Stuff of the moon Runs on the lapping sand Out to the longest shadows. Under the curving willows, And round the creep of the wave line, Fluxions of yellow and dusk on the waters Make a wide dreaming pansy of an old pond in the night.
—Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard,” 1916
Ever been in a brickyard? It’s a factory where bricks are made. Today there’s a computerized, robotic operation in Brampton, Ontario that makes 200 million bricks a year.
In Sandburg’s time, brickyards were smaller. They were numerous; they dotted the countryside.
There would be a large building where bricks were formed, kilns to bake them into hard pavers or building bricks, square stacks of finished product, and a tall smokestack or two, or three. By night, moonshadows might mold the place into a mystic realm of keeps and turrets, standing sentinel over the sleeping countryside—or else brutal, stolid hulks suggesting somber reckonings in the chill moonlight.
Charlie Sandburg knew all this. But he describes only a pond—the softest, most horizontal piece of the picture. Brickyards had ponds, formed where clay and shale were scooped from the earth. But the pond in this poem is a pond and nothing else—not an artifact of industry or a byproduct of production. It is a pool of water, swayed by breeze, by gravity, by the moon.
The “brickyard” in the title gives us a setting but makes no demands on the “wide dreaming pansy.” Sandburg was a romantic.
He was also one of the the great American poets, a singer of plain people and their lives, a successor to Walt Whitman.
Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in a three-room cottage at 313 East Third Street. He lived his first twenty years mostly in and about Galesburg. After brief service as a private in the Spanish-American War, he returned to Galesburg and he attended Lombard College. Besides glimpsing the life of the mind and acquiring a habit of poetry, Sandburg captained the Lombard basketball team in days when they stopped the game after every score to retrieve the ball from the peach basket.
Even after leaving Galesburg, Carl Sandburg remained a Midwesterner, a son of the prairie.
Galesburg had several brickyards. The greatest of these was the Purington Brick Company of East Galesburg. They made heavy bricks that paved the streets of Galesburg and other cities, even as far as Panama City, Panama.
As time went on, cities quit paving their streets with brick. The Purington brickyard ceased production in 1974. If you drove through East Galesburg today, you would be hard-pressed to discern there was ever a brick-making factory there. Above the surrounding woods you may glimpse a tall chimney, now crumbling. That’s about all.
I know this, Dear Reader, because I do get back to Galesburg once in a while. Like Sandburg, I am a native. My birth took place in Cottage Hospital on North Kellogg Street, in 1945. By that time, the 67-year-old Carl Sandburg—winner of Pulitzer Prizes in both poetry and history, a recognized national treasure—was relocating to Flat Rock, North Carolina, where he would dwell the last twenty-two years of his life and produce a third of his work.
Something of Galesburg made Sandburg who he was. Today, his birthplace is preserved as a sort of historic shrine. There is a small visitor center. You can visit the tiny cottage where the poet was born. You can see Remembrance Rock, under which lie the ashes of Sandburg and of Lillian Steichen Sandburg, his wife of fifty-nine years.
The place is worth a visit, if you’re ever in Galesburg.
But Sandburg is only one memory that clings to the skirts of this old prairie city.
Since March 11, we have lived in a hodgepodge of COVID precautions, COVID hysteria, COVID counter-reactions, and COVID exhaustion.
The coronavirus got upstaged, but did not go away, when the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis touched off a new round of racial justice riots.
Absorbed as we have been in feeding these sorrows into our national appetite for angst, we gave scant notice to a new light in the heavens.
The comet popped out of the void on March 27. Since then, it has waxed through almost four months of dawns. Now, in July, after sunset, it is on the wane.
Soon, it will return whence it came, leaving us . . . here.
Oh, C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, what tidings do you bring?
Last Monday I bought a pair of Nikon 8×30 binoculars. I wanted something my wife, daughter, grandchildren, and I could use in the future. Comets come and go, but birds are perennial. Still, it was the comet that spurred my purchase.
I wanted to see NEOWISE.
What if it was a harbinger?
Back in 1961, the Wilson-Hubbard Comet appeared for a few days in late July.
As I trekked through a cattail marsh to my sleeping cabin at Scout camp, its pale cone of light hung in the sky over my right shoulder. The haunting evanescence, seen by naked eye, has dwelt with me near sixty years.
Even longer ago than that, we lived in a small town in Illinois. We were many miles from Chicago, or even Peoria; light pollution was unknown. Every cloudless night, the black empyrean glinted with a billion gems.
You could—and I did—lie on the grass and stare at Orion, the Dippers, Cassiopeia, the Seven Sisters, and the teeming brilliance of the Milky Way.
One summer night I lay on the lawn for hours and saw with my own eyes—as if it had not already been taught in school—that our Earth rotates beneath not only the sun and the moon, but beneath the whole firmament. One by one the constellations sink beyond the west while others creep out from under the east.
Beyond that simple truth, I had no grasp of the thing. Intuition failed me as a natural philosopher.
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
In days of yore, the farmers, shepherds, and sailors kept company with the night sky. They looked up to fathom its meaning. They gave its regions fanciful names out of folklore and national myths.
They relied on heavenly bodies to guide their ways on Earth.
They saw that the stars hold fixed relations with one another, all but a recalcitrant few that wander as if by whimsy through the celestial field. These few they called “planets”—a name that means “wanderer.”
Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-170) worked out a math to map the planets’ paths. This was a feat.
The challenge was that the planets, as viewed from Earth, seem to halt and go backwards from time to time, apparently at irregular intervals. Unavoidably, Ptolemy’s geometry to account for this oddity was complicated.
In the Middle Ages, Ptolemy’s complex model of planetary motion coexisted with Aristotle’s simple construct of the sky as a sphere of crystal in which the stars were embedded. Aristotle’s notion addressed the changeless reaches of space, while Ptolemy’s pinned down the meanderings of the planets against that space.
Come the Renaissance: The sky, like all things else, got re-examined. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) wrote a book, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium—On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. He hesitated to publish his theory, so controversial was it. When, on his deathbed, he set loose his manuscript, it knocked over Ptolemy’s applecart, placing the sun at the center of the universe and making of Earth a mere planet—just like the tiny ones that blundered about the nocturnal sky, only closer.
The Copernican view—which took almost a century to become accepted science—required a new model for the motions of planets. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), a human calculating machine, figured the true orbits of the planets, which turned out to be elliptical, not circular as had always been assumed.
The permanent stars were fixed in crystal and the desultory planets ranged along an elliptical racetrack.
Comets were something else again.
Noble stargazer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) observed the Great Comet of 1577 and recorded thousands of position fixes as it passed by. The comet’s trajectory did not fit his system, nor Kepler’s, nor Copernicus’s, nor Ptolemy’s.
It turns out that comets are adventitious travelers from the far reaches of our solar system.
They arrive all of a sudden and make a big splash. Then they depart, leaving us none the wiser.
Still, they have been taken as portents.
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”
Mark Twain, 1909
On Wednesday, with my new binoculars, I drove west out of Madison. On a curve of County Highway F between Mount Horeb and Blue Mounds, parked cars lined the road. People sat on the roadside bank in lawn chairs, facing northwest, waiting for the show.
I tucked my Toyota into the parking lot of Brigham County Park and walked back down the hill to the curve where the comet-seekers sat. Without a lawn chair, I lowered myself heavily to the grassy slope and gazed northwest.
As the sunset faded, the stars came out. Once the sky darkened enough, it was easy to find the comet at some distance below the Big Dipper.
Looking for a reprise of Comet 1961 V (Wilson-Hubbard), I was disappointed. NEOWISE, even through binoculars, was only a vague streak rising from a pinpoint of light. Once my field glasses had found it, I could also see it without magnification, a mere smudge.
Muttering, I walked back to my car.
And as I trudged uphill to the parking lot, the whole panoply of Heaven arched above me—millions of stars, diamonds on a black velvet sky. It took my breath away. Or maybe it was the hill.
Reaching the parking lot at the top of the hill, I let my breath catch up with me as I scanned the whole sky. Jupiter gleamed above the southern horizon. The binoculars gave me two of its moons, standing off from the planet’s blue-white orb.
Dear Reader, we have imprisoned ourselves in city lights. Away from our industrial glow, the cosmos burns as it always did. But it’s over our heads; we must look up.
By what lights do we steer? The halogen vapor haze of shopping malls, or the shy twinkles of the universe?
Back home, I stood in my yard. To the northwest, beyond the man-made glow, hung the same comet we had seen in the country.
In the spring of 1965 I flunked out of Knox College. The timing of this was pretty spectacular, as there was a war on.
I lost my student deferment and went to the top of the Draft Board’s list for two years’ service in the Army or Marines. Instead I volunteered for a four-year hitch in the U.S. Air Force. They sent me to Monterey, California, to learn Chinese.
After learning Chinese, I spent a year on a Taiwan mountaintop, monitoring Chinese Communist radio communications; then spent about fifteen months flying out of Okinawa, grinding away at the Chinese Problem from recon aircraft over Southeast Asia.
I completed my service in September 1969 and came home to a land I barely recognized. Gone was the familiar America of Walt Whitman, singing its varied carols. In its place wallowed a society designed by, or for, Saul Alinsky and Howard Zinn.
The culture shock was starkened by my having gone immediately from military service to the University of Wisconsin campus at the height of its anti-war, revolutionary, zeal. The serious leftists in Madison, some of whom I got to know pretty well, were dedicated, if mostly amateur, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist agitators.
Turned loose by Uncle Sam, I sought now to redeem myself as a student. This time around, I promised myself, I would shun all-night poker parties and all-day Frisbee flinging. I would hit the books with righteous fervor. Admitted to the university on academic probation, I was determined to clear my name in one semester.
Meanwhile, the campus of 35,000 students seethed with anger, revolt, socialist machinations, and broken windows.
On the twelfth floor of Van Hise Hall, East Asian and South Asian language students gathered to read, translate, argue, and kibbitz. From a perch nudging the stratosphere we gazed down on ant-like protesters surging at straight lines of National Guardsmen and police. Puffs of white smoke plumed the ground here and there—signs that our homeward treks at day’s end would be tinged with tear gas.
One day a young man whose name I no longer recall complained about the police—whom he called “the pigs,” in the argot of the day.
“I wish you wouldn’t call them pigs,” I said.
He frowned. “Why not? That’s what they are.”
“No. Pigs are animals; police officers are people. They may not share your ideas, they may be ranged against you in a riot. But they are human beings. If you call them pigs you deny their humanity and make it convenient to disregard their human attributes. They may have a viewpoint of their own, but you will never bother to consider it, because they’re only pigs.”
For me, this was a long speech.
The young man gazed at me for a moment and said, “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of that. From now on I will not call police officers pigs.”
A transformative moment, in the midst of the Revolution? Fat chance.
If this young man was changed by my earnest entreaty, then he was the only one. I soon figured out that I was not made for political battles, or any other kind of battles. I gave up trying to engage intellectually with my friends on the left and shunned politics from that day to this.
The protesters of 1969-70 opposed the police not only in practice but in principle. Policemen enforced the law. Thus they were tools of the Establishment, defenders of the status quo. The enemy.
Kent State, Sterling Hall
On May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard members killed four students at Kent State University. Then on August 24, here in Madison, revolutionaries planted a huge bomb that demolished Sterling Hall, a large academic building, and killed a physics researcher.These grim events took steam out of the anti-war movement; but only in January 1973—when President Richard Nixon pulled the U.S. out of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government collapsed, and Ho Chi Minh’s communists took over the whole country—did that movement end.
Pre-Vietnam normality began to seep back into the United States. But the gaping wound in our national fabric did not heal. Fifty years later, we remain mired in distrust of one another, of our government, and of authority in general.
“Authority” can mean two different things. Let’s call them “intrinsic authority” and “conferred authority.”
Intrinsic authority speaks for itself. Jesus was said to have taught “as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” When you have a knee replaced, you may rely on the surgeon’s medical diploma; but your go/no-go decision might be based on your gut’s confidence in the surgeon, not on his formal qualifications. That’s intrinsic authority.
Conferred authority is legal, or legalistic. It is the authority of a city clerk to license a couple for marriage. It is the authority of a president to okay the launch of nuclear-tipped missiles.
When intrinsic authority and conferred authority coincide, one of the results is a high-trust society. Unfortunately, such coincidence is becoming a rare thing. We give little obedience to conferred authority because we discern no intrinsic authority within it. We jeer our leaders; we defy those to whom they delegate power, including the police.
Then and Now
The long-drawn-out war of our present day, being fought in Afghanistan since 2001, does not attract the intense interest that the one in Vietnam did fifty years ago. Fewer American troops are involved, none of them are draftees, and Southwest Asia seems even farther away now than Southeast Asia did then.
Today’s great controversy is not war but race—racism, racial discrimination, white privilege, and the oppression of blacks. But in one way our time does resemble the past: Police and policing stand at the center of the conflict.
I have not heard the term “pigs” applied to police in recent years—not even in the past two or three weeks. They are still regarded as humans, which is good. Recent events, however, paint them as racists—which may be worse than pigs.
Because of this, people keen on public order rush to point out that “most police” are dedicated, overworked public servants and should not be tarred with the brush of racism.
But people keen on social justice assert that racism is systemic in our society. They profess that “defunding” the police would be a good step toward redressing the balance. The general public views this concept with horror, so the would-be defunders belatedly explain they do not mean complete defunding but only partial defunding. This satisfies nobody, because some folks really do want to abolish the police, while everybody else thinks the police need more funding, not less.
In all this palaver, what gets lost is any mature reckoning of the unique position that police occupy in our society.
The late Chairman Mao got at least one thing right: Political power does grow from the barrel of a gun. That is true always and everywhere. In a free society, we place that gun in the hands of a police officer and expect that officer to exercise conferred authority within limits prescribed by law.
George Orwell said, “Those who ‘abjure’ violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.” Police are the people we hire to do violence on our behalf.
What I am getting at is that, while police officers are humans, they are humans of a special kind.
Most of us fall into the category of the Protected. Police officers are the Protectors.
My wife’s cousin was a police officer in a Chicago suburb. He said that within a few weeks of putting on his badge, he had learned to lump people into two categories: good folks and bad guys. And he made this distinction within seconds of entering a situation. Such swift decisions must have included a large reliance on intuition. Was he ever mistaken in his assessments? The conversation did not extend that far.
Those who have the “take-charge” kind of personality that leads them into law enforcement, and who need to survive in potentially hazardous situations, will most likely develop the same reliance on snap judgments that my wife’s cousin described.
So when we, the People, lay plans to send out social workers in place of cops, let’s get real. When we modify police training and rules of engagement, let’s remember that police will need to translate their instructions into action in fluid situations. We should not be surprised when they find their powers creatively enhanced by statutes that we had thought would curb their power.
Remember that we license the police to use violence—brutal acts labeled as “authorized use of force”—on our behalf. If we do not wish to confer this authority, perhaps we should completely defund the police; abolish the departments.
Then all of us, including those who “abjure” violence, would need to become the Protectors for ourselves and our families. Thirty-one states allow firearms to be carried openly. I suppose a general defunding of police departments would bring us back to the old Western ambience of Dodge City. Is that the outcome we seek?
What we face, in practical terms, is a need to improve the way we confer authority upon our police officers.
But the greater issue is seldon spoken of. It is simply this: Unless those who wield conferred authority combine it with intrinsic authority, our problems will continue, will intensify, and will multiply.
Intrinsic authority = character.
There is no substitute for character. Its short supply, in the police and in the whole population, is our real problem.