What About the Pilgrims?

“The Pilgrims? It’s not November—why are we talking about Pilgrims?” 

For one thing, maybe in midsummer we can step back and be a bit—dare I whisper the word?—dispassionate.

Passion rules the day. On every hand, our passions are egged on. “Engage your passion” is almost as frequent a bit of advice as “Follow your dreams.”

Noah Webster pre-1843. By James Herring. Public Domain. 

But has anybody bothered to check what that really means? Perhaps you will indulge me: 

passion . . . n. [[OFr < LL(Ec) passio, a suffering, esp. that of Christ (<L passus, pp. of pati, to endure < IE base *p­­ē-, to harm >  Gr pēma, destruction, L paene, scarcely): transl. of Gr pathos: see pathos]]  1a) [Archaic] suffering or agony, as of a martyr b) [Now Rare] an account of this  [P-a) the sufferings of Jesus, beginning with his agony in the Garden of Gethsmane and continuing to his death on the Cross b) any of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Passion and of accompanying events c) an artistic work, as an oratorio or a play, based on these narratives  3 a) any one of the emotions, as hate, grief, love, fear, joy, etc. b) [pl.] all such emotions collectively  4 extreme, compelling emotion; intense emotional drive or excitement; specif., a) great anger; rage; fury b) enthusiasm or fondness [passion for music] c) strong love or affection d) sexual drive or desire; lust  5 the object of any strong desire or fondness  6 [Obs.] the condition of being acted upon, esp. by outside influences—Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.

Webster goes on to comment that “passion usually implies a strong emotion that has an overpowering or compelling effect [his passions overcame his reason] [.]” 

Ignoring all the brackets, parentheses, italics, boldface, numbers, letters, and abbreviations that clutter the lexicography, we can discern that passion comprises suffering, endurance, harm, destruction, pathos, agony, martyrdom, and extremes of compelling or overpowering emotion—to include love, affection, and lust but, more commonly, hate, fear, grief, anger, rage, and fury.

Passion. Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash.

As a novelist and screenwriter, I applaud these outrageous eruptions of emotion. They  make drama.

But in my role as a human being trying to cope with the world, I must take a rather different tack. I believe that reason and objectivity—things that do not easily coexist with passion—are the best survival tools handed down from the philosophers of old.

They allow us to see our world more nearly as it is—less tinted by our fears, resentments, and extravagant dreams.

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“Okay, My New Favorite Writer, but what about the Pilgrims? You were going to say something about Pilgrims.” 

We’ll get to that, Gentle Reader. Don’t give up on me yet.

First, another mild digression.

As a young man, I studied a bit of the History of Science under Prof. David Lindberg at the University of Wisconsin­–Madison. Lindberg’s introductory lecture in the course covered what he called ancestor worship. 

Ancestor worship, in the good professor’s view, was the study of history on the basis that people of old times were either clear-sighted heroes (if we can make out that they pioneered the values we espouse today) or blind and bigoted blackguards (if they violated our current norms). 

This ancestor worship—really more an attitude than a program—leads to outlandish propositions that we often accept without rigorous examination. For instance:

Martin Luther (1483–1546). By Lucas Cranach the Elder. Public Domain.
  • Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in order to champion Freedom, Progress, and Democracy.
  • Christopher Columbus ravaged the American hemisphere and commited genocide because he was a vicious white supremacist.
  • All those who lived before the Renaissance—or the Enlightenment, if you will, or the Summer of Love—were untutored savages who lived lives void of intelligent vision.

Many other, similarly fatuous, statements could be made. What they all have in common is a fatal simplicity.

Real life, Dear Reader, is not all that straightforward.

Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German mathematician, started from the assumption that the planets moved in circular orbits which could be neatly inscribed in a nesting series of perfect Euclidean solids, and ended up proving the planets move in elliptical orbits that could not possibly answer to such imaginary constraints. Furthermore, despite his massive intelligence, it seems he saw no contradication between his two irreconcilable theories. He saw the former as being proved, not disproved, by the latter. Huh? 

Actuality just wants to escape any convenient mental box we try to cram it into.

Portrait of a man, said to be Christopher Columbus, by Sebastiano del Piombo. Public Domain.
  • Luther lived in a time when Progress was not a recognized value. Democracy was unthinkable, except as a curious aberration of the Athenians in remote antiquity. And if Luther valued Freedom, it would have been the freedom of the believer to realize salvation in Christ. His whole concern was that the institutional Church was stifling the ordinary person’s hope of receiving the Grace which the Scriptures revealed. If Luther was a hero, he was a hero of Faith, not of Modernity.
  • Columbus seems to have been actuated by the hope of Glory, Fame, and Wealth on Earth—and, perhaps, Eternal Life in Heaven. That he pursued these goals by enslaving the inhabitants of Hispaniola shows that he did not value their lives as much as white European lives; not that he held a Hitler-style ideology of race. He trampled on the Arawaks just as any supreme egotist tramples anyone in his path. It was made easy by the fact that they could not post eloquent written protests in Spanish or Latin. His genocide was casual, not programmatic。
  • And as for the belief that those who lived in days of yore were simply not bright enough to understand the world’s complexities as we do—Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Augustine of Hippo would like to have a word with you.

The real history of the world is not a relentless March of Progress nor a sinister Parade of Criminality, but an ongoing Stumble of Perplexity.

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“But what about the Pilgims? Are we there yet?”

Here are the bare facts, as widely acknowledged:

A group of Puritan Separatists—people who wanted to leave the state-mandated Church of England—fled to Holland after persecution by British monarchs. A few years later, disillusioned with life among the Dutch, they sailed for America. They arrived off Cape Cod in December 1620. Half of them died of disease and hunger during the first winter. Friendly Indians named Squanto and Samoset introduced themselves the following spring and taught our Separatist Pilgrims how to grow corn. In the autumn of 1621, Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a harvest feast that we now call the First Thanksgiving. 

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (1850-1936). Public Domain.

Because the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony established by other Puritans ten years later, became materially successful over the ensuing decades, they came to be celebrated by their 19th-century descendants as precursors of all that was good in American life. They were seen as model saints, who were sometimes victimized by their Native American neighbors but had never done anything to provoke such treatment. They were energetic and intelligent colonists, whose prosperity owed all to hard work and intelligence. Indeed, in the Mayflower Compact they had drawn up the very blueprint of American Freedom, Constitutionalism, and Democracy.

Does anything about this seem familiar to you? That’s right—Ancestor Worship! 

Because the view of the Pilgrims developed by 19th-century Congregationalists was slanted, 20th-century historians began to debunk many parts of it, in the interest of correcting the record. The 1960s and 70s also saw the rise of a corps of self-consciously subjective historians motivated by Marxist ideology. Their view was that there is no such thing as objective historiography; that history is always a political act. To them, the Massachusetts Pilgrims’ and Puritans’ checkered relationship with the Native Americans of the region was an opportunity to denounce capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

Besides this, Native Americans in the second half of the 20th century gained ground in their quest to be heard. And the Wampanoags, today’s descendants of the Patuxets and other early Massachusetts tribes, had some long-neglected bones to pick.

Thus, although the 19th century’s triumphalist view of the Pilgrims held sway well into the 1950s—when Your New Favorite Writer and many other old people were school children—the “oppressor Pilgrims” narrative, fed by leftist historians and supported by well-documented assertions of the Wampanoag people, has gained ground since the 1960s.

There are still plenty of pro-Pilgrim apologists out there. But they must increasingly feel like yesterday’s children, shouting down a dry rain barrel.

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In the interest of sanity, not to mention conciliation in a divisive era, let me point out a few truths that are sometimes overlooked.

1. Before the arrival of white Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, North America was never what we would consider densely populated. Nobody knows how many Native Americans there were in pre-Columbian days, but recent estimates range from eight million to 112 million for the entire Western Hemisphere. The North American part of that would be less. If we average the two figures and assign half of the result to North America, we get 30 million. While this is a much larger population of American Indians than existed subsequently—after the effects of virgin-soil epidemics, outright wars, and a long period of genocidal practices—North America would still have seemed sparsely populated to Europeans of that era.

2. The incursions of Spanish colonists in the West and Southwest, and Englishmen on the East Coast, started a catastrophic decline in the fortunes and the populations of Native American tribes. Of this there can be no doubt. As the Pilgrims constituted an early successful experiment in colonization, they were part of the problem, from the Native American point of view.

3. The frequent forays of English fishermen, explorers, and adventurers into North America in the arly 1600s caused one or more serious virgin soil epidemics in New England. Such epidemics happen when a group of people bring new disease organisms into a population not previously exposed to them. Since no resistance has been previously acquired, the disease spreads swiftly, with extreme virulence. One such epidemic depopulated the Massachusetts shoreline just before the Pilgrims arrived. Finding evidence of a recently vanished native civilization, the religious Pilgrims saw in that circumstance the special providence of God—the Hand of the Almighty had cleared a place for them to live. 

4. In the first weeks of their sojourn on the new shore, the Pilgrims uncovered a bushel of corn left by the former inhabitants as grave goods. They understood something of the spititual significance of this corn to the people who had left it there. But those people were nowhere to be seen, and the Pilgrims were in danger of starving. They took the corn and resolved to make restitution if they ever got the chance—a pledge they made good on, by the way.

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Rodney King, April 2012. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Now it is 2021. We live thirty years after Rodney King famously asked, “Can we all get along?” We seem to be having some trouble doing so.

If we are to make progress towards getting along, we must start by acknowledging the scope and pain of the real losses suffered by those cast aside in America’s rush to power and wealth. Where feasible, we should try to make amends.

To shed light on the past may help us do better in the future. But ferreting out the sins of our ancestors to use as cudgels against one another in the present is worse than useless. 

Our common history is no less complicated for its being troubled, and the search for Good Guys and Bad Guys is more futile the farther we are removed from the facts.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Are the Cicadas Singing?

My right ear abandoned its duty forty years ago. All sounds it transmitted became muffled and distant. The diagnosis was hereditary otosclerosis.

X-ray of otosclerosis by Mustafakapadiya, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.

Only the one ear was affected. There was a surgical procedure to correct this condition. The operation, in my case, was a crashing failure. It left me with vertigo, impaired balance, worse hearing in the right ear than before the operation, plus tinnitus—a constant ringing in the ear. 

“vertigo” by pomarc is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The dizziness and loss of balance have subsided over time. The deafness is profound and permanent. And the tinnitus has proven to be lifelong.

Tinnitus greatly burdens some of its sufferers, but with me it’s more a curiosity than a curse. My brain ignores the ringing. Only if I happen to think of it do I hear it. Thus I can summon the sound at will, but it normally sinks below my awareness. 

Except on warm summer evenings. Then, if I am outdoors—which I often am—the high-pitched, droning whine of cicadas is everywhere. Whoever I’m with, I ask them:  “Are the cicadas singing?” 

Even when they’re not singing, my ear tells me they are.

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Cicadas are large, prehistoric-looking insects often called locusts. But true locusts are a kind of grasshopper, and these big, ugly bugs do not much resemble them. Therefore, cicada is the proper term.

Despite its repulsive looks, the cicada is a lovely singer, emitting a shrill chirp that is unmistakable. The sound is made by males in order to attract females. (It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.) 

These males in their search for mating opportunities rapidly buckle and unbuckle an anatomical structure on their bellies known as a tymbal. They do it so rapidly that the numerous clicks fuse into one whine, which can sound cyclical, rising and falling with monotonous regularity. It’s incredibly loud, especially when thousands or millions of the bugs throb out their urgent pleas all at once. It can drive a hearer crazy.

Magicicada photographed near Chicago in 2007. Uploaded by Nickaleck at English Wikipedia. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5.

Such a thing is especially worrisome in certain years when magicicada—the so-called “seventeen-year locust”—appears. According to Wikipedia, “Most cicadas go through a life cycle that lasts 2–5 years.” When the nymphs come out of the ground, climb trees, shed their exoskeletons, and emerge as adults, they do so in moderately large numbers. But magicicada takes seventeen years from hatching to adulthood. Most of the magicicada in a region come out in the same year. When they do, their numbers can be staggering.

I first encountered them as a young boy in Streator, Illinois. For a week or two, they were everywhere. I remember striding through them, ankle-deep, at a local park. Then they died off. When the next seventeen-year cycle was complete, I no longer lived there.

Wisconsin’s magicicada swarm is expected to emerge in 2024 here. Since I have been a Badger for about sixty-four years now, I must have gone through three of these events already—but I have no recollection of them. This makes me think the Wisconsin brood is less overwhelming than those farther south.

But some cicadas come out every year, even here in the Great Green North. So don’t be surprised if one evening soon, when we are together, I turn to you with my plaintive query, “Are the cicadas singing?” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Patience

My old friend Jay came up from Chicagoland last week, with his lady friend Harriet. We chatted over a very nice Italian dinner at a local restaurant. At some point, Harriet inquired about my quest as a would-be book author. 

I told her I had the complete manuscript of a historical novel, but by submitting it to various agents and publishers I learned the story needed a complete, tooth-to-tail revision. A daunting prospect, but one I undertook bravely. The problem is that, even though the writing is a lot better in the new version, the many changes of plot and character made me fear that by the time I got to the end, the story would be an incoherent mess. But I was plugging on, regardless.

At this point, Jay made the obvious comment: “Well, at our age, you don’t have that much time left to finish this thing and get it published.” 

Jay was, of course, correct in his assessment. But I shared with him this amazing secret: The older I get, the more patient I become.

It’s hard to account for. Against all rationality, I look forward to thirty or forty more years of productive life. Therefore I can afford to spend time getting my manuscript right. 

Just when time is running out, I have learned patience.

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The manuscript is another matter. Since the conversation with Jay and Harriet, it has become clear that I have two separate stories—a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America, and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning. I am not creative enough to make the two stories mesh.

My spouse observed long ago that I was writing two books at once. She was right.

For now, I’m laying it aside. Maybe I can sort out the separate strands of story at a later date. I have a lot of other work “in the hopper,” no end of things to write about. 

One avenue of expression is these blog posts. Until getting bogged down in the rewrite project, I was posting here weekly. I now hope to resume that habit.

And I would like to pick up where I left off in what I call “the Bradbury Challenge”—writing a short story a week for a year.

And my daughter recently suggested an excellent setting for a screenplay. All it needs is a story to go with it.

So never fear, Dear Reader. I’ll keep busy. Someday, I’ll get back to the historical novel. Patience.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Mowing the Lawn

I was mowing my front yard yesterday when Milo Bung walked by. He stopped in the street and called out something. I had to shut down the mower. 

“What’s that?” I shouted.

“You don’t have to yell. I just asked what you were doing.”

I pointed at the machine. “What does it look like I’m doing?”

Lawn mower photo by Famartin, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.

“I mean, is that a hobby with you, or what?” 

“I don’t enjoy it, if that’s what you mean. It gets old after the first hour.” Milo knows full well that when I’m done mowing my small front yard, a huge back yard still awaits.

“Why don’t you get you a rider? You should see that little X570 of mine.” 

“Should I?” 

“Got a 54-inch deck.” Milo spread his arms five feet wide. “Zip, zip. Done in ten minutes.”

“Good for you,” said I, mopping my brow with a bandanna.

“Nothing runs like a Deere,” Milo advertised. 

I nodded. “Well, nice talking with you.” I yanked the starter rope to reawaken my Toro’s inner bull.

He said something which must have been “Good-bye” and waved at me as I stepped off, chasing the self-propelled mower across the grass. There was a lot of turf yet to whack.

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In the 1950s I learned to cut grass with a kid-powered mower. You had to open the oil cap and squirt in oil from a can to lubricate the reel, like Dorothy loosening up the Tin Woodsman, then use a screwdriver to adjust the cutter bar so the blades would just graze it as they went around. Then all you did was push.

When grandpa died in 1957, we inherited his rotary power mower—a puny thing by today’s standards. Since then, I have decapitated untold billions of grass blades, using several generations of gas-powered, walk-behind, 22-inch rotary mower.

As I told Milo, I do not enjoy cutting the grass. But I do enjoy having cut it.

There are few feelings as grand as sitting in my zero-gravity lawn chair on a summer afternoon, sipping iced tea and reading a nice book, smack dab in the middle of my new-mown lawn. Master of all I survey.

Besides this giddy prospect, there is a practical reason for mowing. It’s about the only exercise I get, besides tennis, in the summer. I put six thousand steps on my pedometer just by mowing the lawn. Some weeks I do it twice, or even thrice. 

I could buy a lawn tractor or, better yet, hire the job done. But whenever I consider such a step, I think of friends who have a lawn service. They all seem to be falling into decrepitude, though some are younger than I, by months or years.

It boils down to this: I dislike mowing the lawn but am terrified to stop.

May all your clippings be reduced to fine mulch.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Memorial Day

Memorial Day. Photo by Isabella and Zsa Fischer on Unsplash.

I went to the afternoon Memorial Day observance at the Madison Veterans Memorial Park. It’s a nice space, overlooking meadows and woodlands. There is a cluster of flags at the center, and a space covered by an iron structure which could house a roof or at least a large tarpaulin.

The ceremony was conducted by a local VFW post. It was dignified and well executed. Besides the participants, about fifty people were in attendance.

Why do we do this? Why do we take time out of a glorious weekend, the start of summer, to remember our dead?

Could that be it? Could it be that simple? Remembering the dead?

We live our lives in a country, in a society, that is radically free. But free does not mean free of charge. In every generation, some people pay the price. They lay down their lives, sometimes in excruciatingly difficult ways, for the freedom we enjoy. 

It seems fitting, at least for a few minutes one day a year, to remember them. 

If we do not do this, how can we be worthy of this gift they have given us? 

That’s all.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Lacey

Sunday was Mother’s Day. Our daughter brought dinner and wine, a plant for her mother, and of course our grandchildren, 11 and 8.

The kids, with help from their father, had given their mother a lovely flower arrangement.

The five of us ate, drank, talked, and played games. But in all this festivity, one more mother was . . . well, not overlooked. Rather, celebrated not for her motherhood but for herself.

Lacey, a thirty-pound English Springer spaniel mix, came to us about five years ago from the Columbia County Humane Society. She had already been a mother at least once, maybe twice, by the time we met her—but that was all behind her. She came to us as a spayed four-year-old.

Lacey

She was a bit shy but soon meshed into our household routine. In temperament and docility, as well as looks, she was a reincarnation of Walt Disney’s “Lady,” from Lady and the Tramp. She loved to go on walks, to play and frolic in our backyard, and especially to sit in our front bay window and yap annoyingly at anyone or anything in the street outside. 

Lacey trotted into the vacancy left by our previous dog—a superannuated Siberian husky. She was a welcome change of pace. 

We discovered that Lacey did not have two brain cells to rub together. She could play all day chasing stray light reflections around the living room. When she saw a dog in front of the house, she ran for the back door so she could bark at it in the backyard. But her lack of intellect was overbalanced by her sweetness. 

Lacey’s sweetness was legendary.

If she was Lady, her Tramp came along in the form of Midnight, a terrier/husky pup about twice her size and endowed with an unreasonable share of rambuncity. He was doughty, all male, and became her loyal foster brother. 

Our neighbors have a gorgeous male Siberian named Bruce. When Bruce is in his backyard, and especially when he deigns to come to the fence, he is a rock star. Both Midnight and Lacey unleash an orgy of barking, running, jumping, and hysteria. Bruce then pees on the fence and strolls away. 

Midnight spends most of the day patrolling the backyard for signs of Bruce’s approach. When Mister Cool makes his appearance, Midnight erupts in a cacophony of barks. Lacey springs from her perch in the bay window, races out the back door, and zooms across the yard for the sighting. The sight of Lacey dashing to the fence on stubby legs, stripping her gears, is both comical and endearing. Worth the price of admission.

Lacey has given us her full measure of love and devotion. 

What I am leading up to, Dear Reader, is that Lacy’s afterburner has been quenched. No more headlong dashes on Bruce patrol. Last year, at around age eight, Lacey developed a cancerous tumor in one of her mammary glands. The veterinarian removed it surgically, with a good margin around it. Lacey bounced back from the operation, and we hoped for the best. 

But the cancer came back. It was clear that no matter how many surgeries she endured, the cancer would keep coming back. We opted to let her live out her life as best she could.

The past few months have been a good time for Lacey. Only recently have her energy and her appetite begun to flag.

We scheduled a peaceful passing at our house Monday, May 10, assisted by Journeys Home, a veterinary euthanasia service.

Our Mother’s Day, May 9, was shadowed by this foreknowledge. Near the end of a happy time, when our daughter and her children had to say goodbye to their lovely little friend of the past five years, the floodgates were opened. It was a rough way to end the day. But an honest one.

I told them that if we want the love, we must bear the grief. That about sums it up.

The vet will be here in a less than two hours to escort Lacey on her next journey. She has been a good dog. What more can be said?

*

P.S.—The traveling vet arrived on schedule. She was gracious, caring, and capable. Lacey departed peacefully, mourned by quiet tears.

RIP.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Dates to Live By

I was born June 12, 1945. Two months later, Japan surrendered. 

The surrender of Japan. Army Signal Corps photographer LT. Stephen E. Korpanty; restored by Adam Cuerden – Naval Historical Center Photo # SC 213700. Public Domain.

That matter settled, I turned my attention to trying out my body parts, learning my native tongue, and getting acquainted with my family. These experiments engrossed me fully until about 1950, at which point I noticed . . . everything else.

Our world in those days was simple and straightforward. We knew where we stood. If March came in like a lion, it would go out like a lamb. The Brooklyn Dodgers would play the New York Yankees in the World Series. You couldn’t go swimming in the summer for fear of polio.

My Castle of Knowledge and Experience. Photo by Jaime Spaniol on Unsplash.

Beyond such truths, whole reams of information settled in my skull, etching deep lines to form a kind of blueprint of reality—upon which, eventually, I would build a castle of knowledge and experience. My castle was not unique. My friends and schoolmates all built similar castles. 

Holidays, Seasons, Rituals

The columns, ribs, and stays of the castle were holidays, seasons, and rituals ordained by society at large. These recurring festivals buttressed a remarkably durable structure of life.

The year kicked off on New Year’s Day, with multi-hued bowls—Rose, Orange, Cotton, and Sugar. The Groundhog was pure myth. He never saw his shadow, nor did we ever see him not see his shadow.

The Groundhog. Photo by Ralph Katieb on Unsplash.

But then came a real holiday—Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12. Lincoln was  one of our two greatest presidents. He had a beard and a kindly smile. (I learned later that he also led our nation through its darkest days.) 

The other great presidential birthday was George Washington’s on February 22. Washington did not have to wear a beard to be great. As Father of Our Country he was an automatic qualifier. 

May basket. “may basket” by brambleroots is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The birthdays of our greatest two presidents were important enough to cancel school, when they fell on weekdays. Such holidays—our national birthright—were never devolved upon the nearest Monday, as they are now in exchange for that mess of pottage known as a long weekend.

Between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays fell Valentine’s Day, a time for exchanging sappy cards with your classmates. We also observed Easter and April Fool’s Day, but they did not leave the impression on me that May 1 did. It was called May Day, and it was wonderful. Egged on by mothers and teachers, we made baskets of colored paper, filled them with flowers, and gave them to our friends in a stealthy manner. You snuck up to the door, hung a basket of flowers on its handle, rang the bell, ran away, and hid, so you could peek out from a safe place to see your friend’s surprise and awe when they found the flowers.

We had May Day and its merry hijinks. Today’s kids have cell phones, X-Boxes, powered scooters, and Pokemon (whatever that may be). Who is richer?

“Decoration Day”

At the end of May came Decoration Day, a time to go to the cemetery and bedeck the graves of our loved and lost. Originally, the idea was to honor the War Dead, but by the time I came along, all but the most disreputable dead had their graves strewn with flowers indiscriminately. After decorating graves in the morning, there came a big parade down Main Street. By the time that concluded in mid-afternoon, the Big Race was on—the Indianapolis 500, which was always run on May 30, Memorial Day.

We watched the race on the radio. Four announcers cried the tidings of roadsters swooping through each turn. After more than three hours of whining engine noise, the winner crossed the line, to receive a bottle of champagne and a kiss from a Hoosier lovely. Your ears could smell the gasoline fumes. 

Decoration Day was an informal name for Memorial Day. The whole pageant has long since been moved to Monday Nearest, like most other holidays.

Independence Day

Thank God we still celebrate Independence Day on July 4, regardless when it falls in the week. This exemption from the Monday Nearest rule shows that the Fourth is one of our most sacred holidays—like that other exemption, Christmas. July 4 is sacred, of course, because it is the nominal date of our Declaration of Independence.

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1819. Public Domain.

Why is Independence Day, July 4, celebrated so much more intensely than Constitution Day, September 17? Isn’t the Constitution the basis of our laws? Yes, but the Declaration was the basis of our country. The 1776 phrase “all men are created equal,” and the notion that government’s job is to protect our rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—have always meant more to us than the details inked in 1789. 

The Declaration became paramount before and during the Civil War. Lincoln’s powerful rhetoric was based on the simple notions of the Declaration, not the complex compromises of the Constitution. 

Hence all the fireworks.

Downhill to Winter

After July 4, the year is mostly downhill. Labor Day, recognized by Congress in 1894 to honor the American labor movement, is the only holiday originally fixed on a Monday, that labor might be ennobled by a day off work. 

In urban areas with strong unions, it became a major feast, with marches, picnics, speeches, and political activism. Such was not the case in the small Midwestern towns of my youth. Labor Day was just a welcome day of loafing or, in my case, the last day before school started.

Columbus Day, another reprieve from school, occurred on October 12. We learned that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two, / Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Latter-day scholars have pointed out that Columbus, in his thirst for gold, enslaved the Arawak natives on the island of Hispaniola and established a pattern of exploitation that has shamed the Western Hemisphere from that time to this. But we learned none of that. He was just the Discoverer of America—which is a good thing, right?

On the night of October 31, rigged out in costumes from our mothers’ fertile imaginations, we gave considerable attention to the process of shaking down our neighbors for candy. There were goblins and ghosts, to be sure, but I don’t recall anyone trying to scare the living daylights out of small children, as has become the practice since then.

“Get Your Deer?”

The fourth Thursday in November was Thanksgiving, probably the most delicious holiday of the year. Here in Wisconsin, Thanksgiving falls in the midst of Deer Season, so the festivities sometimes take a back seat to the hunt—at least for those who have not got their buck yet. 

When I was a child in downstate Illinois, deer were not that plentiful, the deer hunt was not of widespread interest, and we focused on ritual re-enactments of the Pilgrims Story—plus, of course, eating turkeys. The central rite of Thanksgiving Day was the Big Football Game, broadcast in mid-afternoon. Regardless of who the combatants were, this was a pretty important game, because Thanksgiving occurred just at the point when the college and pro football seasons were getting serious. The hunt for championships was in the air. 

But in those days, it could be hard to follow that hunt, because our black-and-white television screens were sicklied o’er with electronic “snow.” This virtual precipitation further obscured the action on a gridiron already vexed with actual, meteorological, snow. And mud, of course—because Astroturf was still only a gleam in the eye of Mister Astro.

Guy Lombardo. Photo by Mauice Seymour. Public Domain.

Christmas came but once a year, a month after Thanksgiving. It made a fitting end to the year, the best holiday of all. Because of all the TOYS. Only later in life did I learn that the thing that made Christmas sweet was that the whole family got together. That was better than all the toys. I wish I’d known that when I was six.

There was, technically, one holiday after Christmas: New Year’s Eve, December 31. But, unless you happened to be one of Mister Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, I would seriously advise you to skip it. Too many drunks on the road.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer 

Wisconsin Chainsaw Meditations

My daughter wanted to fence her backyard, but a big old bush blocked the way. 

She called. “Dad, can you bring your chainsaw?” 

Me with chainsaw. Katie Sommers photo.

Well, natch. What are dads for? I drove across town and performed an emergency bushectomy. No sweat.

But Your New Favorite Author wasn’t always a shrub shredding ace. Tons of tuition has been paid.

My first chainsaw, purchased more than thirty years ago, was a Poulan with a 20-inch bar. The bigger the better, right? It weighed 992 pounds on days of low humidity. 

A small tornado tore through one year and left our backyard filled with an 80-foot silver maple in prone position. Too big a job for me alone, even with my monster chainsaw. I called my friend Mikey, who lives Up Nort’, and he brought along his friend Rick. 

I noticed their chainsaws were small ones with 14-inch bars. They fired up their little machines, and I fired up my big one, and we went to work. After five minutes, Mikey said—with that tact for which he is justly famed—“Larry? Maybe you could stand over here and take it easy for a bit? Big trees like this can be tricky. Rick and I are concerned you could get hurt.” 

Two hours later, the tree had been sliced, diced, cubed, and quartered. It stood in neat little stacks all over my backyard. My friends, with their 14-inch chainsaws, had reduced a three-foot-thick trunk to silver maple briquettes. And I was all unscathed—except for my macerated self-image as a lumberjack.

Lesson One: It doesn’t take a huge machine, if you know what you’re doing.

I couldn’t get over how easily Mikey and Rick handled their little chainsaws, and what a chore it was for me just to lift mine. So I sold the monster and bought a 14-inch Stihl MS180C Mini-Boss, which is the saw I’ve used for the past fifteen or twenty years. 

I only hauled it out once or twice a year. At that frequency of use, one never quite masters the elements of the machine. I had trouble just getting it started. If it needed cleaning or a new chain, a major pageant ensued. Forget the simple steps breezily outlined in the owner’s manual. There’s no substitute for having enough experience to know how the thing works.

For various reasons, I used the chainsaw more often, several times per year. At last, I accumulated enough operator time to get acquainted with my machine. It’s impossible to overstate how proud I was of myself for finally figuring the beast out. 

Decimating the obstacle. Katie Sommers photo.

But need I tell you, Dear Reader, that pride goeth before a fall? Nay, you know that already. In fact, you could look it up. It’s in the Bible, Proverbs 16:18.

I did something quintessentially stupid. I tightened the chain at the end of a cutting session. As the machine cooled, the tight chain tightened further, pulled the bar out of line, bent the drive shaft, and scrambled the transmission parts inside the engine housing. 

You need to be an actual idiot to do something like that. 

Lesson Two: Don’t be an idiot.

I took the mangled machine to our local power center for an estimate. They called me later that week. “Gee,” the man said, “to re-seat all those parts, replace the bent and damaged ones, and get it all back together in good working order, would come to $138.49, plus tax.”

“Doesn’t really shock me,” I said.

But the voice on the other end of the line said, “The thing is, you could buy a new one for not much more.” 

Of course I could. But the new one wouldn’t be the same model, because they don’t make those any more. Even if the model number was the same, it would have been improved many times since I bought it. 

Half a lifetime of hard-won learning curve is built into the chainsaw I’ve already got. If I bought a new one, it would be ten years before I mastered the effortless starting feature. And I’m already in my seventies.

“It’s got sentimental value to me,” I said. “Go ahead and rebuild it.”

So they did, I paid the $138.49, plus tax, and now I have a good, dependable chainsaw that I know how to use and that I never, ever tighten at the end of its cycle. 

Even so, I would still call for outside help if I had a big tree come down.

Lesson Three: Sometimes it pays to rest on your laurels.

With all this history in mind, I loaded my 14-inch Stihl into the back of my SUV, threw in a can of gas-oil mixture, a jug of bar lubricant, a chainsaw multitool, a spare chain, and work gloves. And headed to my daughter’s house with well-earned confidence. 

I wonder if she has any inkling what a treasury of woodlore and mechanical know-how resides in that dinky little chainsaw.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Harry T. Loper’s Difficult Day

Dear Reader: I am immersed in a demanding rewrite of my novel, Freedom’s Purchase. Thus I cannot offer you a fresh post this week. Please enjoy this reblog of a fictional/factual treatment of a major historical event, the Springfield race riot of 1908.

Anarchy, Loper thought. 

Crowds of men, women too, ran through the afternoon streets of Springfield. Shouted. Shook fists. Spooked horses. Snarled teams and rigs. Loper had witnessed the Cincinnati riots in 1884. Now those bloody scenes flashed back across his mind.

He frowned and crushed the horn bulb, steered his touring car through the lunatics, trying not to bump flesh. Loper’s 1906 Dorris was his pride and joy, but as a National Guard member and community leader, he knew his duty. He drove toward the county jail, the same place the mob was going, but on a different mission. 

Out of nowhere, six of Springfield’s new motorized fire engines came roaring down the street. Loper swerved, nearly killing some moron walking in the gutter. Bells clanging, the fire trucks raced northward, beyond Union Square Park—and the mob in the street followed them. Loper turned down an alley between Washington and Jefferson Streets and approached the jail from the back. 

“Took your time getting here,” said Sheriff Werner.

“There was a mob in the street, and by the way, the North End seems to be burning down.”

“Don’t worry about that fire. It’s a little invention of mine, to draw people away.” The sheriff barked back over his shoulder: “Come on, hustle!”

Two black men in prison stripes and handcuffs stumbled into the sunlight, surrounded by four armed lawmen. 

“Harry Loper,” said the sheriff, “meet Deputies Kramer, Hanrahan, and Rhodes, and Sergeant Yanzell of the city police. The famous desperadoes climbing in behind you are Joe James and George Richardson. They may hang for their crimes next week, but by God we’ll keep them safe tonight.” 

Loper turned in his seat to look at the prisoners. Both men stared bleakly at the floorboards. The Dorris was spacious, but two of the gun-wielding deputies had to stand on the running boards. Loper drove all six, prisoners and officers, five miles to Sherman, where they caught a train for Bloomington. 

He drove fast on the return trip, anxious to get back to his restaurant—even though a big supper rush seemed unlikely. Decent folk would not venture out this night, even for a Friday feed at Springfield’s finest eatery.

But that was the least of it. He turned into Fifth Street only to find his place beleaguered by an ugly mob. He parked in the street and leapt from the car. 

“There he is!” shouted someone as he ran in the door. “That’s Loper, the dirty nigger-lover!”

Loper made straight for his office and got the rifle he kept in case of robbers. He came out and stood in the doorway, brandishing the gun as broadly as he could. 

“You hauled the negro out of town,” shouted a voice, female this time. “Now we will haul you!” The crowd surged forward.

Loper ran for his life.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Loper postcard, interior.
Loper postcard, exterior.

Back in Business

My Grandma, Millie Marie Gunsten-not-yet-Sommers, lived in Low Point, Illinois, in 1908 and collected postcards. In her collection are two cards with no written message, no address, no stamps, no postmarks. They were never mailed. She must have been acquired them hot off the press. 

These cards were printed and distributed for an urgent purpose: To get Harry Loper back in business after the riot. But theywere no doubt kept by Grandma simply as mementoes of the riot.

I remember her, from the 1940s and ’50s, as a homely old woman in a shapeless dress, who wore big button hearing aids, smiled a lot, rocked me in her rocking chair when I couldn’t sleep, and gave me a spoonful of honey when I had a cough.

In 1908, she would have been about twenty, a shy and socially awkward telephone operator still living with her parents and younger siblings in a very small town. What would she have thought of the distressing and notorious events in nearby Springfield? Did the big riot stay in her memory? She had enough things to occupy her mind in the intervening years, with marriage to a profane and pugnacious railroad telegrapher, the raising of five children, the loss of two sons in World War II. She never mentioned the riot in my hearing, and I never asked her about it, since I had never even heard of it. Long before I came along, the Springfield Race Riot of 1908 had been buried in society’s willing forgetfulness. 

The Springfield Race Riot of 1908

But our haunted past has been resurrected. We now know that Springfield, Illinois—Abraham Lincoln’s home, the city from which he went to Washington to preside over a Union torn apart by slavery—was the site of one of the worst, and also most significant, race riots in the post-Reconstruction period.

On August 14, 1908, a young white woman, Mabel Hallam, charged George Richardson, a black construction worker, with raping her the night before. “I believe you are the man,” she said after hesitantly identifying him at the sheriff’s office in the Sangamon County Courthouse, “and you will have to prove that you are not.”

“Before God, I am innocent of this crime,” Richardson said. “I can explain her identification of me only by the theory that all coons look alike to her.”

An angry crowd formed outside the courthouse. Armed guards marched Richardson three blocks to the county jail and locked him up. Soon the mob re-formed at the jail.

Sheriff Charles Werner resisted using National Guard troops the governor placed at his disposal. He figured that getting the prisoner out of town would calm the mob. He telephoned Harry Loper to commandeer his car and arranged the diversionary tactic of a fake fire alarm. Perhaps as an afterthought, he added a second black prisoner to Loper’s cargo—one Joe James, languishing in jail for the July 4 murder of Clergy Ballard, a white mining engineer. 

Loper and motoring friends in 1910. Loper, in light-colored suit and black hat, sits in the passenger seat. Photo courtesy Sangamon County Historical Society.

But the mob would not be placated. Learning that Loper had driven the two men out of town, hundreds converged on his restaurant, utterly destroying it and Loper’s car. The restaurateur escaped through a rear basement entrance, but Louis Johnston, a white factory worker, was hit by a stray gunshot inside the restaurant and died.

Black Districts Pillaged

The mob then turned to the Levee, a black business district, and the Badlands, a nearby neighborhood where blacks lived in mostly run-down houses. Many African American residents fled to any available refuge, although some defended themselves with revolvers and shotguns, firing from upper stories of businesses in the Levee.

The white mob lynched two black businessmen—Scott Burton, a 59-year-old barber, and William K. H. Donnegan, an 84-year-old shoemaker. Both men were beaten, slashed, and hung, their bodies mutilated. 

In three days of rioting, at least thirty-five black-owned businesses were destroyed and riddled with bullets, and a four-square-block residential area was put to the torch. Local police, fire, and sheriff’s office responses were ineffective or nonexistent. Order was eventually restored by National Guard troops, deployed too late to stop the destruction and carnage. Accounts differ as to how many Springfield citizens, besides Burton and Donnegan, were killed or injured. At least several people, both black and white, died. Some estimates are higher.

Legal Penalties

Within a few days, a special grand jury “issued a total of 117 indictments and made eighty-five arrests for murder, burglary, larceny, incitement to riot, disorderly conduct, concealed weapons, and suspicion” (Something So Horrible: The Springfield Race Riot of 1908, by Carole Merritt [Springfield: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, 2008], p. 59). 

However, in the trials that followed, only one person faced serious punishment for participation in the riot—Roy Young, 15, who confessed to “shooting at negroes” and helping burn 15 or 16 houses and was sentenced to the state reformatory at Pontiac. Another rioter, Kate Howard, a boardinghouse owner known to have led rioters in the destruction of Loper’s café, was released on $10,000 bond and subsequently re-arrested in connection with the lynching of Scott Burton. “Before leaving for prison, Howard secretly took poison and died at the door of the county jail.”

Negro prisoner Joe James was convicted of the murder of Clergy Ballard and was hanged October 23, 1908. However, George Richardson, the man whose alleged rape of Mabel Hallam was the actual spark for the riot, was fully exonerated and released from jail two weeks after the riot, when his accuser admitted to the grand jury that she made the story up. According to Wikipedia, “He received no restitution or apology for his time away from work or harm to his name. He went on to work as a janitor, and lived until he was 76, when he died at St. John’s Hospital. His obituary did not mention the events of 1908.”

Catalyst for Founding of the NAACP

Richardson’s vindication would seem to be the only good thing to have come out of the Springfield riot. But it was not.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Wealthy white Republican Socialist William English Walling traveled to Springfield in the aftermath of the riot, visited hard-hit areas and spoke with survivors of the riot. He penned an article, “The Race War in the North,” for a New York weekly, The Independent.  Journalist and social activist Mary White Ovington read Walling’s article and wrote to him in response. They organized a January 1909 meeting in New York, attended also by Dr. Henry Moskowitz, which became the founding meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Prominent black and white leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Oswald Villard and his mother Frances Garrison Villard, Ray Baker, Mary Church Terrell, Archibald Grimké, and Ida B. Wells joined the initial organizational efforts. 

Thus the Springfield riot became the catalyst that led to the formation of the NAACP early the following year. 

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Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

COVID Wednesdays

Each Wednesday of COVID, our grandchildren’s school releases them on their own recognizance, with the vague injunction to pursue “independent studies.” 

Pish, tosh. What do grade-school children know from independent studies? 

Ours—Elsie, 11, and Tristan, 8—fortunately have something available that’s better than independent studies. They have grandparents.

Their mom and dad both work Wednesdays, so Elsie and Tristan spend all day with us. 

They choose one of the world’s nation states in advance, and we come up with a lesson. We’ve done Egypt, Spain, Uruguay, Fiji—just to name  few. We start by bombarding our grandkids’ heads with random facts about the chosen nation. Then we cook some food alleged to be typical of the chosen nation. They participate in both the bombardment and the cooking . . .  at varying levels of excitement. 

Sometimes they abandon Mormor—the Swedish name for their grandmother, Jo—when she’s in the midst of an exciting recipe. They just run off and do something else. Turns out, it was exciting to her, but not so much to them. On other occasions, they stick throughout the process. 

Our kids are fickle and changeable. But, thanks to Mormor’s dogged persistence, we always end up with something original and tasty to eat. Often it’s a sweet dessert, and we detect no reluctance to consume it.

Afternoon is literature time. That part of the curriculum varies a great deal, too. I’ve gone radical by introducing poetic meters—the various kinds of rhythmic “feet,” iambic pentameter and such. Or sometimes we discuss what a piece means. Elsie and Tristan both like Robert Frost. And it turns out they’re capable of memorizing whole poems, if only they are challenged to do so.

On other occasions, the curriculum may be less formal. Last week we regaled one another with silly songs. Needless to say, their silly songs are sillier than my silly songs. Then we read a few Paul Bunyan stories, including one about the time Paul Bunyan tried to drive his logs down a Wisconsin river that ran around in a perfect circle. It took a while for Tristan to realize that such a thing is impossible—but he figured it out on his own. 

Much of my teaching is stuff and nonsense, of the basest sort; but I have a nagging fear that if not for Bapa—their non-Swedish name for me—they would miss out on such things entirely.

These days, children’s educational and recreational opportunities are meted out, trimmed, and balanced to a stupefying degree. We all know kids need exposure to the world of their grandparents, but we commonly neglect that need while we pursue other goals that are less vital. 

Should you have the opportunity to spend extra time with your grandchildren, rejoice. And use the time wisely. Don’t fritter it away in certified, approved, and educator-recommended lesson plans. This may be your one chance to give them something different.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author