Just over a month ago, I announced in this space that I was laying aside my historical novel Freedom’s Purchase for an indefinite time because of difficulty in reconciling two diverging story lines.
Soon after, I heard from my friend and champion Christine, who made a compelling case that it was possible to write a successful novel including this bifurcated plot. I took a deep breath, tried again, and lo! The successful rewrite is now complete. I am extremely satisfied.
I won’t tell you, Dear Reader, exactly what changes I made in the manuscript. I will tell you that it’s now a much more compelling read than the manuscript I was trying to sell as recently as a year ago. Some work remains to polish it, but I hope to begin marketing again in the near future.
What I can tell you is that is has a new title: The Maelstrom. And it is still the story of a Norwegian couple making their way in 1850s America and an African American slave in the deep South struggling for freedom and meaning.
Thanks for your patience. I heard recently the average time an author takes to complete a first novel is five years. So I’m right on schedule.
O purple splotch,
How dare you?
Arriving by stealth
to the back of my hand,
claiming space, a fait accompli.
You are an intruder beneath my skin.
I say again, How dare you?
Your coup unheralded,
even by minor pain,
suddenly you were just there.
In days of old this could not have happened.
In days of old my forces would have marshaled
thick skin and stout-walled capillaries
against your onslaught.
Had you attacked in strength—
the bang of a hammer blow,
the tread of an opponent’s spikes,
the slam of a door where my hand rested on the jamb—
I would have known it in that moment.
This noiseless, painless incursion is a new strategem,
the exploitation of brittle skin and numbed receptors,
but be forewarned: I am on to you.
You and your cunning ways,
how you will linger
flaunting your port-wine-ness in my face,
then six days hence decamp
as silently as the Arabs,
making me doubt my senses
until the next signalless foray.
How dare you?
But at last, these marches can avail you nothing;
for I have received the cure
and simply wait for the finality
of its deliverance.
My old MacBook Pro 13” laptop has been Your New Favorite Writer’s general headquarters ever since it was purchased in 2011. It is a wonderful device. It’s probably as close as I’ve ever come to loving an inanimate object. (I had a casual fling with an MGB-GT sports car in the late 1960s when I was stationed on Okinawa—but that’s another story.)
My 2011 MacBook Pro exceeded my wildest expectations. And it still works.
But its keyboard and trackpad are not quite as responsive as they once were. After ten years’ hard use, they might be forgiven if they just wore out.
So I went to the Apple Store and bought a new MacBook Pro 13” laptop.
I wanted a computer just like the old one—but of course that’s impossible. The new one is thinner by almost 3/8”. It’s a pound or two lighter, though it still feels substantial. The keyboard has a nicer touch. There is more memory, more storage, and more speed. The battery is said to last twenty hours. I haven’t pushed it to that limit; but I have taken it off the grid for periods of two or three hours, only to find that 90 to 95 percent of the battery’s power remained.
But my Microsoft Office 2010 will not run on the new 64-bit system with M1 silicon chip and the . . . wait for it . . . “Big Sur” operating system. So I had to sign up for a $70/year subscription to Microsoft 365.
Big deal. I’m back in action and good to go.
The upshot of which, Dear Reader, is that you’re stuck with me for at least ten more years. Think about that sometime when you’re up in the middle of the night.
“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.”
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 2 [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 3a) 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 [a 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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
My right ear abandoned its duty forty years ago. All sounds it transmitted became muffled and distant. The diagnosis was hereditary otosclerosis.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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?”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
I was born June 12, 1945. Two months later, Japan surrendered.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.