Paul Crenshaw

The Alpha and Omega

Our lives begin and end with walls. From the uterine walls we enter this world through, to our final resting place, we are surrounded. Formed from seminal fluid surging through canals, we are then suspended in serous liquid, awash in amniotic sacs. From bodies, we become body, embraced in the warmth of the womb. Once born, we are wrapped in blankets or enclosed in incubators while grandparents and friends stand peering through more walls made of glass. Encased in car seats on the ride home we are then carried to our cradles, always cuddled, our mother's warm hands cupping our tiny heads.
     From cradles we move to cribs, slightly larger, the walls formed of bars from where we watch the outside world. Mobiles spin above us like stars but we are still enclosed, until we graduate from cribs to beds and are then tucked in tightly at night and offered wards formed from words to keep us safe: sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite, which I know has a historical meaning but I tend to think of, metaphorically, as our attempt to prevent outside forces from passing between our carefully-constructed walls and somehow harming us.     
     Once free from the crib we still stay indoors. Around the walls of my daughters' bedroom stand dressers and shelves of books like a second wall inside the first. On rainy afternoons we sit inside reading while the rain runs in rivulets down the windows or the first frost forms on the glass, adding another layer. As we grow older we leave our houses and board buses to school, or climb in cars to drive to our offices. We walk through narrow corridors to enter classrooms or cubicles, more walls within walls, where we spend most of our days before driving back home, the world moving outside the glass, and when we grow old we move out of our large houses into smaller apartments as the space becomes too much, and we wish to return to something simpler.   
     Tombs are the last walls we inhabit, when outside forces erode our mortal shells. In New Orleans, tombs have become part of the beauty of the city. The ground is saturated with water so bodies buried below ground rise to the top as if they are floating back into the world. The tombs are elaborate, carved with angels and crosses. They house entire families. After hundreds of years the wooden caskets rot, and the bones intermingle inside.
     Our oldest archaeological finds are tombs. In 209 or 210 BC the emperor Qin Shi Huang of China was buried in an underground tomb with over 8000 warriors carved from earth. The terracotta warriors are life-sized. No two are alike. They vary in dress, hair-style, and height, depending on rank. According to the historian Sima Qian, the terra cotta warriors were to help the emperor rule another empire in the afterlife. The mausoleum, Sima Qian wrote, held 100 rivers of mercury, palaces, treasures, and towers, and above this the heavenly bodies, all enclosed within the earth.  
      The largest and most lavish tombs in the world are the Great Pyramids. For 3800 years the Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest building in the world. It is comprised of 2.3 million stones, some of them dragged, floated, or rolled from 500 miles away. The pharaoh Khufu, for whom it was built, was seen as a god, and the tomb a continuation of his divinity. It was not simply a tomb, but a causeway between heaven and earth only he could use.
     The smallest tombs in the world are caskets designed for miscarriages in the first trimester. They measure 10 inches by 5 inches by 4 inches. They are lined with flannel for warmth and are glued forever closed. They are small enough to hold in your hands.       


With Words Come Walls

By the time man learned to form words into history he had also learned to form the earth into fortifications. In much the same way clay tablets were shaped to accept cuneiform or ancient plants pressed to hold hieroglyphics, our ancestors erected walls. They were formed of dirt held together with water and dried or burned into bricks, or stone dug from the earth and dragged in place and chiseled by peoples so distant from us today we have few records of them other than the earth they left behind.  
     The Hittites, Sumerians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Akkadians, Trojans and Assyrians all built walls around their cities. They expanded and developed and traded the knowledge of erecting fortifications by attacking one another, learning through trial and error the strengths and weaknesses of opposing walls. When he felt Babylon vulnerable to attack, Nebuchadnezzar reinforced the city with a wall and moat inside the old walls, forming a double line of fortifications. In the palaces of Assyria towers guarded gates, and wall-walks and embattled parapets sat atop the walls. In the vast distances of history, even small cities stood protected by walls.
     The remains of some of these walls and ancient forts still stand, although our knowledge of their completed form comes not from the crumbling ruins but from art. On the south wall of the Great Hypostyle Hall of the Ramesseum, one drawing shows the besieged city of Dapour of the Hittites. Atop the crenellated walkways and towers, the Hittites attempted to hold back the attacking Egyptians with spears and arrows and rocks. The Egyptians advanced using long shields while the Hittites rained down arrows from the three walls. From the keep in the center of the city wooden boards were extended, and the Hittite soldiers fought from these boards as well. The Egyptians, upon reaching the walls under the cover of their shields, raised scaling ladders. A few of them made it to the top, and were thrown to the ground.


So Many Forts, So Close to Home

I grew up a few miles away from Fort Chaffee, one of the largest live-fire forts in the US. On weekends National Guard and Air Guard units dropped bombs on the surrounding hills and the windows in our houses rattled and shook. When we drove through Fort Chaffee, MPs stared at us with mirrored eyes. F-16s flew overhead, and artillery fired in the distance. Some days the roads were closed to civilians, and other days fresh patches of asphalt marked where bombs had strayed off target. 
     Fort Chaffee butted up against Fort Smith, which in the early 1800s had been a frontier military post, but was now a city of 75,000 people. A few hours east were Camp Robinson and Jackson Air Force Base and Pine Bluff Arsenal, one of six Army installations in the US that store chemical weapons. In the early 1960s my grandfather applied for a job at Pine Bluff Arsenal. After interviewing inside the facility that made chemical weapons out of unhatched chicken eggs, he did not accept the position.
     In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, I was in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, another large, hot, live-fire fort where the earth randomly shook around us from the force of bombs. A year later I went to Fort Jackson in South Carolina, where it rained every afternoon at four, and then the ground steamed in the humidity after the rain. During one weekend of my National Guard service, my unit flew to Fort Hood, Texas for training. Our C-130 landed on a remote air strip at noon, and because the fort was so large night was falling before the buses arrived to pick us up. I remember the miles and miles of scrub brush and mesquite, faint breaths of wind in the hot afternoon, shadows stealing slowly across the landscape, making it almost pleasant to be where we were. 
     In the mid-90s, not long after I left the military, I worked for a time in Missouri. Driving through the countryside one afternoon I found myself on Fort Leonardwood. I was lost, and asked an MP for directions. He was polite, but his mirrored sunglasses unnerved me. I was sure that I would somehow be forced to rejoin.
     A year after that I was in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the Air Force Academy shimmers in the shade of the mountains that NORAD hides under. Now I live in North Carolina, only an hours' drive from Fort Bragg, home of the US Special Forces. To the west lies Fort Fisher, a confederate fort during the Civil War. To the north is where Camp Butner used to be. During World War II it served as a deployment area for the western front. Now the camp has been incorporated as the township of Butner, which is home to several state and federal prisons.
     There are roughly 450 military bases in the United States. Worldwide, there are between 700 and 900 United States military bases in over 150 countries. New bases have been built in 7 countries since Sept. 11, 2001. There are thirty-eight large and medium-sized American facilities around the world, mostly air and naval bases for our bombers and fleets. In 1898, at the height of imperialism, Great Britain controlled thirty-six naval bases and army garrisons. In 117 AD the Roman Empire required thirty-seven major bases to police its realm from Britannia to Egypt, from Hispania to Armenia. [1]
     A few years ago, over 100 acres of Fort Chaffee caught fire. The old barracks burned, and driving through afterward with smoke rising from the ash of the buildings like ghosts, the land looked like war had come, or that the bombs that had always fallen finally missed their mark.
     From my computer desk I can look out my window into the back yard and see two different walls. One is my fence separating my yard from my neighbor's. The other is his fence separating his yard from mine. I am not counting the window, or the wall that encases it.


Walls in The Word 

In the Bible, the difference between a city and a town was defined by walls. Much of the Old Testament deals with physical walls; much of the New Testament deals with metaphorical walls. The Old Testament depicts stories of fallen cities and gives rules on how to lay siege to one; the New Testament says that a man without faith is like a city without a wall.
     When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, the water stood like a wall to either side of them. In their search for the promised land they encountered many walled cities, and utterly destroyed them all. When they reached the city of Jericho they circled the city for six days. On the seventh day they sounded their trumpets and the walls fell.
     When Nebuchadnezzar marched against Jerusalem he laid siege against it for a year and a half, until famine ensued within the city and the walls were breached.
     The walls of Sodom and Gomorrah were said to be destroyed by fire and brimstone. The walls of Nineveh were said to be destroyed because of pride.
     The book of Deuteronomy tells what would happen to a city should the inhabitants become corrupt, warning that God would bring a nation against them as swift as the eagle flies, and that nation shall besiege them in all their towns, until the city's high and fortified walls, in which they trusted, came down throughout the land.
     In these cases, one supposes, walls were of little use.
     Many of the ancient cities of the Bible have been destroyed, their walls swept clean, stone returned to stone. But some still exist, those that were not proclaimed from on high to be destroyed, ancient stone or mud-baked brick surviving through the centuries in crumbled capacity. In Jerusalem's old city a 3700 year old wall was recently discovered. And it is in Jerusalem, atop the Temple Mount, that three religions worship, side by side by side, which is heartening, if we can forget the number of times the city has been besieged by one religion or the other.


The Fall of Rome and the Age of Castles

In Europe, the Middle Ages began and ended with falling walls. In 476 C.E. Augustus Romulus was forced to abdicate the Roman throne, and the Western Roman Empire ceased to be. With the fall of Rome, safe travel, a dependable agricultural system, and administrative and military infrastructure disappeared. The walls of Rome were destroyed by the invaders. They would later be rebuilt and torn down again as Rome changed hands over hundreds of years.
     A thousand years later Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire, and many Byzantine scholars fled to the west, bringing with them important Greek texts and a revival of learning. The Hundred Year's War ended, the Moors were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, and Columbus found the New World, ushering in the Age of Discovery and destroying the walls of ignorance and isolation that had surrounded Western civilization since Rome fell. The printing press was invented, destroying even more.   
     Ironic then, that for the thousand years of the Middle Ages, society was formed by walls.  The first half of the Middle Ages, from roughly the 5th to the 10th centuries, were marked by "barbarian" invasions as Vandals and Visigoths and various Scandinavian and Eastern European tribes poured into Central and Western Europe. In territories that had been part of the Roman Empire, stone fortified cities stood against the waves from the north. Beyond the old Roman Empire, wooden walls, or structures made of earth and wood, defended cities and villages. Without walls, there was nowhere to run when the barbarians howled at the gates.
     From the 10th to the 15th century and the end of the Middle Ages, the castle dominated the landscape. Everywhere there were walls: Roman fortifications, wooden towers and stone observations posts, cities walled by palisades. Monasteries and cathedrals were fortified with walls, turrets, crenellated battlements, and murder holes. Local lords built castles with moats and drawbridges. The invading barbarians had settled the lands, and a rise in agriculture brought with it a stability of social order in the way of the feudal system, though the peasants were often trapped by the very walls that protected them, both the real walls of the villages or castles, and the walls of caste society. The nobility wore plate armor and heavy shields and rode on armored horses, which makes me think of an era when some could afford their own protective walls to carry around with them. 
     The walls of the Middle Ages did not last. The Mongols swept through Eastern Europe, destroying cities. The cannon was invented. At the Battle of Agincourt, protected only by terrain and sharpened stakes slanted into the ground, English longbowmen cut down the heavily armored French. The cannon effectively brought down the high walls of the castle. The longbow, and the arrival of the rifle, changed the nature of armor, and war. The Crusades ignited a desire to travel, the Renaissance a reconnection with Roman and Greek learning. What castles still stand are admired as architecture, or archaeology.  
     My office  is on the third floor of an ivy-encrusted brick building. Around me stand other brick buildings, arranged like a fort, and many days I sit and stare out the window at the people moving below. Counting the ivy and the brick and the insulation, I am thickly encased, protected from siege.


Walls in War

What walls we conquer or conjure, what forts we form to protect us, all fail and wither, whether to time or tide of the slow erosion from forces beyond our ability to keep out.  
     In the 1460s, after years of war against the Ottoman Empire, Vlad the Impaler, from whom our modern stories of Dracula are derived, found himself besieged inside his own castle by the Ottoman forces. Surrounded by an army and trapped within the walls her husband had built, his wife threw herself from the battlements into the river below so the Ottomans would not torture her. Vlad escaped with the help of villagers who turned their horseshoes backwards and led him out in the dark of night.
     In 1754 George Washington and his Virginia Militia marched on Fort Duquesne to capture it and drive the French from the region. When he realized that the fort was too heavily defended, he retreated and built Fort Necessity, deciding that if he could not rid the area of the French, he would at least establish his own presence nearby. When the French surrounded the fort in early July, Washington was greatly outnumbered. It was the only time Washington would ever surrender, and was the first action in the French and Indian War.
     In December of 1835, Texas volunteers marched on and captured The Alamo near San Antonio De Bexar. Less than three months later General Antonio López de Santa Anna laid siege to the city. On the morning of March 6, 1836, Mexican troops stormed the walls. They captured a cannon atop the walls and turned it against the barricaded church where the defenders had holed up, and blasted open their last line of defense.  
     The first shots fired in the Civil War landed on the walls of Fort Sumter when it would not surrender to the newly-formed Confederacy. The French Revolution began with the storming of the walls of the Bastille.
     After World War I the French built the Maginot Line, a 1300 mile long series of defenses, which the Germans simply bypassed when invading France in World War II. Paris fell a few weeks later, and France surrendered.
     The demilitarized zone in Korea is a 160 mile long, 2.5 mile wide stretch of land that cuts the Korean peninsula in half. On either side, north and south, are guards and gates, fences topped with concertina wire stretching to distance in each direction. Inside it are tank walls and mine fields. It is the most heavily militarized border in the world.
     In the early eighties President Ronald Reagan proposed his "Star Wars" plan, which was, in effect, a defensive wall in outer space.
     Though Fort Leavenworth, Kansas is home to two colleges, a mechanized infantry division, and a university, it is most famous for its walls designed to keep people in, not out.
Fort Knox, Kentucky is designed to keep gold in and people out.
     When my daughters were little my wife and I would wake some nights to check on one of them and find her standing in her crib holding onto the slats and peering out through the gaps. I do not know now if we were keeping them in so they did not hurt themselves or attempting to keep out what might hurt them.


Small Spaces

When I was a child, the old storm cellar behind our house was a perfect fort. It had a narrow entrance, guarded by stone walls. From the top you could survey approaching danger. On hot summer nights with the door closed we could hear the storms howling outside, but inside we were protected from whatever was waiting on the other side. It was small and damp and smelled like earth. Lightning flashed through the cracks in the door and sometimes rainwater crept in, but we huddled together until it was safe to go back out.  
     Now, on rainy afternoons, I stretch sheets across my daughters' bedroom upstairs, stack couch cushions to create our own small enclosures. A heavy quilt hangs from the top bunk bed to the bottom, forming a fort inside. My daughters peer out from small spaces, smiling. The thunder reminds me of old bombs while my children crawl through tunnels we have made with whatever is on hand, connecting bunk bed fort to lean-to couch. My wife surveys the room, wondering how long it will take to tear down our fortress and re-arrange our walls into some semblance of order, and watching my daughters, I fear the day they will outgrow this sort of thing, when what walls surround them will not be of my making.
     For thousands of years man has built walls to protect him. The walls we build now are for comfort, and since they do not need to protect us from marauding armies, they can be made of anything. As children we crawl into boxes, retreat into the cool shade beneath magnolia trees on hot afternoons, or where two cedars have grown close together and in winter snow hangs in the boughs overhead. We listen beneath bridges while cars hum overhead, or climb barn lofts to hide in the hay. We slip beneath the sink when no one is looking and close the cabinet doors behind us. We slide into the crawl space or the closet beneath the stairs, keep our secret code words and share them with only the most intimate of friends. In tree houses, in basements and cellars and attics, we enclose ourselves within walls, seek out small spaces to remind us from where we have all come.
     As we grow older we search for basements or workshops or hobby rooms, offices or back yards or porches, some place to be alone for a little while. We surround ourselves with wilderness or technology, space or enclosure, whichever feels the most like a fort, and when we finally grow old we fold ourselves into boxes and inter ourselves to the earth. We spend our lives looking for walls to surround us, whether it's a couple of couch cushions stacked in a square or a six-foot sheet stretched between shelves or the perfect house from which we will build our memories. Whether it's a bed or a bottle or a narrow writing room or a memory from long ago. Some place we feel the sense of safety we only knew while in the womb.   
     The Bible describes heaven as a city of gold, with walls of jasper. There are twelve gates, three to the cardinal directions, each gate made of precious stones. The walls of the city have twelve foundations, and they are as high as the city is long, which makes me wonder what needs to be kept out. 


[1] Johnson, Chalmers A. Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic. Metropolitan Books, 2007.



I had a picture of the Alhambra in southern Spain as the background on my desktop, and one day (while trying to write) began thinking about how it was originally built as a fort, which led to me thinking about other forts, then walls, etc, and the essay grew from there. Unfortunately, the part about the Alhambra got cut in the fourth or fifth draft.