Vol. 11, No. 2,640 - The American Reporter - May 6, 2005

On Native Ground

by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
Richmond, Va.

RICHMOND, Va., July 18, 2004 -- If Sen. John Kerry wants to be elected President of the United States, he'd better hurry down to the Sidewalk Cafe on Main St. here and talk to Jeff McCarthy, the bartender. "I'm not going to make up my mind until two minutes before I go into the polling booth," he said. It's Jeff McCarthy - and millions like him around the country - who holds the key to the 2004 presidential election. He's the one that everyone is after.

Sit at the bar, order the fantastic chicken quesadilla dinner (far more than even Sen. Kerry can eat) with black beans, rice and melted cheese and a pint of beer to go with, and settle in for a long night.. Independent votes will not come easy this year for anyone because there's been too much of an information gap on the one side and and information overload on the other.

After you've converted Jeff, the hard work starts. Turn to your left and ask former Navy SEAL dive trainer Rick Garrigan why he's supporting President George W. Bush. John Kerry "worked as a U.N. peacekeeper," he'll tell you, and was a poor leader when he commanded U.N. troops on a peacekeeping mission in Eastern Europe.

Told that Kerry never commanded a peacekeeping mission for the U.N. or anyone else, Garrigan is taken aback and promises to check his information more carefully. He's probably confusing Kerry, a highly-decorated Vietnam war hero, with Gen. Wesley Clark, the U.S. military leader and former Democratic presidential candidate who did lead NATO troops in Kosovo and has endorsed Kerry's run for the presidency.

But that's not the end of your problems.

As a U.S. Army Ranger, Garrigan was on an ill-fated helicopter mission that was nailed with a rifle grenade and smashed into a six-story building in the troubled former Yugoslavian province. His leg and nose were nearly ripped off, and thick scarring from third degree burns on his back still remind him of the sacrifice he and other American troops made for the people of Koso As the 30ish crowd waxed and waned and the music roared on, Garrigan, 35, a Richmond native and proprietor of The Dive Shop here said what a lot of Americans may also feel: it's not a good idea to change presidents in midstream.

John Kerry should run in 2008 and win, but not now, he said. The fact that the President's assertions about Iraq didn't add up, or that Iran turned out to have the nuclear weapons program, had al-Qaida contacts, and even harbored Osama bin Laden for a time (a charge the Iranians rejected again today) - and that the President's went to war based in part on the disinformation Iranian spies fed the President's once-favored Iraqi, Ahmed Chalabi of the Iranian National Congress, means little to Garrigan.

During Desert Shield, Garriagn said he had been in a tank regiment that rolled right over a bunker containing chemical weapons, but only learned about it when an infantry outfit behind the tanks actually fell into the bunker. He had seen a vast number of bodies piled high in unmarked graves, the victoms of Saddam's cruel madness. It doesn't matter, he says, that the intelligence was wrong; Saddam had to go. He does fault Presdent George H.W. Bush, the current President's father, for not going into Baghdad and gfetting Saddam back then.

The economy is coming back, he says, and unemployment is falling. Stay with the man in charge.

You listen to Garrigan and look at his scars and say to yourself, This is a man who the country counted on. He may not know much about John Jerry, but he has a feel for the nation he loves so much. Millions of Americans, he says, will feel the same way. President Bush will win.

I am of another, opposite opinion. He listens and considers, gives points and takes them, but in the end he sticks with the President. Fortunately, a woman intervenes. She's to my right, a young lady with freckles, and she doesn't like Presdent Bush or John Kerry. She likes Nader, she says, "but not this time!" She won't take the chance that Bush might get re-elected. I get up to go and she moves over to my bar stool; soon the two of them are deep into conversation. As I leave with half my quesadilla still intact, I have a feeling Nader is not the real issue here.

My great-grandfather, Patrick Shea, was much on my mind today. As I sped up I-84 towards the Washington, D.C. area, I finally got to visit Petersburg again for the first time since I hitch-hiked through it in the dark in 1965. I remembered a small, elegant town with quietly beautiful homes, but on this visit those were not in plain sight. For miles to the south of the city, small wooden homes that nce were beautiful now were deteriorating; peeling paint and dilapidated porches bordered both sides of Highway 1, the old North-South route that was supplanted by I-95 many years ago. It is now a community of poor black people, some of whom sat on curbs or wandered aimlessly along broken streets devoid of hope.

Once through the city, I came upon the Petersburg Battlefield, a remnant of two years late in the Civil War when the city of Petersburg fell siege to the forces of the Union Army led by Gen. F.W. Smith. A man named Dimmock had built a series of defensive earthworks around the vast battlefield, and the batteries within them withstood the Union assault for nine months before they fell in June, 1864.

The battle there pitted 15,000 Union troops against 2,300 rebels, who were forced to fall back when 3,500 U.S. Colored Troops (as they were known) mounted an assault on a key cannon bsatterry near dusk on June 15, 1864. The battled raged along the Dimmock Line for two hours, and the black troops overran Battery 9 and pushed the Confederates southwards, capturing dozens of the rebels and six cannons. It must have been a bloody, terrible fight because the batteries that held the high ground ringed themselves with deep ditches, themselves guarded by long, sharp wooden stakes that pointed out at the invaders. To honor these men of the Army of the James and the Army of the Potomac, a marble marker stands straight up on a rough granite pediment, silent, clean and long forgotten.

"They made a splendid charge...and won great favor in the eyes of white soldiers by their courage and bravery," wrote Robert Fisk of the 2d Vermont Infantry. It was the first great success of the black troops in Virginia, and was capped nine months later when the same troops were among the first troops to enter Richmond.

Patrick Shea, my grandfather, signed up with the Confederates here in Petersburg, along with his father. Family lore says that they each got $300 to fight in the place of wealthier Southern gentlemen who were not so inclined. But I starte to wonder about the journey to Petersburg, from wherever it began - presumably, a port in the South where they landed and then walked or rode to Petersburg. They would have had no money - Ireland left them penniless, and work was rarely found that paid for more than a meal. Trudging overland, the 12-year-old son and the 30-year-old father, they must have been hungry many times. Who fed them? Where did they sleep in the snow, the rain and the searing summer heat?

Three years later at Gettysburg, his father already dead, Patrick Shay (as they spelled it in his records), who by now had lost his canteen and his musket, was shot five times in the face as he tried to sneak up on a mounted Union cavalry officer armed with a horse pistol. Badly disfigured - and likely to die, the Union thought - the Yankees put him in their field hospital and found reason to ship him north to kin in New York, where he became a devoted member of the party of Lincoln.

He died when Democrats threw him down a flight of stairs in an election riot, and never saw his own son topple the head of Tammany Hall and get elected Sheriff of New York.

So I kneel and put both hands to this sacred ground, where so many died and suffered. In the eye of memory comes dimly at first and then a little clearer the standing figure of a Union soldier alone in the center of the battery, a few grey-uniformed corpses stiffened in death lying off to his right; he holds a flag or musket, maybe both, straight up in his hands as he stands and surveys the dusky hard-won field. Something central and quiet in me connects to him; he must have been thinking about the human cost of this small piece of ground.

Later, a black Park Ranger tells me that Dinwiddie County, where Petersburg is, is almost uniformly poor. I ask if Petersburg has a downtown shopping area and he replies, yes, but it's closed. "The downtown is closed?"

"Yes, he says. It's on Sycamore Street. They're open from 8 to 5."

Here's what John Kerry ought to do: He ought to come to Petersburg for a single day with 5,000 volunteers and 10,000 buckets of paint. And when he's elected, he ought to devise a program to start change quickly in thousands of towns like this one, so that people through service can feel they are making progress against the blight of homes and lives left behind in the rush to the global economy. They deserve it, after all; their ancestors fought and died in this place, and though unsung, they have a right to the American dream. Joe Shea, Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter and a longtime supporter of Sen. John Kerrys presidential campaign, is enroute to Boston to cover the Democratic National Convention.

Copyright 2005 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.