One pleasure of retirement is getting away in midwinter to a warmer scene. For us this is counterbalanced, in a perfectly Emersonian way, by returning home to Madison, Wisconsin, at a moment when the temperature is near zero and a foot of new snow burdens the land.
We experienced both of these contrasting joys recently. Far be it from me, Dear Reader, to assault your sensibilities with arctic narratives à la Jack London. But perhaps you’d like to hear about the sunny Tropics.
We flew to Manaus, a city of more than two million people in Brazil’s northwest. It lies on the Amazon River. When I say “Amazon,” you may see dense jungle dripping with rain, bromeliads perched on every tree and bone-nosed cannibals behind every bush. The truth is less romantic.
To trek the Amazon Rain Forest is one thing; riding the Amazon River is quite another. The two are separated by miles of water.
The Amazon is either the longest or the second-longest river in the world, but it is without doubt the largest. In total volume of water carried down to the sea, no other river on Earth comes close. Thus, the Amazon can be navigated for a thousand miles, all the way to Manaus, by oceanic vessels.
Manaus is Brazil’s seventh largest city. Unlike any other city of its size, Manaus cannot be reached by road. Since air service is both expensive and sparse, most long-distance travel is by boat. People of the region measure inter-city travel in days, not hours. They take small river steamers and sleep in hammocks slung between decks.
Not we. The vessel we boarded for the trip downriver was the Viking Sea, a smallish ocean-going liner carrying nine hundred passengers plus about half that number in crew and staff. We cast off on January 19 and took four days to reach the Atlantic Ocean.
I had imagined a saga like that of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn piercing the jungle on the African Queen. But from Manaus onward, the Amazon averages six miles wide. So it was more like traversing a very long lake. We could see shore on both sides, but that’s about it.
We did glimpse life ashore at various stops along the way. In Manaus we visited the colonial-era town square and also the zoo, where actual denizens of the rainforest are on display.
At the small town of Parintins we were treated to an indoor performance of Boi Bumbá, a folkloric singing and dancing festival much enhanced by complimentary glasses of “a delicious caipirinha cocktail made of cachaça (fermented sugarcane juice), sugar and lime.” I am no judge of such noisy spectacles, but as used to say in the Fifties, it had a beat, and you could dance to it. (You, Fair Reader; not me.)
The highlight of the Amazon voyage was Santarém. We visited a cassava mill, where workers dig up wild-growing manioc or cassava tubers—they look like sweet potatoes—and extract their starch, which is tapioca. The tapioca is a staple of local cooking and also processed for export. The sap of the cassava is boiled until no longer poisonous and used as the base for a pepper-spiced sauce.
Then we went piranha-fishing on Maica Lake. In a small boat we motored up the Rio Tapajós, a tributary of the Amazon. We passed small farmhouses elevated on stilts and a bit of actual Amazon rainforest, the treetops populated by sloths—which are hard to spot, but we did see some. Those passengers intent on angling for the razor-toothed piranha hung out over the gunwales with baited lines and bated breath. Eventually a few of the little devils—the fish, that is—were caught, photographed, and thrown back in to lurk in waiting for the next boatload of turistas.
Calm yourself, Gentle Reader. Your New Favorite Writer escaped with all fingers, toes, and other parts intact.
Another day of cruising the ever-widening Amazon, and we were off for the Caribbean. But that’s another story, to be recounted next week. So stay tuned.
DEAR READER: With today’s installment, do yourself a favor: Click on each hypertext link as you encounter it, crank up the volume, relax and enjoy. Each item is worth hearing in its own right, and together they form a sort of aural mélange that will make up for any deficiencies in the text.—The Author
Why does my brain swing back so often to my earliest years? Maybe it’s because I’m in my second childhood.
This morning it was Cream of Wheat. By now, I’ve learned to make it myself, that stuff which my mother used to set before me when I was five or six. This morning my Cream of Wheat steam rose through its surface rubble of berries, and it wafted me back.
It put me in mind of Big John and Sparky. I barely remember them, but I do remember them.
Out of the Magical Ether
Big John and Sparky?
“What are you running off at the mouth about now, O New Favorite Writer?” I hear you cry.
Well, to understand, you have to go back to Radio Days.
Every Saturday morning, I came out in my flannel pajamas, clutching my overnight pal, Teddy. I sat down at the kitchen table. Teddy sat beside me.
Mom brought out the steaming porridge and turned on the radio. Big John and Sparky arrived to the tune of “Teddy Bear’s Picnic,” sung by Ann Stephens. I could relate, because sometimes when I was tired, my own mommy and daddy would take me home to bed, just like the teddy bears in the song. And my best friend was a teddy bear.
Big John was a big man with a big voice, and Sparky was a little elf with a tiny voice—the kind of voice we would later think of as coming from chipmunks, courtesy of “David Seville” (Ross Bagdasarian) and friends Alvin, Simon, and Theodore. But I get ahead of myself.
Big John and Sparky must have had wonderful adventures together. Now, I only recall their contrasting voices, their theme song—still one of my favorites—and the smell and taste of Cream of Wheat.
“But say, O New Favorite Writer—why did you not watch Big John and Sparky on TV?”
Thanks for your timely interruption, Dear Reader. The answer is, there was no TV.
After Big John and Sparky, which was only a fifteen-minute program, there came Let’s Pretend, a half-hour show in which multiple actors gave voice to classic tales like Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Cinderella. However old and hoary these stories might be, they were brand-new and exciting to us children who heard them for the first time on CBS’s Peabody Award-winning program.
To make things even more perfect, it was sponsored by Cream of Wheat.
Other programs on Saturday morning included Buster Brown, hosted by “Smilin’ Ed” McConnell, and Space Patrol with Commander-in-Chief Buzz Corry and his young sidekick Cadet Happy.
The latter show put ray guns and disintegrator blasters into serious competition with cowboy pistols for toy of the year. We, of course, had to imagine what such weapons looked like. But toy designers had good imaginations, too, and soon we could purchase the genuine article at our local five-and-dime. Or we would buy it by sending away a quarter and several cereal boxtops to the sponsor of the program.
It was a great time to be a kid. Soon enough, our butts would be plunked on the living room carpet all Saturday morning as we watched TV. But for a few short years, many of the great things we saw came through our ears, while we munched our Cream of Wheat.
When I was a boy, every neighborhood had a mom-and-pop store. It was a grocery store, a newsstand, a cigar store, a non-prescription pharmacy, a yo-yo demonstration headquarters, and (best of all) a penny-candy emporium.
I later learned that in some mom-and-pop stores, Pop also dealt girlie magazines from under the counter and kept an illegal book for bets on the big city horse races. But that’s another story.
Nowadays we go to a nearby warehouse that sells groceries and all things else—Walmart, Costco, or the like. Regular supermarkets like Kroger’s and Hyvee still exist. There are narrowly-focused custom stores, like butcher shops—likely as not, branded “ethical and humane charcuterie.” And there is the ubiquitous convenience store, which also sells everything you can imagine and usually has gas pumps as well.
The convenience stores may be today’s mom-and-pop establishments, with Mom and Pop usually hailing from India, Pakistan, or Korea. New Americans, striving to get ahead, just like previous immigrants.
But the old-style mom-and-pop store is extinct, or nearly so. The key feature was that it was an easy walk from home. You didn’t have to get in the car and drive through two multi-lane interchanges and a series of mystifying roundabouts to get there.
The prime years of my boyhood were lived in Streator, Illinois. We lived in four different houses, in three neighborhoods.
At our first little house, on First Street, where we dwelt in 1951 in the shadow of the Owens-Illinois glass factory, the mom-and-pop store was three blocks away. I don’t remember the name of the store. It was on Wasson Street, on my way home from school.
I was six years old. One day I stopped and gazed through display glass at the heart-warming array of different candies. One in particular caught my eye: A small police-style revolver modeled in black licorice, with handgrips in white licorice.
It was a work of art.
I wanted it. “How much is the little gun ?” I asked.
“That’s a nickel,” said Pop.
“Charge it,” I said.
My parents had bought things here by saying “Charge it,” so I did, too. Pop whatever-his-name-was must have known which set of grown-ups I belonged to, for he gave me the little gun in a white paper bag and added the nickel to our family’s charge account. It’s not every six-year-old who has established credit.
When Mom detected my crime, she blew a gasket. Then she calmed down and explained that “Charge it” was not a magical phrase to render things free. It was just a phrase that meant Mom and Dad would have to pay for the item later. OHHHH.
The whole tawdry affair formed the premise of my 2016 story, “Nickel and Dime,” published online by the Saturday Evening Post and illustrated by a bit of outdated art from that magazine’s inexhaustible archive. Even with the cornball art, you might get a chuckle out of the story.
I happened to be passing near Streator a few years ago. The building on Wasson Street where I charged the candy revolver still stood, though no longer used as a store. It’s a near-derelict old hillside house, shown in this photo. The room below the overhanging eave was the store’s site.
More than seventy years on, the little gun remains vivid in my mind. It was so appealing, simply as a visual matter. I never even liked licorice.
When we moved to Stanton Street a year or two later, the neighborhood store was Marx’s Market, a block west of our house. In another year or two we moved three blocks further west, placing Marx’s store two blocks east of us.
We kids, now a bit older, with nickels and dimes to call our own, stopped at Marx’s after school, mainly to buy Topp’s bubble gum. The gum was a joke—a thin sheet of pink nothingness. But in the same package were baseball cards that showed our favorite players, their batting averages, and important career information like “bats left, throws right.” We had a lot of fun trading off our duplicate cards. This whole rigmarole is a leitmotif in my middle grade manuscript,Izzy Strikes Gold! You’ll love the read, once it’s published.
Marx’s was a distribution point for Duncan Yo-yos. Every spring a Duncan representative brought Mr. Marx a whole new line of bright, fancy-painted, plastic-jewel-encrusted yo-yos.
Word magically permeated our school that the Duncan man would be at Marx’s that very afternoon. Dozens of third- through sixth-grade boys gathered in the scant lot next to the store to watch this exotic pitchman, generally a young Filipino swimming in a sharkskin suit and sporting a mass of slick black hair, as he performed a series of dazzling tricks with the loveliest, most expensive yo-yos in Duncan’s line. After that, we all bought yo-yos. Most of us bought the cheap kind, but nevertheless, we bought.
Even with frequent five-minute periods of arduous practice over the next week or two, I never did become a yo-yo master. I should have bought the professional model, the one the salesman used. But my mom and dad were too cheap, so I missed out on a life of fame and fortune on the professional yo-yo circuit.
When we moved in 1954 to our house on River Avenue, wouldn’t you know it? There was a mom-and-pop store just a block and a half away. I remember only that about it. Trauma has blocked my memory of further details.
Even in those days, we did our main weekly shopping at a larger store—Piggly Wiggly, I guess. But we used the little neighborhood store for small items in the middle of the week. One chilly autumn evening, Mom gave me a quarter and sent me to buy a quart of milk. Riding my Schwinn Wasp cheerily home from the mom-and-pop store, the quart bottle of milk snug in my front carrier basket, I brashly approached the two steps at the end of the sidewalk, which brought pedestrians down to the level of River Avenue. I had just learned to bounce my bike down those steps and was puffed up with pride in the accomplishment.
With the joie de vivre that typified my approach to life at age nine, I jolted the front wheel down the steps. The milk bottle leapt, with what I can only call a perverse will of its own, out of the basket over my front fender and exploded on the pavement. It was a miracle that flying shards of glass did not slash my tires.
When I told Mom what had happened, she gave me a dirty look, a new quarter, and a broom and dustpan for the broken glass.
“And Joseph . . . went up from Galilee . . . unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem—because he was of the house and lineage of David—to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”
They journeyed back to where his people had lived. Were they glad for the trip, or were they troubled? Did they feel like outcasts on a weary road or homeward-bound children expecting a warm welcome?
We drove by night, from Streator, Illinois, on December 24, 1952. Or maybe it was 1953. In either case, my little sister, Cynda Jo, was only a tyke, rolling around in the back seat with me.
It was dark by six p.m. Mom may have packed sandwiches to be eaten in the comfort of our 1939 Chevy. It was a black sedan, the kind you see in old movies, where gangsters lean out the windows with tommy guns and spray lead back at the cops chasing them in the same kind of car.
We were bound for Knoxville, a small town where both Mom’s and Dad’s parents lived. A two-hour drive, it seemed forever to a boy of seven or eight.
“Are we there yet?”
“Not yet, honey. You just asked five minutes ago.”
We cruised past ground streaked with snow. Or maybe it was bare dirt, stripped fields where corn had grown last summer. Flat lands, with farmhouses set back a quarter-mile from the road. The night was cold, but was it white? I really don’t remember.
It was dark for sure. We rumbled down state roads—Illinois 18 to 29 to 17 to 90 to 78 to U.S. Highway 150. I didn’t know the highway numbers then, only the names of the little towns we passed through: Wenona, Lacon, Edelstein, Princeville.
There was a mountain in Wenona, a hundred-foot-tall cone of tailings from an old coal mine. You couldn’t see it in the dark, but townsfolk had put a lighted star on top, so you knew that was where the mountain was. Pretty much the only mountain in Illinois.
The roads were paved highways, one lane each direction. No multi-lanes, no grassy medians. Superhighways did not exist. If they did, I had never seen one.
Somewhere near Edelstein the state highway department had knocked off work for Christmas. To keep folks from driving into the unfilled hole, they had left a barricade lit by guttering flames from two black kerosene pot flares—small candles challenging the blackness of night.
The light great we looked for was a green neon quadrangle on the roof of the Green Diamond, a small tavern on Highway 150. When you saw that green neon diamond, you were just outside Knoxville. The town itself was dry, so the Green Diamond was a roadhouse, out on the highway.
We drove through Knoxville to the public square and parked in front of my grandparents’ house.
All the aunts, uncles, and cousins had gathered inside. Uncle Earl and Uncle Dick sat on the floor amid strings of tree lights, which were wired in series in those days. If the string did not light, all you could do was replace each light in sequence with a fresh bulb until you found the culprit. Then, voilà!, there was light.
Out on the highway, huddled in the car, only an occasional light flickering from a farmyard across the fields, we had been lonely pilgrims, outside the pale of human care.
Now we were home.
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
“And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”
I don’t know how Mary and Joseph felt when at last they stumbled into Bethlehem, after a long, tiring journey.
But every year at this time, pondering their momentous journey, I feel I have suddenly come out of darkness into a great light.
May you experience peace, and may your holidays be warmly illuminated.
Poet François Villon asked, “Où sont les neiges d’antan?”—“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”
Last week I mentioned some snows of yesteryear, diverse in their actuality yet alike in their vanishment: A path sledded down with joy sixty-five years ago in Illinois, the megalomaniac Ozymandias mentioned in a poem by Shelley, the ubiquitous basement dwelling of aspiring Middle Americans, and a sprawling historical curiosity known as the Great Hedge of India.
Today, a few more examples.
Juan Trippe’s new Pan American Airways sought a flying boat with unprecedented range and payload—an aircraft to carry scores of passengers across whole oceans. Trippe took Boeing’s bid and ordered six copies of their B-314—a plane that, when built, would have a range of more than two thousand miles and carry 68 day passengers (or 40 overnight in convertible bunks) plus eleven crew members. Later, Trippe added six upgraded B-314As to the order.
He dubbed his oceanic planes “Clippers,” to recall the fastest ships from the heyday of sail. The Boeing 314s entered operational service across the Pacific March 29, 1939, carrying passengers and mail. They flew from San Francisco to Honolulu, Midway, Wake, Guam, Manila, and ultimately, to Hong Kong. A transatlantic route premiered June 24 of the same year, flying from Southampton to Port Washington, New York, via Foynes in Ireland, Botwood in Newfoundland, and Shediac, New Brunswick.
My late uncle, Edward F. Sommers, was copilot on the Anzac Clipper westbound to Hawaii on December 7, 1941. An hour out of Honolulu, the crew received a warning from headquarters that Pearl Harbor was under aerial attack—which explained the many Japanese voice transmissions their radio operator had been hearing. Per sealed war contingency orders, Captain Lanier Turner diverted the craft, landing safely in the harbor of Hilo on the big island of Hawaii. Passengers were given the option of returning to California with the plane or making their own way onward from Hilo in the suddenly uncertain Pacific. The plane, some of the passengers, and my uncle flew back to California a day or two later.
Other Clippers were not so lucky. The Japanese attack was multi-pronged. The Philippine Clipper, on the ground at Wake Island, sustained 96 bullet holes but remained sound enough to evacuate Pan Am station personnel, the island’s only residents. The Hong Kong Clipper, at rest in its namesake port, was struck by incendiary bullets and destroyed by fire. The Pacific Clipper, aloft at the time of the attack, reached its destination of New Zealand. It “was ordered back to the U.S. mainland–but not via the Pacific. It flew westward, three-fourths of the way around the world, under radio silence and lacking navigation charts. It arrived in New York three weeks later, thereby completing the longest trip a commercial airliner had ever flown.” (National Air and Space Museum website.)
The previous year, with dimmed prospects of opening additional routes to war-torn Europe, Trippe had sold three of his twelve B-314s to the United Kingdom. Now, as America joined the fight, the Navy and War Departments purchased the other nine. They were operated as military assets for the duration of the war, manned by the existing, specially skilled Pan Am crews—many of whom were already in the Naval Reserve. The most advanced long-distance airliners in the world, they were used for high-priority missions. B-314s carried both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and U.K Prime Minister Winston Churchill to international conferences.
By war’s end, however, the big Clippers had become obsolete. Besides outstanding range, their most salient feature had been the ability to land on water; a flying boat converted any marine harbor into an airport. By the end of the war there were bomber-capable airfields all around the world. Land-based aircraft were safer and easier to operate than seaplanes, which were subject to the whims of wind and waves. The last of Trippe’s B-314 flying boats was broken down for scrap in 1951. It was the Anzac Clipper, in which Uncle Ed narrowly missed the Pearl Harbor attack.
The only B-314 in existence today is a full-sized replica constructed for, and housed at, the Foynes Flying Boat & Maritime Museum in Foynes, Ireland.
As François Villon would say, “Où sont les neiges d’antan?”
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, my father was a sergeant stationed at Camp Forrest, Tennessee, with the 132nd Infantry Regiment. In January, five weeks after the Day of Infamy, the regiment was removed from the 33rd Infantry Division and added to something called Task Force 6814. The troops left Tennessee on a train guarded by FBI agents.
The 132nd arrived in New York and, with other units, boarded the Swedish luxury liner M.S. Kungsholm, now being refitted as a troopship by the U.S. Navy under the new name M.S. John Ericsson. Designed for 1,400 cruise passengers, she was now crammed with more than twice that many soldiers. She sailed from New York on January 22, in a convoy of seven ships. Dad said that as the Kungsholm/Ericsson left harbor, workers were still busy replacing the spacious luxury cabins with plywood bulkheads and rows of pipe bunks.
With so many troops aboard, water was strictly rationed; showers were verboten. The ship’s galley could only manage to feed everybody two meals a day. You finished breakfast and got in line for supper.
They made it down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal, and across the Pacific to Melbourne in just over a month. After a brief debarkation and cleanup, they re-boarded and sailed to New Caledonia, where Task Force 6814 became the Americal Division (AMERIcans in New CALedonia)—the first U.S. force to confront the Japanese in the Pacific.
What became of the ship, the Kungsholm/Ericsson? She continued to serve as a troopship until the end of the war and was then sold back to the Swedish American Line, who in turn sold her to a lower-profile cruise operator. In 1964 she became a 500-room floating hotel in Freeport, Bahamas. The following year she was scrapped at Bilbao, Spain.
Where are the snows of yesteryear? A monarch of the seas went out not with a bang but a whimper.
In 1967-68, I had the good fortune to spend a year on the island of Taiwan, sent there as a U.S. airman for the purpose of eavesdropping on Chinese Communist Air Force operations across the Strait of Taiwan.
The one thing that Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists agreed upon was that Taiwan—a large island shaped like a tobacco leaf a hundred miles off China’s southeast coast—was a province of China. They disagreed on the identity of China’s government. From the Nationalists’ point of view, Taiwan was the only part of China currently under legitimate authority. The whole of mainland China was in an illegal and temporary state of rebellion.
That the Red occupation of the mainland was temporary was not in doubt. Wherever one went, there were billboards in large Chinese characters urging, “Fight to recover the Mainland!” Just how this could be accomplished was problematic. The Republic of China (Chiang’s Nationalist regime) had more than a million men under arms and three wings of Lockheed F-104 fighters provided by the United States. This was enough to prevent a Communist invasion of Taiwan, but far from enough to reconquer the mainland. And Chiang Kai-shek’s chief backer, Uncle Sam, did not wish to encourage or provision any such adventure.
Besides, the dashing military hero Chiang had grown old, bald, and feeble. His mustache was all white. The only time people saw him was doddering about in a brief film clip that accompanied the national anthem before films shown in the Ximending movie houses. People no longer believed the reconquest propaganda.
Despite all militarism and bellicose talk, Taiwan was a quaint and peaceful place. My base of operations, Shulinkou Air Station, was a small outpost of GIs on a bucolic mountaintop, amid plantations of green tea.
We had a five-hole pitch-and-putt golf course. A few skinny boys tending a water buffalo stood outside the chainlink fence and watched us hack away. When we chipped a ball over the fence into the Republic of China, the boys would fetch the ball and sell it back to us for a U.S. nickel.
Our chow hall, the Dragon Inn, was the best in the Air Force. The meals bore no resemblance to military food. There was a goldfish pond in the middle of the floor.
When we rode a bus or taxi into, or from, downtown Taipei, we traveled a steep road laced with hairpin curves and fringes with lush jungle. Inside one curve, a somber stone had been erected in memory of dozens of workers who had died building the road. Most of the deaths had been from snakebite.
During harvest season you saw farmers walking beside frail bicycles, pushing them up the road, each bike laden with three or four 100-pound bags of rice.
When we went downtown, local children followed us, gaping and pointing. They had never seen Caucasian people before, especially blond ones, as I was at the time.
Houses and apartments had wood-fired water heaters. If you wanted to take a bath, you built a fire in the water heater and waited twenty minutes.
These memories from half a century ago came flooding back the other day as I thought about the four Taiwanese students we had invited to share our Thanksgiving meal. I went online and looked up the area where Shulinkou Air Station once stood—before these students’ parents had been born. The U.S. Air Force presence, of course, has long been gone.
Shulinkou Air Station closed in 1977, a victim of America’s really-two-chinas-but-officially-one-china policy. Where our base stood, the tea fields are gone, sacrificed to creeping urbanism. The area seems about to be swallowed up by something called New Taipei City.
The snows of yesteryear. Not that there was ever any snow on Taiwan. It’s a semi-tropical island.
I do wonder what became of the boys with the water buffalo. And their children. And their grandchildren.
On a clear winter day in Streator, Illinois, we gathered with our sleds at the top end of the Snake Path.
Sturdy sleds they were—Flexible Flyers and American Flyers— on which you lay full length, gripping the wooden crossbar that bent the steel runners right or left to turn in a seemingly impossible radius, aided by a rubber-galoshed toe planted at a crucial moment.
The Snake Path was a twisty trail that dropped down a field of dried grass and milkweed stalks, wound through a thicket of scrawny maple and basswood trees, and emerged on a large hump that formed something like a ski jump. If you kept your speed while turning amid the trees, you could fly off the big bump to the shale road below, land hard on your belly (OOF!), jink ninety degrees right, and coast all the way to the little bridge over the Stink Creek. What a ride!
That was sixty-five years ago. Today there is no snake path, there is no big hump. There is hardly a hill at all. Only a few weeds and bushes mark the spot where a magic woodland once stood. The road survives, but the green, odorous understory of woods it once penetrated has vanished. Only a few yards down the road, a steel gate now bars the way to all but authorized personnel. Some company bought up the land beyond for private uses. You can’t even smell the Stink Creek anymore.
Hardly a trace of the past remains.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”
Hardly a trace remains.
It’s a small thing when a childhood playground vanishes, and perhaps not much larger when a mighty king’s monument is buried under the sands.
But works of vast importance can also disappear, leaving little or no sign of their existence. Something big is then lost to humanity, unless a record of some kind—a jotting, a memory— survives.
Even my grandchildren know the Fabulous Fifties for the birth of rock and roll, for roller-skating parties and sock hops. Thanks to Richie Cunningham and Marty McFly, those marks of the era are well documented.
But have you heard of basement houses? Maybe a quarter of the kids I knew lived in them.
In the postwar building rush, one common strategy was the basement house. The would-be homeowner—most likely a Second World War veteran—would buy a city lot and hire somebody with a bulldozer to dig a basement. A concrete floor would be poured, cinder-block walls raised, and the below-ground enclosure covered over with joists, sub-flooring, and tar paper. What funds remained were used to install plumbing, electricity, and room partitions in the basement. Then the family moved in. They lived in this basement, often for several seasons, until they could save enough money to build a regular house on top. Conditions were cramped and less than ideal—but they had housing!
In the town where I lived, there were whole subdivisions of basement houses. One by one, as the occupying families prospered, the upper floors were finished. My Uncle Dick and Aunt Jane lived in their basement house for several years. When they finally built up from the ground, they had a fine suburban house. Gradually, almost all of these basement homes were finished. Today they stand, in hundreds of neighborhoods, cheek-by-jowl with conventionally-built houses. You would have to be a construction expert to detect which houses had been occupied in their early years as basement homes.
I scoured the internet a while back for a photograph of such a basement house. There were none to be found. It seemed the basement house had altogether vanished from view. But just today I Googled again and found, to my delight, a May 2022 real estate listing for just such a home—perhaps the one remaining basement house in Illinois that was never finished above ground. You can see it here. The weird black hump rising from the tar paper in some of the photos is, of course, the above-ground door leading down a stairway into the basement.
The text advertising this house uses terms like “unique,” “unusual or interesting,” and even “amazinggggg.” Whoever wrote it did not know houses like this were once common.
I sometimes feel like the messenger who came to Job. (That’s Job 1:15, if you’d care to look it up in the Bible.) The Fifties have been abducted, “and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
Basement dwelling was a way of life for millions of kids and their families.
Hardly a trace remains.
It’s not only my little, parochial, Illinois past that sinks out of sight. Consider the Great Hedge of India.
Most educated people know that the greater part of India was once ruled by the British as a colony. Those who have seen Richard Attenborough’s remarkable 1982 film about Gandhi know that the British paid the costs of their occupation by means of a salt tax that was very burdensome to the health, not to mention the finances, of Indians.
What goes unmentioned is the method by which the tax was enforced. A Brit who served in India, Sir John Strachey, wrote: “To secure the levy of a duty on salt . . . [a] Customs line was established which stretched across the whole of India, which in 1869 extended from the Indus to the Mahanadi in Madras, a distance of 2,300 miles, and it was guarded by nearly 12,000 men. . . . It consisted principally of an immense impenetrable hedge of thorny trees and bushes.” [My emphasis.]
What is the Englishman’s answer to all land questions? Plant a hedge.
An Indian Customs commissioner elaborated: “In its most perfect form the hedge is a live one, from ten to fourteen feet in height, and six to twelve feet thick, composed of closely clipped thorny trees and shrubs, amongst which the babool (acacia carecha), the Indian plum (zizyphues jujuba), the carounda (carissa curonda), the prickly pear (opuntia, three species), and the thuer (euphorbia, several species) are, according to salt and climate, the most numerous, with which a thorny creeper (guilandina bondue) is constantly intermingled.”
This hedge required enormous maintenance. But it was effective at keeping smugglers from bringing in untaxed salt from the Princely States to the west of the British Raj. When India gained independence in 1947, the hedge project was abandoned.
In 1995 an Englishman named Roy Moxham discovered written references to the Great Hedge. Curious, he spent years researching its history, traveling to India armed with maps obtained from British libraries and Indian government agencies. In 1998, he at last found a remnant stretch of the Great Hedge, a few hundred yards long, in north central India. He documented the whole quest in his unique book, The Great Hedge of India.
Think of that: In barely fifty years, a major feature of the physical, political, and moral landscape of that great subcontinent had all but disappeared.
She lifts the iron from the collar of Dad’s white shirt. “Estes Kefauver is a man who wants to be president.”
“Why do they yell when they say his name?”
“That’s what politicians do at a convention.”
“So, Kefauver will be president?”
She laughs. “No. They’re going to nominate Stevenson.”
“So, Stevenson will be president?”
“I don’t think so.” She hangs the white shirt on a wire hanger, picks another one out of the basket, and sprinkles it with water out of a re-purposed Coke bottle.
Little fragments of the Big Picture were starting to become clear—as clear as mud. Still, I held out hope that I would eventually figure everything out.
Big things were afoot on the earth. Without beginning to understand them, I knew there was a world of people and events outside the little prairie towns of my experience.
I knew this because the radio told me. Our fine old wood-bodied Philco sat on a table in the hall and was seldom silent, day or night. We heard news broadcasts by Lowell Thomas, Fulton Lewis Junior, and Edward R. Murrow—whom I thought of, phonically, as Edward “Armurro.”
Many details of the news escaped me. What was “the House Un-American Activities Committee”? What was “French Indo-China”? All things of that nature were beyond my ken. But I knew they were out there, and someday I would figure them out.
The small city of Streator—population 17,500—was in those days an almost magical place, filled with new opportunities every day to reframe and re-understand the world. There was such a thing as Little League. I was only seven in the summer of 1952, but maybe I could try out. Dad explained baseball to me. You had to hit the ball, run around three bases, and end up back at home plate. That much seemed clear.
For the rest, Dad took me to see a movie about Grover Cleveland Alexander, a famous old-time pitcher, who by the way had gotten his start with the lowly Galesburg Boosters. In the movie, a fielder threw the ball and hit Alexander in the head, which caused big problems because it made him see double. Dad explained that hitting base runners with the ball was not the right way to put them out. But what the right way was, he did not say.
I tried out for Little League, but the grown-up men who ruled the tryouts were not impressed by my skills. I did not understand all they wanted me to do. “Force him at second!” they cried. Or, “Hurry now, tag up!” I stood there mute, not knowing the code. On the outside, looking in.
They relegated me to something called “the Farm League.” This meant I could go play ball with other unskilled kids. Maybe I would magically improve enough to be chosen for Little League next year. Or maybe not.
As I scuffed across the dusty diamond en route home, a pair of boys I didn’t know approached me. “Hey, kid. Give us a dime.”
I stood and stared. “I don’t have any money.”
“Oh, yeah?” The larger of the two grabbed me by my shirt and pulled me close.
“Yeah,” I said. “I really don’t have any money.” I was almost in tears.
The two boys looked at each other.
The big one let go of my shirt. “Look, kid. Next time we see you, you’re going to have a dime for us, right?”
I bobbed my head up and down, hoping to show abject agreement. “Right!” I said.
I shuddered inwardly on the way home. Those boys would beat me up if I didn’t give them a dime. Why did people want to beat you up?
It was impenetrable. I never wanted to beat anybody up.
When I told Mom about the bullies’ threat, she turned into Roger Benckendorf.
She walked with me to practice the next day.
“Do you have a dime for them, Mom?” I asked, thinking she might not understand the requirement. “I’m really supposed to bring them a dime.”
Mom gave me a strange look. “I’ve got a dime for them, all right.”
I spotted the boys and pointed to the other side of the baseball diamond. “There they are.”
Mom charged across the sun-baked infield and corraled the two kids. I couldn’t quite hear what she told them, but I know she did not give them a dime, and they ran away rather fast. I never saw them again.
I puzzled over why Mom told me she was going to give them a dime when she clearly never intended to do so, but I was starting to understand that you were not supposed to give in to extortion. What the alternative was, though, I still had no clue.
The “I Like Ike” folks greatly outnumbered the “Madly for Adlai” folks, nationwide. We had a new president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a smiling, bald-headed, grandfatherly man who talked a lot about “nucular” weapons.
Mom told me he meant “nuclear.” Nuclear meant the Atom Bomb.
Sixty-five years ago today, the Russians fired Sputnik into the October sky.
Of all people to kick off the Space Age—the Russians!
“Humiliation” does not capture the angst of a twelve-year-old American boy, which is what I was at the time.
“Disaster” would be closer.
Some adults may have been startled that humans had flung a projectile into space—a basketball-sized object that immediately took up a patrol of the heavens, blinking and beeping its way across the sky once every ninety-six minutes.
No twelve-year-old boy—as I was, at the time—batted an eyelash at the fact of space travel. Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, and other fiction writers had conditioned us to expect it with confidence. But it was to have been done by Americans.
That the Russians launched the satellite was wrong on four counts.
First of all, the Russians were Bad Guys. They were communist dictators. They mocked everything we, the Free World, stood for. They tried to undermine us. They were evil.
Second, everybody knew the Russians could not invent anything. A-bombs and H-bombs, they had acquired by trickery. Spies like the Rosenbergs had given them our secrets. Virtually all goods in Russia—cars, airplanes, telephones—were copies of American models.
Third, since Russia was our enemy in a colossal struggle for world power, having their hardware pass over the United States sixteen times a day raised the specter of a surprise attack from outer space—maybe in the near future. This was a big-time worry for Pentagon planners.
My Own Nemesis
The fourth consideration was peculiar to me. Sputnik arrived on a day that was already my downfall. We were moving from Streator, Illinois (population 17,500), to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Kenosha was a much larger city: It was industrial, foreign, and most of all, it was not Streator, where I had oodles of friends.
I was hardly in a mood to understand the great advantages of my father’s upward job change.
On Saturday morning, October 5, the one appliance that had not been packed in the moving van was a small table radio. Mom was about to unplug it to put in the car with the other odds and ends when the CBS Radio News announced the launching of Sputnik. They even played a recording of the new satellite’s strange, plaintive beep.
That beep signaled that not only had my parents betrayed me by uprooting me from my accustomed home, but the treacherous Russians were piling on. The failure of America’s Vanguard rocket a few months later only added to the misery.
Now that it’s sixty-five years past, I’ve learned to be philosophical about it. I even have some good memories of Kenosha. But the emotions of a star-struck young lad still resonate after all those years.
I hope all your orbits, Gentle Reader, will be happy ones.
I started to climb a mountain, but I did not know how high it was.
I wrote a story when I was in third grade. I’ve always been good at words, at ease with grammar, fascinated by the process of converting thoughts into sentences.
When young I thought it would be swell to be a writer. I made a few attempts at writing novels and short stories, but do you know what?
It was too hard. I moved on to something else.
Besides, there was life to be lived. There was a war. There was college. There was marriage. There was a child. There were dogs—an endless parade of dogs, down to the present day.
At length, I ran out of excuses.
I began to look again at writing a novel. I’m a talented writer. How hard could it be?
At first it was great fun, tramping steadily uphill, writing page after page, chapter after chapter.
Then, it was challenging—revising, rewriting, and refining those early drafts.
I finished the book and rejoiced. That hadn’t been so hard after all. The mountain was only a hill.
But I wanted it published. I wanted a traditional, royalty-paying publication contract from a traditional, royalty-paying publisher. How hard could it be?
I sent it to agents. I sent it to independent publishers.
No agents responded. One independent publisher offered a contract; but it was a poor contract, and the publisher’s emails put me off. I turned it down.
Two more publishers agreed to read my full manuscript. Both of them sent back polite rejections, each with two or three sentences of what was wrong with the book. Triangulating their comments, I achieved a sudden, shattering insight.
My book was not good enough.
The mountain was higher than I thought.
I could see a way the book might be improved to meet the objections of the two publishers who had given me comments. But it would require another year or more of work, because the story had to be completely rewritten, turned inside out, major sections added and formerly important material subtracted.
I was not sure I could do it. An angel (Christine DeSmet) whispered in my ear, “Yes, you can.”
A year later, Dan Willis of DX Varos Publishing bought a vastly improved book.
Finally, it was good enough.
The mountain had been higher than I thought.
Why do I tell you this?
Because I learned a lesson, and it is one you might take to heart, whatever personal challenge it is that you are facing.
The work needs to be really good. You must reach down deep inside yourself and use all your resources. The mountain you must climb is higher, and more difficult, than you could have imagined when you started out.
But the thrill of achievement when you reach the summit is worth every bit of effort and courage that it took.
Immediately, you are given another mountain to climb: A mountain of publicity and recognition. A mountain of public indifference that must be overcome.
If the first mountain was worth the climb, so the second mountain will be also.
He made me angry, and it could be hard to resolve one’s anger at Joe Nelson.
He made everybody angry. He was an equal opportunity annoyer. You had to take a number.
And before your number came up, he had done something to make you love him.
It wasn’t fair.
In the late 1960s, when the Black Panthers were one of many radical groups trying to start The Revolution, Joe Nelson used to debate politics with Fred Hampton, national vice-chair of the Black Panther Party. Hampton would come into Joe’s print shop in Maywood, Illinois, just to argue.
Joe, once a socialist, was by the 1960s a rock-ribbed Barry Goldwater Republican. He and the bright, articulate young black radical saw most things through opposite ends of the telescope. Both enjoyed the stimulation of their running squabble.
When Hampton was gunned down by law officers in a pre-dawn raid at his Chicago apartment, Joe did not hesitate to call it a police-led assassination. He was a conservative, not a fool.
Since he was my father-in-law, I spent a fair amount of time with Joe Nelson.
One day I saw him provoke a local store manager. The man was spitting mad. Within a minute, the two were good buddies. They parted with broad smiles. Joe did that kind of thing all the time. You could say it was his M.O.
His dad had been a printer and editor who worked for a newspaper chain, starting small-town weeklies in the Dakotas. Once the local clarion-ledger-press-herald was up and running, he turned it over to someone else and moved on to another little burg to repeat the process. It must have been a sketchy living. Six-year-old Joe and his older brother Maurice were farmed out to a Catholic orphanage for two years because their parents couldn’t feed all four boys. The Nelsons weren’t Catholic, but the good sisters would not turn anyone away.
Even when the family was together, they moved continually. Joe attended thirteen different public schools en route to his high school diploma.
Some kids would wilt and turn inward in such circumstances. Joe toughened up and turned outward. He figured if you wanted friends, you had better make them quickly. He honed that skill.
When I met him, he was in his sixties, a master at getting along with people. He got along with everybody, to whatever extent he chose. He was always in charge of the relationship.
I met him because I was attracted to his daughter, Joelle, whom I met at Knox College. Fair, feminine, and flirty though she was, I have since come to realize that her sterling character was formed more by her flinty father than by her gracious mother.
Elsa was the soul of respectability and conventionality. Joe, not so much. His mind was keen and penetrating. He did things the way that made sense to him.
When Joelle was a teenager, she had no curfew. By the wisdom of the day, she should have become a wild, out-of-control teen—one of those “crazy, mixed-up kids” the adult world talked about. It never happened. Her father taught her that arbitrary rules were no substitute for good sense and human kindness.
He often called himself an anarchist, of the purest stripe. “If we actually followed Christ and lived the Golden Rule,” he said, “laws would be unnecessary.”
When Joelle went on a date, Joe insisted the young man come into the house and engage in a few minutes of conversation. He always checked the boy’s driver’s license—to make sure the boy had one. Joelle may have chafed at this indignity; but she suffered in silence, then stayed out as late as she pleased.
When she came home—whether at midnight or four a.m.—Joe would be awake in the living room, reading a paper by the light of a table lamp. “Did you have a good time?” he would ask. “Yes, Daddy,” she would say. As she flew up the stairs to her bedroom, he would fold his paper, lock the door, and turn out the lights.
She knew he would never complain about the lateness of her arrival. She also knew he would be at work by six the next morning.
“On a weekend?” I hear you ask. Let me explain, Dear Reader. He was the owner of his print shop. His employees had limited hours; Joe did not. He had to make it work.
Joe had not always been a printer, though he had learned the trade at his father’s knee.
Sidelined from military service in the Second World War by a pair of disease-scarred eardrums, he had served as a civilian flight instructor at Purdue University, training the pilots of our South American allies.
After the war, having survived the macho antics of his Latin flying students, he got a job as a mechanic at Sky Harbor airport in the Chicago suburbs. He serviced private aircraft for Chicago’s high rollers. Entertainer/impresario Tommy Bartlett, soon to become a Wisconsin water-ski maven, was one of his clients.
When a wealthy customer crash-landed his plane in a field somewhere, Joe would pack up his tools, take a train to the site, patch up the plane enough to get it into the air, and fly it home.
It was a life he loved, but it was an all-hours occupation. It kept him away from home. When he did come home, he found his young tot, Joelle, terrified of her own father. He had become a stranger to her.
So he gave up flying and went into the printing business. That also was demanding, but he was home every night, and his daughter got acquainted with him.
Did I mention that Joe was sociable? His early life gave him the skills not only to form firm friendships quickly but also to negotiate with anyone about anything, on a very practical basis. He had boundless energy, a deep well of patience, and an endless fascination with people.
So naturally, besides running a business, raising a daughter, and participating in church and social functions, he entered politics. He ran for school board and won a seat. The Proviso school district was split between the suburbs of Maywood and Melrose Park. Joe was from Maywood, a town that had been racially integrated since its founding after the Civil War. It was integrated in this sense: Black residents lived in South Maywood and white residents in North Maywood.
The school board, however, was dominated by members from Melrose Park, a heavily Italian city.
Things were done Chicago-style. Joe had run as a reformer, so he was taken for a tense ride in the back of a large automobile, where the facts of life were explained to him. Contracts to paint the district’s several schools were coming up. By long tradition, these contracts were not let by open bidding but were simply divvied up among school board members. Each member got to choose the contractor for one school. The message was loud and clear: Don’t rock the boat.
Joe accepted his status as contract czar for a single school. Competitive bidding on contracts was not a hill he wanted to die on. He found a Maywood neighbor who needed the work and could do the job. [In the original version of this post, I inaccurately asserted that he recruited a minority-owned business to do the job. My wife pointed out that this was not so. I’m afraid my heroic mental image of Joe overwhelmed my usually accurate memory cells.]
The next election cycle, Joe recruited a black candidate, Dr. John Vaughans, for the other Maywood-connected seat on the school board. They campaigned together in the next election and both won. Two mavericks on the seven-member board did not work a miraculous change. But it was a start.
Joe believed in the American ideal of equality, and he could see that African Americans consistently got the short end of the stick. That did not make him a liberal. When teachers went on strike, Joe took a hard line in defense of taxpayers.
He was a tough negotiator. He made sure there were pitchers of cold water at the negotiating table, but he abstained from drinking any. Bargaining sessions could hinge on the relative bladder strengths of the negotiators. Joe’s frequent line was, “Wait a minute. We can always take a recess later, but why don’t take a few extra minutes right now and hash this out? Nobody leaves the table till we settle this point.”
In later years, after retiring from the school board, he was appointed to Maywood’s human relations commission. The work often involved mediating conflicts of view between the city’s white and black residents. He poured all his patience, skill, and goodwill into it.
We were driving around one day, and Joe stopped to point out a rather ordinary-looking playground on a patch of land in South Maywood. “That was a vacant lot,” he said. “The city owned it. It was just doing nothing, no good for anybody. I thought it would be good if were a playground. A lot of kids in this neighborhood could use it. I started mentioning it to people, but it still took twenty years before we got it.”
“Why so long?”
“Inertia.” Joe snorted derisively at the memory of inertia-bound bird-brains in city hall. “Nobody wanted to do something new, unless they themselves got something out of it. You know how we finally got it done? We suggested the playground be named after the guy that was the biggest obstacle standing in the way. So there it is, the Alderman Doakes Playground.”
I let out a sigh.
“It proves you can do something, if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
In his public persona, Joe Nelson was by turns cunning, stubborn, and ingratiating. His incredible versatility brought to the fore whatever strengths were needed at the moment.
But what bound me to him, what made me love and admire him, what it was about him that helped inform my own slowly maturing character, was most observable in private moments.
Joe had not an ungenerous bone in his body. He regarded opponents as unfortunate, misguided people whose perspective might yet be transformed if he kept on patiently presenting the truth, as he so clearly saw it, to them. He called this “planting seeds.” In all the times I saw him arguing political or other points with people, including myself, I never saw him give way to anger.
His opponents got angry. Furious, even. Joe would smile, wink, and repeat their own points back to them, stripped down to their absurd essentials. He never left an argument untended. If his opponent walked out on him, he considered the conversation unfinished—an investigation to be resumed at leisure.
His and Elsa’s only child, Joelle, was the apple of their eye. Anything that was theirs was hers, automatically, without question. When I became her husband, anything that was theirs was mine also, because I was part of her and part of them.
I did not understand this. How could people be that giving? In my own family, gifts were stintingly given. We tended to operate on a presumption of scarcity. Joe and Elsa worked on a principle of abundance. There would always be plenty when it was needed, even when there did not seem to be enough to go around.
I could not accept Joe and Elsa’s open-handed love in a gracious way because nothing had prepared me for it.
Callow though I was, once I joined the family, I was theirs and they were mine. The price of my inclusion was that I had to learn to relax and enjoy it.
It took me years.
Joe and Elsa made a buy-sell agreement with their print shop foreman, and they retired to a house on a wooded hill near Dodgeville, Wisconsin.
Retirement was harder on him than on her. He poured his prodigious energies into building and improving the house and property. He took up skiing, eventually breaking his leg on a cross-country trail.
Little ailments began to creep up on him. A couple of larger ills—a serious bout of diverticulitis and a small stroke—made him an invalid, much against his will. You might say they reduced him to an invalid. He became smaller, suddenly, involuntarily.
He had no gift for inactivity, much less for being dependent on others. He rallied, for a while, but the second stroke killed him.
He lay in a bed in the Dodgeville hospital looking up at us, unable to speak. He summoned all his powers to utter the single word, “Why?” We had no answer.
Most people uttering that monosyllable would have been saying, “Why me? Why did this have to happen?” Something of that sort.
But you had to know Joe. He was a realist. I am confident his final “Why?” meant, “Why not face the facts? It’s over. Why prolong it?”
He tried to pull the IV tubes out of his arm. Although he did not succeed, he died a day or two later anyway, sometime in the fall of 1987.
He had run a good race.
At 42, I was still a mixed-up youth. But I had learned a lot about life just by knowing Joe.