For months, I've had a note on my calendar to write about the visit of President Benjamin Harrison, 110 years ago this week. It probably wasn't any big deal, but I rarely pass up any excuse to write about Knoxville in the 1890s. It was a booming, energetic town that thought of itself, earnestly, as a "metropolis" and succeeded daily in convincing its 30,000 citizens, all of whom lived more or less downtown, that it was.
It surprises me every time I look at it. Even though it was a time before skyscrapers and airplanes, you can pick a date at random in the 1890s, look it up on microfilm at the library, and find something dramatic, whether it's the cable car to the cliffs across the river, or a wild gunfight in the Bowery, or a description of an electrical illusionist at Staub's Theater.
And I don't doubt that Benjamin Harrison, though remembered mainly as our last bearded president, must have had something interesting to say that week in 1891. But I never made it over to the library to look it up. That pencil note, "Benjamin Harrison visit, 1891," seems like the least relevant thing on my calendar this month.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the 1972 Southern Airways hijacking scare, when the hijackers shot the co-pilot and threatened to crash the plane into Oak Ridge National Laboratories. Since then, the News-Sentinel has run an interview with one of the ex-hijackers, who, I was surprised to learn, is now free and living in Knoxville.
Reader Sharon Webb wrote to inform me that her friend William Robert "Billy Bob" Haas, the pilot of that plane who talked the hijackers into allowing him to land the plane safely in Cuba, died about seven months ago, suddenly, of a heart attack. He was 72, and was at the time Vice Mayor of LaGrange. He had been a commercial pilot for about 30 years before retiring in 1988. One of very few American pilots with any experience with suicidal hijackers, he had written a book about his ordeal called Odyssey of Terror.
Mrs. Webb's husband, Paul Webb, was on duty in the tower at McGhee Tyson throughout the 36-hour crisis. She adds that First Officer Harold Johnson recovered from his gunshot wound and is now a pilot for Northwest Airlines.
After that column I wrote about the deep roots of the Arab community in Knoxville, a subject on which my colleague Joe Tarr expounded more fully in a cover story last week. In my column I remarked on the fact that in a 1936 guide to Mediterranean communities in Knoxville, author Dio Adallis refers to the local Arab community as "Syrians," though the ones we know about were actually Palestinians.
Jim Harb, a descendent of one of those original families, wrote to explain. When his family came over in the 1920s, he says, "the effects of European nationalism had not impacted on and divided that part of the world, and so, for most all of the people of the Levant, they considered themselves 'Syrians,' because the major influence and economic power of the region was Damascus." Levant, a word you don't see much anymore, describes all the land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. "As I was growing up," in Knoxville, Harb continues, "I was told that I was a 'Syrian,' then, after the war of 1948, a 'Jordanian.' Later, with the nationalism that was sweeping Palestine, which was a clear reaction to Zionism, we all came to identify ourselves as 'Palestinians.'"
I never knew that.
For nine years I've been fairly strict about keeping this half-page devoted to local history, particularly the history of city-limits Knoxville. It's always my excuse for not doing a lot of driving to other counties, which, in my 15-year-old car, can be a tenuous proposition. But this time I can't help observing, just because I haven't noticed anyone else do so, that sometime this week Ronald Reagan became the oldest man ever to have held the office of president of the United States. He was already the oldest president, of course, when he was in office. Now he's also the oldest ex-president.
Of course, you could argue that he's not altogether still here. They say he doesn't know that his daughter has died, or that his airport was closed for several weeks, or why it might have been.
In living so long, though, he has ruined one of my favorite ironies. That in spite of everything we've learned about fitness, nutrition, and medicine, our longest-lived president had always been John Adams, who spent most of his 90 years and eight months in the 18th century, when bloodletting was the favored therapy for several varieties of ailments. Reagan is now technically older, even if Adams' mind held out longer.
There's still enough data about presidential lifespans there to make you scratch your head. Jefferson lived to the age of 83. Madison, 85. John Quincy Adams, 80. Jackson, 78. Martin Van Buren, almost 80. Our first 10 presidents, who had all died by the time of the Civil War, lived on average seven years longer than those who died of natural causes in the 20th century.
Maybe it's just a fluke. It's hard to argue that, in those days of fatback and corn whiskey, and a scarcity of treadmills and exercise programs, they lived healthier lifestyles. Maybe, in those days, the minority of American children who reached a presidential age were stronger than the average baby to begin with.
I'll jot down my note about Benjamin Harrison's visit on next year's calendar and see if it works in better then.