Baltimore: The Summer of 1974, a Tugboat and a WWII Massacre

Here I am in Baltimore, as a tag-along spousal unit while Maggie attends an international educational conference. We’re staying in Harbor East, adjacent to the city’s famous Inner Harbor area. From our 29th floor hotel window, we can see a large golden monument down below: The National Katyn Memorial. More on that in a bit.

National Katyn Memorial to the 20,000+ Polish officers massacred in 1940
National Katyn Memorial to the 20,000+ Polish officers massacred in 1940

To the east of us is the Fell’s Point neighborhood, a historic maritime area dating back to the 1700s. Today, it’s a tourist mecca, with beautifully restored old buildings, restaurants, cobblestone streets and waterfront paths.

Which brings me back to 1974. That spring, I was a freshman at Yale, writing a paper for my early-concentration seminar on 20th century American history. I was delving into the story of Arthur Bliss Lane, a diplomat who had bequeathed his papers to Yale. In my hours squinting at his letters, clippings and other material from the time, I focused on the mission that capped his long career. His last posting was as ambassador to Poland, from which he resigned in protest in 1947, believing that the West had abandoned that country to appease Stalin. In the years that followed, until his death in 1956, he was a staunch anti-Communist crusader. A particular focus was the Katyn massacre of over 20,000 Polish officers in the early part of WWII. Lane (and many others) contended that Stalin had ordered their executions in 1940 when the Soviets controlled Poland. But the Soviets maintained that the Nazis were guilty of the crimes, after the German invasion in 1941. The issue remained unresolved until 1990, when the Russian government finally admitted that Stalin was responsible.

But when I composed my paper in 1974, Nixon was president, the Cold War was in full swing, the Vietnam War raged, and the truth about Katyn was still buried. And my thesis was that Lane’s campaign to blame the Soviets was a product of postwar anti-Communist hysteria. I buttressed my case with many citations implicating the Nazis, and my confidence that McCarthyism had clouded Lane’s view of the facts. I was blissfully unaware of my own blinders as I wrote.

Meanwhile, end of spring term was rapidly approaching, and I was nowhere close to finishing. My professor gave me an extension to complete my paper at home. Meanwhile, I’d gotten a summer job as tugboat deckhand and was due at a dock in Newark NJ. On the eve of disembarking, I finally finished my paper in longhand, dumped it into my mom’s lap to type up (for which I will forever be grateful), and made it onto the boat at dawn the next morning.

Which brings me back to Fell’s Point. Our tugboat, the Betty Gale of the SC Loveland company, moved barges up and down the east coast, docking at ports from Norfolk VA up to Portsmouth, NH. By the mid-1970s, many of the once-thriving port areas in the cities we visited had fallen into post-industrial decay. So my memory of docking in Baltimore for an overnight was of cobblestones, and crusty old sailors in dive bars in a part of town that had seen better days.

Yesterday, as Maggie and her colleagues discussed innovations in boys’ education, I explored the various harbor waterfronts. I’m pretty sure that I found the exact slip where our tugboat tied up that summer night in 1974. And that Thames Street in Fell’s Point was where, along with my fellow deckhands, I had enjoyed a few beers and a sense of danger in the shadows, just the kind of adventure this 19-year-old kid was hoping for.

Where our tugboat may have tied up, Fell's Point, Baltimore
Where our tugboat may have tied up, Fell’s Point, Baltimore

Which brings me back to 2017. Of all the places we could have stayed in Baltimore, we end up at a hotel right next to the largest memorial to the victims of the Katyn massacre this side of the Atlantic, an event that I had gotten horribly wrong in the paper that I wrote in the spring of 1974. And just a few blocks away, the old seafaring district that I visited that very summer, as a college-boy-turned-macho-deckhand, happy to be back on solid ground with a few beers in my belly.

The summer of 1974. Much has changed. Fell’s Point is gentrified. What happened at Katyn is no longer a mystery, though no one was ever actually held accountable. As I write this, I’m thankful to revisit Baltimore in 2017, and for the new perspective on where I’ve come since 1974. Older, maybe wiser. Still a flaming liberal, but definitely humbler