Sunday, August 31, 2014

Poetry, Song, and Stone

The Grave of Irving Berlin
We are on an American adventure, and sometimes I turn to American songs for advice.  I am a codger, so I sometimes choose Rick Nelson.  One of the recurring themes of the Caravan of Wonder is “You can’t please everyone.”  On November 13, our last day parked in Jersey City, we followed the corollary to that rule:  “You’ve got to please yourself.”  So Knightsmama and I separated:  She and Dr. J went back into the city and used the remaining tickets of the “City Bundle” that we had purchased thinking it was a good deal.  I guess it was, if I had had the energy or time or focused energy or one extra day.  They went to The Guggenheim and The Natural History Museum.  I would have loved both, especially The Natural History Museum.  At one point in my life, I thought natural history and natural history writing was going to be my academic field.  In 1985, I applied to graduate schools in American Studies stating that I wanted to write a dissertation about John Burroughs.  No nibbles.  Alternative lives:  I wonder what my life would have been if I had been accepted somewhere.  We all have those moments of “could have been” and “might have been." 
Because I went my own way that day in November, I also missed the John Lennon “Imagine” memorial in Central Park.   Knightsmama and Dr. J. did not visit it, either.  But if I had gone to the city that day, I would have stood beside it, watched the pilgrims, joined the pilgrims, wondered with the pilgrims about what might have been if John had not been shot, and prayed with the pilgrims that John’s vision, our vision, of a world nurturing us all in peace and mutual love could someday blossom. 
William Carlos Williams Gravestone
            But that cold November day, I had other pilgrimages to make that required driving the Big Ass Truck, and Captain Crunch preferred a day in the front seat reading to a day walking through museums.  First stops were the grave and the house of William Carlos Williams in Patterson and Rutherford, New Jersey.  I experienced another of my lessons in trust your luck.  When we drove into the cemetery, I saw “Williams” on a ordinary tombstone, but dismissed it because I expected to see first names on the backside.  Eventually, I found the office for the cemetery and a nice lady gave me a map with her red circle identifying the correct location.  Ah, it was the gravestone I had seen earlier.  There beside his wife Flossie, he rested, one of the few poets to change the direction of American writing, the great grandfather of every contemporary free verse poet.  One might say all that free verse goes back to Whitman.  And it does.  But look at the line and stanza structure of most poets writing in free verse today.  I think there are more poems with the short lines and brief stanzas of Williams than the long lines and expansive stanzas of Whitman.  I mean, really, I am just guessing, making this up, but that is my hunch. 
            Everybody who takes a college lit class knows Williams’ poems that begin “This is just to say” and “So much depends upon.”   As the saying goes that higher education teaches one to know more and more about less and less, I often joke with a class that I can lecture an hour about these tiny poems.  However, I will spare you that joy.  But let me say that one of the qualities of Williams’ poems that I appreciate is that they are simple and direct, and in this way they are quintessential American poems.  Although literary history is complicated and fed by many streams, one quality that I appreciate in Williams’ work is its sincerity.  He is not sarcastic or stand-offish.  Nor is he awestruck and breathless.  He is not profound.  He sees something and he tells you about it.  It’s raining, there’s a chicken and a wheelbarrow.  Nothing could be simpler.  Maybe he adds a touch of irony, but I don’t think he puts much stock in it.  Of course, nothing really depends upon the chicken and rain and wheelbarrow.  But this morning, yes, it feels like everything does. 
William Carlos Williams' House and Office
            After taking a few photographs of the graves, the Captain and I ventured the short distance over to Rutherford, where I hopped out of the truck for a quick snap of what I assume to be Williams’ house. There it was on a little rise, right at the edge of the center of town, walking distance to everything.  On these occasions I try to be fast because the house is not an official tourist attraction.  People live there, and I am sure they are both proud and tired of the fact that they live in the home of a famous poet (well, as famous as poets get—which, mostly, is with other poets). 
            Next stop, Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  For me, one of the great treats for this portion of the day was driving over The George Washington Bridge.  I need to do a little research to see if it was during this time that Christie’s team had deliberately mismanaged the traffic, but we made it over fairly easily.  Since I don’t remember much about this drive, I am assuming Seri got me there easily.  I do know that I entered at the exact opposite end from the main office, because I had a long drive through the cemetery to find the office.  Woodlawn Cemetery is one of those gigantic cemeteries that has become the last home to many rich and famous as well as ordinary citizens.  Although I am a distracted father, I am not a cruel one, so I tried to keep my pilgrimages to a minimum and focused.   The first stop, and the main reason we were there, was Herman Melville.  Like Williams’, Melville’s memorial is traditional and non-descript among the other stones.  I had some difficulty finding it, since his name is carved in small letters near the base and almost covered with ivy.  But there he is, with his blank page unfurling, actual and stone leaves climbing heavenward.  I was not the only recent visitor, as several small stones had been placed upon the top of the gravestone.  When I returned to the car, I could have begun expounding upon Melville’s courage and wisdom, his sense of adventure, his heartbreak as a writer, his devotion to poetry, which most people don’t know about because of the giant shadow that Moby Dick casts, and his affection for his family, but I spared the Captain.  The time will come when he will know Ahab and Ishmael or Billy Budd or Bartleby, and he will look through the album of photos from this trip and maybe remember this day.
Herman Melville Gravestone
            More likely he will remember the pond we stopped beside so that he could play at its edges.  This night had been very cold, cold enough to freeze much of the surface of the pond.  Being a boy from Central Texas, he was inexperienced with frozen ponds and one of his greatest ambitions for this trip was to experience cold and ice, and, most important, snow.  So we allotted some time to picking up small rocks and skipping them across the ice.  Then we found a few fist size stones and threw them in a high parabola so they would come jetting down and break the surface of the ice, or, in some cases, bounce upon the thick ice, merely bruising the surface. 
Great fun, and another reminded about why we are on this adventure:  to take the boys to experiences they wouldn’t have at home. 
            Before we left Memorial Cemetery, there were a few more graves it pleased me to visit.  First on the list was Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  We had previoulys visited the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, New York, where the first American meeting for women’s rights occurred.  Now we completed the journey for Mrs. Stanton, at least.  Since Stanton was married to a wealthy lawyer and politician, this memorial is large and situated among other monuments to the rich and famous. 
Next, was a section of the cemetery that has become home to several jazz greats.  First, Duke Ellington has a substantial triangle were two roads converge, with a large tree dropping its leaves upon simple ground level markers.  Nearby is the large memorial to “Sir Miles Davis.”  You will just have to forgive me, because there is just too much to say about Ellington and Davis, two very different approaches to jazz.  Both giants, gods really.  Each deserves his own blog post contemplating his contribution to the greatest American art form, jazz.  I will return to them, but not today.
Max Roach Gravestone
There was another marker for Jackie McLean, another for Jean-Baptist Illinois Jacquet.  Lionel Hampton is nearby, but I missed his marker.  But it was the grave of Max Roach that gave me pause, that stopped my wandering up and around the hillside.  We all, I hope, have musicians that we discover on our own.  I don’t remember how I discovered Roach.  But I suppose it was listening to records by Miles Davis and noticing something unusual and special, some little thing on the drums, and then reading the liner notes.  Next would follow other albums, such as those by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Mingus, then albums that he fronted, like Jazz in ¾ Time or his Double Quartet. More liner notes or articles followed, and slowly I became a fan of the not famous guy in the rhythm section, but, of course, Max Roach did become famous, did become a jazz star in his own right.  And there I was, in Woodlawn without plan, improvising in my own way, standing beside his grave.  Finally, with time running out and with a little trouble, I eventually found the low, modest flat gravestone of Irving Berlin, conspicuous in its modesty besides several stately mausoleums.  Maybe Irving Berlin is the greatest American songwriter.  “White Christmas,”  “Easter Parade,”  “Heat Wave,” “Blue Skies,”  “God Bless America,”  “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Always,” and perhaps my favorite, “What’ll I Do?”   On another side of the cemetery, I stopped briefly at the mausoleum of George M. Cohan. 

            I had hoped to end the day with a quick stop at Yankee Stadium, but by the time we got there the traffic had gotten heavy.  I was trying to be both navigator and driver, with marginal success at both.  I found the stadium and drove around it twice hoping to sight a few statues to stop by, wander around, think about the Glory of the Game, and take a few photos, as I had done in St. Louis and in Boston.  But no luck.  I hadn’t researched it enough to effect a precision strike.  So I let that one go, regrettably.   I did stop at a nearby elementary school park and let Captain Crunch loose for a few moments.  One of those city playgrounds with nary a sprig of grass.  Still, it seemed more appropriate to let him expend his energy in an urban playground than in a cemetery. 
Captain Crunch at Frozen Pond
We were entering late afternoon, in November in New York.  It was beginning to get colder, so after fifteen minutes I convinced the Captain to return to the truck.  We made our way back to The George Washington Bridge.  I punched around on the radio looking for a jazz station, without luck.  So I listened to “All Things Considered.  The Captain read his book.  And we drove south to Jersey City and back to the trailer.  After we had warmed up, and dark had descended completely, Knightsmama and Dr. J. returned.  Tomorrow, we would be heading to Pennsylvania.  If a few days, we would be visiting Gettysburg, of which Melville had written:

Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer

Have laid the stone, and every bone


Shall rest in honor there.   


Soundtrack.  Max Roach:  "Third Eye."
Frank Sinatra:  "What'll I Do."   

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fourth Quarterly Report Self-Interview August 25, 2014

Q:  What ho, Dude!  Wait up.
A:  Hi, what?  What?
Q:  I have been trying to catch up with you.  You are a hard man to find.
A:  Huh.  Don’t know what you mean.  I’ve just been living my life.  Day to day, moving forward.
Q:  Well, let me grab you for a few minutes and get some updates.  You remember every three months you and I have talked about the previous months and how thing have been going on the trip.
A:  Ah. The trip.  That’s right.  I remember.  What is it you want to know?
The 47 States
 Q:  Well, I guess, first, it’s been over a year now since your sabbatical started.  Is the trip over?
A:  That’s rather difficult to determine.  I mean, I am in Austin.  We arrived August 6th. I am back at work at Austin Community College doing the same job I was doing before.  However, the family is living in a trailer park off a highway near the airport.  We won’t be able to return to our house for another week or two, as our renters have until the end of the month of vacate and move on themselves. 
Q:  What are you thinking about that?
A:  You know, it’s all beginning to get a little old.  I often say that I can survive anything, for a while.  People have it way worse than I do.  I mean, there are dozens of folks in this trailer park who are living here full time with no plans to leave.  But here we are in Austin, and it is hotter than the blazes.  I am back at work.  Captain has started school.  We have to get him there by 7:45 in the morning. Dr. J. begins his classes tomorrow.   So we are all coming and going in the daytime and all piled in together in the Caravan at night.  It’s crowded.  The air conditioner is struggling.  We are all hunkered down doing our duties, rather than exploring and having fun.
Q:  Doesn’t sound like fun.
A:  It’s not.  But you know, it won’t last.  Soon we will be back in the house.  We will have our routines, and it will be like nothing ever happened.  Happily ever after.  American amnesia, and all that.
Q:  You don’t really mean that, do you?
Mural in Ashland, Wisconsin
A:  Sort of yes, sort of no.  Already, when I go back and read a blog post from last October or something I will have twinges of anxiety because of things I have already forgotten.  That made me start thinking of the various blog posts that I never got around to writing.  I have been  thinking about the United Flight 93 Memorial and the Johnstown Flood Museum.  I wonder when I try to write about that day, or our visit to Harper’s Ferry and Antietam, will I remember the details clearly enough?   I worry about that.
Q:  Well to help you along a little.  Let’s do some reviewing.  We last talked when you were in Los Angeles, back on May 11.  What have you been up to?
A:  Wow, that’s a big one.  This final quarter, from May to beginning of August, has been very eventful.  The first thing I should say is that this part of the trip had a totally different feel.  It’s a world in which your feeling and conception of self is totally dominated by the landscape.  I mean if I just listed the national parks, one gets the idea:  Sequoia, Yosemite, Muir Woods, Crater Lake, Olympia, Ranier, Glacier, Yellowstone, The Badlands.  This is nature writ large.  Such a different feel from the East or South.
Q:  Is that all you did?  Visit national parks?
A Perfect Day on the North Fork
of Flathead River
A:  No.  But besides Los Angeles and San Francisco, both of which we gave about a week—like we did Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.—we stayed in or near smaller towns.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  We also visited Portland, Oregon, and Kansas City, Missouri.   But mostly, Knightmama and I discovered—or rather rediscovered—our appreciation of towns in the 20-60 thousand citizen range.  Maybe a little smaller, maybe a little bigger.  Knightsmama emphasizes on the word “scale.”  I think we have both become a little wary and weary of larger cities and all their troubles.  Some towns we really liked were Corvalis and Astoria, Oregon.  Port Angeles, Washington.  Bozeman and Missoula and Livingston, Montana.  Ashland, Wisconsin.  Put me near a river or a lake in a town that has one or two of everything, coffee shop, bookstore, natural grocer, bakery, brewery, usually a college nearby, and I think I would be happy.  Knightsmama would add mountains to the list. 
Q:  Tell me about your favorite days. 
A:  Again that is really a difficult questions.  One was riding our bikes along the beach from Hermosoa Beach to Santa Monica, watching the boys exercise on Venice Beach.  Another is a day in San Francisco in which we toured Alcatraz then walked over to China Town and caught the Beat Museum and City Lights along the way.  The visit to the Sequoias.  A home barbecue of salmon and scallops in the campground near Astoria.  Tasting whiskey in Montana.  Watching Dr. J. at a car museum in Montana.  The Buffalo in Yellowstone.  The evening program at Mount Rushmore.  Meeting up with an old friend in Wisconsin and another in Kansas City.  Playing baseball at the Field of Dreams in Iowa. 
Q:  Sounds wonderful.
A:  It is.  The Caravan of Wonder.
Q:  People sometimes wonder about expenses.  Have you had any unexpected events to rattle the pocket book.
Kansas City Jazz Museum and
Negro Baseball League Museum
A:  The happy answer is no.  I hadn’t thought about it.  But you know we did have some major problems with The Big Ass Truck back in Williams, Arizona, and with the Caravan back in Needles, California.  But for the past three months, things have been pretty steady.  On the last day of the trip, when I drove the boys down to Austin so that we could get the Captain in school the next day, somehow the closet that Knightsmama and I share really got banged up, plus several drawers busted loose.  Interstate 35 is a rough one for some reason.  But I have already repaired the closet, and this weekend I will tackle the drawers.
Q:  In looking at the blog posts, I notice a bunch of academic type writing.  Do you want to talk about that?
A:  Not really.  Or not much.  Part of my proposal for my sabbatical dealt with my taking some classes so that I will be able to teach a course in the Humanities.  I used to teach that class, but about a decade ago the regional agency that certifies the college’s accreditation forced the college to change the qualifications of those who teach Humanities.  As I look to my last years of teaching, I have been thinking that I would like to teach this course again with some focus on technology and the great books.  So while on the trip I had to take a few courses, and while they distracted me and prevented me from joining the family on several adventures while I stayed in the trailer and read and wrote, they also provided an interesting background to the trip.  In the spring, I got to read Adam Smith and Max Weber, and in summer, I read Tom Paine and Lewis and Clark’s journals
Q:  Lewis and Clark?  That must have been interesting.
A:  Very much so.  In fact, Lewis and Clark provided a major organizing theme to our last six weeks.  We traveled from Astoria, Oregon, where Lewis and Clark’s expedition camped before returning east.  In Montana:  Missoula, Traveler’s Rest, Livingston.  In North Dakota: Fort Mandan, Sacagawea monuments.  And, of course, one of our early visits was St. Louis and the Museum of Western Expansion.  I had also visited Clark’s grave when I was in St. Louis. 
Q:  What else?
A Road Side Stop in Eastern Washington State
A:  I have to say, I was also very moved by the battles between the 7th Calvary and the Sioux.  The sight of the Battle of the Little Bighorn is frightening.  The museum for the Battle of Wounded Knee is sobering.  There is nothing else to say but that this is a terrible stain upon our nation’s history.  You go there, and then you end up at Mount Rushmore in the mountains once allocated to the Sioux and then taken back, and you just sit with this strange soup of mixed feelings of pride and shame. 
Q:  Sounds like you have some conflicts and, shall we say, unresolved issues. 
A:  Yes, of course.  I wonder how one cannot have these issues.  I think it is pretty clear historically that the American government, the American military, and some American citizens repeatedly lied and cheated, made and broke agreements with Native Americans throughout our history.  It is true that settlers just kept pouring over the Appalachians and later the Mississippi River.  There was no stopping them.   It is also true that the Native Americans fought back and killed settlers and soldiers.  At this point in my life I am a little hesitant to romantically divest myself of my Anglo Heritage and play Indian, as we hippie types did in the 60s.  I don’t want to appropriate a culture that I doesn’t belong to me.  On the other hand, I just can’t wave the flag and proclaim the innocence of Mom and Apple Pie.   I think where I end up, and I am somewhat uncomfortable in this position, is just sitting back and accepting that human history is violent and cruel.  There is nothing really to do but accept it and move on.  We have winners and losers.
Q:  That’s cold.
A:  I suppose it is.  I sort of feel like Henry Kissinger.   Real Politics.  Populations move around.  Huge forces are at work.  You can’t stop them; you just try to manage them.  I think of my hometown, Austin.  Personally, I don’t like the changes that are occurring here.  Too many people are moving in.  The culture is changing from Texas Sixties Laid Back to California Hipster Go Getter.  Sure, back in the eighties there were folks who wanted to make money and began urging Austin out of its slumber.  We protested and voted.  But, you know, there was no stopping it.  It is not about morality or The Good.  It’s about money, capital, security, The Good Life, The Pursuit of Happiness.
Q:  Go on.
Salem Sue
A:  One of the interesting movements in America that Knightsmama and I became aware of during the past year was the life and death and occasional rebirth of American cities.  The poster child for the death of an American city is Detroit, which is a huge and devastating tragedy.  Driving in the town really is as sad as the news reports intimate.  Beautiful buildings abandoned.  Vast open spaces where family homes once stood.  An even more dramatic example is Cairo, Illinois.  You just weep as you drive through the town.  But then, there are towns like Ashland, Wisconsin, which once was vibrant with industry, but fell upon hard times as economies shifted.  Now, however, there are a few citizens determined to remake the town.  Knightsmama met a man who is buying and restoring a beautiful old school building and the old train station.  Plus, a couple of artists have been commemorating the town’s history with a series of amazing murals all around town.  In addition, other folks have taken over old buildings down town and established a bakery, a coffee shop, a couple of natural grocery stores, a brewery, and a couple of interesting restaurants.  Houses are still affordable.   The same is true of several towns we visited, such as Astoria, Oregon; Livingston, Montana; Knoxville, Tennessee, on a slightly larger scale; and even Portsmouth, Ohio, where the son of my former office mate at Texas A&M is the force behind the revitalization. 
Q:  Anything else?
Harry Truman in Independence
A:  Water.  The western part of this nation is in a terrible drought.  We know Texas is.  But throughout the west.  Lake Powell, Lake Mead, even Crater Lake are losing water every year.  It is astounding to see the lines on the sides of these lakes marking where water once rose to.  California’s fruit basket is just drying up, like the Central Texas and the coast, where rice farming has ended.  Companies are buying up the rights to ground and underground water.  If the drought doesn’t end, water is going to be rare and expensive. 
Q:  Well, do we end on that happy note?

A:  No.  I’m sorry. But following the trip, Knightsmama and I talk about moving.  She has many reasons to, but I have one major one.  Heat and Drought.  If something pulls me away from my college and the city that I have lived in since 1971, it will be water.   But let me end with gratitude.  I am very grateful I have had the experience I have had.  I am very grateful for the people who kept up with our travels through this blog and through Facebook.  The readers were so kind and encouraging.  I end the adventure really liking the people of the United States.  I love our history, all its glory and pain.  I love the art and literature of the nation.  I love the landscape from Bar Harbor to Port Angeles to Los Angeles to Asheville.  And I love my family.  They were perfect traveling companions.  Bars, beaches, baseball, bikes, museums, monuments, cemeteries, and natural wonders.  It was quite a year!

Soundtrack.  The Doors:  "The End."

Machine Gun Kelly:  "End of the Road."  

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Residual of Grace

We always knew that July, the last month of our year on the road, was going to be difficult.  This difficulty was created by two factors.  First, everything evolved from Corvalis, Oregon, on June 14.  Exactly, that date and those around it.  After a great deal of dedication, which included taking classes in the early months of this trip, Knightsmama was being graduated from Oregon State University.  Go Beavers!  The second factor, as every pioneer discovered, is that this beautiful country contains a great deal of geography. It is a long way from the Northwest to Texas. 
The Grave of Sitting Bull 
In previous blogs I have mentioned bits of this portion of the journey.  But here it is in a quick list:    Corvalis to Portland to Astoria to Port Angeles and Victoria B.C. down to Mount Ranier over to Montana (maybe my favorite state:  Glacier, Missoula, Bozeman and Livingston, and Little Big Horn), Yellowstone, the Black Hills and Badlands, north to Mobridge, then Mandan, North Dakota.  Finally, we took one long stride through Minnesota to Lake Superior and Ashland, Wisconsin.  If the names don’t ring a bell, there was a great deal of magnificent and startling natural scenery, a boat load of Lewis and Clark history, some American rah rah, and a great deal of Native American grief.   
From there, we had a little more than a week to head south:  Grand Rapids for three nights, Nebraska for 45 minutes, Kansas City and Independence, Missouri, for three nights, Kansas for 15 minutes, Eureka Springs for one night, Will’s Point, Texas, for one night, where I dropped Knightsmama off to tend to her dad, The Buckeroo, and Austin, yesterday. Three days ago, we learned that Captain Crunch had been accepted into a charter school and needed to report pronto.  I got him there today, a day late, all suited up in appropriate clothes, a minor miracle in its own right. 
I suppose you could say that yesterday, August 6, 2014, is the day The Caravan of Wonder ended, one year and two days after it began when we drove the trailer south to Houston to the funeral of my friend, Neal Adams.  Today Captain Crunch began school; Dr. J. drove to Round Rock to see a friend; and I drifted up to work—even though I don’t have to report for duty for another week or so.  Still there is a great deal to digest, and I assume there will be several more blog posts for a few months or so while I catch up on topics deferred.
The National Mustard Museum
I will ease into one today.  The itinerary for July 29th was Madison, Wisconsin, to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  After a lovely morning at the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, we crossed over the border between Wisconsin and Iowa.  I had persuaded Knightsmama to allow me one little sentimental indulgence.  I wanted to stop by a farm outside Dyersville, Iowa.  It is on the road map as a tourist destination:  the family farm where the baseball/cornfield scenes for the movie The Field of Dreams were filmed.  Getting there is a process that drives a pilot like me a little nutty.  The four-lane highway becomes a two-laner, which with each new turn becomes more narrow and more bumpy, until finally one is driving on a dusty uneven road between huge fields of tall corn.  In our case, I am looking over at Knightsmama, and Knightsmama is glaring back at me, sending me the wife-vibe that says essentially, “This was your idea and if you get us in trouble, you will get us out without any complaining or histrionics, you get me!”
Luckily, just as I was about to whimper in fear, a happy, formal sign shows up and we turn left on to well-maintained gravel road, and there, behold, is the house, the stands, the field, and the corn bordering the outfield.  What is more, there is place to park the monster.  We land safe and sound. Might I add that this is Iowa in late July:  the corn is tall and green and sturdy.  The baseball field, too, is beautifully manicured, no weeds in the infield, a perfect smooth arc where infield dirt and outfield grass meet.   I suppose the field is smaller than regulation, but larger than a softball field.  I mean I made the throw from third base to first somewhat accurately.  I don’t think I could do that on a pro-size field, but still there was plenty of elbow room between third and short and between second and first.
One of Many Displays of
the Many Varieties

When we arrived, several families were roaming the infield.  Some folks were hanging out near the corn break in left field, one guy in an old style uniform.  But by the time Captain Crunch and Dr. J. had grabbed our bag of gloves, balls, and bats and lugged it behind the backstop, these families had scattered and roamed over to the souvenir shed.  I collected some balls, put on my glove, and trudged to a place between the mound and home plate.  Captain Crunch assumed his stance.  Dr. J. wandered over near first base.  Game on.  The Captain knocked a few solid ones to my right at the non-existent short stop.  He looped a couple toward Dr. J. He smashed a couple of liners right at me.  By then Dr. J. was itching for some swings.  At sixteen, he is bigger and stronger than the Captain, but we haven’t purchased a baseball bat since he was in coach pitch and decided baseball was not his sport.  So there he was at six foot five inches swinging a bat made for a ten-year old, but it didn’t take long for him to get the timing and the stride and began popping them pretty solidly. 
If you have been reading this blog all along, you may remember that baseball was almost one of the themes of the trip.  In the second week, I caught a Cardinals-Pirates game in St. Louis.  I spent a good part of one day at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  We shot some photos at Fenway. The boys and I enjoyed a great day playing catch on the beach in Montauk.   The Captain and I drove around Yankee Stadium one cold November day.  My plans to see games in Florida spring training were dashed when we got called to Texas in January. However, in the spring, our schedules just got too crowded for games in Los Angeles and San Francisco.  By that time, Dr. J. was calling me “Oath Breaker” because one day I said I would play catch, but did not.  I was surprised, but quite thankful that he agreed to join us on “The Field of Dreams.”   The boy can hold a grudge.
You Know You Have Made It
True to the “Build it, and they will come” ethos, as the boys and I continued to bat the ball around, more families showed up and began taking positions on the field.  In one of the most beautiful moments of the day, the man who was wearing the old ball uniform, White Sox, of course,  moseyed from the outfield and offered to pitch to everyone.  One man, who was even bigger in the gut than I am took third base, as I settled in  short left field.  In little league and adult softball, I played second base  or the outfield, though I did make the Temple Little League All  Star Team one year I played third (oh, how we grasp to our past glories!).  The other man’s son took short.  That boy was about a year older than the Captain and had that look of a kid who ate and drank baseball.  He was very good fielder and a sharp hitter.  Should I admit, though, that when he hit and I took over duties at short, I greatly enjoyed firing the ball in time to Dr. J. at first to put him out? Tacky, I know.  But he was fast.
I suppose we hung out playing ball for an hour and a half or so.  The boys got to bat a couple more times.  Somebody had brought a wooden bat, and when it came time for this sixty-one year old fat, gimpy, man, to try his turn, I did well.  I smacked the ball into the outfield several times.  Granted the pitcher was firing at me with, say, 20-30 mile an hour “fast balls.”  But I can tell you that there are few things in this life more enjoyable than swinging a wooden bat, hearing that thwack, and seeing the ball shoot off in a line into the outfield for a good clean hit.  The legs, hips, arms, shoulders, and head all coordinated, doing their part.
Dr. J Plays First, The Dude Play Short.
The Captain Enjoys His Double
I have two people to thank for that pleasure.  Russell Young, back in Temple, Texas, selected me to join the little league teams he coached.  I think the story is than Mr. Young was a local player who almost made it into the majors.  We were young, the Captain’s age, but he taught us kids how to take the game seriously, and we learned the fundamentals, even things like hit and run and squeeze plays.   I never was a great hitter.  I was a decent singles and occasional double sort of guy.  And I had the ability to play the field well, but would make surprising errors if I got nervous.  I still have a tendency to flub up at an important moment, not all the time, rare enough to surprise, but often enough to feel familiar. 
The first person is, of course, my father.  He loved baseball more than any other sport.  He could quote statistics by the player and by the year. Back in Marion, Illinois, as kid in his early twenties in the heart of The Great Depression, he played semi-pro baseball in the summers,  the Marion Redbirds, the Woodsmen of the World.   My dad coached my first two years in little league, but I think because of his work schedule, the assistant coach was the more present adult.  Like me, he was a slightly older than average father to a son.  He was forty-two when I was born, so he would be 52 by the time I was really enjoying the game. As far as a remember, my father sat in the stands every game and cheered me.
As in the movie The Field of Dreams, playing catch was a ritual, one that faded as he got older, but I relished the times he and I would play catch.  During college, I could occasionally entice him into the back yard for few minutes of catch, usually on those days when many family members would gather at the house, and he broiled steaks on the grill.  I don’t remember the last time we wandered into the back yard and put on the gloves.  As parents fade into old age and frailty, and as we enlarge into our responsible adult lives, how do we know when “the last time” for anything is about to occur?
Time to Buy a Postcard

It is a strange thing to play catch with one’s gray, shrinking, tender father.  I remember one afternoon in Temple. Maybe it is a pastiche of many afternoons, but it’s my memory.   I am in my late-late-twenties, I suppose.  My dad is in his early-seventies.  It won’t be long until macular degeneration will make this afternoon impossible.  In the late-spring afternoon sun, he shines like a break in the clouds in his powder blue jump suit.  Jump suits, back then, were all the rage for retired men his age.  The steaks are cooking. Some kids are running around. Young Erich, Christian, Alice, my nieces and nephews. Maybe my step-brother Tom is standing on the patio smiling. Though a tough football player, he’ll toss the baseball around, also.  I am guessing the Atlanta Braves are playing on TBS.   I hand my father a glove.  We lob the ball gently at first, standing fairly close until our arms warm up, then step by step, throw by throw, we pull further apart, but connected even more strongly with the increasing velocity of the ball.  The little kids watch.  Have they seen their grandfather throw a baseball before?  Pop, the ball smacks in the pocket of one of our gloves.  A beautiful sound.
The thing I am looking for, and what I hope the nieces and nephews are seeing, is the residual of grace in my father’s movements.  The ball and right hand resting in the glove on the left hand, the rise of the two hands from waist, then separating as the right arm pulls back and extends behind the shoulder, the left arm unbending and laying itself out, pointing toward me, all coordinated with the gently rising fore knee and the step forward, then the pitching arm following the shoulder and unfurling the ball straight to me.  It is a beautiful move. Pop.  Youthful human bodies on a perfectly manicured baseball field in sunshine like that that shown in Eden before the fall.  One’s aging father in a backyard, loud with grandchildren, and the ghost, the spirit of a twenty-five year old, animating his otherwise thinning, uncertain muscles.  Pop.
We call it “muscle memory,” as if that explained anything. We could also call it “habit” or just plain know-how.  But when watching one’s father, who is a little creaky, a little slower, a little more uncertain in most of his daily activities, catch a ball, and then in one continuous flowing movement wind and unwind the ball right back to you—one time, two times, ten times—without a hitch, without a single falter, one discards the diagnostic language of kinesiology, and witnesses something more simple and primitive.  It is not the memory of youth; it is youth itself.  A happy spirit, the electricity of which is humming and sparking in every nerve of the body.  Joy has not died or abandoned us.  It lives right there in the tips of our fingers, ready once again to trace, unthinking, the stitches of a baseball, as we align it in our hands.  God, the way that ball just sits there comfortably in the gentle vise of the thumb and first two fingers! Pop. 

So I swear that half the time I was playing ball with my sons and a dozen strangers equally sentimental as I on this beautiful little baseball field in northern Iowa, I was tearing up.  For some reason, I am one of these guys with a deep well of grief and joy in equal measures.  My family knows they can’t take me to a movie where somebody dies or where somebody shows unasked for mercy.  So it is not surprising that I had my moments of weak knees and misty eyes on The Field of Dreams.  Now it might have been surprising to some that this fat sixty-one year old could still tag a line drive into the outfield, or that he could catch a pop-up or throw a straight one to first.  I was a little surprised.  But I should not have been.  Watching my sons play and remembering my father in the backyard should have taught me a lesson.  Youth and the grace of a body doing what it loves to do never leaves us.  Forever it waits for an opportunity, an expression, a spark.  And, ah, joy.   

Soundtrack.  Kenny Rogers:  "The Greatest."


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Traveling the West with Thomas Wolfe

            It’s wise to remain humble.   Occasionally, here at the end of the Caravan, I begin to think that Grant Waller has accomplished something special.  I think that we have done something rare and notable.  I have seen so much.  I don’t know if I could list all the things that I have witnessed, tasted, participated in during the past year.  Being a kind of on-again-off-again writer, I especially begin to puff up with pride when I recognize that I have maintained a regular output of wordage.   On average, I have posted at least one blog each week.  If things go right, I will pass the 200,000 word marker, over 600 pages of double-spaced Times Roman.  That is a big deal for me. 
The Last Writing by Thomas Wolfe
            But like I say, it pays to remain humble.  One of the books I have carried with me the last few months of The Caravan has been Thomas Wolfe’s A Western Journal.  I learned of this book when we were in North Carolina in December.  We visited his home in Asheville. I picked up Look Homeward, Angel at a Black Mountain bookstore, began reading, and since I am a slow reader, kept reading for next two months.  I finally incorporated the book into a paper I wrote for one of the classes I took for the sabbatical.  Along the way, reading this, reading that, I discovered that Wolfe had taken a car trip in the western states and had written about this trip in a journal, and that that journal had been published posthumously.  I kind of logged that information away thinking, most likely, I would not see the book until I returned to Austin and its great libraries at The University of Texas.
            During the afternoon of April 15, we wandered around the town of Moab, recovering from a jittery, jarring day of steering a rented jeep through the dirt roads, arches, and canyons of the Utah high desert.  There we found Back of Beyond Books, which houses a very interesting collection of new and used tomes, most of them with a natural, geographical, historical, and western focus.  As an off chance I asked the clerk if she knew if the store shelved a copy of Wolfe’s A Western Journal.  I think, like a dumb tourist, I had the title slightly confused, but she found it in her in inventory list, and walked me right to it.  Beautiful day! And this 1951 second printing was only $15.
            But I didn’t say why I think it pays to be humble.  This is it:  compared to Thomas Wolfe’s word factory, I am an inefficient hand tooled primitive.  In late spring, 1938, Wolfe mailed a one million, two-hundred thousand word manuscript to his publishers.  This is one million more words that I am hoping, dreaming, to achieve!  This manuscript eventually became two 700-page novels.    I am hoping for a skinny local press publication.   I am a sheltered yappy lapdog compared to Wolfe.
            For Wolfe, assembling his huge manuscript by that deadline had been a strain.  He needed a vacation.  He made his way out west where he had not traveled before.  In Portland, Oregon, he met two newspaper men who had the crazy idea of driving a new Ford through the West to various National Parks.  For some reason, Wolfe, like the Waller Grants, thought that kind of journey sounded fun, so he joined in. 
            The three men left Portland on June 20 and pulled into Seattle on July 2.   In these few days, they traveled to Mt. Hood, Crater Lake, Mt. Shasta, Yosemite, Sequoia, Mohave Desert, Grand Canyon (south and north sides) Zion, Bryce, Great Salt Lake, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Coulee, and Mt. Rainier.  Does this list sound familiar  Thomas Wolfe scrunched his six foot six inch body into the back seat of the Ford, looked out the window for a series of four and five hundred mile days, and scribbled into a 300 page 5 ½ by 8 5/8 inch notebook.  He titled his entries:  “A Daily Log of The Great Parks Trip.”  He begins:  “Left Portland, University Club 8:15, sharp—Fair day, bright sunlight, no cloud in sky—Went South by East through farmlands of upper Willamette and around base of Mount Hood which was glowing in brilliant sun.”  By 12:45, they arrived at “Bent”  (he meant “Bend”) and he notes “200 miles in 4½ hours.”
            It was 1938, and long distance car travel was not yet the norm, so the newspaper men were also promoters, boosters of a kind.  “Look how far we can go and how fast” seems to be their message.  As Wolfe jots in his journal after the first day’s accomplishment of 404 mile:  “The gigantic unconscious humor of the situation—C ‘making every national park’ without seeing any of them’—and so on and on tomorrow.” 
            For a while I sort of fantasized that I would write some kind of parallel text to Wolfe’s or reflect upon his impressions as I recorded my own.   The idea was a desperate one or, at least, misguided.  I was on my own adventure of a very different kind, in a different era, with different goals.  More important our “Great Parks Trip” unfolded with a vastly different itinerary.   This was our order beginning in Texas:  Guadalupe Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands,  Monument Valley, Grand Canyon (South rim), Zion, Bryce, Hoover Dam, Joshua Tree, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Yosemite, Muir Woods, Alcatraz, Mt. Shasta, Crater Lake, Mt. Olympia, Mt Rainer, Glacier, Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands.  Our timeline was April 3 to July 19.    
            We traveled less each day.  Visited more places.  Stayed in places longer.  And I don’t jot notes in the back seat of the truck or at the kitchen table at the end of the long day.  I do type notes into my Iphone about the beers I taste at brewpubs when I am sipping them.  After all, it is easier to remember Mount Rushmore than it is yet another amber ale.   I take snapshots, which jar my memory.  But if I ever express any verbal brilliance at first sight of something, it is fleeting and dissipates into the wispy past as we move forward.
Always Mount Shasta
            Reading Wolfe’s journal reminds me of some of my impressions.  On the second day, he records driving from Oregon to California.  They drive near Mount Shasta.  “pine lands, canyons, sweeps and rises, the naked crateric hills and the volcanic lava masses and then Mount Shasta omnipresent—Mount Shasta all the time—always Mt. Shasta.”  I just love that because that was our experience.  We didn’t take the time to drive to Mount Shasta either, but for such a long time, as we drove north (Wolfe was going south) Mount Shasta stood erect and majestic glaring down on us.  “Always Mt. Shasta.”  The same day, further south, Wolfe rolled through the long valley toward Sacramento:  “the vast fields thick with straw grass lighter than Swedes hair.”   I am pretty sure one wouldn’t write a line like that anymore.  But he caught the never-ending straw gold that falls west off the Sierra Nevada.
            Wolfe took his notes and you feel that he is working his way toward something, something expansive and large, something that reflects or duplicates the country side that he is seeing.  His evening and morning in lodge at Bryce Canyon are the jottings of a set piece:  “struck up talk with quaint old blondined wag name Florence who imitates bird calls and dark rather attractive woman, Canadian probably French, who sold curios and who had life in her—and was obviously willing to share it”; or teenagers who “wanted something that wasn’t there and didn’t know how to find it—and had some depression reflections on Americans in search of gaiety, and National Park Lodges, and Utah and frustration, etc”;  and “school-teachers—at table next—who glowered dourly at everyone and everything with stiff inflexible faces and H. says most of the tourists are women and many school teachers”; and the young workers “bragging exultantly ‘We got tears out of four of ‘em this morning.  Oh, I love to see them cry; it means business’—Then discussing hotel business again and the art of pleasing guests and squeezing tears from them.”
Falls at Yellowstone
            You can tell by these excerpts that Wolfe’s jotting takes on a kind of frantic broad scribble across the pages.  He fills each page with maybe only 50 words.   I suspect how he feels is how we have felt many, many times on this trip.  Quick, notice, this is different.  We haven’t seen this exactly before.  If you let it, the enthusiasm and the anxiety grabs you.  O, Great America, how will I ever be able to convey everything that you are.  Only surperlatives with do.  Whitman, come embody me.  In one place, I must call on the velvety sounds of Poe to limn you; in another, I need the stabbing edges of Robinson Jeffers. So much, so much, so much. 
            I try to keep it all in my mind all at the same time.  The sacred calm of a grove of Sequoias, the silent flat lines and round lines at Joshua, the frightful space pulling you down into the Grand Canyon, the uplifting space in Yosemite or Zion, the humorous carvings of Bryce, the red sculpted bone lines of Arches, the submerged anger, hidden fury of Yellowstone, the bleached moonscape of the Badlands, mirroring and mirrored waters of Crater Lake.  Each national park is singular.  Each is its note on the geographical scale.  Each harmonizes with a different part of our character. 
            Thomas Wolfe tagged along for a journey that duplicates, in the extremities, the quintessential family car trip vacation.  Keep it moving.  We travel to tick off some mental list of “things we must see.”  Seeing doesn’t take very long.  The equation develops:  hours of driving for minutes of viewing.   Most of what you see is framed in the windows of the automobile.  The Caravan of Wonder began with only lightly different goals.  Our scope was bigger:  the 48 contiguous states.  We had to keep moving, but because we gave ourselves a year, we could move at a slower pace.  Meaning, we could see slower.  Two days here; three days there.  Sit back relax a little.  Still, we could not shake the attitude of being tourists. 
            I don’t know what to do with that fact.  Do I admit it with some form of regret?  Or with some form of wise acceptance that there is no other way to travel when traveling isn’t the one and only thing one is doing.   Though it wasn’t his approach (it was his hosts’), Wolfe’s trip resembled “the vacation.”  I don’t believe that what I have been doing for almost a year now has been a vacation,  even though my beginning point and ending point are the same, and our journey had a set length of time based upon the demands/freedoms of my work life.  However, my goal was never to escape; my goal was always to dive in, immerse, encumber, enchain myself with the experience of America.  That, too, was Thomas Wolfe’s goal, but I don’t think was the goal of the two newspapermen.
            When Wolfe’s trip came to an end, the newspapermen dropped him off in Seattle.  He checked into his hotel, read some telegrams, got some cash from a bank, bought a meal at Rippes, and acquired a bottle of Scotch.  On Friday, June 31, he jotted some notes of over all impressions and focused on the road kill and “the black crows picking at some furry mangled little carcass on the hot road—rises and flaps slowing vauntingly away as the car approaches.”   In addition,  he remembers Montana and the hoboes atop the Northern Pacific in the "luminous American weather."  The hoboes “roll past across America silently regarding us—the pity, terror, strangeness, and magnificence of it all.”
At Glacier National Park
            That was 1938.  I know that I would not describe America today with that set of nouns, “pity, terror, strangeness, and magnificence.”  The landscapes we viewed were more of less the same.  What is different?  Am I that different from Thomas Wolfe?  Have the people and politics of America changed that much?   Maybe that is my assignment for the next few weeks as we end this journey.  What four or five words describe the America that I have seen in the past twelve months?   

            I have to point out here at the end of this post that the A Western Journal was the last thing that Thomas Wolfe wrote. A week later he developed pneumonia, then tuberculosis. There is a poignancy in this.  He was ready to strike out in new directions with his fiction.  He had had his two Eugene Gant novels.  He had just turned in the manuscripts for the two George Webber novels.  Maybe he was wishing to do something besides the semi-autobiographical work he had been writing.  He had always been wanting to tell the story of America, but his America was Eastern.  How would the notes in this journal transformed into a novel?   

Soundtrack.  Tangerine Dream:  "Mount Shasta."