The Reluctant Midshipman Alexander Duer Gedney Pt 2


So, whose wish was Alexander Duer Gedney bucking when he was attempting to have himself discharged from the Naval Academy? No brainer there. Most likely his family, so let’s take a look at them.

His father, Daniel Fowler Gedney was a lawyer, and in fact the District Attorney of Orange County NY at the time of Alexander’s appointment. His was the voice of a person who would have had the clout to ask for, and get that appointment. There was a nautical element on his side of the family. From way back they were boat builders. In fact they were proud of the fact that when they came from England to settle in Salem, MA in 1636, they came in a ship of their own making.

From Salem, succeeding generations of Gedneys moved westward. By the time of the American Revolution they had made it as far as New York (on the west side of the Hudson). But the family was increasingly involved in other pursuits other than boats and ships, and never to my knowledge with the Navy.

Aside – I did find one Thomas R. Gedney in the US Navy dating from 1815.  He was the naval officer who was involved in the affair of the slave ship Amistad. But this Gedney was a native of South Carolina, and I have not been able to establish if he had a connection to the New England/New York branches.

Looking up Alexander’s mother, Henrietta Robinson Duer, I tumbled to the origin of my midshipman’s name. He was named after her father Alexander Duer. This Alexander was a lawyer, a newspaper publisher, and a state politician from Goshen, NY, and may have himself been named after a family friend (and distant relation), Alexander Hamilton. His older brother, also carried Alexander as his middle name, but in this instance it was probably for his maternal grandfather, William Alexander, one of George Washington’s generals.

This older brother, William Alexander Duer opened the door to all the naval connections in the family. He had a son who was a naval officer (John King Duer), and two grandsons (one in the class before Gedney, and the other after). William Alexander Duer, himself, had been a midshipman, having been appointed in 1798, and served under Decatur in the Quasi War with France. He resigned from the Navy in 1800, to study law and entered on a career that eventuated in service as a judge, and later became President of Columbia College (1829-1842).

And the naval connections did not stop with his own family. His niece (and cousin to Gedney’s mother), Catherine Alexander Robinson, married naval officer Alexander Slidell Mackenzie and they had two sons who later became naval officers (one at the academy before Gedney, the other after). Alexander S Mackenzie is a controversial naval figure, famous or infamous depending upon whom you consult. Before there was a naval academy, he was the captain of the USS Somers in 1842, sent on a cruise to deliver dispatches and train up young midshipmen. When one of these middies and his two co-conspirators had been discovered plotting a mutiny, Mackenzie and his other officers condemned them to death on the evidence and hung them. This middie was the son of the then Secretary of War in the Tyler administration. A big controversy ensued. In the next administration, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft, successfully used it as a call and a rationale for a naval school.

Perhaps, a little irony there, an irony whose base, Alexander Duer Gedney may or may not have been aware.

So, then, what happened to Gedney after his dismissal from the academy? I know the “what,” and the “when,” but can only surmise about the “why.”

Gedney died at sea, having been lost overboard from the clipper ship Jacob Bell, drowning off Cape Horn. This was on May 21, 1860.

In checking out the Jacob Bell I found out the following information: she had been built in 1852 for the NY shipping firm A. A. Low & Bros., which was involved in the China trade. I had to consult a couple of different sources to piece together how their vessels operated. There was a cyclical pattern to their voyages, they departed NY in January and returned the same month, the following year. They passed Cape Horn in both directions, rather than circumnavigating. I surmise that Gedney left in the Jacob Bell in January of 1860, the same month he was ejected from the academy, and lost his life on the outbound voyage.

What is unclear in this instance is whether he was operating under his own wishes, or that of his parents. He may have been of an adventurous spirit and desired to be out on his own and not under the discipline of a military school. But I think that his family had the last say. They would have wanted him to make something of himself, especially after squandering the opportunity that the Naval Academy had afforded. And they easily had the connections to get him a berth on the clipper ship to China.


My Brother vs the UU Church

My Brother vs the UU Church

I have no idea how we ended up going to the Universalist Unitarian church in Salem. I don’t believe it was a friend at school that invited us, perhaps it was from an acquaintance of our folks. In any event it was thought that we should get exposed in some manner to religion.
Inside, the building had an odd, old feel to it. The sanctuary, or hall as they may have called it was perhaps colorful but I don’t remember any ornamentation. The memorable view that I carry with me is one from the side, looking into the meeting area. There were a lot of books lining the shelves there. The titles that stick with me were Donbie and Son and the Old Curiosity Shop. For all I knew these were their sacred texts, (purchased when Dickens himself came through Salem in the early 1800s). I didn’t see a Bible, nor do I remember any teaching based on it.
Perhaps we were limited to the Sunday school rooms and were not in with the adults. My brother did, however, take a strong exception to the adult with whom we were placed. The gentleman either had an aversion to children in general or to my brother in particular. He no doubt had a certain opinion as to how kids should be raised, and for some reason he disparaged my mother’s parenting in front of my brother, calling her by a rather unkind appellation, one not usually bruited about in any church setting I’d ever heard of. My brother wasn’t big enough to cold-cock him, but if he were, he would have.
He did the next best thing – removed us from there. And we never darkened their assembly again.

E T Leaves Home

E T Leaves Home

So, E T signed up on April 15th, but that did not mean that he and the SLI would be going out right away.  The President’s call was in effect, but it was up to the Governor of the state, in this case, Republican John Andrew, as to which regiments would be filling the state’s quota.

And the decision was in, the regiments being called up were the Third, the Fourth, the Sixth and the Eighth. The Salem Light Infantry was company A of the Seventh Regiment, and hence not slated to go. But there were certain factors in play behind the scenes.  The governor had been a guest of the Salem Company at an exhibition in the beginning of the month, and was impressed.  And Captain Devereux wanted his company to go, if it had the honor of being the “right-flank company of skirmishers,” the “point of the spear” in today’s parlance.  And the Eighth regiment was undermanned.
Besides this the governor was also stewing over another decision – who to send out as the brigadier general in charge of the Massachusetts troops. He really did not want to send the most obvious choice Benjamin F Butler. It was a trust issue. In the last election Butler, a Democrat, had supported the Breckinridge faction of that party, the very ones who were now pointing their weapons at Lincoln in Washington DC.
In Salem, through the 16th and 17th, time was spent in preparations and awaiting the governor’s decision. And the order came on the 17th, the Governor acceded to the Captain and that is how the SLI went out as Company J of the 8th regiment MVM, the brigade under the overall command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin F Butler. On that same evening, E T and 29 other recruits were voted into the company.
The next morning, the 18th, the SLI was mobbed by well-wishers at the armory. From there they had to push their way through the crowd to the train station, giving a “seven cheer” to one and all. (The “seven cheer” like the Rangers’ “Hooah” went like this. A count from one to seven, followed by the words “Tiger,” then “Zouave,” and then the object of their cheer).
And the first movement was to Boston where all the companies of the 8th were to rendezvous.

Army Days and Cuban Nights

Army Days and Cuban Nights

Just south of the Salem Willows was the mass of earth that was Fort Lee.  In my dad’s day it was called Cannon Hill. Ever since the turn of a century (from 1799-1800, that is) it had been an important fortification guarding the town and harbor of Salem Massachusetts.
We liked to play “army” atop its heights. It wasn’t often, for Forest River Park was much closer to where we lived. My dad had a friend who had a home towards the back end of the fort, the end that probably had the entrance to the structure.
The family had a nice swing set and other outdoor toys available in their yard, but we preferred to set off on our own, ranging into the area that was the old fort. It was a veritable sea of grass and if you were dropped down on your belly you disappeared completely from sight. We had ample room to practice our “army crawl,” rising only to charge a short distance before taking cover again.
Word was, a huge subterranean structure lay buried underneath where we were crawling. My Dad told me that he and his friends used to try to dig their way into it, sometimes in the side and then from the top once they discovered a vent structure in the middle of the topside area.  We never located the latter, nor did we try to dig anywhere.  We only investigated how to get into the tops of the trees that grew beside the earthen berms.
Those were carefree days soon to be invaded by world politics.
Just as on the west coast, we liked to go on family drives on the weekend.  On one such trip we set out for Newport, Rhode Island to see the sights there – the mansions and villas of the rich and famous of the late 1800s. We stopped in Fall River Massachusetts on the way down.  Usually I loved the opportunity to visit a new place just to see if there were any comics stores on the chance I might find a Classics Illustrated title or two that I did not already have. I don’t believe Fall River was any huge metropolis, but I felt like I was in a canyon when we stopped downtown to check out a cigar store that sold comics. The very buildings seemed to close in, crowding and overawing me. Though I was glad to browse the racks for the elusive missing numbers, my mind wasn’t fully with my quest. Their covers seemed drained of all color, just black and white and gray. A reflection of my mood. Would there be a future?
You see, this was October 1962. And the cloud overhead was a nuclear armed Cuba, and a growing confrontation between our government and that of the Soviet Union. There was no talk between us; parent to child, or sibling to sibling. Nor did we overhear any discussion between our parents. We were all left to our own thoughts and fears. Perhaps with the superstition that if it wasn’t acknowledged, it would all go away.
And it did. Eventually. But not without that valley of depression – the shadow of death.
How different years later, when my 21 year old son came out from his bedroom with the news of the airliner crashing into the World Trade Center in NYC. We watched with horror as the second plane hit. And the next day, after parking his Caddy in the NW district of Portland and walking together into work, I admit being unsettled and having a sense of having crossed a line into a new future. But this time around, I knew the One who holds the future and the One who holds me.

Jerry Lewis Slays Me

Jerry Lewis slays me


From odd to zany, and even more weird.
It all played out as a near death experience.  Death by laughter.
I was on the main floor of the Paramount theater, back row on the left under the balcony, seated next to my brother.
On the screen a Jerry Lewis comedy was unspooling. We were sitting there laughing along with the rest of the audience, when it happened.
The scene was set in a hospital. Jerry garbed as a doctor or surgeon had a patient he was attempting to flouroscope. Then in a reverse he became the subject of the flouroscope. It was his skeleton posed for comic effect behind the scope, his skull looking in surprise back at us. I lost it. I laughed out loud.
And I couldn’t stop. A lull would come, but I was convulsing on the inside, and I broke out again in helpless laughter.  It became a vicious cycle. The image, though past, was recurring and triggering more jags of laughter. And I was not able to catch my breath. I hurt all over.  It had to stop or I was going to die.  Somehow at long last I did.  Stop that is.
It was not this incident but another that is tied to my odd experience on Leach Street. The common threads were Jerry Lewis and the Paramount.
It was either the day before or the day after the Leach Street incident that Jerry Lewis appeared in person at the Paramount. And I was there among a sea of kids to see him. This time he didn’t “slay” me or “kill” the rest of the audience, but wowed us with his fun personality.  Most memorable was his routine with a pair of six-guns – twirling, quick drawing and juggling them. Then before we knew it, his entourage whisked him away to another appearance.
So, freaky Leach Street, Jerry at the Paramount, on screen and live, and (next time) baseball at Palmer Cove Park, three and a half interconnected beads on the necklace of my memory.

Freaky Day on Leach Street

Freaky Day

From the lofty height of our back porch we had a breathtaking view of the alley behind, a cul-de-sac really, that I wrote about in a former post. It was more than a cul-de-sac.  For us kids it was a close to home playground for games of tag, steal the flag, and stickball.  From that porch my mom would call us in from play for dinner.  Of course, at times she had to call louder for we had shifted out onto Leach Street.
So much time was spent there and on Leach Street that it is mostly a blur in my memory, but one time stands out in a rather odd way.
I happened to be all alone, no one else around. It was getting on toward dusk, yet the light in the alley was still strong. Usually it darkened earlier due to the surrounding buildings cutting off the light. And the light appeared to be coming from out on Leach Street towards the east. So I left the cul-de-sac and walked out onto Leach.
It was the oddest sensation. I stood and looked up and down Leach. Everything felt backward. The leaves of the trees glowed from underneath their canopy, not via the sun from above and through.
And it wasn’t only the light, the orientation of everything seemed completely the reverse, like the sun was setting in the east instead of the west.
Since it occurred around the time of my accident I have always connected the two, as if some weird kind of premonition. And they are both connected somehow to the event that I will narrate with the next post.

Ambush on Lafayette Street



On that short walk between school and our apartment, I developed a habit of walking swiftly, which is something I’ve kept up since then. I would pass up other kids right and left and leave them in the dust.
My brother and sister traveled the same route, but usually not with me.
Normally the trip was uneventful. We saw the seasons come and seasons go by the trees that lined Lafayette street.  Winter followed fall and spring winter.
One day a singular event broke in on this normalcy.  I was zipping along the sidewalk at my usual furious pace, when I noticed my siblings walking together about a block ahead. Then, a smaller kid, who had been walking behind them, caught up and stopped them, and began harassing them. I saw red. I did not break into a run, but I did lengthen my stride even more; and had enough time to plot out just exactly what I was going to do. I saw it all clearly in my mind’s eye all in advance.
The kid’s back was to me, and he had no idea that I was right behind him. I reached out and grabbed his coat between his shoulder blades, bunching the material as my fist closed, and then lifted him bodily into the air.  I could feel him go limp.
Then I told him through gritted teeth that he would never touch my brother or sister again; and shook him for good measure.
He was in a panic and shivering.  He asked in a tremulous voice who I was. So still holding him aloft, I turned my wrist, pivoting his body 180 degrees until I could stare him straight in the face.
Curiously, or maybe not curiously, he seemed relieved that I was not an adult, and began to recover his bravado.  But I could tell it was all an act as I set him down and he backed away.
My mother used to watch for us from the bay window of their room at that time of day. She saw it all, and never said a word, (which I just learned about this last week).  Although from her viewpoint she thought I had tossed him into the bushes when I let him go.

Memories in the Dark

Paramount Theater Salem, MA

Another remarkable memory for me took place in the dark.  Well, not totally in the dark, for my view in front was quite bright at times.
It was a couple of years after we moved the second time from the West Coast back to my father’s home town of Salem, Massachusetts.
He landed a job driving truck for the Salem Laundry.  And soon added a part time job as assistant manager at the Paramount Theater, where, incidentally he had been an usher when in high school.
It was the first movie palace that I had ever been in.  The box office was on the street in the center of the entrance, and a long red corridor lined with glass enclosed movie posters led at last to the lobby.
The auditorium beyond that was what blew me away. It was vast and I felt so small.  The decor I learned was French renaissance. Rich drapes and terra cotta designs accented the walls on both sides.  I don’t remember a chandelier on the ceiling. I believe it was a smooth expanse with a picture frame around the whole.  Which would make sense since my father told me that in the old days the auditorium lights would dim, the light blue of the ceiling would darken and stars would twinkle.
But not in that era.  The Paramount theater in Salem was sub-run, playing behind Boston and Lynn.
Any way, for some reason that day my Dad brought me in with him. And while he worked he deposited me all by myself in the balcony.  And I mean no one else was there.  I took a seat in the middle of this vastness and waited.  It was possible that some people were on the main floor, definitely not visible from my eyrie.
Then the music commenced. A lush orchestral sound laced with kettledrums. Maurice Jarre prepared me for what was to come. There were two sets of curtains; one that parted and another, transparent, that lifted.
Our view from the opening looked down from an high vantage point onto a concrete courtyard.  (My vantage point was higher still). A young blond man crossed and recrossed that ordinary space, preparing his motorcycle for a ride.  And we were off.
I was dreaming while awake.
A tragic accident and a search for the reason behind a life ensued.  I was immersed in the desert and the images of Lawrence of Arabia.
I told you it was bright at times.   Scorching.
The power of movies in part is living vicariously. And perhaps more so for a ten something. Here were adults caught up in a grand adventure, and here I was, also immersed in the sweep of things. And grappling within, with the issues of war, life and death. Some of it down right scary.
I came away with a deep appreciation of cinematography, though I don’t actually think that I could have put that name to it then.  I just knew that through the artistry of those behind the camera a desire was birthed in me. A desire? No, a longing to be where they had been; to experience what they must have felt.
And on the flip side of that, to be able to create a similar experience in the lives of others.
Interior & LoA