Ecotone home page

The Ecotone wiki site is a collection of essays on "place" and its meaning to the writers. My other bursts of

Coming & going
Food & place
Imaginary place
Maps as place
Mythical place
River and Estuary
Rocks and place
Saving place
Sound and place
Visitors & place

Back 1

Cleveland State University

Even in bright sunlight, Cleveland's Civil War memorial looks ominous. Bolt upright, it stands on the southwest corner of Public Square with the air of an obsessive grandparent lecturing a child about how it was in the old days.

Today -- July 4, 2004 -- it is 110 years old. It has outlived almost all its neighbors on the square, and its elaborate, symbolic decorations have been blackened by soot into a permanent, antique mourning. It's a unique expression of Victorian sentimentality, Cleveland's 19th-century prosperity and of veterans' political power -- for it was largely built with tax money, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

Its four major sculpture groups depict the hottest moments of warfare -- close-up fighting around an artillery piece, for example; a horse going down in a calvary fight. The committee that built it consciously chose to depict realistic action instead of the stilted figures of the day. Unconsciously, perhaps, they emphasized the soldiers' courage by stressing the horror of what they survived.

The men themselves are named in the central building, where bronze doors guard a cool, tomblike quiet against the noise of the modern street. The monument is the polar opposite of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, where men and women, not drama, are the focus; the names are outdoors and there is no ornament at all. Even the statuary off to one side that veterans insisted on is subdued.

The Vietnam monument doesn't stress courage, but I think it's taken for granted there.

I have no right to write about courage, not when reservists close to my own age risk their lives to do what they need to under fire in Iraq or Afghanistan. Lucky in my draft number 30 years ago, I have never had to worry about someone trying to kill me, at least not in the immediate sense of the heated scenes on the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial downtown. Indeed, I don't claim to have courage. I think too much. I avoid heights and confrontations, and if my capacity for outrage had anything behind it, I would be working, in poverty, on petitions to send to Washington. Instead I work, in insecure comfort, to send my daughter to college someday.

I think it's interesting to consider that we respect the courage of people with good intentions, even if we don't agree with what they're doing, but not the courage of people with bad or foolish aims. It took courage for a boater to leap to the aid of his friend in the water today, for example, but likely no one will look past the fact that he left his boat to drift away from him, and didn't bring a life preserver. I don't understand why condemned prisoners don't fight tooth and nail as they're taken to the death chamber. Does it take more courage to resist, or not to? And why should anyone care? At least some of them are innocent.

Most likely the bravest thing my wife and I have done was to decide to have a child, after years of insisting we wouldn't. And that leads back to a place, University Hospitals. I will long remember our first experience there, a premature-labor scare in a birthing room decorated like a '70s Holiday Inn suite -- just sitting amid the hardware, sitting, and trying to be calm, and waiting for developments. At one point, down the hall, a young woman started screaming, in a voice that suggested she didn't have any idea what was happening to her or why. But waiting didn't take any courage on my part, really; that was all my wife's, who had to endure the drug they used to calm her uterus. Later, she said she felt as if an elephant had sat on her chest -- and I realized the same drug, potassium chloride, is used in executions.

Still, I know now from experience, it does take some determination to say "no" as needed. And letting go, now -- that will take courage, for sure.

Back to top