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.