Potential–A Remembrance

After almost two glorious months of living in Knoxville, with Dad coming to visit us on the weekends, we moved back to Streator. Our new house was at 601 West Stanton, just three blocks west of where we had been living. I still attended Grant School, but now I had to walk farther.

The house was smaller, only one story, and I had to share a bedroom with Cynda. 

Georgy Malenkov. Photo by unknown, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

The Korean War had ended in July. The new Russian leader Malenkov said that the Russians now had the Hydrogen Bomb. 

We were supposed to be terrified. People on the radio said we were in the Atomic Age and the world might blow up at any time. In Streator we were at least sixty miles from any target the Russians would deem worth an H-bomb. We yawned and went about living our lives.

Much more explosive to me was an event that happened in October. I was in third grade, under the eye of a kindly old teacher named Mrs. Winders. One sunny Friday afternoon, she took me aside after class was dismissed.

“Larry,” she said, “when you come to school on Monday, report to the fourth grade.”

Time stood still for a while.

“Yes, Ma’am,” I said at last.

On the way home, my brain boiled furiously. I tried to work it all out. What could this mean? Why would I go to fourth grade? I was in third grade. It made no sense.

“Oh, well, that,” Mom said when I came home and announced the mysterious news. She looked away. “Sit down, and let’s talk.”

“Why do I have to go to fourth grade?”

Alfred Binet, inventor of the I.Q. test. Public Domain.

“Do you remember taking something called an I.Q. test?”

“No.”

“Well, you did. And you scored very high.” 

I stared at her blankly.

“And because you scored high, you get to go to fourth grade now.”

“You knew about this?”

Mom leaned back in her chair and lit a cigarette. “When Daddy and I went to the parent-teacher conference, they told us about it. You know Rue Rhymers?”

“Miss Rhymers? She comes and sits in the back of our class sometimes.” A nice lady with glasses, who dressed in a tan suit.

“Yes. And do you know why she comes to observe your class?”

I shook my head.

“Because of you.” Mom exhaled a stream of smoke and tapped the ash off her cigarette into the ashtray on the end table. “She comes to watch you, to see how you do in class, how you answer questions, things like that.”

“No, Mom, not just me. She comes to watch us all, to see the whole class.”

“Mm-hmm. Anyway, your scores are in the genius category, so they have to move you up a grade.”

The room tilted. “I don’t want to go to fourth grade.”

She looked at me. 

“Mom, all my friends are in third grade. And Missus Winders is nice.” I did not mention that Mrs. Winders sometimes let me do other things, like write stories, when the rest of the class was still working on a classroom task I had finished. As far as I knew, that was our secret, between me and my teacher.

“But pretty soon, you will get bored with third-grade work because it’s too easy for you. And then you’ll stop paying attention, and you won’t do your school work, and you won’t fulfill your potential.”

“What’s that?”

“What’s what?”

“Potential.”

“Potential?” Mom rolled her eyes back in her head, leaned forward, and stubbed out her cigarette in the ash tray. “It means, if you can do a certain level of work, like a high level, you should do that. If you’re only doing low-level work, you’re not living up to your potential.”

“This . . . potential. It’s something I have?”

She nodded emphatically. “You have it.”

Good old Teddy.

“So it’s mine. So I can do what I want with it, right?” 

“Right. You can do great things.”

“Or I can leave it sitting on a shelf, like a toy I don’t want to play with.” 

Mom frowned. “No.” She lit a new cigarette, shook the flame off the match, and dropped it in the tray. “It would be a sin to waste your potential. You’re such a smart boy, you can do anything you set your mind to.”

I went to my room and lay down on my bed, hugging my teddy bear and chewing my lip.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met

Joe Nelson, businessman and politician

He made me angry, and it could be hard to resolve one’s anger at Joe Nelson.

He made everybody angry. He was an equal opportunity annoyer. You had to take a number.

And before your number came up, he had done something to make you love him. 

It wasn’t fair.

#

Fred Hampton. UIC Library Digital Collection, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 .

In the late 1960s, when the Black Panthers were one of many radical groups trying to start The Revolution, Joe Nelson used to debate politics with Fred Hampton, national vice-chair of the Black Panther Party. Hampton would come into Joe’s print shop in Maywood, Illinois, just to argue. 

Joe, once a socialist, was by the 1960s a rock-ribbed Barry Goldwater Republican. He and the bright, articulate young black radical saw most things through opposite ends of the telescope. Both enjoyed the stimulation of their running squabble.

When Hampton was gunned down by law officers in a pre-dawn raid at his Chicago apartment, Joe did not hesitate to call it a police-led assassination. He was a conservative, not a fool.

#

Since he was my father-in-law, I spent a fair amount of time with Joe Nelson. 

One day I saw him provoke a local store manager. The man was spitting mad. Within a minute, the two were good buddies. They parted with broad smiles. Joe did that kind of thing all the time. You could say it was his M.O.

His dad had been a printer and editor who worked for a newspaper chain, starting small-town weeklies in the Dakotas. Once the local clarion-ledger-press-herald was up and running, he turned it over to someone else and moved on to another little burg to repeat the process. It must have been a sketchy living. Six-year-old Joe and his older brother Maurice were farmed out to a Catholic orphanage for two years because their parents couldn’t feed all four boys. The Nelsons weren’t Catholic, but the good sisters would not turn anyone away.

Even when the family was together, they moved continually. Joe attended thirteen different public schools en route to his high school diploma. 

Some kids would wilt and turn inward in such circumstances. Joe toughened up and turned outward. He figured if you wanted friends, you had better make them quickly. He honed that skill. 

When I met him, he was in his sixties, a master at getting along with people. He got along with everybody, to whatever extent he chose. He was always in charge of the relationship.

#

I met him because I was attracted to his daughter, Joelle, whom I met at Knox College. Fair, feminine, and flirty though she was, I have since come to realize that her sterling character was formed more by her flinty father than by her gracious mother.

Elsa was the soul of respectability and conventionality. Joe, not so much. His mind was keen and penetrating. He did things the way that made sense to him.

When Joelle was a teenager, she had no curfew. By the wisdom of the day, she should have become a wild, out-of-control teen—one of those “crazy, mixed-up kids” the adult world talked about. It never happened. Her father taught her that arbitrary rules were no substitute for good sense and human kindness.

He often called himself an anarchist, of the purest stripe. “If we actually followed Christ and lived the Golden Rule,” he said, “laws would be unnecessary.”

When Joelle went on a date, Joe insisted the young man come into the house and engage in a few minutes of conversation. He always checked the boy’s driver’s license—to make sure the boy had one. Joelle may have chafed at this indignity; but she suffered in silence, then stayed out as late as she pleased. 

When she came home—whether at midnight or four a.m.—Joe would be awake in the living room, reading a paper by the light of a table lamp. “Did you have a good time?” he would ask. “Yes, Daddy,” she would say. As she flew up the stairs to her bedroom, he would fold his paper, lock the door, and turn out the lights.

She knew he would never complain about the lateness of her arrival. She also knew he would be at work by six the next morning. 

“On a weekend?” I hear you ask. Let me explain, Dear Reader. He was the owner of his print shop. His employees had limited hours; Joe did not. He had to make it work.

#

Joe had not always been a printer, though he had learned the trade at his father’s knee. 

Sidelined from military service in the Second World War by a pair of disease-scarred eardrums, he had served as a civilian flight instructor at Purdue University, training the pilots of our South American allies.

After the war, having survived the macho antics of his Latin flying students, he got a job as a mechanic at Sky Harbor airport in the Chicago suburbs. He serviced private aircraft for Chicago’s high rollers. Entertainer/impresario Tommy Bartlett, soon to become a Wisconsin water-ski maven, was one of his clients. 

When a wealthy customer crash-landed his plane in a field somewhere, Joe would pack up his tools, take a train to the site, patch up the plane enough to get it into the air, and fly it home. 

It was a life he loved, but it was an all-hours occupation. It kept him away from home. When he did come home, he found his young tot, Joelle, terrified of her own father. He had become a stranger to her. 

So he gave up flying and went into the printing business. That also was demanding, but he was home every night, and his daughter got acquainted with him.

#

Joe, right, with his brothers Bob and Maurice. Family photo.

Did I mention that Joe was sociable? His early life gave him the skills not only to form firm friendships quickly but also to negotiate with anyone about anything, on a very practical basis. He had boundless energy, a deep well of patience, and an endless fascination with people. 

So naturally, besides running a business, raising a daughter, and participating in church and social functions, he entered politics. He ran for school board and won a seat. The Proviso school district was split between the suburbs of Maywood and Melrose Park. Joe was from Maywood, a town that had been racially integrated since its founding after the Civil War. It was integrated in this sense: Black residents lived in South Maywood and white residents in North Maywood. 

The school board, however, was dominated by members from Melrose Park, a heavily Italian city. 

Things were done Chicago-style. Joe had run as a reformer, so he was taken for a tense ride in the back of a large automobile, where the facts of life were explained to him. Contracts to paint the district’s several schools were coming up. By long tradition, these contracts were not let by open bidding but were simply divvied up among school board members. Each member got to choose the contractor for one school. The message was loud and clear: Don’t rock the boat.

Joe accepted his status as contract czar for a single school. Competitive bidding on contracts was not a hill he wanted to die on. He found a Maywood neighbor who needed the work and could do the job. [In the original version of this post, I inaccurately asserted that he recruited a minority-owned business to do the job. My wife pointed out that this was not so. I’m afraid my heroic mental image of Joe overwhelmed my usually accurate memory cells.]

The next election cycle, Joe recruited a black candidate, Dr. John Vaughans, for the other Maywood-connected seat on the school board. They campaigned together in the next election and both won. Two mavericks on the seven-member board did not work a miraculous change. But it was a start.

Joe believed in the American ideal of equality, and he could see that African Americans consistently got the short end of the stick. That did not make him a liberal. When teachers went on strike, Joe took a hard line in defense of taxpayers. 

He was a tough negotiator. He made sure there were pitchers of cold water at the negotiating table, but he abstained from drinking any. Bargaining sessions could hinge on the relative bladder strengths of the negotiators. Joe’s frequent line was, “Wait a minute. We can always take a recess later, but why don’t take a few extra minutes right now and hash this out? Nobody leaves the table till we settle this point.”

In later years, after retiring from the school board, he was appointed to Maywood’s human relations commission. The work often involved mediating conflicts of view between the city’s white and black residents. He poured all his patience, skill, and goodwill into it.

#

We were driving around one day, and Joe stopped to point out a rather ordinary-looking playground on a patch of land in South Maywood. “That was a vacant lot,” he said. “The city owned it. It was just doing nothing, no good for anybody. I thought it would be good if were a playground. A lot of kids in this neighborhood could use it. I started mentioning it to people, but it still took twenty years before we got it.” 

“Why so long?”

“Inertia.” Joe snorted derisively at the memory of inertia-bound bird-brains in city hall. “Nobody wanted to do something new, unless they themselves got something out of it. You know how we finally got it done? We suggested the playground be named after the guy that was the biggest obstacle standing in the way. So there it is, the Alderman Doakes Playground.”

I let out a sigh.

“It proves you can do something, if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

#

In his public persona, Joe Nelson was by turns cunning, stubborn, and ingratiating. His incredible versatility brought to the fore whatever strengths were needed at the moment. 

But what bound me to him, what made me love and admire him, what it was about him that helped inform my own slowly maturing character, was most observable in private moments. 

Joe had not an ungenerous bone in his body. He regarded opponents as unfortunate, misguided people whose perspective might yet be transformed if he kept on patiently presenting the truth, as he so clearly saw it, to them. He called this “planting seeds.” In all the times I saw him arguing political or other points with people, including myself, I never saw him give way to anger. 

His opponents got angry. Furious, even. Joe would smile, wink, and repeat their own points back to them, stripped down to their absurd essentials. He never left an argument untended. If his opponent walked out on him, he considered the conversation unfinished—an investigation to be resumed at leisure.

His and Elsa’s only child, Joelle, was the apple of their eye. Anything that was theirs was hers, automatically, without question. When I became her husband, anything that was theirs was mine also, because I was part of her and part of them.

I did not understand this. How could people be that giving? In my own family, gifts were stintingly given. We tended to operate on a presumption of scarcity. Joe and Elsa worked on a principle of abundance. There would always be plenty when it was needed, even when there did not seem to be enough to go around. 

I could not accept Joe and Elsa’s open-handed love in a gracious way because nothing had prepared me for it. 

Callow though I was, once I joined the family, I was theirs and they were mine. The price of my inclusion was that I had to learn to relax and enjoy it. 

It took me years.

#

Joe and Elsa made a buy-sell agreement with their print shop foreman, and they retired to a house on a wooded hill near Dodgeville, Wisconsin. 

Retirement was harder on him than on her. He poured his prodigious energies into building and improving the house and property. He took up skiing, eventually breaking his leg on a cross-country trail. 

Joe in retirement, at the hill in Dodgeville.

Little ailments began to creep up on him. A couple of larger ills—a serious bout of diverticulitis and a small stroke—made him an invalid, much against his will. You might say they reduced him to an invalid. He became smaller, suddenly, involuntarily.

He had no gift for inactivity, much less for being dependent on others. He rallied, for a while, but the second stroke killed him. 

He lay in a bed in the Dodgeville hospital looking up at us, unable to speak. He summoned all his powers to utter the single word, “Why?” We had no answer. 

Most people uttering that monosyllable would have been saying, “Why me? Why did this have to happen?” Something of that sort. 

But you had to know Joe. He was a realist. I am confident his final “Why?” meant, “Why not face the facts? It’s over. Why prolong it?” 

He tried to pull the IV tubes out of his arm. Although he did not succeed, he died a day or two later anyway, sometime in the fall of 1987.

He had run a good race. 

At 42, I was still a mixed-up youth. But I had learned a lot about life just by knowing Joe.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

The Wellspring

Public Domain.

I have dragged myself out of bed after midnight on a good sleeping night—one of those rain-blessed nights when you hear the tap and drizzle of the storm just outside the window—because this musing has come to me. 

If I wait till morning, I’ll lose it.

It’s a message for you, Dear Reader, about creativity.

Maybe you have thought you would like to write something. Something true from your life and experience, be it written as fact or fiction. Something you might share with your children, your grandchildren, or the world. 

But you have answered yourself: “No. I’m no writer.” 

Or maybe: “No. I’d start and then not know where to go from there. I’d get writer’s block.” 

But before you give up on the idea, consider my case. I resolved six years ago to start the writing career I had always promised myself. I knew not what I would write, nor how. But there was something inside me that had to come out. Surely if I gave it a whirl, something would turn up.

So I plunged in.

Are you still with me, Gentle Reader? Just plunging in is not unheard-of. People do it. You could plunge in, too—if you so chose.

Early Scores

When I plunged in, I wanted to write about the past—the place where I spend most of my time. But the first thing that came to me—it came in a dream one night—was a brief, whimsical character study of Skeezie, our woebegone old Siberian husky. I sent it to Fetch! magazine—“For dogs and their humans”—and they bought it

What a morale booster! But it was an isolated victory, something of a fluke. I buckled down to my real aim of writing about the past. I wrote short stories about a young boy named Izzy Mahler, growing up in the ’Fifties. I submitted one to The Saturday Evening Post, and they published it in their online edition.

Wow, another fluke. 

Over the next couple of years, the Post bought a couple more Izzy Mahler stories (here and here).

Getting Serious

But I wanted something more.  I hankered to write a novel. My wife, Jo, had unearthed my Norwegian ancestors, and the framework of their lives, as shown by her research, suggested the beginnings of a plot.

Plunging in is fine, Cherished Reader, but I craved a surer sense of what I was about. What kind of Pandora’s box would I open if I embarked on a novel? So I signed up for the University of Wisconsin–Extension’s “Write By The Lake” conference in the summer of 2016. There, the inimitable Laurie Scheer encouraged me to go ahead and write my “immigrant novel.”

So I plunged in. Does this suggest any writing strategy to you, Dear Reader?

I wrote most of the novel on my laptop but part of it in longhand in a notebook I took with me to a church meeting in 2017. I recruited volunteer beta readers to read my work and give feedback.

Sensing I was in over my head, I joined Tuesdays With Story, a writers’ mutual critique group led by Jerry Peterson of Janesville, Wisconsin. Jerry is an author with plenty of publication credits, a master of great stories. When I showed my early chapters to the group, I had to swallow a lot of guff arising from amateurism in my writing. It was galling, Dear Reader—but I could not ignore the truth in the critiques. 

My writing started to get better.

We talked a lot in the group about “writer platforms,” about one’s “social media presence,” about “blogs” and “podcasts.” It seemed you had to do that stuff to be successful. My heart screamed, “No! No! No! Here I am trying to burrow into the past, and you’re trying to shove me into some godforsaken future. I won’t go!”

But at some point in those discussions, Jerry said, “Well, instead of thinking of a blog as something to promote your writing, you might look at a blog as being your writing—at least, part of it. If nothing else, it’s a chance to write something and get it in front of the public, on your own terms.”

To Blog, or Not to Blog: That Is the Question

It was an agonizing decision. For a blog to be worth doing, it ought to be posted regularly, maybe as often as once a week. I would have to spend a lot of my precious time composing and posting blog entries. 

I had heard somebody say, “It’s easy. Just rattle off something and post it. A few minutes a week.” But I could never do that. Why would I put something into the world under my name that was not carefully written? Pondered? Revised? Crafted? To do so would be the opposite of what I was trying to do. If I was going to start a blog, the entries needed to be high in quality.

That meant significant time spent each week, and that would cut into my novel writing time. Besides—where would I come up with all the material needed for a weekly blog post?

I’m hearing an echo now, Kind Reader, as you murmur, “What if I tried to write something? Where would I get the content?”

Well, I’ll tell you what Your New Favorite Writer did.

I plunged in. Here we go again. Do you see a pattern?

Since April 2019, I have posted 164 blog entries. What you are reading now will be Number 165. I have posted almost every week, usually on Tuesday morning. I have written about my grandmother’s postcard collection, the Springfield race riot of 1907, the losses of two of my uncles in World War II, General Grant, the onset of autumn in Wisconsin, the craziness of coping with COVID, how to use a chainsaw, the philosophical reflections of Milo Bung (a direct descendant of Æthelred the Unready and fourth cousin to Slats Grobnik) and more than a hundred other topics. I have even posted a few not-quite-ready-for-prime-time short stories. 

Where did all that content come from? 

All I can say is, there’s always something. I never run dry.

Wellspring of Creativity

That’s my message to you, Fair Reader: There’s always something. When you start to create, you reach down into some magical place, where there’s always more stuff ready to bubble forth. As soon as you take some out and write it down, more wells up to take its place. 

I think of it as a wellspring of creativity. I’ve spoken to other writers, and I’m assured the situation is the same in all other kinds of artistic endeavors: The more you produce, the more there is to draw from.

You can never run out. There’s a wellspring of creativity inside you.

I’m not talking about Creation. That would be presumptuous. In my theology, only God creates. The best we can do is recombine elements of that primordial Creation in new ways. That’s not Creation—but it is creativity. Somehow, when we do this kind of work, we participate in God’s creative work. 

Yes, Distinguished Reader. I’m saying it’s a Divine Calling.

Ignore it at your peril.

Despite the time and effort required for the weekly blog post, I have completed and sold an epic novel, due to be published August 23. I have a middle-grades novel for which I’ll soon be seeking a publisher. And there are other projects in the works, which I’m not ready to talk about yet.

The more you dip out, the more comes in to take its place

You might think about trying it, too, Dear Reader. 

Just plunge in. You have but to stretch forth your hand.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Memorial Day, Observed

When I was a boy we called it Decoration Day. It was the day to decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers. 

It was on held on May 30. They ran a 500-mile auto race the same day at Indianapolis.

Congress decreed the official name was Memorial Day, and that starting in 1971 it would be observed on the last Monday in May. Because people already thought of May 30 as Memorial Day, calendars said “Memorial Day” on May 30 and “Memorial Day (Observed)” on the last Monday of the month.

This year the last Monday happens to be May 30. 

Let me tell you what I observed.

#

On May 29, one day before the general Memorial Day, we rededicated our statue of Colonel Hans Christian Heg, the Norwegian American hero who led the 15th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry in the Civil War. The larger-than-life statue had been toppled, dismembered, and thrown into a lake by rioters. Now, after two years, it is restored to its pedestal on the east approach to the state capitol.

Colonel Heg and some of his descendants.

Norwegians are happy and relieved. But not just Norwegians. Colonel Heg, who gave his life at Chickamauga, speaks to the aspirations of all nationalities—people who came here and without hesitation sacrificed their lives for their new homeland. Heg symbolizes the price of passage from an old life to a new one.

The ceremony was long—elaborate and drawn out to fit the mood of the occasion. The colonel was well and truly rededicated.

#

On Monday, May 30, hundreds of people gathered at Union Rest, the cemetery-within-a-cemetery where 240 Union soldiers from the Civil War lie buried. A band played a number of selections, mostly military marches, with éclat. Speeches were made, salutes were rendered. The mood was solemn but not oppressive. Sunshine filtered through giant oaks, and a nice breeze riffled through the grounds.

The people present, many of us old but some young, did not seem to be there to celebrate the unofficial start of summer, or to take advantage of a Memorial Day blowout sale. No, we seemed to be there to pay our respects to those who died for us. 

A female veteran played Taps on a period bugle, with a nice tone and elegiac phrasing.

#

After the ceremony, my wife and I were among those who hiked a hundred yards or so to view the graves at Confederate Rest, the other soldiers’ cemetery enclosed within Forest Hill. Low stones there mark the graves of 140 Confederate soldiers, most of them members of the 1st Alabama regiment who died in Union custody as prisoners at, or en route to, confinement here at Camp Randall. 

Along with the 140 dead soldiers is buried Alice Waterman. She was a Southern woman who, having relocated to Madison, took it upon herself to spruce up the gravesites during a period of official neglect in the late nineteenth century. 

Great controversy arose recently over these graves. In January 2019, a stone cenotaph etched with their names was removed from the cemetery by the Madison Parks Department and transferred to storage at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.

Yesterday, no echo of that strife sounded, nor did a single eyelash bat at the Stars and Bars flag posted at the entrance to the graves, where a young woman in period dress chatted with visitors. 

This is the northernmost Confederate graveyard in the nation.

#

Memorial Day is not all about the Civil War, however. My friend Brian lost his son, a cavalry scout, to an improvised explosive device in Tikrit, Iraq, in 2006.

Brian has never gotten over it. Every Memorial Day is a fresh source of pain. Brian lives with it, but not quietly. Every year he explains patiently for those who may have forgotten, or who never knew: Memorial Day is not a happy day; nor is it a recognition for living veterans—we have our own day in November; nor yet a recognition for currently serving members of the military—they have their own day, too. 

Memorial Day is for remembering the fallen. Like Ryan.

Or like my two uncles, Stanley and Franklin. They died before I was born, one in the cockpit of a B-17 in the Southwest Pacific, the other in a B-26 over France.

Do I miss Stanley and Franklin? How could I miss them? I never even met them.

Yes, I miss them. Of course I miss them. The world misses them. 

And millions of others. 

#

It’s good we have one day each year when we are brought back in touch with these facts, forced to think about our losses.

However, nobody’s really forcing us, Dear Reader. 

This is the Land of the Free. It’s up to you.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

My Father

Lloyd Everett Sommers.

Born 26 April 1922 in Metamora, Illinois.

Died 20 December 2011 in Middleton, Wisconsin.

Requiescat in pace.

#

Last Tuesday would have been your hundredth birthday, Dad, though you did not live to see it. 

You were the fourth of five children. There was Edward first, then Mabel, then Stanley, you, and Franklin. When you were ten, your family moved to Knoxville, Illinois. With two thousand people, Knoxville was a metropolis. Dahinda, where you formerly lived, was just a bend in the road, a place where you and your brothers ran wild in the woods.

By the time you graduated from Knoxville High School in 1940, you had acquired a sweetheart, Barbara Bantz LaFollette, a classmate. 

But Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo had other plans for you.

The Lowering Front

Though America’s policies were isolationist, everybody knew war was coming. In September 1940 Congress passed the first-ever peacetime draft. Top generals wrestled with the mere logistics of swiftly building a large Army. National Guard units would play a key role.

In April 1941, you enlisted in the 33rd Division, Illinois National Guard—a unit that had already been called into federal service. You took part in a huge war game called the Louisiana Maneuvers, the Army’s way of testing and validating its rapidly growing force. 

On 7 December, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

War

Your regiment, the 132nd Infantry, was rushed to the East Coast, assigned to guard bridges and power plants against possible attack by saboteurs. Being at war with Japan meant the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy, who were thought to have sleeper agents in America.

Things were being done in a crashing hurry, thrown together on the fly. In mid-January 1942, you got new orders. The 132nd Infantry Regiment was removed from the 33rd Division and shipped to New York as a free-standing regiment. At the Brooklyn Army Terminal you boarded USS John Ericsson, a troopship. In pre-dawn darkness on 23 January, you and 17,000 new friends slipped out of the harbor on Ericsson and seven other ships.

The eight-ship flotilla was designated Task Force 6814. Its vessels hosted a collection of miscellaneous units, including the 132nd. It was imperative to get under way quickly. 

The Kungsholm

Your ship, the John Ericsson, had been the Swedish American Line’s flagship, MS Kungsholm, until 12 December. As she sailed out of New York harbor, shipfitters and carpenters were busy tearing out the Kungsholm’s luxury accommodations for 1428 passengers, replacing them with plywood bulkheads and tiers of pipe bunks to accommodate five thousand troops. 

Entrance to the Kungsholm’s luxury dining room–before the Army makeover.

Once under way—expecting to cross the Atlantic, your duffels stuffed with heavy coats and winter gear—the task force turned right and sailed southward instead. You steamed through the Panama Canal and took a zigzag course, to confuse the enemy, across the Pacific. Resources on board were strained. The water ration was reduced to one canteen a day. 

Task Force 6814 arrived in Melbourne on 26 February 1942. Disembarking the crowded, stinking ship, you encountered Aussie troops in turned-up hats, wheeling a squadron of horse-drawn buckboards into place to receive you and take you to your temporary camp. 

After a week of Australian hospitality you got back on the boat and sailed to New Caledonia, arriving at Noumea 12 March. The 250-mile long, cigar-shaped island, 800 miles east of Australia, was a French possession. Its loyalty was an open question: Would New Caledonia be governed by the Nazi puppets of Vichy, France, or by General DeGaulle’s government-in-exile operating from London? 

An Allied force on the island could decide the issue. Hence the rush to throw Task Force 6814 across the Pacific. It was hoped New Caledonia and nearby islands would prove a stumbling block to the Japanese march across the Southwest Pacific.

Once landed at Noumea, the units of Task Force 6814 were eformed into a division, called Americal (AMERIcans in New CALedonia), commanded by Major General Alexander M. Patch. After several months spent securing and defending the French island, the Americal was relieved by other units and started reorganizing itself to prepare for combat in the forward area.

Into the Fight

In October through December, the Americal landed on the contested island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. Its mission was to reinforce the Marine units which had invaded the island back in August. The 132nd was the last of three Americal infantry regiments to arrive on the island. It was  given the task of capturing Mount Austen, also known as Hill 27, a high point of land from which the Japanese could see and shell the U.S. landing strip at Henderson Field. 

This moment, in December 1942, may have been your greatest exposure to combat. We’ll never know, because you didn’t talk about it, except in very general terms. I know that you were a Signal Corps sergeant, part of regimental headquarters, and thus spent a lot of your time repairing and operating radios at headquarters. You admitted, however, having gone on some combat patrols, lugging a heavy backpack-mounted radio set. 

“I saw dead bodies,” you told me. “Some of them were guys I had known.” 

Bettys

The danger that seems to have stuck in your mind was when a Japanese “Betty” bomber, performing one of those solitary overflights collectively referred to as “Washing Machine Charlie” raids, buzzed your tent area near Henderson field and loosed a stick of bombs. 

He must have been flying low. “The nose gunner was so close I could have reached out and shaken his hand,” you said. You were all tangled up in sleeping bag and mosquito netting, trying to find your helmet. One of the bombs landed quite near, but it burrowed underground before detonating, so the explosive force was dissipated.

Further Operations

Mortar crew of 132nd Infantry on Bougainville.

After Guadalcanal was secured in late winter, the Americal was withdrawn and sent to Fiji for rest and refitting, arriving there in March 1943. You remembered Fiji as a wonderful place, full of great, friendly people. Possibly because they were not shooting at you. 

The division went back into action December 1943 at Bougainville, an island in the Northern Solomons. The Americal spent most of 1944 pushing back stubborn Japanese defenders on this large island. In September 1944, however, your time was up. You rotated back to the States. 

During your two and a half years in the Southwest Pacific, you had learned of the deaths of two brothers: Stanley, flying a B-17 in the Pacific, and Franklin, in a B-26 over France. “Other guys lost family members, too,” you said. “There was nobody to talk to about it. You just had to suck it up and keep going.”

Dad and Mom in January 1942

The first thing you did on returning home was marry your high school sweetheart, Barb LaFollette. Then you went off for about nine months in military hospitals getting fixed up. You were below 140 pounds on a five-foot-ten frame and had numerous health problems. 

We have all seen war movies with strong, hardy soldiers played by strapping, handsome actors. In truth, our forces in the islands of the Southwest Pacific were at the very end of a long, overtaxed supply chain. “The only thing we had plenty of was mutton,” you said. “The Aussies shipped us all we could eat. I will never eat mutton again in my life.” And you never did.

Life After War

Somewhat aimless before the war, you had acquired some sense of purpose. Upon discharge from the military hospitals, you enrolled in Knox College on the GI Bill. I was born in June 1945 and spent my first four years on campus. 

You graduated with a degree in chemistry. You became a high school chemistry teacher. A couple of years later, disillusioned with teaching, you got a job in industry, working as an analytical chemist for decent money. You and Mom had another child, my sister Cynda. 

We all participated fully in the roaring postwar economy. I remember the 1950s and early 1960s as an idyllic time. We had everything we needed, because you were providing it. 

I was especially blessed to be a Boy Scout. The camping, hiking, merit badges, and the companionship of other boys like myself added a lot of interest, meaning, and sweetness to my life. I became a Scout largely because you invested yourself in the movement. You were an adult Scout leader for probably twenty years or more, staying with it even after I was off to college and the U.S. Air Force. It met some need in your soul. You could become emotional talking about the influence of Scouting on your life when you were a boy in Dahinda and Knoxville. 

As I grew and became a smartass teenager, and then an independent young man with my own agendas, you and I sparred and sometimes wound up at loggerheads. But our relationship mellowed as we both got older. 

Like others in my generation, I was blessed to live in a family headed by a man who did his duty in a long and terrible war and then came home, turned on a dime, and adapted to decades of sober-sided family life in order to make a stable home for our generation. 

I’m not sure how you did this, but I will always be grateful. 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.

A Meditation

Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.

Sunday, August 22

Our church, like a lot of churches, has shrunk. So we sold our big meetinghouse and started holding services in a rented storefront. Our worship is now simpler, more informal. 

Our music director plays an electronic piano, not a multi-manual pipe organ. Today’s prelude was Fond D’Orgue by Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, 1632-1714. It must have been composed for organ, but now it was played on a single keyboard, boiled down to a simple melody.

As usual, my mind was on other things—mainly the progress of my historical novel, which I am now revising. I was thinking about changes I would make in Chapter 22, when Nivers’s tune broke through.

The simple fall of pure tones stopped me cold. In a startling moment, the tune became an attribute of the Divine.

It is more my style to cast God as a supporting player—essential, yet secondary—in my own grand maneuvers. 

What is God for, if not to support me?

Along came Nivers’s tune, a pure thing, existing in its own plane, its link to a long-dead Frenchman moot. 

My work—no matter how worthy, no matter how inspired—is a hardscrabble of striving and becoming, a smudged object of trade. 

But a tune, a color, a shape, a tree, a stream—is all being. Is God manifested.

God dwells at the heart of things, always in flux yet never changing. The facets of God’s transformation flash like signboards on country stations at night as we go barreling through on the fast express with rarely a glimmer of recognition. 

But the God of tunes and colors and leaves and fishes is always accessible. Is present to us in that sabbath state when we hear music and forget our customary concerns.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Salmonic Versus

Our trip has put me in mind of salmon. 

We did not travel to Alaska for the salmon, exactly. But once there, you cannot avoid salmon. They’re everywhere. 

Coho salmon. Bureau of Land Management photo. Public Domain.

Happy Salmon?

My Norwegian kin, I am told, have an expression: “A happy salmon.” En glad laks, in Norsk. It’s a label for someone cheerful by nature, a happy-go-lucky person. No worries, no cares. Smiling all the time.  

But, Kind Reader, consider the salmon. I mean the real salmon.

Salmon alevin with egg yolks. OpenCage photo, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Spawned in springtime, in the shallows of a cold mountain stream, it (he or she, take your pick) hatches from a round pink egg into an alevin—a tiny swimming fish with the yolk sac still attached to its belly. Consuming its yolk over the course of a few months, it becomes a small fish or fry. Only then does it emerge from the gravelly shallows into the main part of its natal stream. 

Depending on its species—chinook (king), coho (silver), chum, sockeye, or pink—the salmon fry either heads seaward immediately or hangs out in a freshwater lake for a year or more. In either case, it then develops into a smolt—a small, silvery fish with scales—and drifts downstream to an estuary, the tidal mouth of a river.

Salmon smolts. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo. Public Domain.

Hanging out in the estuary for a time, the smolt gains weight and—crucially—changes its metabolism, adjusting to life as a salt-water fish. When ready, the salmon moves into the ocean, where it will spend—again, depending on species—from eighteen months to eight years.

Life at Sea

Once a salmon becomes a denizen of the salt sea, how does it spend this time? It swims around, eats, and grows larger. It may swim more than two thousand miles, gobbling plankton, insects, small crustaceans, and fish, and gaining body length and weight. Unless, of course, it is eaten first.

Salmon in the ocean may be prey to seals, sharks or other large fish, orca whales, or the all-purpose predator, humans. 

Purse seiner off the coast of Kodiak Island. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User:NancyHeise. Public Domain.

Ocean salmon may be taken on hook-and-line by commercial trollers, in larger quantities in gill nets, or in even larger purse seines—depending on the species targeted and the size of the boat and its equipment. They end up as high-quality salmon steaks or filets, brined gravlax or smoked lox, ground salmon in a can, even salmon-based pet foods. 

Salmon Patties, Anyone?

When I was a boy (more than sixty-five years ago), Mom often served us patties of ground salmon, fried in her cast-iron skillet. They were cheap and nutritious, and I grew to despise them. Greasy and gamey-tasting. Not for me, thanks.

Salmon patty sandwich, photo by jeffreyw. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Since then, I have grown fond of lox with bagels and cream cheese, and I also like a nicely-done salmon filet. Context is everything.

But I digress. Back to the sea:

Those salmon who slip through the nets of man and beast eventually gravitate to the coast and, by a divinely-ordained process no scientist has fully explained, make their way back up the very stream then came out of and swim right up to the very shallows where they were born. 

Born to Spawn

Brown bear dines on salmon at Katmai National Park, Brooks Falls, Alaska. Photo by Brian W. Schaller, licensed under Free Art License.

Naturally, they must evade human predation. The rivers and creeks are full of anglers, fishing for recreation or to feed their families. Also, in parts of Alaska and Canada, the streams hold cunningly designed Native American salmon wheels, which skim off a regular portion of the fish swimming upstream to spawn. 

In this upstream, fresh-water journey is concentrated the whole point and purpose of their lives: Spawning. The procreation of their species. It is the Olympics they have trained for all their lives in creek, lake, river, and sea. And the competition is fierce. The journey is fraught with peril.

Besides humans, those streams are full of bears—brown and black. You’ve seen them on the wild Alaska shows, gleefully scooping salmon out of churning rapids and devouring them on the spot. Eagles and ospreys also take salmon, lifting them whole out of rivers, lakes, and ocean.

If the salmon successfully evade all predators, they still must swim miles upstream to find their spawning beds. This usually means braving powerful rapids and fish ladders. 

A Salmonic Odyssey

In Ketchikan, our dauntless daughter, Katie, led us through a steady downpour on a journey tracking the salmon upstream. We followed Ketchikan Creek from the trendy shops that sit on pilings over its lower end up to the Creek Street footbridge. Under the bridge, salmon leap up into the rushing falls under the bridge. Their leaps are strenuous, athletic, and mostly doomed to failure. The fish falls short and is swept back downstream, only to try again. They spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to pass these falls, and many never make it. 

To help them, people have built a fish ladder as an alternate route over the falls. The ladder, like the falls, is steeply inclined and filled with water rushing rapidly downstream. But little walls, baffles I guess you’d call them, line the sides of the metal chute, giving fish a chance to work their way up from one resting point to the next. Even so, it’s almost as great a challenge as the falls themselves. 

Those salmon who cross the falls, whether by means of the salmon ladder or by simply leaping up the falls, enter a quiet stretch of the creek, which winds for several hundred yards and flows through Ketchikan’s City Park. In that stretch of water, the creek is very shallow, with a gravelly bed. This is the spawning-ground.

Prurient Interest

The dark shapes at center are salmon spawning. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Standing in our waterproof ponchos under a soaking rain, we watched as female salmon—whose backs and dorsal fins protruded a bit from the water—wiggled their tails to scoop shallow depressions in the streambed. These depressions are called redds. There the females would release their clutches of round, pink eggs, while their male paramours released milt (fish semen) over them. After more wiggling to cover the fertilized eggs with fresh gravel, the female would move upstream to repeat the process. 

Scattered salmon roe in Ketchikan Creek. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

We could not see every aspect of this process, viewing it side-on under a stippling rain, but we saw the wiggles. Often we saw the back of what must have been a rampant male surging downstream—whether to frighten off rival males, or out of sheer exuberance of the rut, I could not say. 

But it was impressive, especially in that it was performed by the rare survivors of such a harrowing lifelong journey.

Ecce Salmo, piscis invictus!

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

North to Alaska

“Mormor, Bapa! Come on, there’s a lot of cool stuff at the top of the hill.”

Tristan, age nine, leaps and bounces in the trampoline-like mat of vegetation.

“You run back up there and learn all about it,” I say. “Mormor”—his grandmother—“and I will stay and rest a bit in the tundra.” 

“Okay, Bapa—if you’re sure.” And he leaps back up the hill.

Me enjoying comfy tundra. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

#

Alaska has a way of wearing a man down. 

The first time we visited, in 2010, at age 65, there was enough bounce in my bones and enough tingle in my tendons to hike with a group up the mountain that overlooks the Mendenhall Glacier, near Juneau. We scrambled over exposed roots, clambered through corridors of rain-slicked rocks. It was a tiring, yet exhilarating, trek.

This trip, at age 76, Your New Favorite Writer—still an enthusiast—strategically avails himself of frequent rest opportunities. 

Elsie, Katie, and Tristan at top of impossibly high tundra hill, enjoying Sidney’s lecture. Jo Sommers photo, used by permission.

Our time on the tundra in the middle of Denali National Park is precious. The softness, the springiness, the sink-in-ability of that blanket of tangled vegetation covering the deep permafrost challenges the hiker to walk without falling down and taxes one’s pulmonary system—especially going uphill. 

On the other hand, should you happen to fall down, you couldn’t pick a better place to do it. You almost can’t get hurt falling into the soft tundra. 

It’s an even better place to sit and rest, watching the mountains and listening to the enthusiasm of younger hikers as Sidney, our mountain guide—the young lady who carries the bear spray—points out wild blueberries and other flora just up the hill, telling which ones humans can eat, which ones the bears like, and so forth.

It’s a fine, warm day. Denali, the mountain, was out a few minutes ago and we got to see its peak before it was re-cloaked by its very own weather system. 

Denali seen behind Wonder Lake. Denali National Park and Preserve photo by Albert Herring. Public Domain.

#

We have come here because we like Alaska; but even more, we want share it with our daughter, Katie, and our grandchildren, Elsie and Tristan. This resembles nothing they have experienced and nothing else they will ever experience—possibly not even in long future lives. 

Panning for gold. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

For a time, we have lured them from their telephone screens into the powerful beauty of the real world.

Later today we will pan for gold in Moose Creek. Lucky Tristan will find a flake in his pan and have it laminated on a piece of black paper. A speck of gold to carry with him forever after. Or until he loses it, which is likely. But the important thing is, he will find it in his pan and will always remember that. 

Elsie, age twelve, will find one too but lose it on the way to have it laminated. That will be all right, though, because she will find prizes of her own in the wilderness, including sightings of bears and moose and the chance to befriend a young adventurer, Rhys, traveling with his own family.

Katie and Mormor will not try panning for gold. They will opt for a horticulture hike instead, another rewarding adventure.

Old Bapa—Your New Favorite Writer—will stand in the creek swishing gravel around his pan, to no avail . . . but will bring home gold anyway.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

What About the Pilgrims?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passion. Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash.

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

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

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

#

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

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

First, another mild digression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

Here are the bare facts, as widely acknowledged:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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.

#

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

Memorial Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s all.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)