The Liberty Bell

We had a day out in Philly on Saturday to celebrate my birthday.  Last year I chose to visit a historic cemetery and this year I decided we should consume more local history.  I thought it was entirely ridiculous that I had been living in the suburbs of Philadelphia for four years now (as of 17 October) yet had never been to see the Liberty Bell or been inside Independence Hall.  That, therefore, was my selection for the first part of my birthday trip.

The lines to get in to see the Liberty Bell – part of the Independence Historic Site – were long but not as ridiculously long as they have been on other occasions when we have considered viewing it.  We, therefore, joined the line and found that it moved at a reasonable pace.  We all had to remove layers of clothing and place our possessions in boxes to be scanned for security purposes but, even so, it only took about half an hour between joining the queue and being allowed to go and view the bell.  There were displays outlining the bell’s history, its symbolism, and how it has been cared for and restored.  The boys had zero interest in lingering long enough to read so Mr Pict and I had to skim and scan.

The bell is, of course, famous for its crack.  This appeared as soon as it was rung for the first time in Philadelphia.  Poor workmanship it seems.  It was recast a couple of times by men whose names – Pass and Stow – appear on the bell and then the bell cracked to the extent it appears now in the 19th Century.  It was probably one of the bells that was rung when the Declaration of Independence was read publicly for the first time on 8 July 1776 but really the rest of its history was pretty insignificant.  Its real importance emerges from its symbolism, particularly for the abolitionist movement.  Its use as a symbol is really why I wanted to see it: the bell is used all over the place locally and nationally so I thought I had really better see the real thing.

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After our visit to the Liberty Bell, the plan was to go and explore Independence Hall.  However, all of the tickets for the day were already gone.  Completely bad planning on our part.  Tsk tsk.  We will have to return another time.  We, therefore, had to content ourselves with the adjacent Old City Hall.  Its significance rests in the fact that it housed the Supreme Court until the nation’s capital was relocated to Washington DC.  We had a quick gander and then we moved on.

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Sticking with the theme of America’s founding, our next pit stop was to see the grave of Benjamin Franklin.  There was a charge, however, to enter Christ Church Burial Ground.  Despite the modest fee, we decided not to pay so I had to content myself with a glimpse through the railings.  Oh dear.  Our planning for the day was really not going too well at all.  Happily none of this was the main event for my birthday day out.

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Concord Point Lighthouse and Elk Neck Park

We had started our second day in Baltimore so early that we found we were leaving the city before noon.  We, therefore, decided to do something spontaneous as we drove through Northern Maryland and head to the Chesapeake.

We first stopped in Havre de Grace.  I have driven past the small city several times before but have never actually been in.  It looked quaint and picturesque, the type of place that would be pleasant for a stroll.  We went straight to the Concord Point Lighthouse, which is sited where the Chesapeake meets the Susquehanna.  During the War of 1812, the British attacked the city and, during that attack, Lieutenant John O’Neill manned the cannon single-handed in order to defend the town.  Injured and captured, the story goes that his 16 year old daughter rowed out to the British vessel and plead for her father’s release.  She was succesful and her father was released and the British Admiral awarded her bravery with an expensive snuffbox.  When the lighthouse was built in the late 1820s, O’Neill and his family were made its hereditary keepers as an expression of gratitude.  The granite lighthouse is 26 feet high with the lantern bringing it to 36 feet.  Although we could not go inside, apparently it is a rope ladder that allows people to ascend through a trapdoor to the lantern.  The keepers did not have to be accommodated within the lighthouse itself as there was a separate dwelling nearby.

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After our visit to the lighthouse, the boys were keen for a dip in the water.  We, therefore, headed to a town named North East – which also looked very pleasant – and Elk Neck State Park.  The kids immediately donned their swimming gear and rushed down to the shore.  The beach was rough, scrubby, and pebbly but the kids said that it turned to finer sand once they were further out in the water.  The incline into the water was gentle and the kids could get really quite far out while standing.  Beaches are not my thing but the kids had a blast swimming, splashing, and floating around.  It was a good way to burn off their energy before the rest of the journey home.

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Fort McHenry

While our oldest two sons were still gallivanting in central America with their grandparents, Mr Pict and I decided to take the younger two on a weekend trip to Baltimore.  It takes less time to drive to Baltimore than it used to take us to drive to Glasgow from where we lived in Scotland and that was a journey we used to make just to buy shoes.  Despite its relative proximity, however, we had only visited Baltimore once since we emigrated to America.  It was, therefore, time to go and explore the city a bit more.

First stop was Fort McHenry.  Even if you don’t know much about the War of 1812 (like me!) you will likely know of Fort McHenry through association because it was the defence of that fort that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, the rousing song that would later become the national anthem.  Fort McHenry is positioned on Baltimore’s harbour since it was that waterway it was built to protect and it is in the shape of a five pointed star to maximise the vantage points for each bastion.  Built at the close of the 18th Century, the Fort was in constant use by America’s military from then until the end of the First World War.  It is, therefore, a very historic place of national significance.  Want to hazard a guess how thrilled our 8 and 10 year olds were to be there absorbing all of that history?  See if you can spot the point at which they disengaged.

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After an introduction in the Visitor Center and the youngest Pictling signing up to do the junior ranger activities, we headed out into the swampy humidity to tour the fort.  There were reenactors demonstrating something about firing cannons and cooking at the fort but the kids had no interest in engaging with any of that so we didn’t pause.  Once inside the thick walls, we found that some young men were demonstrating different drum signals that were used to signal different messages.  I think there might have been one rhythm that was beat out on the drum skin to signal whose turn it was to peel potatoes.  But I may also have just imagined that because I wasn’t paying adequate attention.

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We not only saw a reproduction flag flying above the fort but also saw the original wooden cross brace from the famous defence.  It had been preserved as if it was a religious relic.  I confess that I don’t particularly understand America’s near worship of its flag but, of course, this flag has much more historic significance than most.  It was, therefore, pretty cool to see the crumbly old wood.  The defence of the Fort took place over the 13th and 14th of September and it didn’t really end in a victory for either side.  It was more a withdrawal by the British naval vessels because the great defence of the fort had depleted all of their ammo.  If memory serves, the whole War of 1812 similarly concluded because everyone just sort of gave up and decided to pack it in.  Anyway, the flag that was flying during that 25 hour period of conflict had been sewn by Mary Pickersgill and it was seeing the flag emerge through the smoke the next day that told all the onlookers – including Francis Scott Key – that America had prevailed and still held the Fort.  So that it what the national anthem is all about.  We had taken the boys to see the original Star Spangled Banner way back in 2014 so we were gradually piecing together its history in a scattershot way.

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As a Civil War nerd, Mr Pict was much more keen on the Fort’s history from the Civil War era.  During that conflict, the fort had been used as a military prison and some prominent prisoners had been held there.  One building told the story of that period of history and we were able to step inside one of the very pokey jail cells.

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It was a sticky hot day and the kids and I are not much into military history so we didn’t look at every single space or exhibit in detail.  We walked around the ramparts and took in the views and we pottered around in the various barrack buildings.  Each building exhibited a period of the fort’s history, including its use in the First World War as a military hospital and its use in the Second World War as a coastguard base.  There was a room filled with barrels to show what the gunpowder stores would have looked like and there was a collection of cannon outside one building.

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The boys had had more than enough of visiting the fort, especially because it was so similar to Fort Mifflin, so we decided to depart before they spontaneously combusted in a combination of frustration and heat.  They soon cheered up on the walk back to the car, however, since they found dozens of shed cicada skins stuck to the bark of trees.

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The Mercer Museum

This summer, in addition to our recent road trip, my in-laws decided to take the Pictlings on vacation in pairs.  For the first time in over ten years, therefore, I was left with just two children to care for and keep busy.  The youngest two went off on their grandparent vacation first so I had the 11 and 14 year old at home.  I decided, therefore, to take them to explore a place none of us had visited: the Mercer Museum in Doylestown.

The Mercer Museum is named for Henry Chapman Mercer and reflects his pursuits and hobbies.  He was a tile-maker, an avid collector, and an archaeologist and the museum showcases all of these interests.  The museum building is, in fact, one of his creations.  Mercer designed three poured concrete buildings, all in Doylestown: his Moravian Tile Works; his home, Fonthill; and the museum.  The building, therefore, is an exhibit in its own right and – in my opinion – it was the best thing about the museum.

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We started in a modern extension to the building where there was a special exhibition about one woman’s collection of quilts and a selection of marvelous dollhouses.  I have no ability with sewing and could never even dream of embarking on something like a quilt but I enjoyed seeing the variety of designs and styles.  All three of us liked the dollhouses for all the tiny details and the meticulous crafting of scaled household items.  Soon enough, however, it was time to enter the actual museum building and it was a wow moment to step out into the central area.  We were surrounded on all sides by spaces full of interesting collections but the real impact came from looking up.  The museum is six or seven floors (it gets confusing) and we could stand in that first atrium area and look up through all of the floors, up to where a collection of chairs were suspended from the ceiling, our eyes darting past buggies and boats and even a fire engine that were dangling from the walls.

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Walking around the Mercer Museum is like poking around in someone’s really organised attic. Each collection has its own designated nook within the space.  Mercer appears to have been interested in the tools, equipment, and workshops of a wide variety of trades so each display space was themed around some industry.  We saw, for example, a collection of hair combs made from tortoise shell along with the shells and the tools used to slice and carve them.  There was a room dedicated to shoemaking with a large collection of cobbler’s lasts hanging on one wall.  Another space was full of hats and hat-making equipment.  There was a woodworking shop, a blacksmith’s furnace, a room full of spindles and spinning wheels, medical and apothecary equipment, a huge collection of lanterns, musical instruments (my kids laughed when I said the word “hurdy gurdy” with my Scottish accent), moulds for making confectionery, whaling implements, and so much more.  I confess to being not very enthused by industrial history but I found this collection quite charming.  With it being organised the way it was, I could quickly skim and scan the collections that I was not fussed by – such as gunsmithing – and spend more time with the items I did find more engaging, such as the glassblowing workshop.

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Now, being honest, my sons were not really digging the museum.  They gave passing glances to most displays but were not overly interested in the contents or in hearing me tell them about domestic industries of times past.  They were, however, more interested in the large items on display.  Seeing a whaleboat up close gave them an appreciation for how dangerous and difficult the job of whaling was when sent out in a relatively small, narrow and shallow whaling boat into the midst of large sea mammals.  They also thought the Conestoga wagon and stagecoach were cool.  One narrow little entry way took us into an area that was set up to look like a general store and they found that pretty interesting, spotting familiar items in unfamiliar packaging.  Being macabre little souls (they take after me in that respect) they also liked seeing a set of gallows and implements linked to crime and punishment.  We also entertained ourselves with our usual museum quest to find the ugliest and/or most offensive items on display.  The various tobacco advert carvings easily won the contest.

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There was a dog theme running throughout the museum.  Apparently Mercer loved dogs, especially Chesapeake Bay Retrievers.  We saw a statue of one on the way in and then, when we found ourselves in various children’s sections of the museum, there were a couple of cuddly dogs.  Best of all, however, were a set of paw prints, made by a dog named Rollo, imprinted into the concrete between two upper floors of the museum.  Finally, outside the museum, as we headed back to the car, we passed the grave markers for two pet pooches.

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For them and for me, however, the whole highlight of our visit was simply the building itself.  It was marvelously bonkers.  Each set of stairs brought us to another level lined with strange little nooks and crannies, there were weird doorways, steps that went up only to immediately go down again, and all manner of strangely shaped windows.  It was incredible to think that all of these shapes and forms and levels had been constructed by pouring concrete.  We really enjoyed the experience of wandering around and never quite knowing, despite having a map, where we were going to end up.  At one point, we took a staircase down to see a vast collection of stoveplates, entered an adjoining room showcasing tiles, and somehow found ourselves back in a room we had been in some time before and on a different floor altogether.  It made all three of us think of Hogwart’s Castle.  Thinking back to the dollhouses at the beginning of our visit, I could not help thinking about how much fun it would be to have unfettered access to the museum and play within its walls.  We will now have to visit Fonthill and the Moravian Tile Works some time.

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Road Trip 2017 #30 – Musee Mechanique

During our time at Fisherman’s Wharf, we visited the Musee Mechanique.  Housed in a dockside warehouse, this is essentially a museum of huge numbers of mechanical arcade games.  It is run by a family who have been collecting the games for generations and it is indeed an impressive collection.

One of the first items we encountered was a creepy thing called Laffing Sal.  This is a papier mache figure inside a glass case that was apparently designed to drum up interest in entering a carnival or sideshow.  When activated, it would move and laugh.  We chose not to activate it.  Ultimately, it was the weird creepiness of so many of the mechanical entertainments that most engaged me.  I rather liked that things were macabre and grotesque.  I cannot really explain why but I am a fan of horror movies so that may be a factor.  There were many such creepy things to be seen: a troop of freaky monkeys with dead eyes, dancing figurines with swollen heads and spindly legs, machines that acted out executions by hanging and guillotine (which my little kids adored), an organ grinder with a sinister overbite, and a drunk leaning on a lampost that looked like a Gerry Anderson puppet that had fallen on really hard times.

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The kids thoroughly enjoyed all of the good old-fashioned fun.  These boys have grown up with technology like video games but they were completely entertained by simple pinball machines, whack-a-mole, love testing machines, and fortune tellers – including one that had been updated to feature the Hogwart’s Sorting Hat.  There were also self-playing pianos – something I have always loved – and peep shows, mutoscopes, and dioramas – including, bizarrely, one depicting an opium den.  In the centre of the museum, there was a huge diorama depicting a carnival complete with sideshow.  Mr Pict got very caught up in the nostalgia of the place.  He found lots of arcade games that he had played in his youth and, of course, had to have a go on each and every one of them.  It was a great place to spend a little time and a small gobbet of money.

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Driving out of the city, we had a scary moment on one of its notoriously steep streets.  We had to halt at a stop sign while on some kind of extreme gradient.  We could barely see if there was anything coming from either direction on the cross street, which was one problem.  The bigger problem, however, was that Mr Pict – who I am so glad was the one who was driving – found he could not get the car to move forward when he put his foot on the accelerator.  Instead, the car insisted on rolling backwards.  We realised that – having spent most of our lives driving manual cars – we had zero idea how to manage a hill start in an automatic.  Mr Pict tried to find that catch point between brake and accelerator but it just wasn’t happening.  We were at a stand-still.  There were soon two cars lined up behind us.  This was pressure for two reasons: those drivers were getting frustrated because we were blocking their way and, if the car rolled back again, it would now smack into another vehicle.  Bum-clenching, jaw-tightening, stress.  I thought worst case scenario was that we were going to have to call on the police to help us out of the situation.  I was trying to google a solution when frazzled Mr Pict decided just to do a full blown Dukes of Hazzard move and accelerate to the max, straight into the cross road, where luckily we were not met by other cars.  I was so stressed that I could actually hear my own pulse.  We decided to avoid going up any other steep roads.  In San Francisco, that is a total ordeal.  We took the most circumlocutious route but we successfully avoided any repetition of that completely terrifying episode.

We were staying at a hotel near the airport so as to be as convenient as possible for our early morning flights.  By happy coincidence, we arrived to find that there was a happy hour event happening in the reception area, with free drinks and nibbles.  Free sangria was a welcome tonic for the stress of that drive out of the city and a pleasant way to end the fun of our 2700 mile road trip.

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Road Trip 2017 #23 – Bodie

The thirteenth day of our road trip fell on Independence Day.  We were staying in Mammoth Lakes at a ski lodge hotel.  Our suite had two large bedrooms, two bathrooms (which is a boon when you have six people sharing a space), and a spacious living room and kitchen-diner.  It was a welcome slice of domesticity after a few days of being crammed together into hotel rooms with regular proportions.  Despite having access to kitchen facilities, however, we decided to go out for breakfast as our 4th of July treat.  The hotel receptionist recommended a place in town named The Stove so it was to there that we headed.  It was a quaint little place, clearly popular with locals and tourists alike, and we enjoyed a pleasant breakfast to set us up for the day.  The diner was on the street where the town’s Independence Day parade was happening so we saw fun runners come jogging past and poked around at some of the stalls that were set up, including one where my younger kids obtained some new reading material.  We decided to get out of town before the parade, however, as we feared we might end up stuck by all the road closures.

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Our first destination for the day was Bodie, a ghost town I have wanted to visit for a very long time.  It was a long drive up a winding, narrow, rubbly road to reach Bodie so – even before we set foot in the town – I was struck by how challenging life must have been for those who lived and worked there before the days of motorised transport.  I had assumed the national holiday might mean that people were at home with family and friends, doing the home town celebration thing, but when we pulled up to the entry booth the ranger informed us that the car park was full, the overflow car park was full, so we ought to just find a space on the road somewhere and park on the right.  I thought maybe that all of the visitors might detract from the sense of isolation and abandonment – those qualities one really wants from a ghost town – but the site was so vast that actually it wasn’t problematic.

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Bodie was a mining town founded after a chap named Bodey found gold there in 1859.  The town gradually grew and peaked in the late 1870s, booming after a rich seam of gold ore was happened upon following a mine collapse.  During that period, Bodie had an incredible 30 mines and 9 stamp mills, where the ore was processed.  The population ballooned to about 8000 people but rapidly declined with mine closures.  Fires, the climate, and the passing decades destroyed many of the structures in the town and then the state park service stepped in and decided to preserve Bodie in a state of what they refer to as “arrested decay”.  Apparently what remains represents a mere 5% of what was once there so it really had been a massive town at one point in time.

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We had a guide book to the town which was useful in identifying buildings and in breathing life into the old bones of the place by telling some of the stories of the people who lived and worked there.  We happened to be parked near some mining equipment so it was there that we started our tour of the 100+ buildings still standing in Bodie.  This equipment had been relocated from the Red Cloud mine and included the head frame and the cages that hauled miners and ore out of the mine shafts.

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From there we wandered among the residential and commercial buildings and the wonky outhouses.  Many of these still had their contents inside.  We could peer through the windows and see dust-laden rooms containing busted furniture, plates and bottles on tables, blankets on beds, layers of wallpaper peeling.  As we did so, we learned about some of the residents of the town.  We learned about the schoolteacher whose father was a Sheriff killed in a shootout near Mono Lake, about a very naughty schoolchild arsonist who burned down the original schoolhouse, the murder of one man and the lynching of his killer, the one-armed manager of a baseball team, the women of the red light district, and those of Chinatown, and we saw coffins propped up against the wall in the morgue.  We were able to step just inside the Methodist Church so we could view its interior and were able to enter and wander around one home.  It was fantastic.

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The Miner’s Union Hall is now a museum and we had fun looking in the display cases at all the personal items, photographs, hearses, and glass bottles.  We also loved finding random rusty objects lying in space between buildings, old vehicles standing like sculptures among the long grass, and gas pumps.

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We took a wander past the lopsided hotel and the fire station and headed towards the stamp mill.  It was here that iron rods, mercury and cyanide, were used to separate the gold from the rock.  It was through being superintendent of this mining company that President Herbert Hoover’s brother Theodore lived in Bodie.  It would have been very interesting to tour the stamp mill but we knew the kids would rail against the idea so we didn’t get tickets.  We took a route past some more houses, the schoolhouse, and the hydroelectric substation, and then sadly it was time to return to the car and leave Bodie.

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I absolutely loved visiting Bodie!  It actually exceeded my expectations, which were high.  I could have stayed there for hours and hours, maybe even days.  I especially would have loved seeing it at night to see if it made the place feel eerie at all.  I am so glad we were able to fit a visit to Bodie into our road trip.

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Road Trip 2017 #22 – Manzanar

Travelling north from Death Valley, we stopped in at Manzanar.  We felt it was important to connect the boys to a tangible reminder of how ugly and inhumane a great democracy like America can allow itself to become.  Manzanar was one of ten camps where Japanese-Americans were interned during the Second World War, having been forcibly removed from the communities they were residing in.  Being the best preserved, it has come under the protection of the National Park Service.

We started in the exhibition area that adjoins the Visitor Center.  The displays were informative and engaging and really helped the boys grasp what had happened in wartime America and what unchecked intolerance can lead to.  They were staggered to learn that even Japanese American soldiers, returning from fighting for America, were subject to abuse simply because of their heritage.  They could not comprehend the degree of prejudice that would lead to a democracy legislating in order to subject men, women, and children to such treatment.  They understood the history and the placement of Manzanar in a wider context of historic examples of a nation legislating in favour of intolerance but they could not comprehend the inhumanity.  Sometimes it is simply impossible to explain hate.  Because they could most relate to it, they were most moved by the section dedicated to the history of children in the camp.  These children included orphans who were removed from institutions and relocated to the camp because somehow tiny orphaned children were seen as a threat to national security because they happened to have Japanese heritage.  All of the exhibits were incredibly emotive.  It was impossible not to be moved.  It was impossible not to be provoked into asking questions.  How did people allow this to happen?  What do we need to do to ensure it can never happen again?

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Most of the fabric of the camp was destroyed in the couple of years immediately following its closure.  An attempt at erasing the past, perhaps.  What we saw when we stepped outside, therefore, was really a reconstruction of some of the huts and an indication of where the others would once have stood.  We found we were walking around in almost complete silence as it seemed neither we nor our fellow visitors could find the ability to absorb what we were taking in and articulate our response.  The huts had been furnished to illustrate how the internees lived.  It must have been so horrendously difficult to go from living in private houses to living in these flimsy bunk houses with little or no privacy.  Further, the temperatures during the warm months must have been completely awful and in winter they must have been bitterly cold.  The furnishings and personal items in the reconstructed huts really breathed life into the place.  It brought the political and national history of the place into personal, individual focus.  Seeing a tiny pair of shoes tucked in beside a bedstead has rarely been so poignant.

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The last location we visited at Manzanar was the cemetery.  I think I read that over 140 people died while held at Manzanar.  Most were buried elsewhere but a few were interred on site.  The remains of many of those were then relocated after the camp was closed in 1945.  I love cemeteries.  They are among my favourite places and I always feel comfortable when wandering around a cemetery.  This cemetery, however, was haunting not because of the dead but because of its wider context.  The whole of Manzanar was haunting.  It was just that the isolated cemetery, scratched out of the desert dust, the snow capped mountains looming in the background, seemed to encapsulate the utter awfulness of Manzanar.  Never again.

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