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Pauline Lerner

The view from Harpers Ferry

October 13, 2006 at 5:07 AM

I took a day trip to Harper’s Ferry W Va, a beautiful small town at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. A quiet place now, it was a bustling city of commercial and military strategic importance in the past. The C&O Canal and, later, the B&O Railroad made things happen there. The abolitionist John Brown, whose body now “lies a mould’ring in the grave,” led an unsuccessful slave uprising at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Today the historic area of the city, which includes the Armory and Arsenal, some small museums, and a historic church, remains unspoiled. Even the tourist traps, including crafts stores, restaurants, and a used book store, are small, tasteful, and inexpensive by Washington DC standards.

I spent most of my time enjoying the scenery, but I visited the used bookstore just long enough to find and buy “Go East Young Man,” the autobiography of the early years of one of my heroes, former Supreme Court Justice and environmentalist William O. Douglas. I thumbed through the book and found two passages which seemed to address my experiences at Harpers Ferry, one political and one spiritual.

Douglas told of his experience as a poll watcher shortly after he was graduated from law school. His assignment was to watch for suspicious activity. He saw a busload of men come in together and head for the ballot box. They looked suspicious to him, so he approached them to ask questions, and they responded by showing him the butt end of a rifle. He watched them cast their ballots en masse and then seize and open the ballot box. Again he was suspicious, tried to ask questions, and, again, was shown the rifle butt. I know that these things really happened, but the incident seemed like an episode from a Woody Allen movie to me. Sad but true.

In his discussion of various religions and nature, Douglas wrote, “[Christian] religious books taught that man should not enjoy the scenery of valleys and mountains but should look inward and concentrate on his own salvation. That is why Petrarch on a fourteenth-century alpine ascent became ashamed when he found himself admiring the view from the top of the peak instead of thinking of his own soul.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the view.

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