Wednesday, December 21, 2005

When I was Clean for Gene

The news of Eugene McCarthy’s death brought back memories of that hopeful and dreadful year when he challenged Lyndon Johnson for the presidency. I was too young to go off to New Hampshire or Wisconsin to campaign for McCarthy. In the fall semester of 1967-68, my mother had taken a teaching job at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. I would be a junior at Cedar Falls High School.

After two years at University High School in Iowa City, Cedar Falls was a big change. Even though it was part of the Iowa City public school system, U-High was very much an elite institution. I was an outsider—a boy with divorced parents and limited income in a school dominated by professors’ kids.

At first, I had some apprehension about going to a large public high school. But I found more acceptance at Cedar Falls than I ever had at U-High. I wrote for the school paper, acted in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and was part of a clique of political liberals.

Eugene McCarthy declared his candidacy for the presidency on November 30, 1967—my sixteenth birthday. While I didn’t know anything about the man until then, I was very much against the Vietnam war and happy to see someone challenging Johnson. The obvious challenger, Robert Kennedy, had declined to run. But the eccentric senator from Minnesota, who wrote poetry, played baseball, and had been a novice monk, was willing to take on a sitting president.

I went to the Students for McCarthy group at the UNI and agreed to sell “Million for McCarthy buttons. While I sold only ten or twenty, I did contribute to the effort. But the most bizarre event in my personal campaign for McCarthy came at the Cedar Falls High School mock convention.

By the time we had the mock convention, Johnson had pulled out of the race and Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey had jumped in. There weren’t many Humphrey or Kennedy delegates. The two strongest candidates were McCarthy and Wallace. That’s right. George Corley Wallace, unreformed and segregationist. Cedar Falls, with the exception of UNI students, was virtually all white. If you were black, you lived in nearby Waterloo. On the east side, where some of the streets weren’t even paved. A lot of Cedar Falls residents, including many of my fellow students, wanted to keep it that way. And they weren’t embarrassed about supporting the nation’s most celebrated racist.

The mock convention was held in a large classroom, which resembled a small auditorium. It began with the nominations. McCarthy’s began with a Chinese fire drill display, and the announcement that the senator had once led a Chinese fire drill team. The Humphrey and Kennedy nominations were not memorable. But the Wallace nomination, with Confederate battle flags waving and the playing of “The Bonny Blue Flag” (a song glorifying an early Confederate banner) was. The leader of the Wallace contingent—a very bright young man who argued that Wallace had the best interests of blacks at heart—was caught up in the pro-Confederate enthusiasm.

The deliberations and negotiations went on, it seemed, for hours. Some of the Kennedy and Humphrey people came around to the McCarthy side, but not enough for a majority. After several ballots, we realized we had to accept Wallace as running mate. (The alternative would have been to walk out and let the Wallace people win.) Thus our mock convention ended with an oxymoron—a McCarthy-Wallace ticket.

The McCarthy group met at a local restaurant to celebrate, but it was a curious celebration, mainly spent waiting for two very popular and attractive people to show up. We had won, but only by accepting a running mate whose politics we detested. Yes, it was just a mock convention. But in retrospect, it exemplified the polarization of America in 1968.

The issue of the war was secondary in that mock convention—something we McCarthy supporters hadn’t realized. I think we believed, like most northern liberals, that sensible people had overcome race prejudice. I knew there were racists in Cedar Falls, but I thought their cause was on the decline. My family had attended a memorial service for Martin Luther King, jr. at a black church on the east side of Waterloo, where we were welcomed by the parishioners. It seemed to me that blacks and whites would learn to accept each other.

But the riots after King’s assassination, including some disturbances in Waterloo, had frightened too many whites. And in retrospect, the war was a secondary issue in the November election as well. Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee, finally broke with Johnson on the war, but still lost the 1968 election. He couldn’t overcome Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” which used the race issue to win border states which normally went Democratic, while Wallace, running as an independent, took much of the Deep South from Humphrey.

Had he lived and been nominated, Robert Kennedy might have been able to bring Americans together. McCarthy, with his acerbic wit and professorial air, had little chance of attracting enough middle-of-the-road whites to win the election. But that doesn’t detract from his courage to take on LBJ. For a few months in the winter and spring of 1968, Gene McCarthy gave us the hope of a better world. For that, I’m proud to say I supported him.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Proust's Madeleine from the Portuguese

I hadn't had Rojoes Cominho in a long time. It's pork cubes browned and then braised in garlic, cumin, and white wine, with lemon slices and flat-leaf parsley added at the end. When Kathleen asked me what I wanted for my birthday dinner, I decided on Rojoes Cominho with Portuguese fried potatoes. We used to eat it a lot. Pork was cheap in the 1970s, especially in Iowa, and we had acquired several of the Time-Life "Foods of the World" books, including The Cooking of Spain and Portugal.

In those days we lived in Parklawn Apartments in Iowa City. Today it's a regular dormitory. In 1991 it became infamous as the residence of Gang Lu, the brilliant Chinese physics student who murdered four professors and a rival student, and crippled another student. But during the 1970s it was married student housing. We were lucky to get an apartment there, as the rent was considerably lower than in the private housing market.

At Parklawn was a very sophisticated couple. He was slightly built, and wore a moustache and goatee. She was a red-haired beauty who kept her maiden name. They seemed a bit aloof. But when someone organized a get-together for the residents, which included a potluck dinner, they participated. I decided to make Rojoes Cominho for the potluck. And I was surprised and pleased that the sophisticated husband sought me out and complimented me for making the dish.

That would be the end of the story, except that several months (or perhaps years) later the young man I had thought so urbane made a radical conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. He spent his days on the Pentacrest (the center of the University, on the hill overlooking the Iowa River, and named for the Old Capitol and the four great limestone halls surrounding it) lawn proclaiming the power of Jesus Christ to all who would listen.

I was an an agnostic in those days. Sometimes I still am. But I was shocked and perhaps frightened by this radical conversion. The young man had not lost any of his intelligence, but he now seemed a fool, sermonizing and arguing with all who would listen. It's doubtful he won any converts.

My own conversion took place over years--it's still taking place, sometimes retreating, sometimes advancing. When I learned of Kant's view that people should act as if they are free--whether they're free or not--I applied this to my faith, or lack of it. I try to act as though a benevolent and just God exists, even when my doubts are overpowering. I don't wish for a "blinding light" conversion. But making and eating Rojoes Cominho brought back memories of that young couple, who are, of course, now as middle-aged as I am.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Great Train Robbery--Coming Soon

“Here I go again, crossing the country in coach trains.”
-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Starting from San Francisco.”

If George W. Bush gets his way, tomorrow’s poets won’t have the benefit of Ferlinghetti’s rolling muse. And most of us who care about this form of transportation suspect that it’s not just the wonderful long-distance trains that the Bush Administration wants to snuff out, but all passenger train service. Because they couldn’t kill passenger trains through Congress--even a Republican Congress--the Bush loyalists appear willing to do, in the campaign parlance, “whatever it takes,” to make flying and driving our only transportation options.

David Gunn, who was president of Amtrak until November 9, when the Bush-appointed Amtrak Board of Directors fired him, put it bluntly to Railway Age Magazine: “They have to do a lot of dirty stuff this year, because next year is an election year, and what they’ve got in mind will be very unpopular.” Within the next few months," Gunn said, “there will be a lot of train-offs and other service cutbacks.”

Earlier this fall, the Amtrak board secretly voted to authorize the dismantling of the Amtrak system by selling off the Northeast Corridor. Such a move would have to be approved by Congress and all indications are that even this Congress will not go along.

While Bush loyalists speak the language of “Amtrak reform,” Gunn calls their bluff: “Anything they’ll tell you is bullshit… The Administration is serious about taking this place apart.”
Except in the Northeast Corridor, passenger trains do not seriously compete with the fly-drive culture. But so long as there are passenger trains running, it’s a reminder to the oilmen who dictate Bush's policies that perhaps there is a civilized alternative to fuel-guzzling jets and SUV‘s. They want to nip that possibility in the bud. Hence this backhanded attack.

And when they whine about Amtrak subsidies, they ignore the hundreds of billions “invested” in the airport-airways and highway systems--not all of it from user fees.

But perhaps it’s the very civilized nature of rail travel which offends the Bush administration. The possibility of sitting in your window seat and seeing an America not dominated by Wal-Marts and strip malls. Of riding the Capitol Limited, the quintessential Slow Train, out of Pittsburgh and into the Alleghenies, following the Monongehela, Youghiogheny, and Casselman rivers to the eastern divide, then down the Potomac through Cumberland, Maryland, stopping at Martinsburg, West Virginia, with its roundhouse, and Harpers Ferry (the armory John Brown captured can be seen from the train), past Point of Rocks and its high Victorian depot, and into Washington’s incomparable Union Station. You won’t see these views from the Interstate, or on a flyover.

“Who stole America?” writes Ferlinghetti at the end of his poem. “Myself I saw in the window reflected.” Perhaps, but I'm not convinced. Stealing America isn’t a single act. As the technocrats like to say, it’s a process. And what Amtrak chairman David Laney and his fellow Bush-appointed directors are trying to do is certainly a big part of the process.

Our only hope is a big backlash from Congress.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Universal Soldier and the Twilight of Democracy

Jana Oliver, a fantasy writer, recently attended the Romance Writers of America convention in Reno, and reported that the conventioneers showed their support for our young men and women serving in Iraq while deploring President Bush and his war policies. And while romance and fantasy writers aren’t exactly a scientific sampling of American society, I believe their viewpoint is the prevailing one in America.

That contrasts with the antiwar movement of the 1960s and ‘70s, in which a substantial minority felt the ordinary soldier was culpable. Perhaps the best summation of that argument can be found in Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song, "Universal Soldier," which concludes:

But without him how would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau,
Without him Caesar would have stood alone.
He’s the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war,
And without him all this killing can’t go on.

He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame.
His orders come from far away no more.
They come from here and there and you and me,
And brothers, can’t you see
This is not the way we put an end to war.

I personally never blamed the ordinary soldier for the Vietnam war. A large number were draftees. Most of those who volunteered believed they were fighting for a good cause. But those who did blame them were reflecting a belief in democracy which is virtually absent from today’s society.

The Students for a Democratic Society called it "participatory democracy," and it is as radical an agenda as anything proposed by Marx, Lenin, or Mao. Many SDS members rejected republican, or representative government, arguing that only pure democracy, with all decisions made by popular vote, was worthy of the name democracy. (Unfortunately, practical application of the idea led to farce, when SDS members in Cleveland would debate for hours on whether to take a dinner break.)

But the ideal of participatory democracy was a powerful one. America was a democracy, or at least a democratic republic. And if "we the people" rule, then we bear responsibility for its failings. In fact, Sainte-Marie went beyond blaming the soldier by saying his orders come "from…you and me." We were all, as members of a democratic society, culpable for the sins of war.

While many of us still believe in the ideals of democracy, few see ours as a democratic society, in which the ordinary citizen has any power to make changes. We all remember the election of 2000, in which Al Gore had won the popular vote, and appeared to have won Florida, giving him an electoral majority. But five members of the Supreme Court stopped the recount and awarded the election to George W. Bush.

In 2004, Democrats nominated one of the most decent people in public life to run for president, but the false and malicious "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" campaign, plus Republican vote suppression and probable voter fraud, gave Bush the victory over John Kerry. After two successive presidential elections which appear to have been won fraudulently, it’s hard to talk about a democratic society.

I’m glad we’re not blaming common soldiers for Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq. But we should also remember that one reason we don’t blame them is because we believe that they, like ourselves, are powerless in the face of governments and corporations.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Al Stewart's Question

What if you reached the age of reason
Only to find there was no reprieve
Would you still be a man for all seasons?
Or would you just have to leave
We measure our days out in steps of uncertainty
Not turning to see how we’ve come
And peer down the highway
From here to eternity
And reach out for love on the run
While the man for all seasons
Is lost behind the sun.

Henry Plantagenet still looks for someone
To bring good news in his hour of doubt
While Thomas More waits in the Tower of London
Watching the sands running out
And measures the hours out from here to oblivion
In actions that can’t be undone
A sailor through darkness
He scans the meridian
And caught by the first rays of dawn
The man for all seasons
Is lost behind the storm.

And I should know by now
I should know by now
I hear them call it all around
Oh, they go
There’s nothing to believe in
Hear them,
Just daydreams, deceiving
They’ll just let you down

What if you reached the age of reason
Only to find there was no reprieve
Would you still be a man for all seasons?
Or would you just disbelieve?
We measure our gains out in luck and coincidence
Lanterns to turn back the night
And put our defeats down to chance or experience
And try once again for the light
Some wait for the waters of fortune to cover them
Some just see the tides of ill chance running over them

Some call on Jehovah
Some cry out to Allah
Some wait for the boats that still row to Valhalla
Well, you try to accept what the fates are unfolding
While some say they’re sure where the blame should be falling
You look round for maybe a chance of forestalling
But too soon it’s over and done
And the man for all seasons
Is lost behind the sun

-Al Stewart, "A Man for All Seasons," from Time Passages, 1978

Recently I bought a cassette of Al Stewart’s Time Passages at public radio station WGLT’s "Recycled Music Sale." I knew the title track, of course,with its wonderful refrain, "Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight," but the song I played and replayed was "A Man for All Seasons," which relates the ordeal of Thomas More to present times.

It seems at first that Stewart is simply expressing the futility of life. But if that were all, why is the song so intriguing? My own interpretation is that he’s asking the listener whether he or she can stand up for principle in the face of "no reprieve." It’s too easy in postmodern times simply to disbelieve—in God, or in one’s own principles, rather than face condemnation. Or one can "just leave," washing one’s hands of the whole affair. And while "the man for all seasons is lost," Stewart is imploring his audience to find the man for all seasons in himself or herself in an age where such principled courage is considered passé.

Thomas More went to his death because he refused to sign oaths of allegiance to King Henry VIII, specifically to accept Henry as the head of the Church of England and to recognize his children by Anne Boelyn successors to the throne. More is, in an indirect way, one of the first victims of the Anglican Communion, of which I am a member. But I believe he is very much in the tradition of the great Christian martyrs, as are Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer and Thomas Ridley, who were burned to death during the reign of Catholic queen Mary Tudor.

Unlike some early Christians, few of us aspire to martyrdom. And very few will be put in the situation of Thomas More. But in this postmodern world, we are constantly pressured to betray our beliefs and principles. The voices which call out, "there’s nothing to believe in" are stronger than ever.

Can one still be "a man for all seasons?" I hope and pray one can, even as I hope and pray I will never be put to such a test

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Closet Over the Stairs

So move your fam’ly westward,
Good health you will enjoy,
And rise to wealth and honor
In the state of Elanoy.

-Folk Song, "Elanoy"

No wealth and honor so far, but I’ve found a place to stay in Illinois—a little efficiency apartment near downtown Bloomington. I’ve been rereading the Harry Potter books—actually listening to them on tape on the long weekly drive between Bloomington and Elkhart. At the beginning of the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s [Sorcerer’s] Stone, the ten-year-old Harry is living "in the closet under the stairs" at his aunt and uncle’s house on Privet Drive in Little Whinging, Surrey. My apartment, on the top floor of a 1900-era house, is small enough to be called "the closet over the stairs."

It appears the house was converted into apartments sometime in the 1920s, given the "Pullman kitchen" complete with the original gas stove (no pilot light, but the landlord provides a lighter). I have a new refrigerator, as the original one isn’t working.

My neighborhood, the "old east side," appears to be fairly stable, in spite of fact that most of the houses on East Locust have been made into apartments. One block to the north is the Franklin Park Historic District, which includes the onetime home of the first Adlai E. Stevenson, vice president during Grover Cleveland’s second term. A sign in front of the Italianate brick house reads that Stevenson was born in Kentucky in 1835, and attended Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, practiced law in nearby Metamora, then moved back to Bloomington, and was elected to Congress in 1874 and 1878.

Having served two nonconsecutive terms in the House, it was appropriate that he serve in the administrations of the only president elected to two nonconsecutive terms—as first assistant postmaster general from 1885 to 1889, and as vice president from 1893 to 1897.

Another sign honors Letitia Green Stevenson, who was president general of the Daughters of the American Revolution during the years her husband was vice president. That was before the DAR began its successful crusade to alter the Pledge of Allegiance (changing "my flag" to "the flag of the United States of America" to prevent immigrants from pledging to the old country’s flag) or preventing Marian Anderson from singing at their hall. That’s not to suggest that the DAR wasn’t an elitist organization in the 1890s. Any group that requires a pedigree isn’t exactly living up to (lower-case r) republican principles.

Just up the block from Stevenson’s house, another sign marks the residence of Joseph W. Fifer, Republican governor of Illinois from 1889 to 1893. Like Stevenson, he attended Illinois Wesleyan. Perhaps the most fascinating house is across the park from Fifer’s—a red sandstone castle built in the Richardson Romanesque style. The evening I passed it, a tortoiseshell cat was sitting on a low wall, blending into the background.

Another curiosity in the old East Side is the former Moses Montefiore Temple. (Montefiore, in spite of his name, was a British philanthropist.) Its architecture is Moorish, with elements of Greek and Gothic. So we have a former synagogue built in an Islamic style, which later functioned as a Christian church. It's now a private residence. The present temple is out in the subdivisions.

Until last week, I was living out of motels while learning the arcane rules and Byzantine accounting procedures of an Amtrak ticket agent. I remembered that I hated the accounting end of the job, but had forgotten how hellish it was for a mathematically challenged person. I hope I'll get used to it.

The best news I've had is that Classic Trains wants to buy "Magic Summer," an account of my trainriding experiences during the summer of 1967. I recieved an e-mail from Robert McGonigal, the magazine's editor. My wife has decided that he's a distant cousin of Professor Minerva McGonigall of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Impressions of Philadelphia

As I prepare to leave the City of Brotherly Love, I'm posting some impressions of the city gleaned (and edited) from my e-mail letters. Anything in italics is added comment.

"Last Week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed," posted May 31, 2004

W.C. Fields may or may not have said that about his onetime hometown, but the week before last, I did go to South Street in Queen Village, the trendy neighborhood south of Center City Philadelphia, looking for a used bookstore, and it was closed. Actually, it had moved to Old City, the area just east of Independence Hall (or the Old State House, as Philadelphians call it). But since I was in need of exercise, I decided to walk west along South Street to the Broad Street Subway, and I came across one of the most amazing pieces of quirky urban art I had ever seen. It's called The Gardens--a derelict building transformed by mosaics, junk sculpture, and found art. Like all too many wonderful things in this world, it's threatened. For an online look at The Gardens and other works of its creator, click here. The Gardens hasn’t yet been destroyed. Isaiah Zagar has two years to raise $200,000. Though I can’t afford to give, I wish him well.

Mole Street: an oasis of urban beauty, posted June 13, 2004

Last Thursday, after visiting the Free Library off Logan Circle in Center City Philadelphia, I decided to take a different route back to the subway station. I walked east on Race Street (named for a racetrack which was once there, not for Philadelphia's race problem), surrounded by parking ramps, vacant lots, and modern architecture so ugly that it makes my old office building in Chicago seem inspired. (Mystery writer Sara Paretsky described that building--or a fictionalized version of it--as "sixty of the ugliest stories in Chicago.")

But as I crossed Sixteenth Street, I looked across another mostly-vacant lot to what seemed to be a miraculous survival--a block of brick row houses. I crossed Race and found, to my amazement, an oasis of urban beauty among the blight. Here was an entire block of what I guessed to be early nineteenth-century brick row houses. How it survived the "urban renewal" of the '60s and '70s, I don't know. And while I didn't meet anyone while walking down that narrow street, I could imagine that if I lived there, I would have friends on the block. There was a John Kerry sticker in the window of one house; the door of another had a sticker proclaiming, "My Philadelphia Includes Culture."

It was called Mole Street--an apt name for this lovely survival burrowed within one of the ugliest parts of Center City. You can find it between Fifteenth and Sixteenth Streets. It runs between Race Street on the north and Cherry Street on the south.

Two political rallies: 1972 and 2004, posted September 29, 2004

Political rallies have changed a lot since 1972, when Kathleen and I were at a McGovern rally at the University of Iowa. It was a bittersweet affair, as it happened on the day Henry Kissinger declared that "peace is at hand." While everyone was glad that the war seemed to be coming to an end, the announcement meant that McGovern's extremely slim chances of winning the presidency had just evaporated. The rally took place on the Pentacrest--the spiritual, if not geographical, center of the campus. McGovern spoke from the steps of the Old Capitol, and students crowded the grounds in front of it, while others watched from the windows and ledges of Macbride and Schaeffer Halls--two of the four limestone buildings which, with the Old Capitol, make up the Pentacrest. It was exciting for me not only because of the candidate and the crowd, but because I was with the beautiful, intelligent, and charming young woman I had met only a few weeks before.

The Kerry rally had the energy and excitement, but it was also far more regimented and commercialized. As soon as I emerged from the subway, I was confronted by hawkers of political buttons, bumper stickers, and T-shirts declaring such things as "Somewhere in Texas a Village is Missing its Idiot." (I wonder whether the same people are hawking anti-Kerry paraphernalia at Bush rallies.) The rally was at Hill Field, an area much larger than Iowa City's Old Capitol lawn, but access was both restricted and segregated. Those of us with "white tickets"--those printed off the Internet--were consigned to the outer reaches of the field. The people with the pink, blue, and green tickets issued by campaign headquarters got to stand much closer to the candidate. And we didn't just hear Kerry, but a whole retinue of Democratic candidates and officials, mothers of soldiers in Iraq, and, amazingly, middleweight boxing champion Bernard Hopkins, who presented Kerry with a pair of gloves to "knock out" Bush. He gave a better speech than some of the politicos. And unlike 1972, the candidate has a good chance to win in November.

Ah, back when we had hope for a new day in politics. In the debates, Kerry said we’d be getting “more of the same” under Bush. He was right. The deaths in Iraq keep accumulating, and the place is still a training ground for terrorists.

You Call it Madness, I call it Philadelphia--a trip to the Northern Liberties: March 28, 2005

I recently read Lenny Kaye's book," You Call it Madness: the Sensuous Song of the Croon." Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith group, has an incredible knowledge of music. The book focuses on crooner Russ Columbo, along with Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. Kaye calls them the Holy Trinity of Croon. ("You Call it Madness. I call it Love," was Columbo's signature song. He died in a bizarre shooting accident in 1934, which is one reason he's not so well-known as Crosby and Vallee.) But Kaye will go off into digressions about musicians from Vivaldi to Eminem, and just about everyone in between. Strangely enough, Kaye doesn't mention the wave of Vallee imitatiors in late Sixties, such as "Winchester Cathedral" by The New Vaudeville Band, "Acapulco Gold," by the Rainy Daze, The Beatles' "Honey Pie," and "Loving You Has Made Me Bananas," written by Neal Adams, of comic book fame, and sung by Guy Marks. Its lyrics are, well, unique:

Your red scarf matches your eyes/You’ve closed your cover before stri-i-iking/Your father had the ship fitter blues, /and loving you has made me bananas./You burned your finger last evening/while my back was turned./I asked the waiter for I(o)dine/but I dined all alone.

You can get the essence of "You Call it Madness" by listening to Terry Gross interviewing Kaye on "Fresh Air," which you can find at I was so taken with the interview that I had to find the book--even though it meant going to a branch library in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood called the Northern Liberties. Originally, this area was parceled out to veterans of the Revolutionary War. It's now a sort of Third World neighborhood, mixing the poor of various ethnic groups with the wealthy gentrification crowd. Walking west on Girard from the El station, I passed a storefront Albanian mosque, a statue of Don Quixote donated by the government of Spain in 1995, along with the bars, tattoo parlors and sex shops you'd expect. In the center of this mix of urban decay and new condos is a huge Catholic Church, St. Peter the Apostle, where St. John Neumann is buried. In spite of, or perhaps because of the neighborhood, the librarian was the friendliest I've encountered in the Free Library system.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Northeast Philadelphia and the Memorial Church of St. Luke

In the next few weeks I‘ll be able to return to my beloved Midwest. I just accepted an offer to transfer to that most punned city of Illinois, Normal. Even before I received the transfer offer I began putting together highlights of my year (actually year and a half) in Philadelphia. I’ll begin with a look at the Far Northeast Philadelphia, taken from the prologue to a novel I hope to write. The narrator may be a lot like me, but he's still fictional: I came to Philadelphia for financial reasons only. No failed marriage, no love affair, and I'll withhold judgment on the job. But St. Luke's Church has been a refuge for me:

I had come to Philadelphia for escape--to flee a failed marriage, a dead-end job, and the memory of a love affair that had doomed both marriage and career. The city I found was not the Philadelphia of William Penn, Benjamin Franklin or Edgar Allan Poe, but Far Northeast Philly, a vast suburban sprawl which happened to be inside the city limits. That’s not quite true. There was beauty in Northeast Philadelphia. One just had to look for it. There was Pennypack Park, that lovely stretch of forest and stream which meandered through the Northeast. There was of Bustleton, the Civil War-era village now surrounded by post-World War II development. And within Bustleton was the Memorial Church of St. Luke, an English country church in all but location.

St. Luke’s provided solace for me that first year after I left the Midwest for the City of Brotherly Love. I found out quickly that I did not belong on the East Coast--that I was what writer Hamlin Garland called a “son of the middle border.” But the little Episcopal church was a refuge from the stresses of living alone in a strange city.

Like many small urban parishes, St. Luke’s was struggling financially. I regret that I could only afford a few dollars on some weekends and nothing on many. And because the parish didn’t have a lot of money, it had trouble keeping a rector. When the last rector transferred to a wealthier parish, there was a temporary rector, and then a series of visiting priests--retired clergy or priests who worked outside the church.

It was January--the feast of the Epiphany. I was struggling with depression and did not want to get out of bed that morning. But I told myself that this was an important day in the church year, and dragged myself out of bed, ate my usual breakfast of fruit juice, peanut butter toast and instant cocoa, dressed, and walked the six blocks from my apartment over to St. Luke’s.

It was a cold day, but bright, and I began to feel better as I breathed in the crisp air. Walking up Old Newtown Road, I passed the one holdout Victorian house at the corner of Gregg Street, and tried to imagine the neighborhood as it had been when St. Luke’s was built. At the top of the hill, I headed west on Welsh Road, and made my way to the red door of St. Luke’s.

The red door was once a sign of sanctuary. Because Christ’s blood had been shed for all, the red door was a sign that no blood was to be shed within that door. I doubt whether the church would be able to offer sanctuary today, though why such thoughts entered my mind, I didn’t know.

I found my usual pew, just behind the choir, and had time for a brief prayer before the organist began the processional: “Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord to the we raise…” A young black girl led the procession, carrying the cross in front of her. I bowed to the cross as she passed by. The other two acolytes, a white boy and girl followed, and joined the cross-bearer on the altar. Then came the lector, holding the Bible high above her head. The choir followed, filing into the pews in front of me, singing, “Anthems be to thee addrest, God in man made manifest.”

The priest, a woman with graying black hair,was last in the procession. It was only when she turned to enter the pulpit that I recognized a face I had last seen behind the doors of Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, where she had sought sanctuary from an enemy I did not then understand. As we sang the third stanza, those intense brown eyes focused on me. Was I imagining it, or was she singing it for me--for us?

Manifest in making whole
Palsied limbs and fainting soul;
Manifest in valiant fight,
Quelling all the devil’s might;
Manifest in gracious will,
Ever bringing good from ill;
Anthems be to thee addrest,
God in man made manifest

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Delbert E. Wylder, 1923-2004

My father died last December, but memorial services were not held until Memorial Day weekend. In a recent post, Rexroth's Daughter asks whether I reconciled with my father. The answer is, thankfully, yes. Below is my tribute to him, given at his burial service in Morrison, Illinois, May 26, 2005:

Near the end of a disappointing year, I received the news that my father, Delbert E. “Deb” Wylder had been diagnosed with leukemia and was hospitalized at the Lovelace Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When I talked to him at the hospital, he told me that instead of the four years he had four weeks. I arranged to get two weeks off work at the beginning of January to see him one more time. There were a lot of things we both wanted to talk about. Sadly, it was not to be. It turned out that he didn’t have four days. My brother, who made a heroic effort to drive from Iowa City to Albuquerque when he learned of the acute nature of our dad's leukemia, didn't make it there in time.

He died peacefully, and while he was looking forward to going home and spending his last days with his beloved wife, Edith Perry Wylder. And he made it to age 81--almost a decade longer than most Wylder males, who typically die at age 72.

He grew up in Morrison, Illinois, where his father worked for the Smith Trust and Savings Bank. After graduating from Morrison High School, he spent a year at Coe College, transferred to the University of Illinois, but interrupted his schooling to join the U.S. Army Air Forces. He saw action as a fighter pilot, flying P-47 Thunderbolts over Italy. He was featured in the 2001 History Channel documentary “The Color of War.”His war experiences also gave me my name--I was named for his wingman, Stephen Verm, who died when his P-47 crashed during a dive-bombing run.

After the war, he went to the University of Iowa, where he was in Paul Engle’s Writers’ Workshop. It was in Iowa City where he met my mother, Jean Williams Wylder, whom he married in 1949. I was born two years later, in Peoria, where my dad had taken a teaching post at Bradley University. The couple returned to Iowa City in 1952. My brother Bill was born there in 1956.

My parents’ marriage was not a successful one, and they divorced in 1965. The same year, my dad married Edith Perry Stamm. They would have been married forty years this June. Edith is a noted Emily Dickinson scholar. She has been a kind and loving stepmother.

Deb Wylder taught English at a number of universities, and mentored many of today’s writers and scholars, including Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham. He was the author of numerous scholarly articles and two books: Hemingway’s Heroes (1969) and Emerson Hough: Twayne’s United States Author’s Series 397 (1981). He was one of the founders of the Western Literature Association.

My dad introduced me to the world of writing and literature, and encouraged me in my freelance writing. When I was a small child and fascinated with trains, he often took me down to the Iowa City depot to watch the Rock Island trains go through.

One of his many friends said, “I can’t imagine a world without Deb.” I can’t either. So long as there are people who have been inspired by his teaching, mentoring, and writing, and touched by his love, Deb Wylder is with us.

Friday, June 17, 2005

American Gothic vs. Stone City

Steven Biel, in his new book about American Gothic, calls it "America's most famous painting." I haven't read the book, but as a former Iowan, I've always been a bit sensitive about Grant Wood's "masterpiece." People outside the Midwest see it as an indictment of or the straight-laced rural Iowa. Ironically, the models for his painting were his sister and his Cedar Rapids dentist--hardly rural rustics.

For me, Wood's masterpiece is Stone City, painted in 1930, the same year he produced his better-known picture. The hard, stern faces of American Gothic contrast with the undulating, sensual landscape of northeast Iowa. And where American Gothic reinforces a stereotype about Iowa, Stone City demolishes the biggest one--that Iowa is flat. The late Laurence Lafore, a Philadelphian who came to Iowa in the 1970s to teach history, wished he could carry "a pocket-sized reproduction of Grant Wood's Stone City, an Iowan version of View of Toledo" whenever anyone said Iowa was flat. ("In the Sticks," Harper's, Oct. 1971.)

Stone City was a quarry town, which lost its main industry after the introduction of Portland cement. Wood had an art colony there in 1931 and 1932. During the late 1940s and early '50s, Paul Engle, director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, made it into a summer writers' colony. When his big house there burned down in the late '50s, Stone City's days as an art center were over.

I doubt whether anyone will write a book about Stone City, but for me it remains Wood's masterpiece. It is the truest statement of his love for the Iowa land, and an image which reminds exiles like me exaclty why we consider ourselves exiles.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

How Francis Gary Powers changed my life

Walter Cronkite, in an NPR commentary, reminded us that it’s been 45 years since the U-2 crisis. It happened the spring of 1960, and was the first crisis in that decade of crises. Eisenhower was president, and the nation was still reeling from the Soviet Union’s Sputnik and Lunik space missions. Although I was a child at the time, I remember it well, because of the effect it had on my family. In the fall of 1958, my father, frustrated with the low salary of an instructor at the University of Iowa, took a job teaching technical writing at the Sandia Corporation in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The job paid well, and my family moved into a nice house in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights. Sandia Corporation was a defense contractor. Its scientists were in the business of designing the nation’s most fearsome weapons. Working for Sandia, my dad had a better idea of how close we had come to nuclear war when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev announced that an American spy plane had been shot down over Russia, and proved it by producing the pilot, Francis Gary Powers.

After the crisis, my parents mortgaged the house to the hilt in order to build a fallout shelter in the backyard. Lots of people in Albuquerque were building fallout shelters--there were at least three on my block. Everyone knew that the city was the Soviets’ Number Seven target, thanks to Kirtland Air Force Base and Sandia Corporation.

There were a number of contractors building fallout shelters in those days, but the best was Powers Construction Company. It was owned, or so my parents told me, by the brother of Francis Gary Powers. I don’t believe anyone thought there was a conspiracy, but it seemed ironic, to say the least, that the terrible luck of one brother would lead to the prosperity of another.

The financial strain caused by the fallout shelter must have put a great strain on my parents’ marriage. Later, my father left Sandia for a lesser-paying teaching post at the University of New Mexico because he didn’t want to contribute to the building of nuclear weapons, however peripherally. And my mother, to try to help the fill the income gap, got her teaching certificate and began teaching high-school English. That should have helped things, but it seemed to drive my parents further apart. There were other strains, the principal one being my dad’s failure to pass the PhD exam at Iowa. One of the professors on his committee had a longstanding grudge against him. And there was an underachieving son named Steve. My father became depressed, talked openly to my mother of suicide, and eventually left the house.

When my parents divorced in 1965, my brother and I went with my mother to Iowa City, where the obsession with nuclear annihilation was far less pronounced, and political liberalism was the norm.

My father found happiness in his second marriage, went on to complete his PhD, and taught English at several universities. He and his wife (also a noted English professor) returned to New Mexico after their retirement. He died last December.

My mother taught English, worked for Paul Engle’s International Writing Program, and eventually became a psychiatric social worker. She also retired to New Mexico, but died in 1989.

So Francis Gary Powers, without knowing it, changed my life when he bailed out of U-2 spy plane and into the national headlines. Would my parents’ marriage have survived had it not been for the fallout shelter? Perhaps not. But it would have broken up at another time and under different circumstances. And I would not be the same.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Wisdom, Sydney Harris, and Laupes

"So, who stays up at odd hours worrying about wisdom? Only you and I, my friend. We are the only ones."
- Abdul-Walid of Acerbia

Sadly, Abdul-Walid has shut down his blog. I don't blame him--he's a newlywed working on a dissertation. So the links in this post don't work.

Recently a friend gave me a copy of Sydney J. Harris's Pieces of Eight. Harris, who died in 1986, was a syndicated columnist based in Chicago. I grew up reading Harris in the Des Moines Register. Wisdom was his stock and trade. You can find Harris on the Web, but usually only in the form of epigrams: a favorite is, "The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers." But rereading the columns from the 1970s and early '80s reminds me of the dearth of wisdom in today's journalism. In 1965, when I was a freshman in high school, the Register also carried Walter Lippmann. I read Max Lerner in Iowa City Press Citizen and listened to the comments of Eric Sevareid on CBS News. For wisdom today, one has to go to the blogs--Abdul-Walid is a must-read, along with the laupes ("A laupe is someone who takes a Literary Approach to the Unorthodox Pursuit of Enlightenment. Most people on my blogroll are laupes [we can pronounce that "LA-oo-pays", right? Or, to simplify things, a rhyme with 'taupe'])."

For the full explanation of laupe, see: are you a laupe

The responses are as much fun to read as the original post. I'm not sure whether I'm a laupe. One of the marks of the original Beat poets was to deny being beat. Gelett Burgess in his 1906 Are You a Bromide, or The Sulphitic Theory, divided people into the imaginative, independent-thinking sulphites and the boring, cliché-spouting bromides. But if people had to wear identifying buttons, the bromides would be choose the red sulphite buttons, and the sulphites would wear the blue bromide buttons. So, I'll put it this way: I'd like to be a laupe.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

"May I make a reservation for you?"

Beginning today, when you call 1-800-USA-RAIL, you won't be greeted with a demand for a reservation. Back in the mid-nineties, when Amtrak had money to blow, and a mandate to "run the corporation like a business," it squandered incredible amounts on outside consultants and received virtually nothing in return. A company called CMC Marketing was brought in to conduct training of reservation and ticket agents: it's my understanding that Amtrak paid some $800,000 for the training program and consultation. After CMC was through, reservationists were required to use a standard greeting: "Amtrak (your name), may I make a reservation for you?" It put customers on the defensive from the first, and created an adversary relationship between agents and customers. I, along with others, had urged Amtrak to change the greeting . On April 28, agents received a memo that as of May 1, "May I make a reservation for you?" is finally out, replaced by the friendly, "How may I help you?" Agents are also no longer required to give first and last names--a first name will suffice. I'm happy that management is beginning to think rationally. It may be too late, as Amtrak's board of directors is stacked with Bush appointees who want to privatize, (i.e., kill) rail passenger service.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Scott Simon At the Dollar Tree

Scott Simon used to be my favorite broadcast journalist. I always made sure to hear his analysis of the news with Daniel Schorr, followed by Simon's own personal essay. I still listen to Weekend Edition Saturday, but my enthusiasm for Simon has cooled after he publicly supported Bush's invasion of Iraq and attacked Michael Moore in the Wall Street Journal. Moore's methods are sometimes flawed, but he's no Joe McCarthy. McCarthy used lies and innuendo to destroy the careers of countless State Department officials, while Moore goes overboard in pointing out aspects of Bush's policy that the "respectable" media were afraid to touch. (The news media were exaggerating the threat of the American Communists long before "Tail Gunner Joe" began waving his "lists" of Communists. And to my knowledge, Moore has never destroyed anyone's career.) But while doing some shopping at the local Dollar Tree, I was reminded of Simon at his best. His book, Home and Away: Memoir of a Fan (2000) was on the shelf, and I bought a hardback copy for a dollar. I'm no sports fan, but Simon's memoir gives me insight into fandom. By framing his autobiography in relation to Chicago sports Simon endears himself to his readers--even nonfans like me. I used the memoir as a model for my own reminiscences of growing up as a railfan (possibly to be seen in an upcoming issue of Classic Trains). If you're in a Dollar Tree, look for Home and Away. It's definitely worth a buck.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Poetry Racket

Those of you who are on my e-mail list may recognize this as an updated recycling of letters from July and September of 2004. Hey, I needed to get something out for National Poetry Month.

A few months ago, while wasting time surfing the web, I was distracted by a pop-up inviting me to test my poetry IQ. I took the quiz, which included writing a short poem. I was happy to see that I got 11 out of 11 right in the quiz. About a week later, I received a letter from that my poem was a semi-finalist for their contest. I had looked at poems on the website by other people named Wylder (none of whom I knew). They were dreadful. Maybe my amateur effort had some chance among such competitors.

But when the mailing went on to offer me a book containing my poem for the low price of $49.95, I began to wonder. Is this like the old "We're Looking for People Who Like to Write" scam of the 1960s? Later I received a chance to get a trophy for my poem--all for another nominal fee of $120 or so. It turns out that everyone who submits a poem is a semi-finalist, and the only people who get the poetry collections are those who shell out the fifty bucks. Quite a few people have been taken in by the scam. It's too bad that this organization uses such a marketing scheme, because its website has some wonderful features. Anyway, here's my "semi-finalist" poem, as printed on the website:

Aboard the Lake Shore Limited

Rolling north along the Hudson

past Tarrytown, where Washington Irving

penned his tales.

And Sing Sing Prison, where the state

Wreaked its vengeance on the Rosenburgs

Fifty-one years before.

Just past Croton

the ruin of Bannerman's Castle appears--

And for a few minutes I'm in

the Scottish Highlands.

Until I see the Bear Mountain Bridge

Where Kerouac was caught in the rain

And gave up his "stupid hearthside idea

to follow the one great line

across America."

As I watch from the window, following

the line north and west,

to home and love.

Stephen Crews Wylder

(Sorry about the double-spacing. My knowledge of HTML is minimal)

The poem has a geographical problem--Bear Mountain Bridge is actually south of Bannerman’s Castle. But if Shakespeare can add a seacoast to landlocked Bohemia, a little relocation of landmarks seems in keeping with tradition.

I’ll conclude with a reminder of that poetry, like politics, ain’t beanbag. Last year, when I was suffering from depression, I took solace in poetry. One poem in particular helped me preserve what was left of my mental health:

On What Planet

Uniformly over the whole countryside
The warm air flows imperceptibly seaward;
The autumn haze drifts in deep bands
Over the pale water;
White egrets stand in the blue marshes;
Tamalpais, Diablo, St. Helena
Float in the air.
Climbing on the cliffs of Hunter's Hill
We look out over fifty miles of sinuous
Interpenetration of mountains and sea.
Leading up a twisted chimney,
Just as my eyes rise to the level
Of a small cave, two white owls
Fly out, silent, close to my face.
They hover, confused in the sunlight,
And disappear into the recesses of the cliff.
All day I have been watching a new climber,
A young girl with ash blond hair
She climbs, slowly, precisely,
With unwasted grace.
While I am coiling the ropes,
Watching the spectacular sunset,
She turns to me and says, quietly,
"It must be beautiful, the sunset,
On Saturn, with the rings and all the moons."

-Kenneth Rexroth

Friday, April 15, 2005

The problem with

Every town has its seamy aspects--places, people, and happenings the Chamber of Commerce would rather you didn‘t know about. Exposing the seamy side of our towns and cities is a worthy journalistic tradition. Lincoln Steffens’ classic, The Shame of the Cities, comes to mind. His 1904 study of corruption and decay in major American cities put the blame where it belonged--at the top: “In all cities, the better classes… are the sources of corruption, but they are so rarely pursued and caught that we do not fully realize whence the trouble comes."

Another classic from the same era, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, is a photographic essay documenting the plight of New York’s tenement dwellers. Riis, like Steffens, faults the rich and powerful for the appalling situation.

Elkhart, Indiana, a town I called home for fifteen years (and to which I’m trying to return), has its seamy side. I would welcome anyone who seeks to expose the corruption, poverty, and blight of “The City With A Heart.” But such an exposé needs to have a heart as well.

Some of is in the tradition of Steffens and Riis. The photo essay on Accra-Pac--pictures of the factory accompanied by excerpts from an “executive summary” of a fatal explosion at the plant--clearly makes the point that things were not as they should have been.

But the “residential” section of the site takes an entirely different viewpoint. The photo essay, “The Ghetto,” has no empathy with Elkhart’s poor. The snide caption, “How much crack is a drier worth?” accompanies a photo showing clothes hung out to dry outside a public housing unit. A picture of a public housing parking lot carries the caption, “The Suburban is stolen.”

“Historical Elkhart” is really just a comment on urban blight--history doesn’t have much to do with it. And the webmaster doesn’t take on absentee landlords, but the poor. “Fires started by smoking crack have been on the rise in recent years,” reads a caption under a picture of a fire-damaged house.

The legend, “There's something to be said about painting your house the color of cotton candy,” accompanies a photo of a bright yellow house. Perhaps the webmaster prefers the look-alike beige McMansions taking up Indiana farmland .

And the website never mentions the right-wing silliness of the Elkhart County Commissioners. Their resolution calling on the United States to withdraw from the United Nations (passed after closed meetings with members of the John Birch Society) made the county a laughingstock.

Simply to say, “Elkhart, Indiana is the worst city, county, and place in the United States” isn’t enough. Maybe you have to love the place to make effective criticism. But if, is to be more than a series of snide comments, it needs to go after the people in power--not the poor and powerless.