Some Lines about Some Lines
One of the best gifts I ever received was a “Rapidograph” pen, from a friend who knew I was starting to illustrate my epigrams. This pen was extremely useful, because it could draw very fine lines of a single steady width. But, like the many others which I have bought since then, it also proved troublesome, because, unless you were careful, the ink had a tendency to dry up and block the narrow channels through which it had to flow. This then required elaborate procedures for taking the instrument apart and cleaning it.
I mention the above only as a sort of metaphor for the difficulties we encounter in connection with lines, in all kinds of situations. As children, many of us were particularly aware of the lines on sidewalks, and our game was to avoid stepping on them or suffer unthinkable consequences. In my neck of the woods, the mantra was
Step on a line, break your father’s spine –
Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.
I am particularly interested in lines that have names, with stories attached to them – for example, the famous Mason-Dixon Line, originally drawn in the 1760s in pre-Revolutionary America by two professional surveyors, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, to settle a boundary dispute between several colonies. While never so intended, that line came be seen as the border between the “Free” North and the “Slave” South. And though there are competing theories, it’s thought to have been the origin of the South’s nickname, “Dixie.”
Then there was the European Curzon Line, named for Lord Curzon, the British foreign secretary, who proposed it during World War I, as the eastern boundary of a new state of Poland which did not yet exist. It formed part of many complicated negotiations after the war, and also after World War II. What it brings to my mind is the story of one family who’d always believed that their property was in Russia, but they were informed by the surveyors that it would now be in Poland. “Thank God!” the mother is said to have exclaimed, “I couldn’t have taken another of those Russian winters!”
Considering lines of fortification, two of the most famous but equally ill-fated lines in recent history were those confronting each other in Western Europe: the French Maginot Line and the German Siegfried Line. They were military marvels, with units completely self-contained, to withstand lengthy engagements – but both ultimately failed.
One thing they gave us was a song that emerged during the early days of World War II, when there was little actual fighting. The song was popular with British troops stationed in France, who felt safe behind the Maginot Line, and confident that they’d soon be advancing into Germany. They sang “We’re Gonna Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line.” But within a few months, in 1940, they were scrambling desperately to get off the continent at Dunkirk.
Some two millennia earlier, there was “The Hadrian Line” across northern Britain, actually known to us as “Hadrian’s Wall.” Begun under that Roman emperor in 122 A.D. to separate the “civilized” south from the barbaric tribes to the north, today much of it still survives, as a major tourist attraction.
Of course, there are many meaningful expressions that use the word “line,” though the original meaning may have been forgotten. For example, we speak of facing a “deadline,” unconscious of the fact that a dead-line was once a line beyond which, if you dared to cross it, you were literally dead. As one instance, such a line in the form of a shallow trench about 6 yards inside the stockade’s log walls, was a feature of the notorious Civil War prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. Guards in the wall’s towers were under orders to shoot to kill any prisoner who, even inadvertently, crossed that line.
One other line, which I myself saw in operation, deserves mention here: Winston Churchill, in 1946 named it, rather dramatically, the “Iron Curtain.” It stretched north to south, all the way across Europe, effectively separating the West from the Soviet-controlled East.
When I visited Vienna in 1959, there were actually special busses taking tourists to an observation point from which it was possible to see a stretch of the barrier with its fences, ditches, guard-posts, and armed patrols. Not for another three decades did this symbol, and the Soviet Union itself, reach their own “end of the line.”