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The great summer escape – is it still possible?

In 1953 Americans still knew how to vacation. But for us today it may be harder.

By / August 1, 2011

"We keep the world and its doings away from us," former secretary of state Dean Acheson wrote to his former boss Harry Truman of his 1953 trip with his wife to Antigua. Could a similar vacation today be as relaxing?

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Deep into another summer vacation season, many of us are sighing wistfully and savoring the chance to get away from it all.

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But is getting away from it all a thing of the past, even when we’re supposed to be off the clock?

The thought comes to mind with the arrival of a letter from another year in another era – a note from Dean Acheson to Harry S. Truman on Feb 10, 1953. It’s been brought to light in “Affection & Trust,” a newly published collection of correspondence between Acheson and Truman after both men had left high office.
Truman concluded his presidency on Jan. 20, 1953, and Acheson, his secretary of state, left office with him. Within days, Acheson was sending Truman a wish-you-were-here greeting from Antigua, in the British West Indies, where Acheson and his wife, Alice, were vacationing.

“You and Mrs. Truman have been constantly in our thoughts these last three weeks,” Acheson told the former president. “We see glimpses of you in papers weeks old and read fragmentary reports of you.... We wish that you could both escape to the peace and privacy for a while of a place like this enchanted and blessed isle, where the sea and air and all around us combine to make rest and relaxation inevitable and delightful. We read and sleep and swim – Alice paints – we keep the world and its doings away from us.”

Acheson’s tropical travelogue has been a nice thing to daydream over as I plan my own trip to the beach. But the particular place described by Acheson – a sunny refuge from the tug and pull of the news cycle – seems strikingly elusive today, even in a season when the shore beckons once more as a vacation destination.

The news, after all, no longer reaches island tourists on days-old newspapers; it instead arrives instantly on smart phones and laptops. Acheson paid only the most casual interest to the headlines on his vacation, one gathers, at least partly because the news, once it reached him, seemed quite beside the point. Within days, a man at the center of international diplomacy was savoring a self-imposed quarantine from current events.

That kind of quiet is still theoretically possible, but it requires more discipline, since news is now so portable, so immediate and so plentiful that it’s hard to resist. William Powers details the problem in “Hamlet’s Blackberry,” a recent book about the perils of our relentlessly linked-in lives.

“The more connected we are,” Powers writes, “the more we depend on the world outside ourselves to tell us how to think and live. There’s always been a conflict between the exterior, social self and the interior, private one.”

Technology has made that struggle more challenging, but as Powers reminds us, the ability to take brief respites from the news is still within reach – as long as we place self-imposed limits on our media diet.

“It’s nice to imagine,” says Powers, “that there’s a door somewhere and all you’d have to do is step through it and you’ll be in a different place. A less connected place where time isn’t so fugitive and the mind can slow down an be itself again.”

What Powers is describing, more or less, is Dean Acheson’s Antigua, 1953.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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