Authors: Edward Snowden
Elizabeth City is a quaint, midsize port town with a relatively intact historic core. Like most other early American settlements, it grew around the water, in this case around the banks of the Pasquotank River, whose name is an English corruption of an Algonquin word meaning “where the current forks.” The river flows down from Chesapeake Bay, through the swamps of the Virginia–North Carolina border, and empties into Albemarle Sound alongside the Chowan, the Perquimans, and other rivers. Whenever I consider what other directions my life might have taken, I think of that watershed: no matter the particular course the water travels from its source, it still ultimately arrives at the same destination.
My family has always been connected to the sea, my mother’s side in particular. Her heritage is straight Pilgrim—her first ancestor on these shores was John Alden, the
’s cooper, or barrelmaker. He became the husband of a fellow passenger named Priscilla Mullins, who had the dubious distinction of being the only single woman of marriageable age onboard, and so the only single woman of marriageable age in the whole first generation of the Plymouth Colony.
John and Priscilla’s Thanksgiving-time coupling almost never happened, however, due to the meddling of the commander of the Plymouth Colony, Myles Standish. His love for Priscilla, and Priscilla’s rejection of him and eventual marriage to John, became the basis of a literary work that was referenced throughout my youth,
The Courtship of Miles Standish
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (himself an Alden-Mullins descendant):
Nothing was heard in the room but the hurrying pen of the stripling,
Busily writing epistles important, to go by the Mayflower,
Ready to sail on the morrow, or next day at latest, God willing!
Homeward bound with the tidings of all that terrible winter,
Letters written by Alden, and full of the name of Priscilla,
Full of the name and the fame of the Puritan maiden Priscilla!
John and Priscilla’s daughter, Elizabeth, was the first Pilgrim child born in New England. My mother, whose name is also Elizabeth, is her direct descendant. Because the lineage is almost exclusively through the women, though, the surnames changed with nearly every generation—with an Alden marrying a Pabodie marrying a Grinnell marrying a Stephens marrying a Jocelin. These seafaring ancestors of mine sailed down the coast from what’s now Massachusetts to Connecticut and New Jersey—plying trade routes and dodging pirates between the Colonies and the Caribbean—until, with the Revolutionary War, the Jocelin line settled in North Carolina.
Amaziah Jocelin, also spelled Amasiah Josselyn, among other variants, was a privateer and war hero. As captain of the ten-gun barque
, he was credited with the defense of Cape Fear. Following American independence, he became the US Navy Agent, or supply officer, of the Port of Wilmington, where he also established the city’s first chamber of commerce, which he called, funnily enough, the Intelligence-Office. The Jocelins and their descendants—the Moores and Halls and Meylands and Howells
and Stevens and Restons and Stokleys—who comprise the rest of my mother’s side fought in every war in my country’s history, from the Revolution and the Civil War (in which the Carolinian relatives fought for the Confederacy against their New England/Union cousins), to both world wars. Mine is a family that has always answered the call of duty.
My maternal grandfather, whom I call Pop, is better known as Rear Admiral Edward J. Barrett. At the time of my birth he was deputy chief, aeronautical engineering division, Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, DC. He’d go on to hold various engineering and operational commands, from Governors Island, New York City, to Key West, Florida, where he was director of the Joint Interagency Task Force East (a multiagency, multinational US Coast Guard–led force dedicated to the interdiction of narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean). I wasn’t aware of how high up the ranks Pop was rising, but I knew that the welcome-to-command ceremonies became more elaborate as time went on, with longer speeches and larger cakes. I remember the souvenir I was given by the artillery guard at one of them: the shell casing of a 40mm round, still warm and smelling like powdered hell, which had just been fired in a salute in Pop’s honor.
Then there’s my father, Lon, who at the time of my birth was a chief petty officer at the Coast Guard’s Aviation Technical Training Center in Elizabeth City, working as a curriculum designer and electronics instructor. He was often away, leaving my mother at home to raise my sister and me. To give us a sense of responsibility, she gave us chores; to teach us how to read, she labeled all our dresser drawers with their contents—
. She would load us into our Red Flyer wagon and tow us to the local library, where I immediately made for my favorite section, the one that I called “Big Masheens.” Whenever my mother asked me if I was interested in any specific “Big Masheen,” I was unstoppable: “Dump trucks and steamrollers and forklifts and cranes and—”
“Is that all, buddy?”
“Oh,” I’d say, “and also cement mixers and bulldozers and—”
My mother loved giving me math challenges. At Kmart or Winn-Dixie, she’d have me pick out books and model cars and trucks and buy them for me if I was able to mentally add together their prices. Over the course of my childhood, she kept escalating the difficulty, first having me estimate and round to the nearest dollar, then having me figure out the precise dollar-and-cents amount, and then having me calculate 3 percent of that amount and add it on to the total. I was confused by that last challenge—not by the arithmetic so much as by the reasoning. “Why?”
“It’s called tax,” my mother explained. “Everything we buy, we have to pay three percent to the government.”
“What do they do with it?”
“You like roads, buddy? You like bridges?” she said. “The government uses that money to fix them. They use that money to fill the library with books.”
Some time later, I was afraid that my budding math skills had failed me, when my mental totals didn’t match those on the cash register’s display. But once again, my mother explained. “They raised the sales tax. Now you have to add four percent.”
“So now the library will get even more books?” I asked.
“Let’s hope,” my mother said.
My grandmother lived a few streets over from us, across from the Carolina Feed and Seed Mill and a towering pecan tree. After stretching out my shirt to make a basket to fill with fallen pecans, I’d go up to her house and lie on the carpet beside the long low bookshelves. My usual company was an edition of
and, perhaps my favorite,
. I would leaf through the pages, pausing only to crack a few nuts while I absorbed accounts of flying horses, intricate labyrinths, and serpent-haired Gorgons who turned mortals to stone. I was in awe of Odysseus, and liked Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, and Athena well enough, but the deity I admired most had to be Hephaestus: the ugly god of fire, volcanoes, blacksmiths, and carpenters, the god of tinkerers. I was proud of being able to spell his Greek name,
and of knowing that his Roman name, Vulcan, was used for the home planet of Spock from
. The fundamental premise of the Greco-Roman pantheon always stuck with me. Up at the summit of some mountain there was this gang of gods and goddesses who spent most of their infinite existence fighting with each other and spying on the business of humanity. Occasionally, when they noticed something that intrigued or disturbed them, they disguised themselves, as lambs and swans and lions, and descended the slopes of Olympus to investigate and meddle. It was often a disaster—someone always drowned, or was struck by lightning, or was turned into a tree—whenever the immortals sought to impose their will and interfere in mortal affairs.
Once, I picked up an illustrated version of the legends of King Arthur and his knights, and found myself reading about another legendary mountain, this one in Wales. It served as the fortress of a tyrannical giant named Rhitta Gawr, who refused to accept that the age of his reign had passed and that in the future the world would be ruled by human kings, whom he considered tiny and weak. Determined to keep himself in power, he descended from his peak, attacking kingdom after kingdom and vanquishing their armies. Eventually he managed to defeat and kill every single king of Wales and Scotland. Upon killing them he shaved off their beards and wove them together into a cloak, which he wore as a gory trophy. Then he decided to challenge the strongest king of Britain, King Arthur, giving him a choice: Arthur could either shave off his own beard and surrender, or Rhitta Gawr would decapitate the king and remove the beard himself. Enraged at this hubris, Arthur set off for Rhitta Gawr’s mountain fortress. The king and the giant met on the highest peak and battled each other for days, until Arthur was gravely wounded. Just as Rhitta Gawr grabbed the king by the hair and prepared to cut off his head, Arthur summoned a last measure of strength and sank his fabled sword through the eye of the giant, who toppled over dead. Arthur and his knights then went about piling up a funeral cairn atop
Rhitta Gawr’s corpse, but before they could complete the work, snow began to fall. As they departed, the giant’s bloodstained beard-cloak was returned to perfect whiteness.
The mountain was called Snaw Dun, which, a note explained, was Old English for “snow mound.” Today, Snaw Dun is called Mount Snowdon. A long-extinct volcano, it is, at approximately 3,560 feet, the highest peak in Wales. I remember the feeling of encountering my name in this context—it was thrilling—and the archaic spelling gave me my first palpable sense that the world was older than I was, even older than my parents were. The name’s association with the heroic exploits of Arthur and Lancelot and Gawain and Percival and Tristan and the other Knights of the Round Table gave me pride—until I learned that these exploits weren’t historical, but legendary.
Years later, with my mother’s help, I would scour the library in the hopes of separating the mythical from the factual. I found out that Stirling Castle in Scotland had been renamed Snowdon Castle, in honor of this Arthurian victory, as part of an attempt by the Scots to shore up their claim to the throne of England. Reality, I learned, is nearly always messier and less flattering than we might want it to be, but also in some strange way often richer than the myths.
By the time I uncovered the truth about Arthur, I had long been obsessed with a new and different type of story, or a new and different type of storytelling. On Christmas 1989, a Nintendo appeared in the house. I took to that two-tone-gray console so completely that my alarmed mother imposed a rule: I could only rent a new game when I finished reading a book. Games were expensive, and, having already mastered the ones that had come with the console—a single cartridge combining
Super Mario Bros
—I was eager for other challenges. The only snag was that, at six years old, I couldn’t read as fast as I could complete a game. It was time for another of my neophyte hacks. I started coming home from the library with shorter books, and books with lots of pictures. There were visual encyclopedias of inventions,
with crazy drawings of velocipedes and blimps, and comic books that I realized only later were abridged, for-kids versions of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.
It was the NES—the janky but genius 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System—that was my real education. From
The Legend of Zelda
, I learned that the world exists to be explored; from
, I learned that my enemies have much to teach; and from
taught me that even if someone laughs at your failures, it doesn’t mean you get to shoot them in the face. Ultimately, though, it was
Super Mario Bros.
that taught me what remains perhaps the most important lesson of my life. I am being perfectly sincere. I am asking you to consider this seriously.
Super Mario Bros.
, the 1.0 edition, is perhaps the all-time masterpiece of side-scrolling games. When the game begins, Mario is standing all the way to the left of the legendary opening screen, and he can only go in one direction: He can only move to the right, as new scenery and enemies scroll in from that side. He progresses through eight worlds of four levels each, all of them governed by time constraints, until he reaches the evil Bowser and frees the captive Princess Toadstool. Throughout all thirty-two levels, Mario exists in front of what in gaming parlance is called “an invisible wall,” which doesn’t allow him to go backward. There is no turning back, only going forward—for Mario and Luigi, for me, and for you. Life only scrolls in one direction, which is the direction of time, and no matter how far we might manage to go, that invisible wall will always be just behind us, cutting us off from the past, compelling us on into the unknown. A small kid growing up in small-town North Carolina in the 1980s has to get a sense of mortality from somewhere, so why not from two Italian-immigrant plumber brothers with an appetite for sewer mushrooms?
One day my much-used
Super Mario Bros.
cartridge wasn’t loading, no matter how much I blew into it. That’s what you had to do back then, or what we thought you had to do: you had to blow into the open mouth of the cartridge to clear it of the dust, debris, and pet hair that tended to accumulate there. But no matter
how much I blew, both into the cartridge and into the cartridge slot of the console itself, the TV screen was full of blotches and waves, which were not reassuring in the least.
In retrospect, the Nintendo was probably just suffering from a faulty pin connection, but given that my seven-year-old self didn’t even know what a pin connection was, I was frustrated and desperate. Worst of all, my father had only just left on a Coast Guard trip and wouldn’t be back to help me fix it for two weeks. I knew of no Mario-style time-warping tricks or pipes to dive into that would make those weeks pass quicker, so I resolved to fix the thing myself. If I succeeded, I knew my father would be impressed. I went out to the garage to find his gray metal toolbox.