On July 20 in this space I mentioned the new direction taken in revision of my historical novel, formerly titled Freedom’s Purchase, now titled The Maelstrom.
I am happy to report that extensive revisions have been made, based on very helpful feedback by championship-level book coach Christine DeSmet. As a result, it’s a much more compelling and exciting book. Many thanks to Christine, a noted author and a great personal friend of mine for many years.
I am now polishing the polish, and before long the book will be again making the rounds to agents and publishers. I’m quite confident we’ll get a good publishing contract this time around.
So have patience! Before long, you’ll get to read the stories of Norwegian immigrants Anders and Maria, and Daniel the slave, in 19th-century America.
O purple splotch,
How dare you?
Arriving by stealth
to the back of my hand,
claiming space, a fait accompli.
You are an intruder beneath my skin.
I say again, How dare you?
Your coup unheralded,
even by minor pain,
suddenly you were just there.
In days of old this could not have happened.
In days of old my forces would have marshaled
thick skin and stout-walled capillaries
against your onslaught.
Had you attacked in strength—
the bang of a hammer blow,
the tread of an opponent’s spikes,
the slam of a door where my hand rested on the jamb—
I would have known it in that moment.
This noiseless, painless incursion is a new strategem,
the exploitation of brittle skin and numbed receptors,
but be forewarned: I am on to you.
You and your cunning ways,
how you will linger
flaunting your port-wine-ness in my face,
then six days hence decamp
as silently as the Arabs,
making me doubt my senses
until the next signalless foray.
How dare you?
But at last, these marches can avail you nothing;
for I have received the cure
and simply wait for the finality
of its deliverance.
“The Pilgrims? It’s not November—why are we talking about Pilgrims?”
For one thing, maybe in midsummer we can step back and be a bit—dare I whisper the word?—dispassionate.
Passion rules the day. On every hand, our passions are egged on. “Engage your passion” is almost as frequent a bit of advice as “Follow your dreams.”
But has anybody bothered to check what that really means? Perhaps you will indulge me:
passion . . . n. [[OFr < LL(Ec) passio, a suffering, esp. that of Christ (<L passus, pp. of pati, to endure < IE base *pē-, to harm > Gr pēma, destruction, L paene, scarcely): transl. of Gr pathos: see pathos]] 1a) [Archaic] suffering or agony, as of a martyr b) [Now Rare] an account of this 2 [P-] a) the sufferings of Jesus, beginning with his agony in the Garden of Gethsmane and continuing to his death on the Cross b) any of the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ Passion and of accompanying events c) an artistic work, as an oratorio or a play, based on these narratives 3a) any one of the emotions, as hate, grief, love, fear, joy, etc. b) [pl.] all such emotions collectively 4 extreme, compelling emotion; intense emotional drive or excitement; specif., a) great anger; rage; fury b) enthusiasm or fondness [a passion for music]c) strong love or affection d) sexual drive or desire; lust 5 the object of any strong desire or fondness 6 [Obs.] the condition of being acted upon, esp. by outside influences—Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.
Webster goes on to comment that “passion usually implies a strong emotion that has an overpowering or compelling effect [his passions overcame his reason] [.]”
Ignoring all the brackets, parentheses, italics, boldface, numbers, letters, and abbreviations that clutter the lexicography, we can discern that passion comprises suffering, endurance, harm, destruction, pathos, agony, martyrdom, and extremes of compelling or overpowering emotion—to include love, affection, and lust but, more commonly, hate, fear, grief, anger, rage, and fury.
As a novelist and screenwriter, I applaud these outrageous eruptions of emotion. They make drama.
But in my role as a human being trying to cope with the world, I must take a rather different tack. I believe that reason and objectivity—things that do not easily coexist with passion—are the best survival tools handed down from the philosophers of old.
They allow us to see our world more nearly as it is—less tinted by our fears, resentments, and extravagant dreams.
“Okay, My New Favorite Writer, but what about the Pilgrims? You were going to say something about Pilgrims.”
We’ll get to that, Gentle Reader. Don’t give up on me yet.
First, another mild digression.
As a young man, I studied a bit of the History of Science under Prof. David Lindberg at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Lindberg’s introductory lecture in the course covered what he called ancestor worship.
Ancestor worship, in the good professor’s view, was the study of history on the basis that people of old times were either clear-sighted heroes (if we can make out that they pioneered the values we espouse today) or blind and bigoted blackguards (if they violated our current norms).
This ancestor worship—really more an attitude than a program—leads to outlandish propositions that we often accept without rigorous examination. For instance:
Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in order to champion Freedom, Progress, and Democracy.
Christopher Columbus ravaged the American hemisphere and commited genocide because he was a vicious white supremacist.
All those who lived before the Renaissance—or the Enlightenment, if you will, or the Summer of Love—were untutored savages who lived lives void of intelligent vision.
Many other, similarly fatuous, statements could be made. What they all have in common is a fatal simplicity.
Real life, Dear Reader, is not all that straightforward.
Johannes Kepler, the 17th-century German mathematician, started from the assumption that the planets moved in circular orbits which could be neatly inscribed in a nesting series of perfect Euclidean solids, and ended up proving the planets move in elliptical orbits that could not possibly answer to such imaginary constraints. Furthermore, despite his massive intelligence, it seems he saw no contradication between his two irreconcilable theories. He saw the former as being proved, not disproved, by the latter. Huh?
Actuality just wants to escape any convenient mental box we try to cram it into.
Luther lived in a time when Progress was not a recognized value. Democracy was unthinkable, except as a curious aberration of the Athenians in remote antiquity. And if Luther valued Freedom, it would have been the freedom of the believer to realize salvation in Christ. His whole concern was that the institutional Church was stifling the ordinary person’s hope of receiving the Grace which the Scriptures revealed. If Luther was a hero, he was a hero of Faith, not of Modernity.
Columbus seems to have been actuated by the hope of Glory, Fame, and Wealth on Earth—and, perhaps, Eternal Life in Heaven. That he pursued these goals by enslaving the inhabitants of Hispaniola shows that he did not value their lives as much as white European lives; not that he held a Hitler-style ideology of race. He trampled on the Arawaks just as any supreme egotist tramples anyone in his path. It was made easy by the fact that they could not post eloquent written protests in Spanish or Latin. His genocide was casual, not programmatic。
And as for the belief that those who lived in days of yore were simply not bright enough to understand the world’s complexities as we do—Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Augustine of Hippo would like to have a word with you.
The real history of the world is not a relentless March of Progress nor a sinister Parade of Criminality, but an ongoing Stumble of Perplexity.
“But what about the Pilgims? Are we there yet?”
Here are the bare facts, as widely acknowledged:
A group of Puritan Separatists—people who wanted to leave the state-mandated Church of England—fled to Holland after persecution by British monarchs. A few years later, disillusioned with life among the Dutch, they sailed for America. They arrived off Cape Cod in December 1620. Half of them died of disease and hunger during the first winter. Friendly Indians named Squanto and Samoset introduced themselves the following spring and taught our Separatist Pilgrims how to grow corn. In the autumn of 1621, Pilgrims and Indians gathered for a harvest feast that we now call the First Thanksgiving.
Because the Pilgrims’ Plymouth Colony, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony established by other Puritans ten years later, became materially successful over the ensuing decades, they came to be celebrated by their 19th-century descendants as precursors of all that was good in American life. They were seen as model saints, who were sometimes victimized by their Native American neighbors but had never done anything to provoke such treatment. They were energetic and intelligent colonists, whose prosperity owed all to hard work and intelligence. Indeed, in the Mayflower Compact they had drawn up the very blueprint of American Freedom, Constitutionalism, and Democracy.
Does anything about this seem familiar to you? That’s right—Ancestor Worship!
Because the view of the Pilgrims developed by 19th-century Congregationalists was slanted, 20th-century historians began to debunk many parts of it, in the interest of correcting the record. The 1960s and 70s also saw the rise of a corps of self-consciously subjective historians motivated by Marxist ideology. Their view was that there is no such thing as objective historiography; that history is always a political act. To them, the Massachusetts Pilgrims’ and Puritans’ checkered relationship with the Native Americans of the region was an opportunity to denounce capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.
Besides this, Native Americans in the second half of the 20th century gained ground in their quest to be heard. And the Wampanoags, today’s descendants of the Patuxets and other early Massachusetts tribes, had some long-neglected bones to pick.
Thus, although the 19th century’s triumphalist view of the Pilgrims held sway well into the 1950s—when Your New Favorite Writer and many other old people were school children—the “oppressor Pilgrims” narrative, fed by leftist historians and supported by well-documented assertions of the Wampanoag people, has gained ground since the 1960s.
There are still plenty of pro-Pilgrim apologists out there. But they must increasingly feel like yesterday’s children, shouting down a dry rain barrel.
In the interest of sanity, not to mention conciliation in a divisive era, let me point out a few truths that are sometimes overlooked.
1. Before the arrival of white Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries, North America was never what we would consider densely populated. Nobody knows how many Native Americans there were in pre-Columbian days, but recent estimates range from eight million to 112 million for the entire Western Hemisphere. The North American part of that would be less. If we average the two figures and assign half of the result to North America, we get 30 million. While this is a much larger population of American Indians than existed subsequently—after the effects of virgin-soil epidemics, outright wars, and a long period of genocidal practices—North America would still have seemed sparsely populated to Europeans of that era.
2. The incursions of Spanish colonists in the West and Southwest, and Englishmen on the East Coast, started a catastrophic decline in the fortunes and the populations of Native American tribes. Of this there can be no doubt. As the Pilgrims constituted an early successful experiment in colonization, they were part of the problem, from the Native American point of view.
3. The frequent forays of English fishermen, explorers, and adventurers into North America in the arly 1600s caused one or more serious virgin soil epidemics in New England. Such epidemics happen when a group of people bring new disease organisms into a population not previously exposed to them. Since no resistance has been previously acquired, the disease spreads swiftly, with extreme virulence. One such epidemic depopulated the Massachusetts shoreline just before the Pilgrims arrived. Finding evidence of a recently vanished native civilization, the religious Pilgrims saw in that circumstance the special providence of God—the Hand of the Almighty had cleared a place for them to live.
4. In the first weeks of their sojourn on the new shore, the Pilgrims uncovered a bushel of corn left by the former inhabitants as grave goods. They understood something of the spititual significance of this corn to the people who had left it there. But those people were nowhere to be seen, and the Pilgrims were in danger of starving. They took the corn and resolved to make restitution if they ever got the chance—a pledge they made good on, by the way.
Now it is 2021. We live thirty years after Rodney King famously asked, “Can we all get along?” We seem to be having some trouble doing so.
If we are to make progress towards getting along, we must start by acknowledging the scope and pain of the real losses suffered by those cast aside in America’s rush to power and wealth. Where feasible, we should try to make amends.
To shed light on the past may help us do better in the future. But ferreting out the sins of our ancestors to use as cudgels against one another in the present is worse than useless.
Our common history is no less complicated for its being troubled, and the search for Good Guys and Bad Guys is more futile the farther we are removed from the facts.
My right ear abandoned its duty forty years ago. All sounds it transmitted became muffled and distant. The diagnosis was hereditary otosclerosis.
Only the one ear was affected. There was a surgical procedure to correct this condition. The operation, in my case, was a crashing failure. It left me with vertigo, impaired balance, worse hearing in the right ear than before the operation, plus tinnitus—a constant ringing in the ear.
The dizziness and loss of balance have subsided over time. The deafness is profound and permanent. And the tinnitus has proven to be lifelong.
Tinnitus greatly burdens some of its sufferers, but with me it’s more a curiosity than a curse. My brain ignores the ringing. Only if I happen to think of it do I hear it. Thus I can summon the sound at will, but it normally sinks below my awareness.
Except on warm summer evenings. Then, if I am outdoors—which I often am—the high-pitched, droning whine of cicadas is everywhere. Whoever I’m with, I ask them: “Are the cicadas singing?”
Even when they’re not singing, my ear tells me they are.
Cicadas are large, prehistoric-looking insects often called locusts. But true locusts are a kind of grasshopper, and these big, ugly bugs do not much resemble them. Therefore, cicada is the proper term.
Despite its repulsive looks, the cicada is a lovely singer, emitting a shrill chirp that is unmistakable. The sound is made by males in order to attract females. (It’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die.)
These males in their search for mating opportunities rapidly buckle and unbuckle an anatomical structure on their bellies known as a tymbal. They do it so rapidly that the numerous clicks fuse into one whine, which can sound cyclical, rising and falling with monotonous regularity. It’s incredibly loud, especially when thousands or millions of the bugs throb out their urgent pleas all at once. It can drive a hearer crazy.
Such a thing is especially worrisome in certain years when magicicada—the so-called “seventeen-year locust”—appears. According to Wikipedia, “Most cicadas go through a life cycle that lasts 2–5 years.” When the nymphs come out of the ground, climb trees, shed their exoskeletons, and emerge as adults, they do so in moderately large numbers. But magicicada takes seventeen years from hatching to adulthood. Most of the magicicada in a region come out in the same year. When they do, their numbers can be staggering.
I first encountered them as a young boy in Streator, Illinois. For a week or two, they were everywhere. I remember striding through them, ankle-deep, at a local park. Then they died off. When the next seventeen-year cycle was complete, I no longer lived there.
Wisconsin’s magicicada swarm is expected to emerge in 2024 here. Since I have been a Badger for about sixty-four years now, I must have gone through three of these events already—but I have no recollection of them. This makes me think the Wisconsin brood is less overwhelming than those farther south.
But some cicadas come out every year, even here in the Great Green North. So don’t be surprised if one evening soon, when we are together, I turn to you with my plaintive query, “Are the cicadas singing?”
I was mowing my front yard yesterday when Milo Bung walked by. He stopped in the street and called out something. I had to shut down the mower.
“What’s that?” I shouted.
“You don’t have to yell. I just asked what you were doing.”
I pointed at the machine. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
“I mean, is that a hobby with you, or what?”
“I don’t enjoy it, if that’s what you mean. It gets old after the first hour.” Milo knows full well that when I’m done mowing my small front yard, a huge back yard still awaits.
“Why don’t you get you a rider? You should see that little X570 of mine.”
“Got a 54-inch deck.” Milo spread his arms five feet wide. “Zip, zip. Done in ten minutes.”
“Good for you,” said I, mopping my brow with a bandanna.
“Nothing runs like a Deere,” Milo advertised.
I nodded. “Well, nice talking with you.” I yanked the starter rope to reawaken my Toro’s inner bull.
He said something which must have been “Good-bye” and waved at me as I stepped off, chasing the self-propelled mower across the grass. There was a lot of turf yet to whack.
In the 1950s I learned to cut grass with a kid-powered mower. You had to open the oil cap and squirt in oil from a can to lubricate the reel, like Dorothy loosening up the Tin Woodsman, then use a screwdriver to adjust the cutter bar so the blades would just graze it as they went around. Then all you did was push.
When grandpa died in 1957, we inherited his rotary power mower—a puny thing by today’s standards. Since then, I have decapitated untold billions of grass blades, using several generations of gas-powered, walk-behind, 22-inch rotary mower.
As I told Milo, I do not enjoy cutting the grass. But I do enjoy having cut it.
There are few feelings as grand as sitting in my zero-gravity lawn chair on a summer afternoon, sipping iced tea and reading a nice book, smack dab in the middle of my new-mown lawn. Master of all I survey.
Besides this giddy prospect, there is a practical reason for mowing. It’s about the only exercise I get, besides tennis, in the summer. I put six thousand steps on my pedometer just by mowing the lawn. Some weeks I do it twice, or even thrice.
I could buy a lawn tractor or, better yet, hire the job done. But whenever I consider such a step, I think of friends who have a lawn service. They all seem to be falling into decrepitude, though some are younger than I, by months or years.
It boils down to this: I dislike mowing the lawn but am terrified to stop.
I was born June 12, 1945. Two months later, Japan surrendered.
That matter settled, I turned my attention to trying out my body parts, learning my native tongue, and getting acquainted with my family. These experiments engrossed me fully until about 1950, at which point I noticed . . . everything else.
Our world in those days was simple and straightforward. We knew where we stood. If March came in like a lion, it would go out like a lamb. The Brooklyn Dodgers would play the New York Yankees in the World Series. You couldn’t go swimming in the summer for fear of polio.
Beyond such truths, whole reams of information settled in my skull, etching deep lines to form a kind of blueprint of reality—upon which, eventually, I would build a castle of knowledge and experience. My castle was not unique. My friends and schoolmates all built similar castles.
Holidays, Seasons, Rituals
The columns, ribs, and stays of the castle were holidays, seasons, and rituals ordained by society at large. These recurring festivals buttressed a remarkably durable structure of life.
The year kicked off on New Year’s Day, with multi-hued bowls—Rose, Orange, Cotton, and Sugar. The Groundhog was pure myth. He never saw his shadow, nor did we ever see him not see his shadow.
But then came a real holiday—Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12. Lincoln was one of our two greatest presidents. He had a beard and a kindly smile. (I learned later that he also led our nation through its darkest days.)
The other great presidential birthday was George Washington’s on February 22. Washington did not have to wear a beard to be great. As Father of Our Country he was an automatic qualifier.
The birthdays of our greatest two presidents were important enough to cancel school, when they fell on weekdays. Such holidays—our national birthright—were never devolved upon the nearest Monday, as they are now in exchange for that mess of pottage known as a long weekend.
Between Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays fell Valentine’s Day, a time for exchanging sappy cards with your classmates. We also observed Easter and April Fool’s Day, but they did not leave the impression on me that May 1 did. It was called May Day, and it was wonderful. Egged on by mothers and teachers, we made baskets of colored paper, filled them with flowers, and gave them to our friends in a stealthy manner. You snuck up to the door, hung a basket of flowers on its handle, rang the bell, ran away, and hid, so you could peek out from a safe place to see your friend’s surprise and awe when they found the flowers.
We had May Day and its merry hijinks. Today’s kids have cell phones, X-Boxes, powered scooters, and Pokemon (whatever that may be). Who is richer?
At the end of May came Decoration Day, a time to go to the cemetery and bedeck the graves of our loved and lost. Originally, the idea was to honor the War Dead, but by the time I came along, all but the most disreputable dead had their graves strewn with flowers indiscriminately. After decorating graves in the morning, there came a big parade down Main Street. By the time that concluded in mid-afternoon, the Big Race was on—the Indianapolis 500, which was always run on May 30, Memorial Day.
We watched the race on the radio. Four announcers cried the tidings of roadsters swooping through each turn. After more than three hours of whining engine noise, the winner crossed the line, to receive a bottle of champagne and a kiss from a Hoosier lovely. Your ears could smell the gasoline fumes.
Decoration Day was an informal name for Memorial Day. The whole pageant has long since been moved to Monday Nearest, like most other holidays.
Thank God we still celebrate Independence Day on July 4, regardless when it falls in the week. This exemption from the Monday Nearest rule shows that the Fourth is one of our most sacred holidays—like that other exemption, Christmas. July 4 is sacred, of course, because it is the nominal date of our Declaration of Independence.
Why is Independence Day, July 4, celebrated so much more intensely than Constitution Day, September 17? Isn’t the Constitution the basis of our laws? Yes, but the Declaration was the basis of our country. The 1776 phrase “all men are created equal,” and the notion that government’s job is to protect our rights—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—have always meant more to us than the details inked in 1789.
The Declaration became paramount before and during the Civil War. Lincoln’s powerful rhetoric was based on the simple notions of the Declaration, not the complex compromises of the Constitution.
Hence all the fireworks.
Downhill to Winter
After July 4, the year is mostly downhill. Labor Day, recognized by Congress in 1894 to honor the American labor movement, is the only holiday originally fixed on a Monday, that labor might be ennobled by a day off work.
In urban areas with strong unions, it became a major feast, with marches, picnics, speeches, and political activism. Such was not the case in the small Midwestern towns of my youth. Labor Day was just a welcome day of loafing or, in my case, the last day before school started.
Columbus Day, another reprieve from school, occurred on October 12. We learned that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two, / Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Latter-day scholars have pointed out that Columbus, in his thirst for gold, enslaved the Arawak natives on the island of Hispaniola and established a pattern of exploitation that has shamed the Western Hemisphere from that time to this. But we learned none of that. He was just the Discoverer of America—which is a good thing, right?
On the night of October 31, rigged out in costumes from our mothers’ fertile imaginations, we gave considerable attention to the process of shaking down our neighbors for candy. There were goblins and ghosts, to be sure, but I don’t recall anyone trying to scare the living daylights out of small children, as has become the practice since then.
“Get Your Deer?”
The fourth Thursday in November was Thanksgiving, probably the most delicious holiday of the year. Here in Wisconsin, Thanksgiving falls in the midst of Deer Season, so the festivities sometimes take a back seat to the hunt—at least for those who have not got their buck yet.
When I was a child in downstate Illinois, deer were not that plentiful, the deer hunt was not of widespread interest, and we focused on ritual re-enactments of the Pilgrims Story—plus, of course, eating turkeys. The central rite of Thanksgiving Day was the Big Football Game, broadcast in mid-afternoon. Regardless of who the combatants were, this was a pretty important game, because Thanksgiving occurred just at the point when the college and pro football seasons were getting serious. The hunt for championships was in the air.
But in those days, it could be hard to follow that hunt, because our black-and-white television screens were sicklied o’er with electronic “snow.” This virtual precipitation further obscured the action on a gridiron already vexed with actual, meteorological, snow. And mud, of course—because Astroturf was still only a gleam in the eye of Mister Astro.
Christmas came but once a year, a month after Thanksgiving. It made a fitting end to the year, the best holiday of all. Because of all the TOYS. Only later in life did I learn that the thing that made Christmas sweet was that the whole family got together. That was better than all the toys. I wish I’d known that when I was six.
There was, technically, one holiday after Christmas: New Year’s Eve, December 31. But, unless you happened to be one of Mister Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians, I would seriously advise you to skip it. Too many drunks on the road.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nonetheless, my acknowledgment is overdue: No father was more earnest, more dedicated in his fathering, than my father.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.