Harry T. Loper’s Difficult Day

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

Anarchy, Loper thought. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loper ran for his life.

A fictionalized account of true events.

Loper postcard, interior.
Loper postcard, exterior.

Back in Business

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

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

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

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

The Springfield Race Riot of 1908

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Districts Pillaged

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

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

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

Legal Penalties

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

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

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

Catalyst for Founding of the NAACP

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

W.E.B. Du Bois

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

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

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Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Writing Therapy

Even without all this wealth and fame, I would still be a writer.

Writing is a form of therapy for me. I have not always appreciated my blessings. I have cherished slights, nurtured grudges, and entertained low opinions of people, simply because  I did not understand them. Harboring resentments against those close to us can become a life-long way to avoid developing a more mature and understanding attitude.

Sometimes, writing gives me an unexpected window into someone else’s world—an opportunity to get outside myself and see a larger picture. 

A recent medical concern curtailed my writing for several days. When the ability to write returned, I penned this little memoir that showed my own father—a man I did not always appreciate—from a different perspective.

I thank God for the opportunity to discover my own story in writing.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Life on the Vermilion

Read Time: 10 minutes.

Trivial? Maybe.

Moot? If you say so. 

Nonetheless, my acknowledgment is overdue: No father was more earnest, more dedicated in his fathering, than my father.

Dad in WWII.

He was the second-youngest in his family and felt “left behind the door.” His parents raised him up, in the Great Depression, to use little and want less. He survived combat in the Pacific, then joined the ranks of veterans striving to build a chrome-and-formica utopia for their young families in postwar America. 

I know these things now but did not know them then.

All I had to go by was details: The sun blazing down on an August afternoon in 1956, drops of sweat glistening on my father’s forehead.

“Come on, Dad, pleeeease. At least we’ve got to try her out.” 

Dad sighed. He had just spent his last pre-vacation morning at work, running test titrations so bags of chemical fertilizer could roll out to farm co-ops around the Midwest with accurate numbers on their labels. 

“It’ll be her maiden voyage,” I pointed out, to enhance the expedition’s appeal.

Wooden shipping pallets. Photo by Jon Moore on Unsplash.

He mopped his face with a handkerchief and looked down at the maiden in question: A wood-and-rubber raft. 

Not just any raft. A river raft. 

She had no name—though, come to think of it, why would she, with no champagne to christen her? But she was a trim vessel, based on a wooden shipping pallet of the commonest variety. Since a few strips of wood could not buoy up two young men on a riverine adventure, my neighbor Jon and I had augmented her with inner tubes. In those days, all automobile tires had inner tubes to hold the air in. We had lashed four black rubber tubes between the pine slats with clothesline rope and inflated them using a bicycle pump.

We dreamed we would take her down to the Gulf, à la Huckleberry Finn. Neither Jon nor I had read that book, but you couldn’t grow up a boy near a river and not know the concept. We would launch our craft in the mighty Vermilion. We would float down to the Illinois and thence to the Mississippi, where there were adventures to be had; adventures just vaguely surmised. If we had not read Huckleberry Finn, what are the chances we had even heard of Don Quixote?

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza, 1863, by Gustave Doré. Public Domain.

But before we could get the raft in the water, Jon went off with his family on a driving vacation. He okayed my attempting a solo test voyage, “just to make sure she floats okay.” 

Dad in the 1950s.

Knowing that we were about to leave on a vacation of our own, I ambushed Dad when he came home from work, still in his dress pants and white shirt. He had laid down his slide rule and loosened his tie, but that was it.

Dad frowned. “How are we going to get it from here to there?” With the negativity rampant among grown-ups, he saw the three-quarters of a mile between our driveway and the river as an obstacle. 

“We’ll put it on my coaster wagon and wheel it down there.” Voilà! Problem solved.

My plan worked fine until we hit the rutted, pock-marked shale road that led to the river. The wobbly front wheels and tongue of my wooden Radio Flyer wagon immediately bogged down in surface debris. 

By this time, however, Dad was committed. He stood the raft up on its end, inched himself underneath, and hoisted it onto his broad back. Off he trundled, bent double by the weight of the raft. The thing was heavier than it looked.

Caught up in the romance of the voyage, I skipped along happily beside Dad. I was eleven years old. He was thirty-four. Once upon a time he had humped a forty-pound U.S. Army field radio over steamy  jungle trails. Later he had been the centermost center on the Knox College Siwashers football team. But his recent pursuits had been sedentary, and he smoked. While I cleverly flailed and swished our paddle, made of two small boards, through the air, Dad staggered down the shale road under the weight of a huge vessel.

Twice, once each side of the Stink Creek bridge, he had to set the raft down. Twice he lifted it again and stumbled on through clouds of mosquitoes and swarms of gnats, regaled by my cheerful commentary at his side.

We reached the launch point, a shelf of sandstone that jutted over the sluggish green river. Dad dropped the raft beside the water, and between the two of us we shoved it into the stream. I clambered aboard. The raft crept away from the sandstone ledge, pulled by a current of about a quarter-mile per hour. 

An eyebolt sunk on the front of the raft anchored fifteen feet of white cotton clothesline, the other end of which Dad held firmly in his hand.

“It’s okay, Dad. You can let go.” I waved my clever little paddle in the air. “I’ll take it from here.”

He peered across the water at me. “I don’t think so. You mother made me promise to keep you on a tether.”

Curses. Foiled again by Mom. I looked about me, upstream to where the old iron bridge crossed the river near the National Guard Armory, then downstream to where the river bent beyond a fringe of willows on the low bank. It was a hot summer afternoon in Streator, Illinois. It was almost impossible to detect a quiver of motion anywhere. No birds swooped low. No fish leapt for joy from the water; none even cut the surface with their lips, seeking food or air. There were a few bubbles on the green, soupy surface. If I looked very closely at them, I could see they slowly changed position against the background of the opposite shore. 

“Dad,” I asked, “what if I fell in the water?”

“Why would you do that?”

“Well, I wouldn’t. But I mean if I fell in by accident. Do you think I’d drown?”

“Not if you had the presence of mind to stand up.” Squatting on the ledge, he lit a cigarette, took a drag, and exhaled a stream of smoke over the water. “This time of year, I doubt there’s a place between here and Quincy with more than two feet of water or a current faster than a turtle’s walk.” 

“Yeah, that’s what I figured.” I dipped the paddle in the water and propelled the raft back along its fifteen-foot line almost to the bank; then let it drift back out, then paddled it in again. “I guess that’s it. We can go.” 

Dad carried the now fully-tested watercraft back all the way on his back, huffing and straining, his face turning red as he broiled in the afternoon sun. He was a good enough citizen that he would not have simply left a junked raft sitting by the side of the Vermilion River all by its lonesome. 

I figure now, looking back on it, that he probably knew I would not be needing the raft for any actual river exploration. I had sucked out my fill of the adventure that was to be hand from the thing. Maybe Jon would want to give it a try when he got back to town. But by that time I would be on to something else, and Jon would probably be along with me on that. Jon was a year or two older than me. Sometimes I think he just followed my lead because he enjoyed my company and wanted to see where my curiosity took me. He was like Locomotive 38 the Ojibway, in that story by William Saroyan.

We went on our vacation, the inside of our Buick Special smelling of Ben-Gay as Dad drove us out of town over the new bridge on Highway 18. I can’t tell you just what happened next.

That was 65 years ago. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to be a dad myself, and a granddad; to spend myself foolishly, from time to time, indulging the whims of my offspring, or bailing them out of some little mess or other. I probably never did anything as foolish as carrying an 80-pound raft on my back a mile and a half on a summer afternoon in downstate Illinois.

But then, my dad’s dedication to the art of fathering was in a class by itself. I guess that’s what I’m getting at.

Thanks for listening.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

The Man in the Tweed Cap

When we first visited London, many years ago, we went to see the Queen’s Life Guards at the Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall. The changing of the guard was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. A crowd was already there when we arrived at the enclosure where the ceremony was to take place. 

Two or three London bobbies herded onlookers into a space at the end of the courtyard, behind a pavement stripe. We scored a place near the front, where we could see and hear everything.

Tweed flat cap. Photographed by Heron, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

There were a few other Yanks, but most of the audience was British. It’s easy to tell who is a tourist, and thus equally evident who is not. 

One of the locals, a dumpy man in a tweed cap and horn-rimmed glasses, recommended himself to my attention, because he had become the focus of the bobby’s attention.

The copper, a lank young man, stared at the chap in the tweed cap. “Got to push it, now, don’t we, luv?” 

The man stared back, mute.

“You’re over the line. Move it.” The officer fingered his baton.

The man jiggled one notch backward. 

The bobby stepped forward and stood in the man’s face. He slitted his ice-blue eyes and dimmed his voice to a purr. “Now, that won’t cut it, ducky. You’re courting a summons.” He cast his eyes downward, toward the man’s feet.

I craned my neck to see down. Mister Tweedcap’s shoes cut semi-ovals out of the pavement line, extending half an inch over.

“Come on.” 

The man jigged backwards again, crowding a woman who stood without interval behind him. His shoe-tips now just touched the line. 

The bobby gave him one more cold look, then turned away to walk down the front of the crowd. He stopped after a few steps and looked back. 

The man in the tweed cap stood like the Rock of Gibraltar. Silent as ever.

Satisfied the man’s feet had not moved, the bobby turned away again to troop the crowd.

The new guards, red and blue by regiment, cantered in on proud black steeds. After a bit of clip-clop and folderol, the old guards—every bit as flashy—departed. 

Meanwhile, the bobby had returned to our sector. 

The crowd knew the moment the rite was over. They lapsed into a slouch that was palpable. 

Mister Tweedcap stepped over the line and lit a cigarette. 

The bobby flashed a grimace of a smile. “See you tomorrow, Mick. Same time, same station.”

“Righto, Kenny,” said the man, exhaling a puff of smoke. “Give my best to the missus.”

The copper nodded and moved off to protect some other part of the kingdom.

English Liberties

Had I been ordered by a cop to move back I would have said “Yes, sir” and removed myself to well behind the line, slacker that I am.

Our British cousin stood on his rights as an Englishman. He thereby reinforced a centuries-old framework of “English liberties”—the same liberties that would have given him, in a rural setting, the right to use long-established footpaths through farmers’ fields.

His grudging deference to the civil authorities, his insistence on toeing right up to the line, must not be sneezed at. English history is soaked in the blood, not to mention the tortured entrails and piked heads, of those who challenged authority. An Englishmen needs to know just how far he can go. The fellow in the tweed cap embodies the “village-Hampden who, with dauntless breast, / The little tyrant of his fields withstood.” 

Government

The strong have always ruled the weak. 

At some time past, this hegemony gained the name of “government,” which derives ultimately from a Greek term that means to steer a ship. The idea of government was that ordinary folks needed to have their ship steered by experts, otherwise known as “the rightful authorities,” those in a position to exercise power.

The concept of “government,” with its accompanying whiff of political legitimacy, gave any tyrant the full justification for his particular tyranny.

Government employed a system of laws, at least since the time of Hammurabi, which applied to those governed but not, usually, to those who did the governing. 

That is still largely the case. Some governments feign the hypothesis that laws apply equally to ruler and ruled. But the principle is carried into practice only when convenient.

Gradually, over millennia, societies have enshrined in tradition many customs that limit, in a practical way, the power of the ruler, of the ruler’s extended family, and of that corps of cronies and straphangers who constitute the ruling class. 

Today we benefit from protective customs codified in Jewish, Greek, and Roman law; from feudal practices which arose in Europe during the days of the Holy Roman Empire; from the legal heritage of Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and post-Norman rule of Great Britain; and from American practices that began in colonial times and gave birth to Constitutional safeguards of our common rights. 

All these things form a web of customs, understandings, and institutions which guard our liberty.

Tyranny

But in the human soul there is a craving for primacy. 

In every village board, every bowling league, and every garden club across the land lurks a self-appointed leader who would become Caligula or Saddam Hussein without giving it a second thought—were not he or she restrained by the many strands in our ancient web of governing traditions.

Democracy, freedom, and equality are not the natural condition of society. Dictatorship is no temporary aberration; it is the rule, absent that multifarious system of closely tended liberties on which we depend just as does our cousin in the tweed cap. Despotism exercised by the most cunning, brutal, and lucky is the default order of things. We should thank God for the long, painfully developed, chain of specific practices and understandings which hold would-be tyrants at bay.

Fairness, justice, and decency are merely warm, fuzzy concepts that hold no sway. Without the common residues of parliamentary procedure, contract law, and long-established precendent—all of them dreary and tedious things, to say the least—we would be at the mercy of mere thugs.

Whenever a nicely uniformed and duly constituted authority requires us to stand in a box, we—at the very least—ought to jam our caps down over our brows and bump our toes right up to the line.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

October

Sunday, October 25—Here in Madison, we are seeing our first snow shower of the season.

It won’t stick.

A white film may coat the ground like manna tomorrow morning, but it will be gone in 24 hours—melted like manna by the sun, or else sublimated in the gray air of autumn. 

Brown leaves have descended from our maple and our neighbor’s walnuts, and small yellow ones from our black locust. Yet plenty of other leaves cling green on trees and bushes. Soon enough, they too shall be crispéd and sere, as Poe would prefer.

How can such frail fingers pluck so loud on the strings of my reverie? Launching this blog, I pledged to resist the charms of mere nostalgia. But October brings a flood of recall, in which I am swept up all too willingly. 

Rather than fight it, Dear Reader, I will share a bit with you.

McCutcheon of the Trib

Every October of my youth—indeed every fall from 1912 through 1992—the Chicago Tribune showcased “Injun Summer,” a cartoon drawing, with folksy narrative, by editorial artist John T. McCutcheon. Its two panels showed a boy and his grandfather watching a field of conical corn shocks transform into a tepee village, with smoke-shaped Indians doing a dance in the wispy gloaming. 

The old man, in his homey way, explains to the lad that the “sperrits” of “Injuns” now extinct return each year, moved by the autumn haze to haunt their former campgrounds. News readers, even in the darkest parts of the twentieth century, knew that Native Americans were not extinct, but despite that fact, “Injun Summer” became a hallowed tradition over a term of eighty years. 

For one thing, it was assumed by white Americans that the traditional Indian way of life was a thing of the past; that those Indians still alive had better act like typical Americans or be swept aside by history. For another, most Midwesterners—the Trib’s main audience—had such warm memories of autumn days that we were suckers for the romantic image of long-dead Indian ghosts dancing in the smoky haze of burning leaves.

Burning Leaves

I doubt it happens now in very many places—what with the Clean Air Act and all—but in days of yore we would rake dry leaves from our yards into the street and simply set a match to the piles. On a nice October day, whole neighborhoods would come out to chat amid the smoke. Kids ran to and fro, playing tag among the leafy pyres, as grown-ups with metal-tined rakes kept the conflagration confined. 

Folks in our neighborhood brought out foil-wrapped potatoes and baked them in the leaves.

We could do these things, Fair Reader, because there were half as many of us then as there are now. Such frolics would be ill-advised in the brave new world of now.

Autumn Edibles

Besides our annual festival of burning leaves, we went nutting. We competed with the squirrels. Dad drove us to a place he knew of in the country, where stood an acre or two of shagbark hickories in a park-like setting. We scooped nuts off the ground and tossed them into gunny sacks.

I was not partial to hickory nuts, or any other kind; but Mom, in particular, liked all varieties of nuts. Commonly, we and others left a bowl of unshelled nuts on a coffee table, an end table, or a bookcase-top—with nutcrackers and nutpicks handy to aid in their consumption.

A ballet nutcracker. Photo by Chris Briggs on Unsplash.

Just so you younger folks will know: Nutcrackers did not dress up in uniforms like palace guards. No; they were simple, functional devices in zinc-plated steel, similar to pliers. They were meant for cracking nuts, not for dancing ballets.

Besides nuts, we ate a lot of fresh apples in the fall and drank quite a bit of cider, which we got from your proverbial roadside stands. Often a glass jug of cider, and perhaps a pumpkin and some gourds, would come home as the byproduct of a simple drive in the country. 

In those days, we drove in the country a lot. Just for fun. 

A real nutcracker. Photo by 
Dirk Vorderstraße, licensed
under CC BY 2.0.

With gas at thirty cents a gallon, the Sunday drive was cheap entertainment. It was especially popular in the fall, when the colors were great. Most country roads were two-lane, with top speeds around 50 miles per hour. When you saw a roadside stand with cider and pumpkins, there was a fair chance you could pull off and stop before you had zoomed past it.

Today the country stands are bigger operations, destinations in themselves, at odd ends of county trunk roads. If somebody were to set up a small stand beside the main highway, it would be hard for drivers tunnel-visioning along at 75 mph to fight their way across three or four lanes of traffic and sample the wares.

Halloween

We celebrated Halloween as children do today, by dressing up in costumes and going down the street to extort candy from the neighbors. Today, small children go under parental escort. Only teenagers go on their own, and then always in groups. You never know who might be lurking. 

In our childhood, parents did not go along. Only kids went, usually in fair-sized groups. There might be children as old as twelve or as young as four in a group. A child too young for attachment to such a group was not yet old enough for trick-or-treating. And groups of kids straggling about the neighborhood on Halloween night were ostensibly safe. After all, what could happen?

Besides trick-or-treating, Halloween parties were sometimes arranged at schools, churches, or private homes. As best I can recall, what one did at such a party was bobbing for apples. If you’ve never bobbed for apples, Gentle Reader, then you have missed the fun of sticking your face in a tub of cold water, rooting about aimlessly for an eternity of minutes, likely damaging one or more of your possibly still-emerging teeth, and being laughed at because you were unable to sequester a single globéd fruit.

Thanksgiving

Less than a month after Halloween comes Thanksgiving. Our modern American holiday is a mashup of traditional harvest festivals such as the one held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621 and a national need, felt strongly during the Civil War, to thank God for his blessings. When the Pilgrims held their feast with Massasoit and his braves in 1621, it was just a party to celebrate the fruits of the harvest. Had they considered it a time of special thanksgiving, they would have fasted and prayed for three days instead. Our Reformed forebears were gravely attentive to the task of thanksgiving. 

Thanksgiving at Plymouth, oil on canvas by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe, 1925, National Museum of Women in the Arts. Public Domain.

We modern Americans say “Thank You” best by eating vast quantities of food and falling asleep. When I was young, a new fillip had just been added to that program: You ate, settled down in the living room, and took your nap in front of a televised football game. 

Ollie Matson, 1959,
when he played for the Rams.
Public Domain.

I remember watching, with Dad and Grandpa and various uncles, as Ollie Matson of the Chicago Cardinals made an amazing touchdown run that none of us could actually see, on account of snow. Not meteorological snow at Soldier Field, but electronic snow on the television screen. And a vertical roll so persistent that Uncle Richard stood behind the set tweaking the vertical hold knob throughout the game. They don’t make TVs like that anymore.

(Upon checking the Internet, I find that the Chicago Cardinals did not play a Thanksgiving Day game with Ollie Matson in the lineup in any year of my childhood; so I must be remembering a non-Thanksgiving Day game. But you get the idea.)

Winter Wonderland

Woollybear caterpillar.
Photo by Micha L. Rieser,
used by blanket permission.

We have arrived back at the subject of snow. Soon all this fall frivolity will be done, and we’ll be clamped in the grim vise of winter. It’s hard to wax nostalgic when you’re up to your schnozzola in peaceful, downy-white, hexacrystalline flakes. They’re so tiny—how could they possibly amount to anything?

My friends among the woollybear caterpillars inform me, and my own 75 years of finely-honed instincts confirm, that this will be a humdinger of a winter. It will both hum and ding.

Button up your overcoat.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Not My Type

Christine DeSmet, guest blogging recently at the Blackbird Writers’ website, raised the topic of typing.

Not keyboarding. Typing.

Touch Typing

Way back in the twentieth century, every high school taught “touch typing,” with  students achieving speeds of sixty words or more per minute, error-free, on manual typewriters. Nearly all typing students were young women, because typing was a secretarial skill. 

Women’s typing class, National Youth Administration, Illinois 1937. Public Domain.

The crewcut lads who hung around the malt shop after school, you see, would become executives and have secretaries to do their typing; the girls would be those secretaries.

Yes, Dear Reader, of course we understand that not all boys became executives. But those who did not would become farmers or mechanics or shopkeepers and would have no need for typing. Only large businesses and government departments could possibly need their writing to look like printing. Ordinary folks could, and mostly did, get by with cursive scrawls in pen or pencil, as long as the numerals were legible.

Today, all children, male and female, learn “keyboard skills” at a young age. The process by which they learn these skills is a mystery, but it seems to involve thumbs and cell phones.

Manual Typewriters

When I was growing up—and even when Christine DeSmet, who is much younger, was growing up—there was no word-processing. There was no spell-check.

Nothing was virtual. Everything was real. Every tap on a key was answered by the whack of a steel typebar planting its face in an inked ribbon to strike a letter onto the paper beyond. 

If you made a typographic error you had to manually remove it from the paper by one of three or four clever methods—none of them quite satisfactory. Important documents had to be perfect ab initio: one errant keystroke and you started over from the top.

The mere act of typing strengthened your fingers, because you needed to hit the keys with strong and uniform force. 

As a young man, I did not take a touch typing course in high school. Fortunately for me, my mother taught me the rudiments on our old Underwood machine. Thus I gained skill enough to type term papers in college, where, by the early 1960s, typed papers had become the required standard. 

Military Typing

Later, the United States Air Force improved me. I was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, to learn Mandarin Chinese; then on to San Angelo, Texas, to learn radio eavesdropping techniques. The Air Force gave me a class to bring my typing speed from about 20 WPM up to 35. This standard achieved, they sent me out into the world of international espionage. 

Chinese MiG-17 fighter. Photo by Rob Schleiffert, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0.

From a windowless compound surrounded by tea fields on a Taiwan mountaintop, we listened in on Chinese Air Force pilots and controllers across the straits. We made sketchy intercept notes in real time but went back later, listened to our tapes, and transcribed all that traffic in verbatim English translations, banging away on manual typewriters. The clunky old Royal of those days, purchased in thousands by Uncle Sam, was a nearly indestructible machine. I ought to know; I tried hard.

The transcripts we made of Chinese military air traffic ultimately went into a huge, room-occupying computer at the National Security Agency in Maryland. How they got there I never learned. But at some point, they must have been manually re-keyed for electronic entry into the Big Daddy Computer. 

Therefore, our typing did not have to be perfect. If you made a mistake, you just struck over it. As long as the person typing the traffic into the computer could make out what you had meant to type, it was good enough.

I still type about 35 words per minute. I still make lots of mistakes, but on a modern laptop it’s not that big a deal. Corrections are easy. 

Kids today have no idea.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Faster Than a Lobster Quadrille

The young man peered at me over his designer mask. “Do you have a cell phone?”

“No.”

He stared. His brow wrinkled. “Uh . . . wait here.” He ducked back inside. 

There was a sign on the door that warned: 

“NO ENTRY. Call On Cell Phone.

Staff Will Meet You In Parking Lot.”

You’d think they were dealing crystal meth.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Gentle Reader: I do have a cell phone. 

(But I don’t use it. 

Photo by Meghan Schiereck on Unsplash.

(It’s an old clamshell on a $13-a-month plan. It lives in my car, awaiting that moment when I may drive into a snow bank and need help getting out. But who, in the meantime, needs to know of its existence?)

The door opened and the young man re-emerged. “They’ll be with you in a minute.” 

He edged by me and darted down the walk to where a better-trained customer stood, cell phone in hand, hoisting with the other hand a small cage which held a lop-eared rabbit.

Did I feel no guilt, you ask, gumming up the procedures of a nice veterinary clinic?

GUILT? Ha! You may as well ask a wolverine about origami.

Turns out, once they discover one’s masked presence standing at their door—even without a cell phone call—they will eventually bring out the allergy pills one pre-ordered for one’s itchy American Staffordshire terrier mix. 

In the present COVID-19 public health emergency, who could have predicted the emergence of common sense?

#

Milo Bung shook his head when I told him the story. “You go to a lot of trouble to avoid using your cell phone.”

“It’s no trouble at all.”

My old classmate glared like a bright young assistant district attorney cross-examining a defendant. “What have you got against cell phones?” 

“What has a cell phone ever done for me?”

Milo scratched his head. “How would I know?”

“Exactly.”

A new idea lit up his face. “What if you want to take a picture?”

“I would use my Nikon. But I’ve already made enough photographs for one lifetime.”

“Is that a fact,” said Milo. He looked askance. “You’ve given up photography altogether?”

“I remember the best moments of all my vacations. The images stored in my brain are better than mere photos. They have more je ne sais quoi.”

In any case, I thought but did not say, when my brain loses the memories, the pictures won’t help either.

Milo rapped his knuckles on the bar. “You’re a hard case, amigo.”

“Besides,” I astutely pointed out, “I like to deal with people in the flesh.”

“Isn’t that sort of old school?”

“That’s me all over.”

#

I was not always thus. It takes decades of study to become an old crank.

Gradually, if you’re a sentient being, you apprehend that in today’s world, the sense of community that underpins mental health has been eroded. In this desert of commonality and fellow-feeling, any face-to-face, or mask-to-mask, encounter, even with a stranger, can be salutary.

#

Years ago, a fellow yahoo on a Road Scholar trip—a man named Larry, by sheer coincidence—tried to browbeat me into needing a GPS navigating device.

“What!” he exclaimed. “You don’t have a *INSERT BRAND NAME HERE*? How can you not have one? You can get one for under a hundred dollars.” 

“Or I could not get one,” I pointed out, “and keep my hundred dollars.” 

“No, seriously. You can’t afford to be without it.”

“So far, I’m doing fine.”

“But it’s so cheap, you’ve got to have one.”

I could have explained that 99 percent of my trips are to places I know how to get to; that I can, and do, look up the other one percent in advance; and that if, despite that preparation, I should get lost, I can always stop and ask someone. But no logic would have convinced Larry that my lack of a *INSERT BRAND NAME HERE* was okay.

His real problem was that my zoom lens was longer than his. Given that circumstance, his only play was to beat me over the head with his GPS device.

#

I am no Luddite, I tell myself, but simply a man who values the personal touch. 

Why should I ring up my own merchandise at Home Depot when a real pro is on duty one lane over? A person who, by the way, would like to keep her job. 

Sure, I could knuckle under to the ruling paradigm, but I would feel like I was abandoning The Little Guy. If I have to stand in line a few extra minutes, so what? Where else do I have to be?

Our pet spa has the same “call up on the cell phone” routine that the vet’s office does. But rather than lose an eighty-dollar grooming job, they’ll eventually notice me and my shaggy spaniel as we wait in the parking lot.

Some inchoate power out there always wants me to do things in a new way. But, Lord help me, I like the old way. 

They want me to vote early this year—either by mailing in my ballot or by handing it to a designated early-ballot collector sitting under a sign in a public park. All well and good.

But, why? 

Is the election going somewhere? Will the polls be closed?

No. 

My plan is to show up, masked, on election day, at the polling place where I am registered, holding my photographic ID in hand. I trust they’ll let me vote—even though they won’t be able to see that my face matches the photo on the ID—and they’ll count my vote. 

So what’s the problem?

#

Tout le monde, Dear Reader, is NOT rushing off to some Brave New World so fast an old geezer can’t keep up—impressions to the contrary notwithstanding.

You might mention that to Milo Bung when you see him.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Grunting and Groaning

Dick the Bruiser. Public Domain.

In the 1950s we watched professional wrestlers of the day: Lou Thesz, Verne Gagne, Dick the Bruiser, and the unprecedented Gorgeous George. 

These TV wrestling matches were not sporting events; they were melodamas. Beefcakes with crafted personas played hero or heavy for the crowd. No villainy was too base, no gallantry too phony to be aped in the ring—or even outside the ring. 

Nothing about this spectacle was authentic or uplifting. Absolutely nothing. And we, the people, ate it up.

Which reminds me: The Presidential Debates are coming our way. 

Kennedy-Nixon debate, 1960. Public Domain.

The first Presidential Debates ever, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy, took place in 1960. Both men played serious adults seeking to guide our nation’s future. Since then, many such debates have been held, the seriousness and adulthood slipping a notch or two downward every four years.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Modern presidential debates were probably inspired by the seven three-hour, open-air arguments held between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, candidates for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois in 1858. 

The stakes could not have been greater. Slavery’s hour of reckoning was at hand. The nation paid close attention as the Railsplitter and the Little Giant spoke forth two divergent views on the great question of the day. 

No moderators fed questions to the candidates. There were no assigned topics, no short answers. Everybody knew what the topic was.

Each man spoke at length, without interruptions by the other. One candidate would speak for an hour. Then his opponent spoke for an hour and a half, after which the opening speaker got half an hour in rebuttal.

Lincoln and Douglas spoke for up to ninety minutes at a stretch, made themselves heard without amplification by vast crowds of farmers and townsmen. They spoke without notes or prompters, analyzed the issues in detail, used good grammar, and unleashed rhetoric that sometimes rose to the sublime. 

Commemorative postage stamp of Lincoln-Douglas debates. Public Domain.

Those who heard their speeches or read verbatim transcripts in their newspapers could know Lincoln’s and Douglas’s views and know exactly on what points they differed.

Here are two brief samples from their fifth debate, in Galesburg.

Stephen A. Douglas. Mathew Brady photograph. Public Domain.

DOUGLAS: I say to you, frankly, that in my opinion, this Government was made by our fathers on the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and was intended to be administered by white men in all time to come. But while I hold that under our Constitution and political system the negro is not a citizen, cannot be a citizen, and ought not to be a citizen, it does not follow by any means that he should be a slave. On the contrary . . . [h]umanity requires, and Christianity commands, that you shall extend to every inferior being, and every dependent being, all the privileges, immunities and advantages which can be granted to them consistent with the safety of society. If you ask me the nature and extent of these privileges, I answer that that is a question which the people of each State must decide for themselves. 

Abraham Lincoln, 1858. Ambrotype by Abraham Byers. Public Domain.

LINCOLN: Every thing that emanates from [Judge Douglas] or his coadjutors in their course of policy, carefully excludes the thought that there is any thing wrong in slavery. . . If you will take the Judge’s speeches, and select the short and pointed sentences expressed by him—as his declaration that he “don’t care whether slavery is voted up or down”—you will see at once that this is perfectly logical, if you do not admit that slavery is wrong. . . . Now, I confess myself as belonging to that class in the country who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil, having due regard for its actual existence amongst us and the difficulties of getting rid of it in any satisfactory way, and to all the Constitutional obligations which have been thrown about it; but, nevertheless, desire a policy that looks to the prevention of it as a wrong, and looks hopefully to the time when as a wrong it may come to an end.

These are small fragments of much longer speeches made on this occasion. I quote them only to show the candidates engaged in making complex arguments, drawing lawyerly distinctions with as much precision and power as possible. They supposed their hearers, no matter what their level of education, could follow their arguments.

What if I challenged you, Dear Reader, to read any one of the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in its entirety? (Go ahead. It’s easy to Google them up. I’ll wait.) 

I predict you will find, as I do, that reading these speeches and comprehending them is a heavy intellectual workout. 

In so many ways, both physical and mental, we are not up to our ancestors.

Bull Elks

Leaving aside any elegance of expression, consider the Lincoln-Douglas debates for gravity alone. 

By comparison, one may confidently predict that Trump and Biden will appear as bull elks in rut, pawing the earth, shaking their antlers, banging heads with great thuds. 

The political world has no incentive to include rational content in these debates, because when the spectacle is over we will all go and vote as we had planned to vote all along.

Neither high rhetoric nor weighty arguments can sway us. Tribe is all that matters. We lay our bets on the fighter who punches the chords of our ancient tribal harmonies.

If we had a shred of honesty, we would admit this fact and stop fussing about debates.

Perhaps, instead, we could spend some of our energy tracing the sources of our tribalism, seeking to learn what unwholesomeness it is within ourselves that nurses our blithe, reflexive hatred of The Other Tribe. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

A World We Can Trust

Our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood” will resume next week with Installment 5: Submit.

“Jesus answered with these words, saying: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’ . . .  This was said so tenderly, without blame of any kind toward me or anybody else.”—from Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich (1343-1416 or later), English mystic

We find ourselves thrust into an age when the foundations of the world seem to crumble. We wish we could re-anchor our world, put it on a firmer footing. But all hope seems foolish.

May I offer a word of good news? There is something simple—not always easy, but radically simple in concept and execution—that each one of us can do to help set the anchor.

Let us restore Trust.

How often have we seen intractable disputes between nations or between factions moved toward resolution by the use of “confidence-building measures”—small things that begin the restoration of trust? Small things that lead to big things later on.

I would be the apostle of that which is minute. I wish to insist that what is tiny, accumulated relentlessly, sooner or later rules the great.

#

Once we trusted our government more than we do now. Once we trusted our churches more than we do now. Once we trusted our news sources more than we do now. Once we trusted our police more than we do now.

Once we trusted our neighbor more than we do now.

“Trust” by Pro-Zak is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

I am old enough to remember when it seemed we trusted one another in general, with a few exceptions. Now it seems we regard one another through slitted eyes.

None of this happened overnight. I have watched the seepage of Trust from our society, bit by bit, most of my adult life. I cannot precisely measure the outflow, but there can be no doubt that it happened. 

This will not be news to you. You know it, too.

#

A  young friend of mine, involved in our community’s nightly street disturbances, posted this justification on Facebook:

i think something people dont understand is that these protests and riots aren’t dangerous. spray painting city property is not dangerous. marching in the streets is not dangerous. 
it gets dangerous when police start a fight
arguably, rolling dumpsters to the courthouse and setting them on fire really isn’t that dangerous. it was very controlled. we aren’t idiots.

Okay. Point taken.

So forget windows broken, stores looted, buildings torched. Forget the potential for people to be maimed or killed. Those, after all, are large issues; whereas I am, by my own admission, the apostle of the small.

My young friend is quite right to focus on the trivial, as in “spray painting city property is not dangerous.” But let us examine that modest claim. Wouldn’t it depend on who or what you might think is endangered? It’s true that painting slogans or graffiti on a public building does not directly threaten anybody’s life or limb. 

Protestors spray graffiti in Washington, D.C. Photo by Vic Reinhardt, OhioOakTree, March 21, 2009. CC BY-SA 4.0.

But something even more important is endangered: Trust.

“Wait. Did you just say Trust is more important than life and limb?”

Indeed. For when we endanger life and limb, only one person is affected—or maybe a few people. But when we weaken the Trust that is our society’s glue, we harm everyone.

When we take somebody else’s stuff and spray paint our own message on it, we have taken what is not ours to take. In so doing we have dissolved a smidgen of the mutual trust that society absolutely requires in order to function.

When did we stop knowing this?

Any time we encroach on someone’s property or person, we are tearing down the house we all live in.

By the way, that is the reason bullying is so roundly condemned. Not only for its physical effect on the immediate victim, but because of the harm done to all of us when it is tolerated—leaving us exposed to a more dangerous world we do not entirely trust.

#

“But, it was city property.”

Okay, but city property is ours only in the sense that it is also everybody else’s. We own it in common with all other citizens. How do we arrogate to ourselves the right to paint it with indicia of our own choosing?

In doing so, we harvest more than the physical results of our vandalism. For our fellow citizens will now trust us less than they did. Or rather, since they may never know exactly who wielded the spray paint, they will now trust people in general less than they did.

It would be the same if we set a dumpster fire. We steal somebody’s dumpster and damage it with flame, smoke, and ash. We release smoke and probably a vile smell into our common air. 

We loudly champion the environment, but look: We have just committed a gross act of pollution. The air is not ours alone to foul. It belongs to everybody. 

Have we forgotten such elemental concepts? Have our parents failed to teach them to us?

The direct effects of encroaching on other people’s rights are as nothing compared to the erosion of trust that eventually affects us all. 

Vandalism, arson, and looting may destroy physical property, sinking the efforts of those who created that property in the first place. But far harder to repair is our broken trust in fellow members of our community.

#

“Thank you for your touching concern, but I can look out for my own reputation. The trust of my fellow citizens is not as important to me as you may think, Old Timer.” 

Ah, no, Grasshopper: If it were only a matter of your reputation suffering at your own hands, I would not mind hanging you out to dry. But something far greater is at stake.

Namely, our future happiness, and that of our children and grandchilden.

Because trust, or lack of trust, does not exist in a vacuum.

When we transgress against what is not ours, the markdown of trust does not accrue to us alone. 

The general Trust that keeps society glued together is all one common tissue. Our little bit of it is part of the common pool. 

Whenever we squander trust through our own actions, no matter how trivial, the total Trust throughout society goes down. Whenever our conduct vindicates the trust others place in us, the world’s general level of Trust is increased. 

That quantum—the summation of small bits of responsible or irresponsible conduct—makes the difference between a High-Trust Society and a Low-Trust Society. 

In a Low-Trust Society, everybody locks everything up. Properties of any size at all are guarded by walls topped with barbed wire and broken glass. Cameras lurk everywhere. Shops and offices have small windows or none at all. Strangers are always suspect. A large and aggressive police establishment is required, because nobody is to be trusted.

A High-Trust Society has less need for such precautions. Store owners can display fine merchandise in large picture windows. There is a plenitude of goods and a smaller propensity to steal them. The police, such as they are, may seem more like Andy and Barney in Mayberry. People, in general, are more relaxed.

We would rather live in a High-Trust Society than in the Low-Trust version.

#

“But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. All this talk about small virtues is just a smoke screen to maintain the horrific status quo. You’re defending racism.”

It’s understandable that people may think some violation of others’ persons and property is the small, justifiable price to pay for a more perfect society. If a little spray-painting or dumpster-burning saps Trust, then police brutality really zaps Trust. And what about racial discrimination? Does it not automatically send Trust down in flames?

Well, yes. But those are large things, which I hesitate to address. Remember, I am only the apostle of the small.

However, if we should wish to speak of the large: How does it cure the enormity of a race-based murder to pile a thousand little dumpster fires, vandalisms, and angry speeches or social media screeds on top of it?

Please consider: The murder will never be cured. It is too late to restore the victim to life. The chief complaint voiced after each such tragedy—the dreaded future prospect—is that the community continues to live in fear. 

Fear is a terrible thing to live in. 

Trust is better.

Every act that encroaches on persons or property reduces the total Trust in our society. This includes not just things done in the heat of demonstrations or riots. It also includes acts of larceny, coercion, intimidation, or brutality committed in the course of everyday life. And it includes offenses, large or small, that are done by law enforcement officers who should know better. 

All such encroachments—not just those motivated by racism—are bad. All of them make it harder for us to function as a society of people who mostly trust one another. 

It is mistaken to think that our graffiti or our dumpster fire is okay, or even laudable, because it is not a racial slur or a police shooting. Two wrongs, in all human history, have never yet added up to a right. 

#

What I Am Not Saying:  I am not saying we should simply trust one another, regardless of the evidence of our experience. 

What I Am Saying: I am saying that to get more Trust in society we must first act in ways that engender trust, not in ways that dissipate trust.

What I Am Not Saying:  I am not saying we should not protest wrongdoing. 

What I Am Saying: I am saying we will not cure a great wrongdoing by means of lesser wrongdoings. 

To restore Trust to our world requires millions of acts of decency, not contempt, by millions of people, over the course of many years. That’s the kind of army one might hope to join.

But an act of vandalism in the streets is the same category of thing as the police shooting of an unarmed black man. They are both the same kind of act.

They are misguided aggressions which degrade the community as a whole, leading not to a better society but to a Lower-Trust society, and thus a worse one. 

No matter how loud we may shout that we are fighting for justice and opposing injustice, our misguided aggressions shout louder to the contrary.

#

Small, seemingly unimportant, acts of incivility and barbarism are major contributors to the sweeping malaise of our society, which boils down to a deficit of Trust.

Our world lacks Trust because so many of us, so often, fail to be trustworthy. 

If each one of us undertook, as a personal mission, to treat other people and their property with unfailing respect, we could begin to restore a world we can all trust.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

2020 Vision

Since March 11, we have lived in a hodgepodge of COVID precautions, COVID hysteria, COVID counter-reactions, and COVID exhaustion. 

The coronavirus got upstaged, but did not go away, when the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis touched off a new round of racial justice riots. 

Absorbed as we have been in feeding these sorrows into our national appetite for angst, we gave scant notice to a new light in the heavens.

Comet NEOWISE near its closest approach to Earth. Photographed from Joshua Tree National Park, California, 21 July 2020 by Kalpa Semasinghe. Photo licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The comet popped out of the void on March 27. Since then, it has waxed through almost four months of dawns. Now, in July, after sunset, it is on the wane. 

Soon, it will return whence it came, leaving us . . . here.

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash.

Oh, C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, what tidings do you bring? 

Optics

Last Monday I bought a pair of Nikon 8×30 binoculars. I wanted something my wife, daughter, grandchildren, and I could use in the future. Comets come and go, but birds are perennial. Still, it was the comet that spurred my purchase. 

I wanted to see NEOWISE. 

What if it was a harbinger?

Back in 1961, the Wilson-Hubbard Comet appeared for a few days in late July. 

As I trekked through a cattail marsh to my sleeping cabin at Scout camp, its pale cone of light hung in the sky over my right shoulder. The haunting evanescence, seen by naked eye, has dwelt with me near sixty years.

Night Sky

Even longer ago than that, we lived in a small town in Illinois. We were many miles from Chicago, or even Peoria; light pollution was unknown. Every cloudless night, the black empyrean glinted with a billion gems.  

You could—and I did—lie on the grass and stare at Orion, the Dippers, Cassiopeia, the Seven Sisters, and the teeming brilliance of the Milky Way. 

One summer night I lay on the lawn for hours and saw with my own eyes—as if it had not already been taught in school—that our Earth rotates beneath not only the sun and the moon, but beneath the whole firmament. One by one the constellations sink beyond the west while others creep out from under the east.

Beyond that simple truth, I had no grasp of the thing. Intuition failed me as a natural philosopher.

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
—Walt Whitman

Astronomy

In days of yore, the farmers, shepherds, and sailors kept company with the night sky. They looked up to fathom its meaning. They gave its regions fanciful names out of folklore and national myths. 

Ptolemy scans the heavens, guided by Urania, the muse of astronomy. 1508 engraving by Gregor Reisch. Pubic Domain.

They relied on heavenly bodies to guide their ways on Earth.

They saw that the stars hold fixed relations with one another, all but a recalcitrant few that wander as if by whimsy through the celestial field. These few they called “planets”—a name that means “wanderer.”

Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170) worked out a math to map the planets’ paths. This was a feat. 

The challenge was that the planets, as viewed from Earth, seem to halt and go backwards from time to time, apparently at irregular intervals. Unavoidably, Ptolemy’s geometry to account for this oddity was complicated.

In the Middle Ages, Ptolemy’s complex model of planetary motion coexisted with Aristotle’s simple construct of the sky as a sphere of crystal in which the stars were embedded. Aristotle’s notion addressed the changeless reaches of space, while Ptolemy’s pinned down the meanderings of the planets against that space.

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God, 1873, by Jan Matejko. Public Domain.

Come the Renaissance: The sky, like all things else, got re-examined. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) wrote a book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium—On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. He hesitated to publish his theory, so controversial was it. When, on his deathbed, he set loose his manuscript, it knocked over Ptolemy’s applecart, placing the sun at the center of the universe and making of Earth a mere planet—just like the tiny ones that blundered about the nocturnal sky, only closer.

Kepler in 1610. Unknown artist. Public Domain.

The Copernican view—which took almost a century to become accepted science—required a new model for the motions of planets. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a human calculating machine, figured the true orbits of the planets, which turned out to be elliptical, not circular as had always been assumed.

Comets

The permanent stars were fixed in crystal and the desultory planets ranged along an elliptical racetrack. 

Comets were something else again.

Noble stargazer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) observed the Great Comet of 1577 and recorded thousands of position fixes as it passed by. The comet’s trajectory did not fit his system, nor Kepler’s, nor Copernicus’s, nor Ptolemy’s. 

It turns out that comets are adventitious travelers from the far reaches of our solar system.

They arrive all of a sudden and make a big splash. Then they depart, leaving us none the wiser.

Still, they have been taken as portents. 

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”

Mark Twain, 1909

Harbinger

On Wednesday, with my new binoculars, I drove west out of Madison. On a curve of County Highway F between Mount Horeb and Blue Mounds, parked cars lined the road. People sat on the roadside bank in lawn chairs, facing northwest, waiting for the show. 

I tucked my Toyota into the parking lot of Brigham County Park and walked back down the hill to the curve where the comet-seekers sat. Without a lawn chair, I lowered myself heavily to the grassy slope and gazed northwest. 

As the sunset faded, the stars came out. Once the sky darkened enough, it was easy to find the comet at some distance below the Big Dipper.

Looking for a reprise of Comet 1961 V (Wilson-Hubbard), I was disappointed. NEOWISE, even through binoculars, was only a vague streak rising from a pinpoint of light. Once my field glasses had found it, I could also see it without magnification, a mere smudge.

Muttering, I walked back to my car. 

And as I trudged uphill to the parking lot, the whole panoply of Heaven arched above me—millions of stars, diamonds on a black velvet sky. It took my breath away. Or maybe it was the hill.

The panoply of Heaven. “Night Sky” by adrianmichaelphotography is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Reaching the parking lot at the top of the hill, I let my breath catch up with me as I scanned the whole sky. Jupiter gleamed above the southern horizon. The binoculars gave me two of its moons, standing off from the planet’s blue-white orb. 

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Dear Reader, we have imprisoned ourselves in city lights. Away from our industrial glow, the cosmos burns as it always did. But it’s over our heads; we must look up. 

By what lights do we steer? The halogen vapor haze of shopping malls, or the shy twinkles of the universe? 

Back home, I stood in my yard. To the northwest, beyond the man-made glow, hung the same comet we had seen in the country. 

You just had to know where to look.             

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author