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Excerpt: "The Age of Sail to the Space Age..."

Excerpt from Chapter 1: A CAPE COD CHILDHOOD 

“I am a Cape Codder by birth and by inheritance through a long, unbroken line of ancestors… In this [place] there is something elementary, something of pounding surf, of shifting sands, the taste of salt on the lips, the flash of sun on distant dunes, the mingled smells of marsh muck, salt hay, and stranded fish, the mewing of gulls, the whistling of shore birds, the restless rise and fall of the tides, the silvery gleam of fresh water in emerald settings, the resinous odor of scrub pines.

Thornton W. Burgess

“In this atmosphere I was born and spent my childhood. From it I have never wholly escaped…Looking back through the years, I wonder if it was not then that the pattern of my life was set.”

Thornton W. Burgess


The Age of Sail to the Space Age        

Even if he had done nothing out of the ordinary, Thornton Waldo Burgess’ life would have been remarkable for its span of ninety-one years over an extraordinary period of American history. He was born on January 14, 1874. Only nine years earlier, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee had ridden on horseback into the village of Appomattox Courthouse to negotiate terms of surrender that would end the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated five days later.

Burgess died on June 5, 1965, in the midst of the cataclysmic events of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements, a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act, eighteen months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “Shock follows shock,” Burgess had written to New Brunswick newspaper editor Stuart Trueman in December, 1963. “We have lost an able and good man, a brilliant man, who had he lived might well have become a truly great man.”

He witnessed the impact of two global wars, the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression, as well as revolutionary developments in communications, transportation and energy, from telephones, electricity, and automobiles to radio, television, air travel and nuclear power.  Two events that bookended his life illustrated the extent of change it encompassed. As a five-year-old child, Burgess had watched transfixed from a sand dune while the crew of a Provincetown whaling ship, moored offshore in Cape Cod Bay, stripped blubber from a seventy-four-foot whale on the beach. And within four years of the writer’s death Neil Armstrong would step onto the surface of the moon. 


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