Conversations with Strangers

You never know where a conversation with a stranger will take you.

Three years ago, I was on the ferry that runs from Peaks Island to Portland, Maine. I always go topside – Casco Bay is a jewel that shines no matter the weather or time of year.

Leaning against the rail was a guy wearing a computer backpack that looked really comfy. (Unlike my messenger bag that hangs off one shoulder and keeps my chiropractor in business.) During the ensuing conversation, we passed Bug Light Park. Located on land that during WW2 was a shipyard that built more than 236 liberty ships, Bug Light is home to a memorial to “ thousands of men and women who worked at the South Portland Shipyards; the seamen who faced the dangers of war on board the Liberty Ships; all of those who served in the war and their families; and the South Portland residents who shared their backyard with a booming shipyard.”

As we passed the memorial, I talked about the retrofitting of  liberty ships to transport livestock to Europe following the end of the war. They sailed from ports throughout the US – even from Portland. He was a professor of maritime history at the US Merchant Marine Academy and had never heard about the use of liberty ships as cattle boats.

The Quest:

In 2003, as we were once again preparing for war, I was searching for a topic for my MFA. My quest to find a personal response to the impending war coincided with my search for a thesis theme.

There are several peace  based churches in my town. I began attending the Pipe Creek Friends Meeting House. I met with the minister of the local Brethren Church.  During our conversations, we talked about conscientious objectors who volunteered for starvation experiments to support the war effort. He told me of men in his congregation who participated in LSD experiments. I learned that farmers received deferments from the draft. He then told me that following the end of WW2, more than 4000 cows passed through our town on their way to the port of Baltimore where they were loaded on liberty ships headed for Europe. Maybe I would be interested in interviewing the woman on whose farm these animals were cared for.

The Vision:

As WW2 came to an end, Olive and Roger Roop, Union Bridge, Maryland attended a sermon led by Daniel West. So horrified by the starvation of children following the end of the Spanish Civil War, the Brethren minister had a vision. He wanted to send livestock – heifers – to farmers in war torn Europe. Each calf born would then be passed on to another farm and so on.

Roger Roop was an inveterate farmer who (as Olive said in her interview) “when he saw something that needed to be done, he found a way to do it.” So he offered to care for the donated animals and prepare them for transport.  And he did. And Heifer Relief (now known as Heifer International) was born.

Olive was working in her garden when I arrived. We toured the now silent dairy barn. We examined the contents of file drawers and the boxes of newspaper clippings and other ephemera that documented the beginning of Heifer and the story of the seagoing cowboys.

Passing on the Gift:

While I was interviewing Olive, Peggy Reiff Miller, Indiana, was looking through files and boxes at the New Windsor Brethren Service Center. Her grandfather had been a seagoing cowboy. She had found his diary and wanted to write a series of young adult books about the effort.

Long story short: which as you can see, is hard to do when talking about synchronicity because there are many twists and turns before the actual moment of synchronicity takes place.  The completion of my thesis exhibition entitled Heifer Relief: Compass, Ark, Berth coincided with the 60th anniversary of the beginning of Heifer International. I approached the Brethren Service Center to host a seagoing cowboy reunion. We called it: Passing on the Gift. More than 30 cowboys attended and exhibited their memorabilia. We scanned their photos, copied films, and collected their oral histories.

Back to the Beginning:

The American Merchant Marine Museum is located on the campus of the US Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY overlooking the waters of the Long Island sound. The museum was once the private home of William Barstow, Thomas Edison’s partner and inventor of the electric meter. The AMMM is a national repository and exhibition center for artifacts, artworks, ship models and maritime ephemera.

Dr. Joshua Smith, Interim Director and my companion on the ferry, had invited me to tour the museum. His next major exhibit: Convoy! would highlight “the Allied effort to supply its forces and civilian populations.” As a companion to the Convoy exhibition, he invited me to install Heifer Relief.

Three years after first meeting Josh, my assistant and I drove a 15’ truck filled to the brim with supplies, sculpture, tools, and NOT my dress clothes across the George Washington bridge to the US Merchant Marine  Academy. We unloaded and began the process of installing the work.

After an arduous 5 day build out, including a visit from the Secretary of DOT, Ray Lehood, removal of VERY HEAVY exhibition cases and the need for a front end loader, Heifer Relief: Compass, Ark, Berth a multi media installation opened. Peggy Reiff Miller presented “The Seagoing Cowboys: Cattlemen of the U.S. Merchant Marine” based on her 10 years of research.

You just never know where a conversation will take you:

  •  To unearth memorabilia in a basement file drawer…
  • To interview a sea going cowboy…
  • To creating a vision for the future without forgetting the past; or

To Indiana to find a stone for a library sculpture. Stay tuned.


6 comments on “Conversations with Strangers

  1. mary koopman says:

    I am loving your blog! Though I get to hear much of your stories in regular “oral” installments, it is really nice to read about your journey and thoughts pulled together in concise cohesive text. And our meeting was on a bench on Peaks waiting for the ferry. So glad our paths crossed too…a start of a frienship/kinship that has been much appreciated.
    Your pal, Mary

  2. Spencer says:

    So cool. I think Maine is fertile soil for these types of encounters. I look forward to reading more.

  3. Yes – I remember the conference you organized. It was a great effort and it was wonderful to see the work of the cowboys honored.

  4. Yes, I remember the conference you organized. It was a great honor and wonderful to see the work of the cowboys honored.

  5. Beckie says:

    Please post pictures of the completed installation – take photos before the tear down!!! So amazing about you meeting Josh on the ferry.

  6. Miranda Vinograd says:

    I do so wish, Jo, that the State Department would send this exhibit to tour the areas in Europe where the cows were sent to remind them of American generosity and thoughtfulness in the past and rebuild the image of Americans abroad in an unbombastic way. You get to tour too natch!

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