history of Grand Junction, Colorado (“First U.S. city to use the preferential ballot”), or an instance where after endless diligence of research there remains no choice but to borrow glory from an unlisted community nearby, as in the case of Lansing, Michigan (“East Lansinghome of oldest Agriculture College in U.S.”).

Like fire and invasion, the accursed canals reappear with the monotony of Chinese water torture, as in the case of Cleveland (“Developed with connection of Ohio River and Lake Erie by canal in 1832”); but the careful reader will go a step further in all of this.

It is the apparently unrelated, all but hidden items in the United atlas, innocuous-seeming dates in particular, that tell the story. Are we to say that Omaha (“Mormons visited here 1846”) carries no direct association with Salt Lake City (“Founded by Brigham Young 1847”)? Must we not believe that the above-cited description of Hartford (“Capital of Connecticut Colony 1665”) takes on new and invigorating meaning when related to the entry for Newark (“Settled 1666 by Puritans from Connecticut”)?

The fire bell tolls for thee.