Published Articles by Doris Weatherford

Drawing Lines on the Land

August 8, 2016

One of the major newspapers – the New York Times, I think – wasted trees on a report that detailed the potential cost of building Donald Trump’s wall against Mexico. As I recall, it was reprinted by our local Times with a headline on the first page and an inside continuation, so it was long enough that this wasn’t just a passing notion. The reporters also examined the practicality of Trump’s promise to make Mexico pay for this wall.

I just gasped in surprise: Haven’t they heard of airplanes? Those machines we have had for more than a hundred years that can fly over walls, no matter how high? Smugglers, whether they specialize in drugs or people or something else, have been using planes forever. Is there a plan to shoot them down? And if so, why build a wall in the first place? And what about boats on the aptly named Gulf of Mexico? Mexicans are free to use that waterway. The fact is that physical barriers are no solution to complex problems. Instead, this is merely a case of boys with toys.

Nor is it the first time. After Germany invaded France in World War I (1914-1918), the French built what they called “The Maginot Line” across their border with Germany. This was done between 1930 and 1935 – well after the invention of airplanes and even after their use in what then was called “The Great War.” French Minister of War Andre Maginot spent 7,000 million francs to construct a supposedly impregnable defense against Germany. The system was based on three fortified belts with anti-tank emplacements, bombproof artillery casements, and a rear line of other modern fortifications. Everyone in the West praised it as an engineering miracle.

Germans have been guilty of many wartime crimes, but usually not of stupidity. When they again invaded France in 1940, they simply went around the Maginot Line. They quickly conquered the little nations along the Baltic Sea, and after pushing through Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, entered France from the north instead of the east that was “protected” by the expensive wall.

France would have done better to have spent its money on intelligence that would have told them of Hitler’s plans for genocide and to have protected their own Jews. Instead, most of France’s ruling class was perfectly willingly to send them off to slave labor in Germany, where they would die by the millions. With the exception of the Danes and the Dutch, other Europeans also systematically betrayed their fellow citizens who were Jewish, as well as other minorities of ethnicity and ideology, including union leaders.

Walls don’t work. Instead of calculating the cost of closing off Mexico, better we should re-read Robert Frost’s poem that begins: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it.” My favorite lines are further in:

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offense.”


Naval defenses historically worked better than stationary forts on land, but the airplane changed that, too. To say nothing of unmanned guided missiles in the shape of V-1 and V-2 rockets, which first were used by Germany against Britain near the end of World War II. Many billions of R&D dollars later, even military experts now assert that such weaponry has become nothing more than an international suicide pact, ensuring our mutual destruction.

This is another Maginot Line mindset struck down, but again, The Donald doesn’t understand. If we paid for nuclear arms, he thinks, why don’t we use them? Against whom and especially why isn’t so clear, but we won’t waste space on that. Still, I so wish someone had cancelled his five Vietnam deferments and forced him into the discipline that the military requires. Someone may have even put him in a stockade until he learned some things about mouthing off and showing respect to others.

But back to water and its uses, both present and past. I was happy to see our local governments – at last! – agree to study the feasibility of ferries. The proposed one between Tampa and St. Petersburg is a good start, but we also should have them on other waterways, especially the bay between Apollo Beach and MacDill. Something – probably realtors -- has convinced too many Air Force folks that schools and homes in the Brandon area are better than those in South Tampa. The result is thousands of vehicles regularly making the long trip along I-75, I-4, and/or I-275 and the Crosstown, through almost all of Tampa, to get to their jobs at its southern tip. That’s a terrible waste of time and gas, to say nothing of air pollution and traffic congestion.

And with a little creativity, we really shouldn’t even have to subsidize such a ferry with local dollars. Nearby military operations have boats and train sailors: why not get a two-fer? A ferry could solve a naval training need and get MacDill personnel across the water without their current long and individual trips. The military even could make a profit on it by allowing civilians aboard, too. That’s probably too innovative for them, but maybe a certain congresswoman could check into it.

Waterways as Highways

It’s important to remember that until very recently in time, waterways were our highways. That’s why (although regrettably too expensive for me) Viking River Cruises have proved so popular. From the Danube or the Rhine or other rivers in other countries, you can see civilization as it developed. The old city walls and watchtowers and castles still rise above rivers, demonstrating that water was the way to move from place to place. With a few exceptions after the invention of railroads, all major cities grew up around water.

That was true of Tampa, too, as the federal government built Fort Brooke where the Hillsborough River meets Tampa Bay in 1824. Roads were comparatively slow to develop, not only because they were expensive to build, but also because water often offered a more direct route. Here, for example, there were no bridges across the bay to Pinellas until the 1930s, when the Gandy was built as a toll-charging bridge. Until then, the land-based journey to say, Gulfport, meant going around the northern end of the bay through Oldsmar and down through Clearwater and St. Pete and more. Sensible people instead took a boat.

Even within Tampa, people traveled by water. Jennie Watrous pioneered down on the peninsula where Watrous Avenue now is, and she wrote in an 1877 letter to a cousin Up North: “We like our new home very much… We live on a farm of 151 acres [and] have a beautiful view of the bay… We attend church in Tampa, which is a place of about 1000 inhabitants… Tampa is at the mouth of the Hillsboro river and to go there we must either walk or drive [a horse-drawn carriage] one mile and cross on the ferry (no bridge), or go on the bay in our skiff. We women often go alone as we have learned to row.”

Tampa can join the big league on this. Seattle and San Francisco offer many ferry options, and New York City has sponsored ferries between its several islands for centuries. Usually they are low-cost: I can remember riding the ferry to Staten Island primarily to enjoy its famous nickel fare. Some of my Boston friends drink cocktails on ferries to their South Shore homes, and of course, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Long Island long have been ferry destinations, especially in summer. I’ve often wondered why we can’t get those same ships to come here in winter.

We’ve also taken car-carrying ferries between Canadian islands and between England and Norway, as well as Sweden and Denmark. Those are big, with thousands of passengers, but we’ve also taken small ferries (or water taxis) between islands in Greece and the Caribbean. Once we took a little ferry across the Gulf of Nicoya in Costa Rica. That turned out to be very scary: a storm came up, and waves literally washed over our car. That won’t happen here, though, because you know that the US bureaucrats impose excessive regulation.

Sarcasm aside, it’s important to point out that roads cost beaucoup bucks. We usually pay for them with tax dollars, not tolls, so why not do the same for water travel? The construction industry, of course, wants to build endless highways, but maybe we can induce them to build stations and parking garages for ferries instead. Most of all, if fares are low enough to compete with the real costs of cars, using waterways as highways will benefit of all of us. Let’s go for it!

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.


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