Saturday, May 4, 2024


A Darkness Complete

In the 19th century, a string of fortifications guarded major ports along the East Coast of the United States.  Two of them have a special place in American history.  "The rocket's red glare" over Ft. McHenry in Baltimore inspired the writing of our national anthem.  And the Confederate attack on Ft. Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina signaled that the Civil War had erupted in earnest.

The more modest history of Ft. Warren, which sits astride Georges Island in the heart of the outer ranges of Boston Harbor, is not without note.  During and immediately after the Civil War, it served as a prison for Confederates, among whom was Alexander H. Stephens, the Vice President of the C.S.A. under Jefferson Davis.  And "John Brown's Body," sung by soldiers of the Army of the Potomac to the tune later adapted as the famous "Battle Hymn," was penned there.  As late as WWII, great "disappearing" guns of the fort were trained on the eastern approaches to Boston.  Its guns were never, in the history of the fort, fired in anger.  This does not mean that they were superfluous, but rather that they did their job of deterrence to perfection.

Ft. Warren is accessible by ferry, and it is maintained and administered by rangers employed by the Commonwealth.   In my young adulthood, I took part in a guided tour of the fort and the surrounding island.  The high point for me was not the abandoned gun emplacements, but a gingerly walk en masse into a great, cavernous room below the parapets, perhaps built as a magazine, that was entirely without natural or artificial light except for the sunlight visible at its entrance -- visible, that is, until one turned a corner into a part of the chamber from which there was no line of sight to that entrance.  There we in the tour group became a great, blind centipede.  The guide had us keep the tips of left fingers in touch with one wall and our right hands in touch with the person in front of us.  When we got to our destination and dropped our hands, the effect of the perfect darkness approximated an out-of-body experience; it was as if, without visual cues of location, our souls could float where they pleased.  (In sensory deprivation tanks, it is known, people after a period of time begin to hallucinate wildly, as if having taken a heavy dose of LSD or psylocibin.)

The feeling was thrilling, but if our guide at that moment had chosen to play a prank on us and unleash a recording of a dog growling or a snake hissing, I am sure that we all would have run each other down in a screaming panic.  Instead and in good time, we used our right-hand fingertips to trace our way back to the entrance, to the light.  The many ghosts of Ft. Warren there let us be.

No comments:

Post a Comment