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."

Friday, July 25, 2014

Zombies and Indians

I have two rituals when I am writing the kind of academic essays that require a greater level of concentration than I am usually willing to give to the duties of my life.  You can read into the latter part of that sentence all that you want regarding my attitude toward family and work.  Let’s focus on the first half of the sentence.  I really like writing academic essays of some length, say, 20 pages or more, based upon primary and secondary sources and all that.  I mean, I just like reading books, thinking about them, attempting to synthesize the material into something I think makes sense.   Writing is the best way that I know of to force oneself to think about a subject deeper than the level of truisms and received knowledge.  And I just like the challenge.
Which Way Did We Go?
            On the July 23rd, I completed the last paper for the class I have been taking as part of my commitment for the sabbatical.   The class concerned “The Enlightenment.”  I thought the readings in the class were a somewhat surprising, and probably we did not read as much as we should have.  But generally the class was fine, and did cover this vast subject with a broad stroke:  No Kant, Hume, Locke, Voltaire, but the Russian Dashkova, the French Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the British Jane Austen, The Americans Tom Paine and Lewis and Clark.  Writing assignments included an essay on each book, and then a larger essay related to one or more of the readings.  Since I had previously read Rousseau in the other class I completed while the Caravan rolled around the nation, I thought I would write my major paper for this class about him.  I am fascinated by Rousseau, I think because I dislike and disagree with him, while probably at the same time recognizing that much of my view of life and the world grows from his influence. 
More or less at the last moment, I decided to recognize that the itinerary of the Caravan and the syllabus of the class supported each other.  There we were reading Lewis and Clark’s Journals as we made our way east from Astoria, Oregon, into Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas.  After writing a shortish essay on discipline and reason during the expedition, I just said, “Hell, let’s stick with Lewis and Clark.”
Fort Clatsop, near Astoria, Oregon
            This reasonable acceptance of reality also, incidentally, forced me, almost demanded, that I purchase a few more books in National Park gift shops and cute local bookshops like Vargo’s Jazz City and Books in Bozeman, Montana.   It took me a week of general reading, then a few days of fairly concentrated writing.  The writing interfered with my touring Fort Lincoln, the Custer House, and the earth lodges at On-a-Slant Village, there at the state park outside Mandan, North Dakota where we bivouacked last week.  Because of length, I broke the essay into three blogs:  here, here, and here.
            So my routines.  The first is that I have to wear a bandana when I write.  It’s a must with serious writing.  Am I wearing one now?  No.  This blog resembles journal entries more that serious writing.  Here, as you know, I let my mind wonder.  Here, I am experimenting with ideas and their connections, not asserting that I have found some kind of truth.  Closer to my Confessions, maybe?  With wondering, there is no need for some cloth accoutrement to prevent brain wattage from leaking.   
            The second ritual is to obsess over some small stupidity that has nothing to do with the essay that I am writing.  During a previous sabbatical, ten years ago, when I returned to Texas A and M to complete the classes toward a Ph.D., each evening between12:00 and 1:00 I would play solitaire on the computer, Vegas rules.  Many nights I went to bed owing a thousand dollars only to awaken debt free.  This week, I have been watching The Walking Dead on Netflix.  On a trip such as this, when television and wifi connections are sporadic at best, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are welcome technologies, and you take advantage of them when you can.  My routine for a few days at Lincoln State Park was to sit myself down in the coffee shop of the Commissary during the day and write.  I would use their internet to double check facts and to locate scholarly articles in JSTOR and other services and download them.  Later, I read those articles and other sources, then planned for the next day, organized notes, marked up texts, and other such pre-writing activities.  Then at 10:00 at night, once the sun had gone down here in the North Country, Captain Crunch and I would hop in the truck and drive up to the Commissary again.  The Commissary closed at 5:00, so we parked in a no-parking zone, a few yards from the building, connected to the internet, with our respective devices.  I watched The Walking Dead while he indulged in Mindcraft videos produced by a family acquaintance, a kid a couple years older than the Captain.
Fort Mandan, near Bismarck, North Dakota
            If you haven’t watched The Walking Dead and think at some point you might want to, here is the Spoiler Alert Warning.  Join us again at the beginning of the next paragraph.  I am going to discuss a scene from the second season, beginning now.    If you have seen the show, you will remember that as we follow our group of survivors, they find temporary relief from running from Zombies while staying at Hershel Greene’s idyllic farm—that is until they discover that Hershel is keeping Zombies in the barn.  Hershel is a good Christian man who believes, essentially, that the Zombies are still living beings and merely have a disease that will prove curable at some future time.  Shane, the testosterone driven bundle of freaked out emotions, eventually breaks open the barn door and slowly the Zombies, which include members of Hershel’s family, emerge from darkness to light, from dormant mumbling to murderous hunger.  Many of the members of our group stand in front of the barn and, as each Zombie exits, blasts it in the head.  It is a massacre, a dozen or more Zombies fall to ground.  It is also great television.  The audience is both horrified and compelled to watch.  Hershel collapses in grief.  Rick, the troubled leader, stands helpless as his authority is challenged.  The youngster Carl peeks through his mother’s arms, as he yearns for warrior status.  Our moral conscience, Dale, mourns his friends’ dissent into chaos and cold-blooded murder.  In the context of the show, having witnessed unnumbered Zombie attacks and mourned the loss of favored characters, we understand the impetus, the urge, to rid the earth of Zombies.  Still this act makes some of us uneasy.  The scene has one additional surprise, but in case you haven’t watched the program and are reading this anyway, I will save you one shocker.
            So the gist is that in The Walking Dead, good, ole Americans kill perfectly sincere Zombies, just living out their Zombie lives (or death, depending on your values).  And there are several characters, who from the very first episode, help us feel a little kinship and sympathy for the walking dead.  All well and good.  “It’s a tv show,” you will say and slap my forehead as if I forgot something important.
            However, we English teacher types know that these media productions just aren’t simple entertainment.   Entertainments grow from our cultural pleasures and pains, our hopes and our fears.  It has been that way since the Popol Voh, Genesis, and Gilgamesh, and the Bhagavad Gita.   I have not studied up on Zombies and their supposed importance to the popular imagination, but The Walking Dead and World War Z give us a pretty clear idea.  As a culture, we are afraid of contagions that will off us all in a quick pandemic.  Influenza, Ebola, Hantavirus, Rabies, Small Pox, E. Coli, STDs of various kinds, Tuburculosis, and more seem to be awaiting on every doorknob and in the spray of every uncovered sneeze.  Today, we feel that “Other People” are dangerous and capable of making us sick as dogs.  Only by arming ourselves with masks and latex gloves and by slathering sanitizing lotions can we survive. 
            Simple enough, we feel vulnerable, and we express that vulnerability in our art forms.  We deal with our fear by telling stories that scare us.  We humans are complicated creatures, but we aren’t that complicated.  The only question is how frightened will we become and how far will be go to protect ourselves.  Will we all retreat into our own protective bubble?  The Boy in the Bubble as a symbol for Everyman?  Will all of us pure, clean people quarantine ourselves?  Will all of us vulnerable people kill every metaphorical bee, or ban every metonymic peanut from public life? 
            So these are the thoughts I entertain myself with at night, as I think about Lewis and Clark and their journey across the western half of the U.S.  Some days, I read and write, and some days I visit historical sites, and some nights I watch The Walking Dead, and it all starts to jumble around in the head.
            For instance, in a biography of William Clark by Landon Y. Jones—William Clark and the Shaping of the American West—I read about a couple of massacres.   In 1791, in the Ohio Territory, American General Arthur S. Clair and his troops—“615 regulars, 1,675 levies, and 470 militiamen—march through Ohio building roads and forts.  Then on November 4, Little Turtle of the Miamis and Blue Jacket of the Shawnees organize their 1000 warriors and attack.  One soldier reported hearing a sound, “not terrible, as has been represented, but more resembling an infinitude of horse-bells suddenly opening to you than any other sound I could compare it to.”  Jones writes that accounts of the battle differ according to witnesses, but they all agree “on two points:  the battle lasted about three hours, and it was a scene of indescribable horror.”  About 630 of the 1400 men under arms were killed, scalped, sometimes dismembered.  “The mouths of the dead were filled with dirt, mocking the American’s land-hunger.”
Sacagawea Monument
Near Mobridge, South Dakota
            And Landon Jones tells another story, that of American militia commander, David Williamson.  In 1792, he found a group of Native Americans of the Delaware tribe, who had been converted to Christianity.  Without many questions, he ordered them to Fort Pitt “for their protection.”  But when he discovered that they used tea kettles and tea cups and such utensils, he ordered them into two houses.  He and his men, all good Americans systematically murdered 42 men, 20 women, and 34 children.
            I was researching and found both of these stories. Some day soon after that, the Caravan rolled through western Montana and spent a couple of days exploring the bloodied land around Little Big Horn, where Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull showed the Seventh Calvary a thing or two.   The Caravan moved on, and we drove through the Badlands in South Dakota, visiting the Wounded Knee Massacre Museum.  At the Battle of the Little Big Horn, 268 soldiers dead and 55 wounded.   At Wounded Knee, over 150 men, women, and children were killed, and 51 wounded.  Some estimates go higher. 
            Then, all of a sudden, I began to look at The Walking Dead in a different way.  A 1831 quotation from Tocqueville began to haunt me:  "In the midst of this American society, so well policed, so sententious, so charitable, a cold selfishness and complete insensibility prevails when it is a question of the natives of the country," he writes.  Voicing the American attitude, he continues, “This world here belongs to us, they tell themselves every day: the Indian race is destined for final destruction which one cannot prevent and which is not desirable to delay.  Heaven has not made them to become civilized; it is necessary that they die.”  Where have I seen this sentiment before?  In The Walking Dead, this stupid television show?
Sitting Bull
at Sitting Bull Grave Site
            The Walking Dead, then, is just another retelling of the Cowboy/Calvary and Indian tales that I grew up with.  Kill or be killed.  Us versus Them.  The only good Indian is a dead Indian.  And so this is where things get even more dicey.  What is all this fear and hated and violence about? Please notice I am not proclaiming anyone innocent here, because I am not buying the Us versus Them narrative.  Everybody is guilty somehow.  I don't think I am being PC.  What I am interested in is this narrative that we repeat over and over to ourselves:  There is a group of people who will infect me, turn me into one of them.  This narrative is saying, therefore, that who I am is fragile.  It is a phobic narrative.  Remember John Wayne in The Searchers.  He was going to kill the young white woman who was kidnapped by the Indians, because she had lived with them, and who knows? 
            For White America, the antagonists of this narrative seem to shift through the years.  At one time, it was Native Americans.  At another time, it was African Americans.  Recently, hasn’t it been Hispanic Americans?  Straight America fears and retaliates against Gay Americans.  I think of the misogynist films, literature, and music of the sixties and seventies, when Male America feared Female America.  We can’t let women make us soft, now can we, men?
            Of course, this fear of being infected, of being changed, isn’t just our narrative.  We see it in the Balkans, in Russia, in Israel, among the Sunnis and Shiites.  I see it on MSNBC as well as on Fox News.
Native American Memorial
The Battle of the Little Bighorn

            What is this fragility that we all feel so deeply in our souls that we have to murder, or merely demean, anyone who makes us feel it?  Why aren’t we immune?  I realize I am simplifying the conflict.  I know there are histories.  And I know there just are some Sons of Bitches that you just have to stop with a bullet, if necessary.  I know that I am writing from a position of privilege--I am, after all, a white middle class, educated male.  Life has been relatively easy for me.  I have the luxury of traveling the US for a year and thinking these thoughts, by god.  But I also suspect that someday we will have to tell ourselves new stories besides the ones in which we are potential victims, stories in which we are the good and the living, and those other people are the evil and the dead.  If we don’t, I fear we will all be the dead.
           As I continue to watch The Walking Dead, now that the academic essay has been turned in (I don't think it is completed, just abandoned for a while), I have another realization.  As I observe our little band of heroes, scraping a life together, back on the road, mobil, nomad; and as I observe the Zombies who just keep coming, more and more of them, more and more of them, in larger and hungrier groups, I realize I have something wrong.  We good Americans, in the audience watching this story unfold, should not identify with the band of heroes, running, frightened.  No, we are the Zombies.  We are the never ending hordes claiming territory from the nomadic clan.  In America: The Movie, Dinesh D'Souza says that more Native Americans died of diseases carried by the "settlers" than by warfare.   Maybe in The Walking Dead, we don't have a narrative to calm our fears.  We have a narrative to assuage our guilt.  Please, we don't want to be Zombies any longer.  We don't want to die with our mouths full of dirt.

Soundtrack.  The Guess Who:  "Share the Land."
The Guess Who:  "American Woman"  14 minutes of it!
[Yes, I know, this is a Canadian band, but . . . .]


Caught in the Currents, Parts 7-8

[This is the third installment of an academic paper I wrote for a class.  You can see that I got tired and just tried to wrap things up at this point.  Maybe some day I will return to the essay to finish it up properly.]

Parts 1-3 are here.
Parts 4-6 are here.

VII.               William Clark and Indian Removal
The tragic life of Meriwether Lewis following his return to St. Louis is well documented and deeply felt.  Most scholars agree that he committed suicide in a wayside tavern along the Natchez Trace.   It was October 11, 1809, only three years after the expedition ended.  By all evidence, he had completed very little work, if any, preparing his and Clark’s journals for publication.  Jefferson, his sponsor, was then out of office; Lewis appeared to be hounded by debts, and he was drinking to excess.
William Clark’s life followed a different pattern.  He remained in the armed services, fought in the War of 1812, was named Governor of the Missouri Territory in 1813, and when Missouri became a state in 1820, he was named Superintendent of Indian Affairs, a position he held until his death in 1838.  By the time he had died, the United States was composed of 24 states.  Every territory east of the Mississippi River, except for Florida and Wisconsin had been admitted into the Union.  People continued to move west.
One of Clark’s duties was to help supervise the removal of Native Americans from the states east of the Mississippi and relocate them west of the Mississippi.  Among them were the Five Civilized Tribes who were being removed to Oklahoma.  “[T]he first stage alone of the Choctaw removal would uproot five thousand people—and because gold had been discovered on Cherokee land in 1829” (Jones 304).  With tribes also being removed from the Northwest Territories of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, the situation in the west was going worse.  One agent wrote, “[T]he Osages appear to be a very unhappy people, and I think it is altogether attributable to the emigration of so many Red People to the West.  The game is entirely destroyed and they see that they must now cultivated the soil for a subsistence” (Jones 305-6).
At this point, there was no stopping the western migration of Americans looking for land, work, and commerce.  It is estimated that between 1846 and 1869 over 400,000 individuals migrated on the Oregon Trail. 

VIII.             Conclusion
The goal of this essay has been demonstrate that while the Lewis and Clark Expedition was in many ways an amazing accomplishment for its time and place, it was also part of a pattern.   I believe that one can argue that it was simply one of many events that opened the western half of the North American continent to people of European and American origins.  While there was some acclaim at its inception and completion, as time progressed, other explorations, other commercial ventures, and public policies captured the public’s attention. 
One example is that it was not until a hundred years following the expedition that a reliable version of the journals was published.  “With only 1417 copies known to have been disseminated, it was a relatively rare book and had to suffice as the only source of information” (Silliman xiii).  Wide-scale acknowledgement of Lewis and Clark’s Expedition did not begin until the centennial of the journey, with the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, and the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland.  The recent bi-centennial has expanded our knowledge and admiration of Lewis and Clark.  Many sites now available for history buffs to visit have been opened only recently.  The site of Fort Clatsop was not identified until 1899, with another fifty years passing before a replica of the fort was built.  The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation was not created until 1991. Pompey’s Pillar did not become a Historical Landmark until 1995.   It was not until 2002 that archeologists established the real location of Traveler’s Rest, at Traveler’s Rest State Park in Montana.
It is inspiring for some to read Stephen Ambrose’s stirring prose and his assertion that the most important act that Jefferson committed was the purchase of the Louisiana Purchase and its exploration by the Lewis and Clark Expedition.   I find it interesting to note that in two recent histories of Western Humanities that Lewis and Clark do not receive mention.  Both Jacob Bronowski’s The Western Intellectual Tradition and Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence devote considerable space to Thomas Jefferson.  However, like Jefferson himself, who for his gravestone listed his greatest accomplishments as “Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia,”   Bronowski and Barzun place his importance elsewhere. 
I am not attempting to diminish the accomplishments and skills of the men and woman in the Corps of Discovery.  I am attempting to see it in context, not as a unique exceptional act.  Some say the art of leadership is recognizing where people are going and to get in front.  In a very real way, this was Jefferson’s, Lewis’s, and Clark’s genius.  They participated in a widespread migration that eventually led to the Pacific Transcontinental Railroad, the Massacre at Wounded Knee, and the final removal of the Sioux to reservations.  Today, Thomas Jefferson stares down from Mount Rushmore on land that once belonged to the Sioux, and Crazy Horse glares back.  Sometimes our desire to write and interpret history creates a “reality” different from the historical reality.

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