So, for the first time since Covid, I got out of Dodge, otherwise known as San Antonio. Yup. I took the plunge to go see my daughter, Rosie, in Germany, where she is a free-lance bass player and all-around interesting person. It took more nerve than I thought I could summon up. See, I am a Covid Virgin (no smart remarks) and unlike the other sort of inexperience, I was (am) in no hurry to lose this status. I won’t make excuses, other than to say I don’t think we understand this illness too well. At the tender age of 71, I’m not eager to find out what it can really do to your body, other than kill it. So, I tended to stay at home, amazed at the recklessness of my fellow Americans. That’s probably you, no offense, but I’m not about to be diplomatic. Sorry.
Having to get on a plane and deal with air travel was not exactly a dream of mine. I dislike the airlines, my fellow passengers, airports, and all the crap thrown at you in an effort to find out what you will pay to avoid misery and discomfort. I get the economics, you know? But getting and liking are two different things. Besides, I remember when air travel was actually pleasant. Believe it or not. If you think leaving stuff to the market will create the best of all possible worlds, I give you modern airline travel as an example of how delusional neoclassical economics can make you.
Getting on a plane is like riding a bicycle. You don’t forget how to do it. For an awful moment, after standing around in the airport thinking unkind thoughts about the vagaries of natural selection, I had the feeling I had never gotten off a plane. Other than new marketing gimmicks, no “free” “food,” and some ding-dong actually screening porn at his seat (on some “device”, oh my God), it was the same. Less room, seemingly–protests to the contrary–less ventilation (I swear), a couple of fellow mask-wearers. Three years had elapsed without noticing. Maybe I had been abducted by some alien named Greg Abbott. You never know. Time flies when you’re having a blast on a UFO called Texas.
In any event, it’s a long way from Texas to Berlin, in more ways than one. I made an intermediate stop in London to actually do some archival work at the Bank of England. First, I had to survive Heathrow and deal with the consequences of Brexit–if anything, worse than anyone said. But I had known for years that my alternate project on the Lizardi Brothers merchant bank (“Atlantic history” with Mexico thrown in) was gonna require a trip to the Bank. And boy, was I not mistaken. The Bank was a delightful surprise. The staff was, get this, politely helpful. They wanted you to read documents (NB: AGN, Mexico, take note) and were happy to help you ferret out more. No plastic gloves that could only be purchased at the Archive at tienda de raya prices. But, I digress. I am still printing up hard copies of the several score of photos I shot. And, what’s more, I have, don’t you know, a different perspective on our friends. one less dependent on larceny and Santa Anna, and more like the usual business of an acceptance house. Stay tuned. I suspect there is more where this came from.
I flew on to Berlin to see Rosie, my daughter (click for her webpage, please!), now a successful free-lance musician in Germany. She had the courage to drive out to Berlin’s new airport (more later) to get me. And while I was waiting, some sketch cab driver came up and tried to talk me into his cab, protesting that I didn’t need a mask in Germany. Yup. Drivers have actually told Rosie to take her mask off, but I guess I looked too sullen to pull that. Covid is all over the place in Germany, so we were always careful, really tough for a musician in an orchestra, you know. But she doesn’t take crap from anyone, a desirable characteristic for an expat female bassist. We had a good time, even though she was working a lot.
Now, my favorite excursion was to the King of Prussia. Yeah, you heard that right. Wait. I thought King of Prussia is an “edge city” about 15 miles outside of Philadelphia. It is. It is also one of the most successful and upscale malls in the United States. No, I didn’t go to that King of Prussia. I went, instead, to see the original King of Prussia in Potsdam, and his famous palace Sans Souci. Oh, yeah, the King, he dead. I saw his grave! And quite a character, apparently.
Now I’m gonna give you a condensed version of who he was, and what the Hell he has to do with King of Prussia. Confused? I hope so. You may also recall a movie, In The King of Prussia, with Dan Berrigan and Martin Sheen, which I will also briefly summarize. Cause Dan Berrigan had been to King of Prussia too. Really confused? Good.
First things first. Who was the King of Prussia and why does he matter and why am I obsessed with this stuff?
Well, first, when I was a kid, my Dad and I would journey to Valley Forge PA, in those days, a ride into the countryside, still basically, in the 1950s, undeveloped. All Philly school kids got this post card patriotism, defined by the number of places you had seen or visited, of which Valley Forge was framed in hymns to the suffering of the Continental Army. No battles, right, but much privation and George slept there, so to Cold War kids, this was civics in action. Not to mention yet another way of getting you to take a bullet for Team USA if the time ever came, as our teacher-nuns and Cardinal Spellman insisted it would. Dad especially liked to go up the observation tower on Mount Joy and you could put a penny in the viewing machine and gaze at the beautiful open Chester Country farmland for
What the area around Valley Forge and KOP looked like in the 1950s. Before Progress.
miles around. Today I guess you’d gaze at just another suburb glitzed up with the souped up KOP Mall, but this was long before that existed. But you knew you were near King of Prussia, which was a place, not a thing. I guess I had some vague idea that the King had fought with us against the British in the Revolutionary War, cause why else would his name be floating around out there? I mean, we’re talking mid 1950s, maybe 1960 at the latest. This is how you got your history, aside from them little blue books we used in Catholic school. At least we knew who the Hell William Penn was. I wouldn’t bet on that today.
Me and Lou Larkins would do the tower whenever we went. King of Prussia was out there, somewhere. They tore the tower down or moved it in the 1980s, which is why we can no longer have nice things in Philly. I loved going there with Lou Larkins, by the way.
But there is another way-out-of-chronological-sequence reason for knowing something about King of Prussia today. Here I want to cite Carolyn T Adams, “King of Prussia Pennsylvania” (https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/essays/king-of-prussia-pennsylvania/), which neatly (and accurately) summarizes the history of the area.
Highway construction in the mid-twentieth century set the stage for King of Prussia’s rapid development into an edge city. The Pennsylvania Turnpike, constructed from west to east across the state, arrived at Valley Forge in 1950, and by 1954 it extended eastward to the Delaware River. Almost at the same time Philadelphia was building its Schuylkill Expressway, which fully opened in 1958. That same year, spurred by the turnpike’s arrival near King of Prussia, Boston developer Cabot, Cabot & Forbes acquired rights to 710 acres north of the turnpike interchange and began signing up companies like Western Electric, Smith Kline and French, Merck Sharp and Dohme, and Pennwalt to occupy warehouses, office buildings, and factories. Since the highway interchange made it a reasonable commute from many other suburban communities, jobs quickly multiplied in what was then called the King of Prussia Industrial Park (later known as the Business Park). While some companies came from outside the region, others moved from Philadelphia to this convenient suburban location. For example, General Electric in 1962 relocated a major division from West Philadelphia to King of Prussia.
Subsequently the business park hosted software, biotech, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, finance, and insurance firms. From the beginning it welcomed defense contractors, one of which became the target of a famous anti-war protest by the Plowshares Eight. In September 1980 antiwar activists Daniel (1921-2016) and Philip (1923-2002) Berrigan with a half dozen other protesters illegally entered the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, vandalized the nose cones of several nuclear warheads being assembled there, and poured blood on company documents. Their arrest and trial sparked the Plowshares Movement, which grew into an international Christian peace movement. The business park continued to house numerous defense-related firms, most notably Lockheed Martin Space System Company, which took over the General Electric facility through corporate mergers.
Whoa. Wait a minute? A second ago we were talking about bucolic Valley Forge and Chester County. Now we’re talking about nose cones, blood, and the Berrigan Brothers? Well, someone is likely to know that KOP was the site of one of the most famous peace actions of the 1980s, the Plowshares Movement, that Phil and Dan Berrigan led, and which is memorialized in an interesting film, “In The King of Prussia.” The GE facility (“Reentry Systems Division” was the innocent sign out on the front lawn of the place) did not show up until development was well underway in the early 1960s. When we went out there, in subsequent years, we all stupidly thought that this had something to do with NASA and Project Mercury, Giant-Step-for-Mankind and all that stuff, and not, for God’s sake, assembling MIRV nose cones that were going to torch the Russkis. Hell, there was barely any security evident there, so why would any of us think that King of Prussia was a kind of Philly Lawrence Livermore? We didn’t. Believe me. Look at the photos. Little Richie Salvucci thought King of Prussia was a vast picnic ground from his experiences in the 1950s. Not some damned equivalent of Los Alamos. So on this jarring note, realize, as Carolyn Adams points out, for most of us, KOP was retail Heaven, maybe a movie theater (Linda and I saw Close Encounters on a cold winter’s night out there in 1977), or a place to hang and catch a burger). Not the Pentagon, for Heaven’s sake. And you wonder why so many of us don’t trust Uncle Sam. Whatever else they did, the Berrigans tried to wake us up.
Now, What about this King of Prussia guy, and how did he get on the map in Chester Country? And hang in there, because so much irony hitherto unrevealed to your blogger will soon be apparent. Patience.
Precisely because King of Prussia was even then a Gateway to the West (Ohio, as the Pennsylvania Turnpike signs once reminded you out there), foot and arse-sore travellers needed a place to stay. Philadelphia was then dotted with all sorts of inns, all now long, long sacrificed to shopping centers, bus terminals, and such. Well, in the eighteenth century (1719) , an enterprising family put up an inn–which miraculously survives–the King of Prussia Inn, although it wasn’t called that at first (It was, to be accurate, a farmhouse first). Now there was a king in Prussia in 1719, but he’s not our King of Prussia, who dates from 1740.
This guy was mentally unbalanced–all that royal inbreeding took a real toll–and was, as it turns out, father to the Man, our King of Prussia (actually, at first, he was technically the King in Prussia, but if you want to know the difference, do what I did and read his biography, by Tim Blanning, which is marvelous, by the way). I’m glossing over a lot of detail including the annoying habit of all these king types to be named Frederick, which is confusing as Hell. It’s all in Blanning, plus a lot of stuff that the founders of the KOP Mall never seemed eager to publicize, assuming they knew about it at all.
When Frederick the Great (I think he called himself “Great”) (1712-1786) got rolling after Daddy died around 1740, all Hell broke loose in Central Europe, especially in Silesia, “a large and wealthy province on Germany’s north-eastern border” (see Jeremy Black and Roy Porter, A Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century World History) that had been a Hapsburg possession until Frederick the Great invaded it and took it over for the Hohenzollern family. a move that caused no end of trouble for the rest of the century. It became a core of Prussia after 1763, and of this, old Frederick really was the King of Prussia. He was a figure of heroic stature, so I guess his name stuck.
He was a bit of a party animal, which sort of fits in with the KOP I knew in college , famous for a classmate’s beer emporium (still there!) that seems to have everything. Somewhat less conventionally, Frederick the Great was probably gay and he definitely was an atheist. He was also apparently, a Hell of a flautist, a running buddy of Voltaire’s, an enormous patron of the arts and palaces, an advocate for feeding the poor with potatoes (his grave is decorated with them still!) and military mastermind (Blanning points out the Prussians lost half their battles and beaucoup troops during the Seven Years War), although there do seem to have been some false steps along the way to that apotheosis. I take it the apottheosis was mostly in Frederick’s head. Now, think about General Electric assembling nuclear nose cones in KOP, the thing that sparked the Berrigans’ protest and trial. Sort of fits, no? Nukes, Frederick the Great, a Catholic priests raising the Devil (Frederick had no time for Catholicism either). I mean, it’s damn near perfect. Other than for Frederick’s sexual proclivities and unbelief. Now the real King of Prussia sure wouldn’t go down to well in King of Prussia. Like a pylon shouting “Welcome to King of Prussia Mall, named for a Gay Atheist. Have a Blessed Day.” Heh, heh. And you think they got Columbus in a box in South Philly (actually, he’s out for now)? Holy Mother of God, I can see it now. A movement to rename KOP the Great American Mall. Hmm…..A magamall not a megamall? I know there were big Trump rallies out there. Lol. The cunning of history.
If you haven’t actually been to KOP mall, which dates from 1963, a lot of this will escape you.
Today there are two parts to the Mall: the Plaza and the Court. Dude, I grew up with the lower-middle class Plaza, which was only upscale if you thought Gimbel’s or JC Penny’s was upscale. Look at the photo. You can smell cigarette smoke, Jade East cologne, and lousy coffee.The Court is much newer, and it is pitched at what my friends in Mexico call gente fifi. The thing about the Plaza was that it was a site of adolescent sociability, and it continued to be a hang for penurious grad students (like me and my wife, Linda) into the late 1970s. We had no money, but you could always look. When I was in high school, at Devon, a ride to the Plaza meant you got to smoke, flirt, and pretend to be cool–which none of us were. You know, I had a girlfriend who worked there, and some of my classmates knew people who had small businesses in the Plaza. It was a pizza kind of place. Not the Champs Elysee. The Court is, well, nicer, but of more recent vintage, with all those kind of fancy shops Boomers are supposed to adore.
Now, The KOP Sans Souci has had its share of problems lately, including carjackings, attempted murder, you know, urban stuff. But KOP IS urban, so what would you expect? Trees and birds and tranquil vistas? Those are long gone. Hell, they may even run light rail ought to KOP, with which only Heaven knows what result. One only hopes KOP does not look like Philly in a century, but then maybe Philly will be nice than and the suburbs will have gone to Hell–a bit of a temporal and spatial juxtaposition of the city going back to the 1950s. You know, history repeating itself, all that? I won’t be around, so it’s not my problem.
Ay my age, I’ve reached the damning conclusion that life is hiding in plain sight, but no one ever tells you when you’re still young enough to see and learn. At least there’s no Fuhrerbunker in King of Prussia. Yet. Time will tell.