Wednesday, April 25, 2007

David Halberstam, R.I.P.

"The Man Who Ran Against Lyndon Johnson." The article appeared in the December 1968 issue of Harper's. I was a senior in high school. Earlier in 1968 I had sold "McCarthy's Million" buttons to my high school classmates. And here was an article about the McCarthy campaign. But it wasn't about McCarthy. It was about Allard Lowenstein, the man who had persuaded McCarthy to run (after failing to get Robert Kennedy into the race) and brought thousands of idealistic young men and women to take a break from college to slog through the snows of New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

It was the first time I had read anything by David Halberstam. And it was a good education in politics. While other writers focused on the candidates, or the campaign managers, Halberstam found the person whose energy and charisma had made the McCarthy campaign.

I later had the privilege of meeting Lowenstein when he spoke at the University of Iowa campus. Sadly, he was murdered in 1980 by one of his former followers--a man with paranoid schizophrenia who believed Lowenstein was controlling him.

But I never had the chance to meet David Halberstam, who was killed in an auto accident April 23. He's best known for his wrtings on the Vietnam War, and his many books. The Best and The Brightest is simply a brilliant work, focusing not on President Kennedy, but his Ivy League-educated apointees, such as McGeorge and William Bundy, Walt Rostow, and Robert McNamara. It is still, in my opinion, the best explanation of how we got into that quagmire. I quoted the book in a recent post. Rereading the quote reminds me that in spite of all its nuances and complexity, The Best and the Brightest was a page-turner.

While I've read a number of Halberstam's books, my favorite is The Fifties. He shows us that within this supposedly dull and conformist decade are the seeds of the postmodern world. In episodic chapters, he tells the stories of McDonald's and Holiday Inn, the first shopping malls, the development of oral contraceptives, the civil rights movement, the Beat Generation, among other things. Read it and your view of the Fifties will change.

We have one more Halberstam book to look forward to: his story of the Korean War. I've read a number of books about that conflict. But I suspect that after reading Halberstam's book, Ill be surprised at all the things I didn't know.

Friday, April 20, 2007

"Whan that Aprill..."

In recent years, April has too often been a month of sadness. This year we have the dreadful murders at Virginia Tech and record numbers of civilians killed in Iraq. But before this year--before Ruby Ridge and Columbine, even before T. S. Eliot declared it the cruellest month--April was the month to begin pilgrimages. Of course, I'm referring to the time of Chaucer, and his book of tales.

And Chaucer is alive and well in the blogosphere. While I've been told that the author of "Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog" is really a Harvard professor emeritus, it is simply wonderful to read his commentaries on twenty-first century life in the language of the fourteeenth, and to believe, in some way that the great poet is with us still.

The blog not only has posts from Chaucer, but from Sir John Mandeville, who gives travel tips (and complains about Scottish food: "I was y-given some thyng called 'the haggis of honour' that semed to me to be the verray spare partis of a sheepe, but whych James swore was 'spices and lovely thynges.'" Katherine de Swineforrd is a contributor, as is the autobiographer Margerye Kempe (who comments on the Modern Language Association).

As Chaucer states in his post of 31 March, after complaining about his exercise regimen ("So ich haue ben yiven up to sondry peynes and tormentes far more grevous than thos recorded in the helle of Dant -- many grim machines that doon twisten myn limbes this wey and that, and bicycles the which travel no wher..."), he reminds us that:

'Bifor Aprille was the cruellest moneth (whatever that meneth!), it was a moneth of coloures and cries, and pilgrymages. Yt was, I sholde saye, myn favourite moneth. "

May it be so once again. But until then, a visit to Geoffrey Chaucer's blog is a welcome relief from the April news of 2007.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Two Years on the Slow Train

In the late winter and spring of 2005 I was living in Northeast Philadelphia, but making the trip back to Elkhart, Indiana at least every month. I usually took a regional train down to Washington, D.C., and then rode the Capitol Limited west through the Allegheny Mountains. The old Baltimore and Ohio line followed the river valleys--the Potomac, then the Casselman, the Youghiogheny, and the Monongahela. Once west of Pittsburgh, the Capitol could do 79 miles per hour. But through the mountains, the top speed was rarely more than 50.

At the same time, I had serendipitously discovered the world of blogging. I had learned from my son Jim, an avid gamer, that White Wolf, the Atlanta-based publisher of role-playing games, was holding a novel writing contest for its revamped (pun not originally intended) World of Darkness series. The World of Darkness was one of vampires, werewolves, and mages. The new mage series had yet to be released, so the contest was limited to the world of vampires, set in Chicago, and the world of werewolves, set in Denver. I had lived in the Chicago area for some eight years, and I decided to enter the contest.

One of my characters was a seemingly young woman who called herself Cassandra, because she told truths about the vampire world that none of her fellow vampires would believe (except those in the power structure who were trying to eliminate her). But I needed the details of the Cassandra story. A Google search led me to The Cassandra Pages, Beth Adams’s fascinating blog. From there I linked to blogs all written by intelligent, caring people who shared many of my views and interests. Some of them are on my blogroll. I also learned that Jana Oliver, a high school classmate, not only had a blog, but was also a freelance writer. Since then she’s published a book, Sojourn, a time travel adventure (and a great read). I was hooked.

While I didn’t make it into the second round of the White Wolf contest (the story has since morphed into a time-travel adventure set in 2005 Philadelphia and 1968 Chicago), I’ve been bogging now for two years. I took the name from the liner notes of Bob Dylan’s album, “Highway 61 Revisited,” which begins, “On the slow train time does not interfere.” The song, “On the Slow Train,” by Flanders and Swann, a lament for the days of local passenger trains in Britain, was a secondary source. And of course, I was thinking of my many hours on the Capitol Limited, rolling through the Alleghenies.

In the two years I’ve been blogging on the slow train, I’ve found new friends and have learned much from my fellow bloggers.

So what’s next on the slow train? I plan to begin a feature called “Discarded Wisdom,” which will review books discarded from local libraries. And a story on Rudy Bladel, a man who was furloughed by the New York Central and responded by becoming a serial killer.

Many thanks to my friends in the blogging world for their support.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Going Greyhound

It had been a long time since I took Greyhound. Then the Chicago terminal was in the Loop, on Randolph Street, and the buses entered and exited the Loop by way of that nightmarish subterranean world that was Lower Wacker Drive. In those days, Greyhound allowed smoking in the rear seats. Even if I sat up front, I'd emerge smelling like a three-pack-a-day man. And the person in the adjacent seat always wanted to convert me to some wacky brand of Christianity.

Normally I drive the weekly round trip from Bloomington to Elkhart. But I had driven down in my Subaru, which someone in Bloomington wants to buy, the previous week. So I rode the early train to Chicago, and took the 11:45 a.m. bus from there to Elkhart.

Chicago's main bus station is west of the Loop, at Harrison and Desplaines--just a few blocks west of Union Station, and not too far from the site of Mrs' O'Leary's barn, where a cow supposedly knocked over a lantern back in 1871. It's one of those postmodern steel buildings, where the structural steel is there for all to see. I got in line to buy a ticket and was upset but not terribly surprised that there was only on ticket agent working. There was a woman with two young children right behind me in line--they looked desperately poor--who were trying to get on a bus leaving in a few minutes. I let them go ahead of me in line, as I had another half-hour before my bus left. I think she made it. She was a very personable young woman, and her children were clean and well-behaved.

As soon as that young woman had made it to the ticket counter, Greyhound brought in a second agent, who was much more experienced than the lone agent had been. I had my ticket to Elkhart in less than a minute.

I walked into the waiting room section and sat down on one of the rather uncomfortable wire-mesh benches. A middle-aged woman in a Greyhound uniform was greeting all the passengers, asking them where they were going, and informing them of the proper gate. She was fluent in English and Spanish, and she was clearly an asset to the company. A lot of people seemed confused, and the public address system wasn't always easy to understand.

My bus was about 15 minutes late departing. It was only about half full, so I had a pair of seats to myself. The passengers were young, old, and middle-aged; black, white, Asian, and Hispanic. We rolled through the West Loop area, then headed south to Chinatown, where we got on the Dan Ryan Expressway. We took the Chicago Skyway through the South Side and into Indiana. The first stop was Hammond, at a nondescript building a few blocks south of the Indiana Toll Road. No one got on or off.

Gary was the next stop. Signs proclaimed the city's centennial, which actually occurred last year. In "The Music Man," the fact that Gary wasn't founded until "nineteen ought-six" was what tipped off Marian the Librarian that "Professor" Harold Hill was lying about his academic credentials. But Hill knew that the city was named for "Elbert Gary, of judiciary fame." The statue of Gary is still there, in front of City Hall. Gary had been a judge in DuPage County, Illinois before he became president and chairman of U.S. Steel, and was always known as "Judge" Gary.

Although more than 80 percent of Gary residents are African-American, a young Hispanic couple were the only people to get on. Back on the Indiana Toll Road, we passed by the massive U.S. Steel plant.

The bus seats were surprisingly comfortable. There was more legroom than on chartered buses I had ridden in the past few years. It was pleasant to see the Indiana countryside roll by. We stopped at the South Bend airport for about five minutes, which gave the smokers a chance to feed their habit. I was disappointed to see that all the smokers were younger people.

As we passed north of South Bend, I could see the golden dome of Notre Dame University. It was another half hour to Elkhart. The station there is in a strip mall just off the Toll Road. There's a small convenience store, a sports bar, a mortgage company, and a real estate office there. The latter two offices had signs proclaiming "No Loitering. No Public Restrooms." The bus station itself was open, although no one was manning the ticket office.

All in all, it was a pretty good trip. I arrived on time. There was no smoking on the bus. And nobody tried to convert me.