Monday, February 24, 2014

People Watching at the Dallas Museum of Art


[Note to Readers:  Something happened when I connected my photos to Google Photos and all my photos in the blogs were stripped out.  I will begin replacing as time allows.  If anyone understands why this happened and knows of an easy fix, I would love to hear from you.]

How have I failed, Thee, Dear Reader, Fellow Traveler?  Let me count the ways.  Well, let me count just one, here, right now.  One of the great pleasures I have had on this journey across our United States is visiting art museums.  Yet I have not written about those visits.  I did include a brief discussion of Diego Rivera’s Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Art.  But of other museums, silence.   Strange.  I don’t know why that is.  But I will make up for it here, and perhaps periodically I will venture back in memory to recall a painting or artist.
Lunch in Dallas
Oh, heck, let me count another failure, while I am at it, this one being related.  I have missed visiting several museums that were on my original must-see list.  The one I am most sorrowful for is the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.  Two others are the Hopper house in Nyack and the Brandywine Wyeth Museum near Philadelphia.  The most important failure, I believe, is the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Not only did I hope to see Thomas Eakins’ “The Gross Clinic” there, but I wanted the Captain to film me running up the stairs and hopping triumphantly like Rocky.  While in Cleveland, Knightsmama and the boys had the opportunity to take in Albert Pinkham Ryder’s “The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse),” while I relived my life at the Rock and Roll Museum.  Same in New York City, Knightsmama and Dr. J. made it to the Guggenheim, while Captain Crunch and I tracked down the bones of William Carlos Williams and Herman Melville.  Too much, too much, always too much to do.
Klyde Warren Park, Dallas, Texas
What museums have we visited?  In this order:  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas; City Sculpture Park in St. Louis; The Detroit Institute of Art;  The Portland (Maine) Museum of Art; The Peabody Essex in Salem, Massachusetts; Boston Museum of Art; Storm King Art Center; The Museum of Modern Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and The Guggenheim in New York; and The National Gallery in Washington, D. C.  In addition, we have enjoyed murals in Padukah, Kentucky, and Portsmouth, Ohio.  And, of course, we have pondered many instances of public art and architecture across the entire eastern half of the US.
When I write it out like this, it doesn’t seem like much.  Geez, what have we been doing with our time?  And the answer to that is a whole series of other similar lists of things we have done:  historical sites, monuments, graves, writer’s houses, presidential museums and houses, popular road side attractions, sporting events, so on and so forth. And I have to admit that although visiting museums is an activity that Knightsmama and I greatly enjoy, the boys have grown a bit weary.
"Miss Dorothy Quincey Roosevelt"
           by John Alexander White
A couple of weeks ago, after fretting over the stasis, and accompanying anxiety, brought on by our unexpected lock down outside Will’s Point, Texas, I began venturing away from Hundred Acre Woods.  Two weeks ago, I headed to DeKalb, Clarkville, and Paris, for a couple of self-induced memory days, thinking about Rick Nelson, Dan Blocker, and writers John E. Williams, William Humphrey, and William A. Owens.  Last week, we reloaded the Caravan, headed to Austin for Valentine’s Day Weekend, and the opportunity to see if we remembered how to move the monster down the road.  We did.  And this week, since we were hosting a visitor, a girl and a friend of Dr. J’s from Austin, a young lady who says she enjoys learning about culture and such good things, I grabbed the opportunity to sneak a visit the Dallas Museum of Art.  If nothing else, Dr. J. could complain to her, and not to me, as he wandered among the masterpieces.
Since time, the accompanying complaining by two boys, and the cost of keeping them distracted in cafes and gift shops are always factors, I have devised a method for tackling museums.  First, I head to the wing or rooms featuring American art.  Learning about my native land and culture is, after all, the theme and purpose of this grand adventure.  One accomplished, I can wander out, usually to contemporary and modern art; then, I back down the chronological ladder in Europe.   The boys have a different method.  They first explore arms and weaponry, if the museum includes any. Detroit Institute of Art is amazing in this category.  Dr. J. won’t admit it, but he is getting a sense of what moves him; like many beginning art lover, he finds himself among the Monet and Van Gogh.  We had a very nice, brief talk among the Cezannes at the Met. If the museum has an interactive component, the captain is occupied for an hour or more.  Knightsmama, who has different cultural objectives than I, often heads to either to the European classics or to special exhibits featuring non-American and non-European cultures.  Ask her sometime about Yin Yu Tang, the Chinese ancestral home, now located in Salem, Massachusetts at the Peabody Essex, or about her reaction to the exhibit of women photographers from Iran and the Arab World at the Boston Museum of Art.
"Sharecropper" by Jerry Bywaters
On the afternoon of February 20, the boys and I retrieved The Girlfriend from the bus station and headed directly over to the DMA.  There we discovered, first, The Klyde Warren Park, which is one of those lovely little surprises designed and organized by folks who remember what civic life is supposed to be about.  The park is a mere five acres plopped on top of the Woodhall Rogers Freeway as it dips, more or less underground, for a few blocks.  On top, grass, trees, open space for kids of all ages to run and cavort, concerts, movies, book clubs meetings, a playscape for young ones, and food trucks.  It is winter, so the grass is still brittle and trees still bare, but the food trucks were lined up on this beauty hint-of-spring day.  So we indulged in suchi, dumplings, hot dogs, and snow cones for the kids, and a spicy pork Bahn Mi for the older gentleman.  For me, it wasn’t quite as much fun as Greeley Square Park in New York City, but I recommend a visit to Klyde Warren Park.
Next we moseyed across the street to the DMA.  The staff there is so helpful I damned near bolted out of the place.  Please, just let me walk in and get myself oriented!  At least, however, I didn’t feel lost and ignored.  Yet I should be grateful.  Remembering our entrances into MoMA or The Met, where it all seemed as busy, complicated, and dangerous as entering an airport terminal these days, the transition into DMA was easy.  Quickly, the kids and I made our plans:  they headed to European classics, and I took off toward American.
"The Prodigal Son" by Thomas Hart Benton
Compared to the museums in other major cities, such as Detroit’s and Boston’s, the Dallas museum seems a bit tiny or thin.  But then they had just taken down a major exhibit of Hopper’s works.  Shoot!  And I think a hall devoted to contemporary works was being remodeled.  Admittedly, I did not see it all.  Still I greatly enjoyed what I did see.  Because I was alone and because I was not worrying over the boys—they had The Girlfriend with them keeping their thoughts occupied—I found a couple locations where I simply sat and looked.  I relished the silence, the relief from active impatient children and eager jostling crowds.  I just sat and looked.
At one point, my heart jumped as I found six or eight paintings from the thirties regionalist moment, including Thomas Hart Benton’s “The Prodigal.” I recognized the heart break.  After all, I have been living in the Texas country side for the past six weeks, with its desolate wood frame houses, crumbling mobile homes, and yards decorated with junker trucks and assorted rusted machinery.  But mostly, I feel in it the currency of the steady migration of our citizenry from country to city that has continued for almost one hundred years since the end of World War II.  There we all are, the success hunters, the intellectual yearners, the prodigals, desiring to return to our rural, familial roots, our Jeffersonian heritage, only to find it abandoned, decaying, desolate. It puts an entirely new meaning to the phrase “You Can’t Go Home Again,” from Thomas Wolfe’s book.  I think of Wolfe because I have been reading him since our excursion to Asheville.  You can’t go home again, Thomas Hart Benton tells us, because it’s gone.  We abandoned it.
"Emma in a Purple Dress"
            by George Bellows
At another point, I paused on a comfortable bench before George Bellows’  “Emma in a Purple Dress.”  Known for his muscular depictions of boxers in the ring, and for moody post-impressionistic cityscapes that hint at what his friend Edward Hopper would refocus and perfect, Bellows also painted portraits, including many of his wife Emma.  For me, this one painting is filled with contractions.  Compare the opulence of the chair, almost a throne, and the ornate dress in almost royal colors to the informality of the crooked leg, the arms and hands, not quite in repose, the bend at the waist tilting her to right. Is she uncomfortable?  Or merely impatient.  Look at how she stares at you.  No, not you, but at the painter, her husband.  “I am being still.  Get this over with,” she seems to be saying with her eyes.  Maybe she says something different to you.
After sharing a few minutes staring back at Emma, I turned to scan the room.  A young girl in a smock, a woman at the beach, women and a man in a beauty parlor, a tough old fisherman and his catch, Theodore Roosevelt’s cousin in profile, a young woman in pink lost in thought, a mother a child reading together, a street urchin with rosy cheeks and floppy hat, and I remember three others from previous rooms, the black serpentine head of Leadbelly, a sad and forlorn farmer in his dying corn field, and the well-dressed young man with the high forehead and confident stare.  Here we are then, in America, in these works passing through perhaps one hundred and twenty years, from 1820 to 1940.  These faces and the artists who captured them don’t tell the full story, but there is a great amount of narrative. 
"Portrait of a Man"
               by John Wesley Jarvis
For instance, John Wesley Jarvis (1781-1840), a relative of the Methodist Wesleys, made a very nice living in the states making portraits of the famous and well-to-do.  He went where the money was, allotting his professional years between New York, Baltimore, and New Orleans, even traveling into the new states.  So who is the man in this painting at the DMA, “Portrait of a Man” (c 1815-1820), staring at us, his arm jauntily draped over the back of a carved wooden chair.  Today he is still unknown to us.  I think of him, the subject of one of dozens of portraits by Jarvis, looking down from his stool in Heaven, saying, “That’s me!  I paid good money to be commemorated by the best.  You can’t forget me! How could it be that I who could afford one of the most expensive artists in the nation am now forgotten?”
His is such a different kind of obscurity from the Frank Duveneck’s “Whistling Boy” (c. 1870s).  Readers of the blog will know that I have a special affection for these young wandering boys, the heroes of Horatio Alger, Jr., novels, the subjects of several chapters in Joseph Riis’s How the Other Half Lives.  These newsboys and boot blacks and perhaps juvenile delinquents still exhibit their puppy enthusiasm for joy, even in the “Whistling Boy,” as portrayed in dark and muted browns and blacks.  Sure there is a sadness here, but something in the eyes tells me he is one smile, one friend, shy of happiness and renewed enthusiasm.  “Fame,” he says, “who care about fame?  Let’s enjoy the day.”
"Whistling Boy" by Frank Duveneck
In Jerry Bywaters’ painting “Sharecropper” (1937), we have no illusion that his man will ever regain any lightness of spirit.  What green-some emotions he might sprout are already being attacked by the voracious grasshoppers.  His shoulders are slumped, his eyes downcast, his mouth silent and dry.  The dustbowl and the Great Depression are in full fury. Bywaters (1906-1889) was born in Paris, Texas, where I ventured two weeks earlier, and after a few years of youthful travel, returned to Texas, to Dallas, where he joined a group of like minded “regional artists.” Almost like Thomas Hart Benton’s prodigal son, Bywaters kept returning to subjects and the soil he left for the city.   Eventually, he became the director for 21 years of this very museum and during the 1950s protected it from small-minded civic leaders (if we can really call them leaders) who were afraid of the open minds of the artistic.  Bywaters, unlike his sharecropper, was not defeated. 


So I am sitting on this bench or the other one like it around a corner, awash in people and their faces.  Like the Robert Henri’s “Dutch Girl Laughing” (1907).  Henri was a great teacher and leader of artists, attracting students and followers who have become known, at various times in various groupings, as the “Philadelphia Four,” “The Eight,” and the Ashcan School.  The smile on this young girl’s face, bright in rose and peach hues, lights up the room, but what is really fascinating is the brush work.  It’s fast and thick and hard. There is something tough in this little girl.  She is not all peaches and cream.  Far away, she is boyish; up close a little devilish.
"The Fish and the Man" by Charles Webster Hawthorne
Similarly, Charles Webster Hawthorne (1872-1930), also a well-known and beloved teacher, who settled for summers on Cape Cod, captures something of the violence of life and something of the determination to survive.  His “The Fish and the Man” (1925) demonstrates this quiet fierceness in the man’s stance behind his catch laid out on the table.  Eyes fixed, jaw set and firm, the hands relaxed but still rounded into fists.  His forehead is pale from wearing hats, but his cheeks are ruddy with sun on the open sea.  And look at his fists.  I walked up close the canvass.  The brush work scars the knuckles, dirties them, reveals the cuts and bruises.  Here is a New Englander, an American, and here is Nature, the fish.  It is clear who the winner is, and clear that the winning is not, day-in, day-out, an easy victory.
"The Reading Lesson" by Mary Cassatt
So many paintings here talking to each other, so much to ponder and to appreciate. Shall we talk about John White Alexander’s (1856-1915) quiet and elegant “Miss Dorothy Quincy Roosevelt (1901-1902) or Thomas Eakins’ (1844-1916) “Miss Gertrude Murray” (1895)?  No,  let’s end with a favorite, Mary Cassett (1844-1926),   Cassett was born to an upper-middle class family in Western Pennsylvania, studied a bit in Philadelphia, but spent most of her life in France eventually soaking up what the new approach to painting, called impressionism, could teach her.  Today, as in her later career, she is immensely popular, especially for her depiction of mothers and daughters. The DMA  exhibits “The Reading Lesson” (1901).  I am no expert on Cassett’s work, though I do enjoy it.  What’s not to enjoy?  But this painting puzzles me.  At first glance, we see what we expect to see in a Cassatt painting.  Sitting, almost lounging, in a chair or chaise is a mother, long brown hair pulled into a bun, holding a book with a chubby faced blonde girl dressed in bright orange.  All focus in on mother and daughter, or so we presume them to be.  Floors and walls are mere flat panels.  But look at the mother’s straining arm and tense hand gripping the edge of the chair!  What is this anxiety?  Is this woman barely tolerant of her motherly duties?  Has Cassett captured an independent spirit straining against her natural impulses?  Or maybe we are caught reading the painting incorrectly?  Is it the daughter teaching the mother to read?  Is Cassett teaching us how to read a painting? 
"Leadbelly" by Michael G. Owens, Jr

Well, there’s more. But the kids texted me:  “How much longer?”  I had to get going, but one more stop for a couple of modern classics downstairs.  Rothko and Pollack.  I had been staring at faces for a while now; maybe it was time to cleanse the imagination.  In their own different ways, Rothko and Pollack ask us, require us, to turn off our the narrative making portion of our brains.  Just look, just feel, just relax into the color, the movement, the lack of movement.  Everything is inside the frame.  There is no regionalism, no accents, no nationalism, except of course they are Americans in the mid-century, in a time when we wanted to free ourselves of our serious narratives and our sentimental selves.  It was time, for me, to return to the family.  Time to load us into the truck and head over to see Knightsmama and The Buckaroo at the skill nursing facility.  Then time to head back out to Hundred Acre Woods.  As Leadbelly sang, “Goodnight, Irene.”


Soundtrack.  Huddie Ledbetter, Leadbelly:  "Goodnight, Irene."

Friday, February 21, 2014

Chasing Ghosts in Northeast Texas

              
               So, as you know, the boys and I are hanging out at Hundred Acre Woods, about an hour east of Dallas.  The Buckaroo, Knightsmama’s father, the proprietor of said Hundred Acres, has progressed, post stroke, from ICU in Tyler to Skilled Nursing in a lovely Presbyterian facility in Dallas where, as a loyal Republican, he gets to enjoy the benefits of the Democrat’s Communist plot to take over America—otherwise known as Medicare.  Somehow the irony floats freely, unnetted by Conservative Consciousness.  Fine by me.  I don’t mind paying the government a bit of my salary, so that the government can, in turn, pay to help him now.  By and large, he is getting great care, making excellent progress.  My only problem is that I don’t think doctors are so much more meritorious than I or nurses or whomever to deserve the level of compensation they receive, in comparison.  But then they have the powerful AMA and I have the measly American Federation of Teachers.  What exactly is the difference between a professional association and a union? 
Clarksville, Texas, Confederate Memorial
 Knightsmama stays with her dad most days and nights, but she gets released from Dallas every few days to venture out to the woods for conjugal visits, but don’t tell our sons.  Yuck! Over Valentine’s Day Weekend, we were all able to bust out for a wonderful weekend in Austin.  We reconnected the BAT (Big ASS Truck) and to the Monster and moved it to McKinney State Park, just south of Austin for four nights.   I repaired a busted kitchenette faucet—carelessness during a freeze when The Buckaroo was in ICU.  Much fun and revelry was had by all, visiting friends, attending a dance for home schoolers, riding the bicycle (Hey, did I tell you the sun has come out and the temperatures have risen above 60?  Yea!), cooking meats on the Weber Grill, and quaffing Shiner Farmhouse Ales (in blue solo cups to fool the State Authorities and the Baptists).
            Since my little to venture to North Texas to visit with the memories of Rick Nelson and Dan Blocker in De Kalb, and with William A. Owens, in Pin Hook, spring has begun to peak from behind the bare branches of the many naked trees in North East Texas.  My spirits have lifted with the temperatures and the parting of the clouds.  It was also good, after a month of just hanging out in Hundred Acre Woods, to begin to get out and see things.  The Traveling Virus has deepened my restlessness and my curiosity.  I can’t explain it, but somehow when I visit the past, I feel like I am moving forward.  One example is my merely driving through Clarksville, Texas, stopping at the town square, featuring a statue honoring the Confederate Dead, still strung with Christmas lights.  I have to admit that at this point in my Liberal development, I am troubled by these markers.  However, I don’t know what we should do about them.  Tearing them down and demolishing them, denying their existence and the historical reality they represent seems a bit too close to censorship and political correctness run amuck.  To deny the past, to disqualify the losing side from public discourse, is a kind of intellectual terrorism.
John E. Williams, Author of Stoner
But the reason, I paused in Clarksville is that it is the home of two novelists I greatly admire.  Within two years of each other John Edward Williams (August 29, 1922 - March 3, 1994) and William Humphrey (June 18, 1924 – August 20, 1997 were born there.  As was the practice and the necessity in those days, both writers eventually left Texas and made strong and sometimes brilliant careers for themselves.  John Williams won the National Book Award for his 1972 novel Augustus (which I enjoyed as much as Thornton Wilder’s Ides of March), but his novel Stoner, about the quiet and desperate life of a college professor, is one of my top five favorite novels, ever, ever, ever.  I hadn’t discovered Williams and his work until my mid-fifties.  Maybe I am pleased I could still find, in my dotage,  a novelist that can shake these old bones.
Film Poster, William Humphrey's First Novel
On the other hand, William Humphrey’s books have been in my library since my early twenties.  In Texas, Humphrey is well known as the author of five novels, three volumes of short fiction, one memoir, and two sweet brief books about fish and fishing.  While John E. Williams seems to have left Texas and the South completely, Humphrey’s first works reek of Texas.  The work of his early career was highly praised as merging the Faulkner tradition (though he was also influenced personally by Katherine Anne Porter) with a Texas landscape.  His first novel, Home from the Hills, was scripted into highly regarded Robert Mitchum film of the same name.  I think my favorite Humphrey book is Hostages to Fortune, set along the Hudson River, where he made his adult life.  It’s been almost thirty years since I read it.  As soon as this trip is over and I can retrieve my books, I should look at it again.  Way back when, I once had reason to telephone Humphrey, for a reason I cannot remember.  I spoke to his wife, who said he was away from the house in his writing shed and I should call back at lunch, which I did.  “Yes, just enjoying a sherry here, what can I do for you?”  You can see what impressed me.  I can’t remember what we talked about, but I remember envying his life, writing the morning away, taking a break for sherry and lunch with a sophisticated, intelligent wife, and then back to the desk.  Beautiful. 
But here we are, February 7, 2014, standing in a light sprinkling of sleet at four in the afternoon, walking around a statue honoring the brave state’s righters, observed only by the unperturbed countenances of  dozens of abandoned store fronts and those not abandoned offering junk antiques cheap, and I am thinking about dead writers who once got out.  Generations of ghosts.  I pointed the nose of the BAT toward Paris to chase more ghosts.
Clarksville, Texas, Empty Storefronts
After a night in the Holiday Inn Express catching up on HBO’s latest series, True Detective, staring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, and after a morning taking advantage of the stationary bike and elliptical machine, I wrapped myself in my fleece jacket and rainbow hat, warmed up the truck, and headed out on farm road 195 in search of Pin Hook.  “Pin Hook?” you ask?   Pin Hook is one of those disappeared places commemorated only by a road sign and somebody’s insistent memory.  In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth, there grouped a few farmers and their supporting community, a school, gristmill, cotton gin, blacksmith.  Nowadays, there is a sign, a stretch of road, and barbed wire fences enclosing pasture land.  A ranch called Loma Alta appeared to be the dominant economic element. If there is anything else, I missed it.   I could be wrong.  I didn’t spend much time there.  I drove there, only, again, as part of a pilgrimage.
Road Sign for Pin Hook Texas
Pin Hook was the home community of William A. Owens (November 2, 1905-December 6. 1990), my friend and, as I sometimes say, my second father.   Like William Humphrey and John E. Williams, Owens got the hell out of Texas. Born in 1905, he grew up in a fatherless home (his father died three days after Bill was born), scratching a living from the worn out soil.  But he grew up with an appreciation for music and reading, and slowly, slowly, he was able to improve himself.  He enrolled in Paris Community College, then a local normal, then Southern Methodist University (studying under Henry Nash Smith), and finally the University of Iowa, where he earned a doctorate and was befriended by painter Grant Wood.  Following World War II, Owens enrolled in creative writing courses at Columbia University and soon became a professor there, eventually becoming Dean of the Summer School.  Owens published three novels, but his fiction was never as well received as that of Humphrey’s or Williams’.  He published several volumes dedicated to Texas folk tales and music.  Although his book Slave Mutiny became the official basis for Spielberg’s film Amistad, Owens is most highly regarded for his five autobiographical works:  This Stubborn Soil; A Season of Weathering; A Fair and Happy Land, Tell Me a Story; Sing Me a Song; and Eye-Deep in Hell.  At this point in our trip, all my books by him are in storage, so I can’t pull out quotes to entice you into his books.  But I can tell you that fourteen or so years I knew him, he was continuing to receive notices from people around the world telling him how much his book This Stubborn Soil meant to them.  In some ways, it is a primer on the Greatest Generation, the movement from rural poverty to urban sophistication, from provincialism to worldliness, from cotton picking, wooden shacks, cotton mouth water moccasins, and biscuits and molasses to the hallowed halls of the Ivy League and Book of the Month Club Alternate Selections.
William A. Owens in College
Although I had visited Paris and Commerce before—where he had begun to extricate himself from the clutches of Texas’s red dirt—I had never travelled to Pin Hook.  Since there really isn’t much left there except the “there,” I stared at the land and imagined a year-old boy tethered to a stake by a thin rope to make certain he did not wander off while the adults were picking cotton.  I listened to a far away piano, the family treasure, playing hymns.  I watched for the ghost of a youth hiking through woods to an old tietacker’s to borrow a book, rare in these parts, another classic of English fiction, introducing an amazing world far, far away.  I saw this barefoot teen sharing rows of cotton with people of color, a generation or two from slavery, whose culture he loved, whose culture he would attempt to preserve in academic texts, novels and memoir.  Although This Stubborn Soil is recognized classic, my favorite just might be the short novel, Look to the River,  a gentle novel of hope and forgiveness, imbued with Owens' love of the land and of the folk cultures of Texas.

Then I explored my way to a small cemetery down a narrow county road and found his parents’ graves.  The ashes of Bill Owens and his wife Ann reside in a beautiful courtyard in the Episcopal Church in Nyack, New York.  Bill’s parents rest beneath an winter bare tree in Lamar County.  
Graves of William A. Owens' Parents
Charley Owens and Jessie Ann Chennault Owens Rhodes Smith, real pioneers, the tough stock who braved everything, who broke open a hard earth, survived—well, only she survived—until their children could move up or out.  To know Bill Owens is, for me, to also know his parents, especially his mother, who taught him love and determination, and somewhere she also taught him something about compassion.  Bill could recognize a lost, wandering boy, a wondering boy.  He could see the future that the boy could hardly imagine, point him in the right direction, provide some lessons that he would surely succeed at and grow confident with, then let him go.   So I stopped by the graves of my friend’s parents.  I told them, in case they had not heard before, that they had done well.  Their son, this ghost, had inherited from them that miracle that is a soul tough and determined and a soul still tender and loving.  Maybe it is a gift better than books.  

Soundtrack.  Al Green:  "Take Me to the River."

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Looking for Sunshine in De Kalb


Sunday, February 8.  Often it feels that since the first week of November, we have been hunkered down beneath a sky low with gray clouds, a closed pot, a chilly bucket of ice, the temperature always shivering between 20 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit.   Doesn’t seem to matter where we are:  New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Texas.  Looking for an 18th century relative’s grave north of Philadelphia, watching the boys learn to ski in Massanutten,  exploring downtown Knoxville with a friend who loves her new home town, visiting the beach in Wilmington, always it’s bleak days, jackets, and gloves.  We joked about my rainbow hat.  Now I am sick of it.  Sick of the mud.  Sick of pushing the big-ass truck when it can’t get traction.  Sick of the cold lick of ice on the face.  Sick of worrying over propane levels in the monster , worrying about pipes and holding tanks freezing, while we hole up in warm houses.  Sick of the boys not having much to do except watch some screen.  Sick of staying at Hundred Acre Woods most days because my running partner is occupied with her father and his recovery, and the boys have become as grouchy as tea-party voters.
Chilly Day at Hundred Acre Woods
I know it hasn’t all been sludge and misery.   I hopped on the bicycle a couple times since getting docked at Hundred Acre Woods, and I remember getting really determined because a couple of warm days in Texas got away from me before I assembled my gear.  But, God, how many places have we visited and fought the cold—standing outside Dixieland, Thomas Wolfe’s house, trying to get a still shot while shouldering the wind; rushing, rushing, rushing, as we pushed into the gusts the long path beside the crash site of United Flight 93,  and my ass freezing as I sat at the foot of Grant’s statue waiting for Boehner to give the go ahead to ignite the Christmas tree in front of the nation’s capitol.
What did we expect? It’s fall.  It’s winter.  Get a grip, Dude. It ain’t the end of the world.  We haven’t been caught in any blizzards.  It ain’t Minneapolis or Buffalo or Boston.  I have not had to maneuver the monster on a highway turned ice rink.  No newscopter puffing air above us stuck on a freeway clogged with stranded, wrecked, abandoned semi-trailers, school buses, and mothers’ little SUV’s, filming our despair as we gobble down our last bag of fiery crunchy Cheetos and final can of RC Cola. 
Yet Thursday when I tapped the cloudy icon on my iphone and saw the forecast for the next seven days to be more of the same, cloudy, chance of ice and snow, lows 20-30, highs 30-45, I cracked. “No more.  Help me.  Save me,”  I whimpered somewhere deep inside, imagining Wolf Blitzer hovering above the house in the woods filming for a CNN special.  “The Caravan of Winter:  Crisis in Wonderland.” Maybe it was Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil searching for a true and desperate survivor in the last stages of cabin fever, someone they could cure on air.  Help me!  I think Dr. J. and Captain Crunch felt it also.   After opening the gates for the cattle to hurry to their hay bales, Dr. J. sullenly sat at the dining room table and completed algebra problems.  The Captain argued over a writing assignment: “Describe a candy that you would create.”  “But I don’t know any ingredients in candy!  What am I supposed to say, glucose, red dye 92.”  He had a point, but I wasn’t going to give it to him.  “Choose natural flavors,” I said.  I tried to read scholarly articles on the Protestant Ethic and the Invisible Hand, but mostly fell asleep, so I tuned in to a marathon of Law and Order: Criminal Intent.   When at 10:00 that night the boys began arguing over who could use my computer, I cracked.  I started morphing into a weird character from a story that Flannery O’Connor would write.  I began to grow dangerous.  I felt it coming.
Our Friends in the Woods
But today’s media conglomerates help those who help themselves.   So instead of waiting for Wolf or Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil to save me, or killing my sons and burying them beneath hay bales, I hatched an escape plan.  It was time for me to hit the road.  While I was breaking down, Knightsmama was moving The Buckaroo, her father, from rehab to an assisted living facility.  Following his stroke, The Buckaroo has made amazing progress and is working his way up the chain of health care options from Intensive care to independent living.  He is now at level four in a chain of five or six.   Knightsmama was ready to let others care for her father and spend a couple of days with her boys.  With her blessings, Friday morning, I headed north toward the Red River.  I had a couple of pilgrimages to make, since I was in Northeast Texas.
On New Year Eve, at 5:15 in the evening, in 1985, a DC-3-N711Y crashed in a field near De Kalb, Texas.  That plane was carrying Rick Nelson, his girlfriend, and members of The Stone Canyon Band, who were traveling from Alabama to Dallas for a New Year’s Eve show.  Even though, following the crash, rumors spread that Nelson and others had been free basing cocaine, the cause of the plane crash was determined to be mechanical.  This particular plane, which once belonged to Jerry Lee Lewis, had a long history of mechanical problems.  While I really can’t say what I was doing when I heard the news—like I can tell you where I was when the Challenger exploded just 29 days later—I know that I was moved, saddened, at a loss, and the crash has stayed with me because for me Nelson was a hero and, I suppose, a kind of role model. 
Rick Nelson's Plane on Fire

Most people my age—at the tale end of the boomers—had other heroes, like Dylan, Lennon, Morrison, Reed, Bowie.  Lord knows, I admire these artists.   But like Christians say, I feel like I had a personal relationship with Rick.  I call him “Rick,” because I sympathized with his attempts to separate himself from “Ricky.”  While I cannot remember watching the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as a kid, no doubt with my sisters and mother, we must have.  Along the way, as “Lyman Jr.” I accepted my role as the cute and funny diminutive brother.  Maybe I even repeated Ricky's line:  “I don’t mess around, boy” for a laugh.   I seemed to have always known and loved the song “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In it?” his version, not Hank’s Williams version of the Clarence William’s song.   I felt the same way about his first recording, “I’m Walkin.”  I could sing along to “Travelin' Man” at eight years old, and still can sing the entire song, which, however appropriate for this road trip, has not impressed my sons.   But because I have some kind of innate love of old country and country rock, I was right there in 1970 when Nelson released his Troubadour live album, and I  purchased his new releases with The Stone Canyon Band as they came out.  Sure I liked “Garden Party,” but that wasn’t my favorite.  I love his version of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me.”  By this time, my sister, The Queen Bee, was encouraging me to where my long hair like Rick did. 
Travellin' Man

Because I am a fanboy (and a researcher/scholar type) at heart, I’ve read about and thought more about Nelson than an adult man should.  I have a set of DVD’s of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet that I attempted to interest the boys in several years ago when we didn’t have cable or gaming consoles.  Here are fun facts. The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet played on the radio for 402 episodes from October, 1944, to June, 1954.  The brothers, David and Rick, joined that show in 1949, when they were 12 and 8, respectively.  Then they moved to television, and for 14 television seasons, 1954 to 1966, the show remained on ABC.  It ranks as the “longest running live action sitcom in television history."  (Of course, now in its 26th year, The Simpsons far surpasses it as the longest running situation comedy and longest running scripted show.)  So first, Rick was a child actor; then he became an instant teen idol in 1957, with his performance of “I’m Walkin” at the end of one of the programs.  Over all, he had 18 top ten singles, another 17 in the top 40,  and another 17 in the top 100.   Twelve albums reached the top 100.   We should not forget he had a great band with James Burton on guitar and later with Tom Brumley on steel guitar.
Now I will not proclaim that Rick Nelson is one of the greatest talents of the Rock and Roll Era. His career is strong, but he struggled to keep developing and to resist becoming purely a nostalgia act.  In the fifties, he helped bring rock and roll to a mass audience, and he was always a strong rockabilly act.   Sure, Elvis was rawer; Johnny Cash was a deeper and fuller artist.  Certainly Dylan and many others had greater genius.  But Nelson had a sweetness of voice and disposition that everyone admired.   After Nelson's death, Bob Dylan often included "Lonesome Town," one of Rick's classics, in his concerts.  I just like him.  He seemed to be a good guy.  And I admire that he never gave up.  Like Dylan after him, Nelson basically lived on the road in his own never ending tour.   Until it ended, in De Kalb.  Isn’t this, and isn’t “Travelin' Man," enough of a reason to drive two hours on country roads to see the town where the traveling man’s  journey ended?
Burroughs Adding Machine
For me, yes.  For you . . . well, I can’t say that I would recommend De Kalb for a visit, unless you are headed that way already.  I am not being mean, it’s just that there ain’t much there.  The De Kalb Museum, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, is a five-room wooden frame house that has the layout and feel of a junk shop.  But proving that somebody’s junk is someone else’s treasure, these rooms contain the history of the town through its material culture.  Mostly the items were donated by folks who have lived there, and their contributions are proudly noted.  You will find a Burroughs adding machine from Proctor’s Grocery and Hardware; an old photograph from a Texas A&M graduate who died in World War I; the uniform from a citizen who played years of minor league ball; tickets and photographs from a concert that Elvis put on nearby when he barn stormed North Texas in the middle 50’s; an electric hair dryer.  Knickknacks, furniture, kitchen equipment, military weapons from days gone by, all interesting.  They even include a replica of a quilt with secret messages like those used for the underground railroad. 
In one room, they devote a corner to Rick Nelson.  In addition to old 45s and concert photos, you can see a photograph of the plane while it was burning, and the sign in sheets of the volunteer fire department members.  I was especially moved by a book of photographs documenting a recent visit by Nelson’s guitarist James Burton, who has retired in Shreveport.  You want a treat:  go back to Nelson’s early recordings and listen to his electric guitar.  Class and style.
Dan Blocker as Hoss
And I must mention the other corner of this room.  It’s a shrine to one of their favorite sons, Dan Blocker, who played Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza.  Stand next to the life size cardboard statue and in spite of his sweet smile and all the memories of his humor and sense of justice, you can feel the power of his 6 foot 4 inch height and his 300 pounds.  Blocker was born in De Kalb in 1928.  If I ever knew it, I forgot, but Blocker was a seriously educated man.  He earned his bachelor’s from Hardin Simmons College, then his master’s from Sul Ross University in Alpine.  For several years as a young man he taught school, and though Wikipedia does not confirm the fact, it appears that he was working on a doctorate at UCLA when he was cast as Hoss.  Like Rick Nelson, he has the reputation for being a genuinely generous and kind human being.  Another similarity is that both Blocker and Nelson were fathers of twins.  Girls for Blocker and boys for Nelson.  And again, like Nelson, he starred in one of the longest running dramas in history of television.  One of the things I find ironic is that this icon of the American Western, according to a newspaper tacked to a wall in the De Kalb Chamber of Commerce Museum, moved his family to Switzerland.  His reasoning rings true today—when in a time that our nation needs so much to maintain civil, economic, and environmental balance, why are we spending millions or billions on warfare?  In his case, it was the Agent Orange dropped on North Vietnam.  In our case, well, take your choice.   Then as in Nelson’s death, the unexpected.  His weight or something caught up with him.  He had gall bladder surgery, but suffered a pulmonary embolism and died.   Age 43.  Rick Nelson, age 45. 
The Grave of Dan Blocker
So stepping outside the museum and walking around a portion of the remains of the plane that carried Rick Nelson, I left the museum and headed east for a few blocks, took a left between the Dollar General and a funeral home, found the cemetery and said good-bye to Hoss.  The sky was gray and wind still cold, but I was feeling a little better.  For a day or two, I was back on the road.  And I was paying homage to two men who made my life happier, and, I believe, represent something fully American.  Then I got back on the highway, headed west for Paris.  And that’s another story.





Soundtrack Triple Feature:  Bonanza Theme Song.

Rick Nelson.  "Travellin' Man"

Bob Dylan:  "Lonesome Town."


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Second Quarterly Report: November through January

Hey there, Dude.  What’s up?  How are you doing?  It’s time for the second quarterly report for the Caravan of Wonder. 
Okay.  At the moment, I am involved in a fist fight with depression, I guess.

Why’s that?
We are involved with a bit of an unplanned hiatus here in Texas.  The Buckaroo, my name for Knightsmama’s dad, has had a health setback. So we have been “off the road,” back in Texas for almost a month. The boys and I are holed up at the Buckaroo’s rancherito near Lake Tawakani and Will’s Point.  Knightsmama has been spending most days and nights in a hospital in Tyler—about 60 miles from us—and then at a rehab facility in Dallas—again about 60 miles away, but in the other direction.  It is an entirely different kind of adventure than we had planned.  If this were Kerouac’s On the Road, this would be one of the times where he was stuck back in New Jersey living with his aunt, all that time that was skipped over in the narrative.  It’s a bizarre life, living out of a suitcase but staying put, having a regular schedule that is not the schedule you really want.  It’s still an adventure, but it’s in slow motion. 
Central Park, photo by Dr. J.
Sorry to hear that?  Is The Buckaroo going to be okay?
Most certainly.  It won’t be the life that he was planning and recovery will be slower than anyone wishes.  But he is an amazing man.  I mean, last summer, at eighty, he was out on his land building fences in 100 degree heat.  He won’t be stopped.

Glad to hear it.  So how was the adventure before this interruption?
 I don’t know how to say it.  In many, many ways, the first six weeks of this quarter—the first of November to the middle of December—were perhaps the most emotionally and intellectually satisfying, while still being, perhaps, the hardest.

How so?
Well, before I answer, I also need to add a qualifying statement.  I need to say that the last couple of weeks in December and the first week in January were also wonderful.  But they were wonderful in a different way.  In the middle of December, we rolled the caravan into North Carolina and stayed with my middle sister, The Queen Bee.  We hung out with her and her husband, three of her four children, the spouses of all four, and two grandchildren.  It was totally generous of her and her children to welcome us and take care of us.  Plus, my oldest son, The Philosopher, and his girlfriend, and the Buckaroo and his girlfriend, also joined us.  This is a great deal of family.  It was a terrific interlude, in which we were totally nurtured.  These weeks were gigantically meaningful in the scope of things and if we had done nothing else on this adventure, we would forever feel the love of the universe.  Just in and of itself, those few weeks were a perfect gift to my sons about what family is.  You know, at a certain point, we humans have to forget all our fancy and important dreams about our place in the world and just pull back into family.  We descendants in the Grant-Jamison Tribe are all very lucky:  no one is at war with anyone else.  If anyone is the Black Sheep, I guess it is me.  And they still take me in.  In any case, these weeks could have occurred in any year, I suppose.  They didn’t have anything directly to do with our Pilgrimages in America, except, of course, they do, just in a different way.
Manhattan From Jersey City, photo by Dr. J.

Thanks for pointing that out.  Tell me about November to mid-December.
First off, Knightsmama did amazing research locating campgrounds for us.  All through October, in Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, we kept finding ourselves at the tail end of the season for various campgrounds.  When we left Narragansett, Rhode Island, on October 31, we were the last campers out.  I think they locked the gate right after we exited.  As one would expect, by November, almost every other Yankee RVer had headed far south.  We were beginning to panic that our plans for New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia would be crushed.  But Knightsmama saved the day with diligent and creative research.

So where did you stay?
November 1-7:  Croton Point Park, at Croton on Hudson, New York
November 7-14:  Liberty Harbor RVPark, Jersey City, New Jersey
November 14-21: Pine Grove Furnace State Park, Cooke Township, Pennsylvania
November 21-26: Campus Park and Ride, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
November 26-December 6:   Brunswick Family Campground, Brunswick, Maryland
December 6-15:  Misty MountainCamp Resort, Crozet, Virginia
December 15-16:  MayberryCampground, Mt Airy, North Carolina
December 16-January 2:   My niece’s front yard in Pittsboro, North Carolina
January 2-4:  Wilmington KOA, Wilmington, North Carolina
January 4-5:  On the road to Charleston, South Carolina, then to Texas
January 5-Present:  Will’s Point, Texas
Sunset Pine Grove Furnace, photo by Dr.  J.

Any thoughts about these places?
As it has been with a great deal of trip, there is really no way to summarize, to bring all this under one umbrella.  It is all too varied and diverse.  I can say that at first I welcomed the weather.  By the time we got to Jersey City and our week exploring New York City, things had gotten fairly chilly.  It even snowed briefly one morning and the boys got to ice skate in Central Park in a tiny sleet storm.  By now, however, I am pretty sick of wet and cold.  It is one of the reasons I am sad about our being pulled to Texas:  we would have been in Florida at this point. 
But back to the Middle States.  This time period for our trip alternated between Great American Cities—Boston (in October), New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.—and the countryside.  Several of my favorite campgrounds for the trip so far are from these six weeks, especially Pine Grove Furnace and the town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and the County Park in Brunswick, Maryland, on the Potomac River.  There is nothing really special about these places.  We were danged near the only campers at either place.  No other nomads. Both places did attract some tent campers on weekends.  Also the folks at Misty Mountain, in Crozet, Virginia, near Charlottesville, were extremely generous and welcoming.  All three locations were forested, some pines with their needles, plenty of leaves on the ground.  When it wasn’t cold and wet, the boys wandered around.  At night, I felt alone but safe.  Over all, I think I just loved the country side. 

Lighting the Capitol Tree
What about the big cities?
            Boy, what a contrast.  I am so ambivalent about them.  Even though we spent several days exploring each of them, I still feel like there is so much, too much, left to do.  That feeling began with Boston.  We camped in three locations near Boston but we went into the city only three times. And it took us so long to get in and out that we never had a leisurely day.  With New York, we were bivouacked just across the Hudson, so with the PATH and then various subways, we felt we had figured out how to maneuver ourselves around the city.  We saw a great number  of the things one is supposed to see, but I still haven’t visited the United Nations or the Brooklyn Bridge or Mets Stadium.  There is just too much.  With Philadelphia, Knightsmama and I ended up spending a number of evenings in a Starbucks in South Philly because she had a class to complete, but we toured Constitution Hall, the National Mint, and the SEC.  I am really sad, I didn’t get to the Philadelphia Art Museum or to Brandywine for the Wyeth museum.  Finally, with D.C., we had a fairly long drive and commuter rail trip, but we made it into town three days, and saw a great deal of the Mall.  We had been there once before, but this time we got to tour the Capitol, Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian, and the National Gallery. 
Why didn’t we see more?  First, we were shivering in the 30’s in most of these places.  We had commutes. With the boys, we often got late starts—I know, there are parents who don’t put up with children dragging their butts.  But you have to remember that we are doing this for a year; we just can’t pull 12-hour days every day.   And finally, I have a gimpy hip that was really starting to bother me, enough so that I bought canes in Philadelphia.  I don’t like to admit it, but I slowed us down.  I just can’t walk for 12 hours nonstop.    
Mt Vernon, photo by Dr. J.
I am looking at your blog.  Why haven’t you written more about the places you have visited. 
            That’s a good question.   I did write several posts about New York.  But that is where I got stumped.  In a post in the fall, I wrote about one of the problems with the trip is that I am living on two time periods.  One is the timeline of the actual trip itself, and the second is the timeline of the writing about it.  There seems to have developed about a six week gap in the two.  I was proceeding with that timeline; then the holidays hit, and I veered off into some different topics.  Then the Buckaroo got ill.  That really threw me off schedule, and I wrote a couple of posts about that.  Finally, I began taking an on-line class from American Military University in the Humanities, as part of my sabbatical arrangement.  I got myself behind on a couple of assignments and had to catch up.  Luckily the readings are quite interesting, and when everything is said and done, the class will feed into the overall concerns of the blog.    
Daedelus Bookshop
Since you are hoping still to meditate on what you have seen, what will some of the future posts deal with?
            The truth is that I don’t know.  I am not going to make any promises.  How the blog posts work, as far as I have figured out, is one of four processes.  One is that I give myself an assignment because I feel that the topic is essential to what I hope this project as a whole will become.  Currently, I think these could be Boston and John Adams and Paul Revere—the beginning of our independence.  Add to that Plimouth Rock and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Salem.  Then the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and Ben Franklin.  Then the National Mall.  There is so much more, but this gives you an idea.  A second method is that there is a classic American books involved.  I have been reading in the following:  Franklin’s Autobiography, Fredrick Douglass’s autobiography, Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.  I had planned on including Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and something by Flannery O’Connor, but our trip through the south was redirected.  Same for Hank Williams.  Then third, various visits begin to pile up unrecorded and I notice that there are related motifs that I can explore as a group.  Right now these could include the Civil War (Gettysburg, Wilderness, Fredericksburg, Antietam), presidents’ homes (Coolidge, FDR, Wilson, Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe), writers’ graves (too many to mention), national tragedies (the Twin Towers, United Flight 93 crash site, Johnstown Flood, Harper’s Ferry).  Then fourth are my thoughts about past generations of relatives—most of whom come from Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

That’s a lot.  What are the most moving places you have visited in this quarter.
I would have to say the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston just might be the most moving.  We just walked up on it at dusk on our way to meet my nephew and his wife for dinner at Faneuil Hall.  Part of it was the surprise, just finding ourselves in the middle of it.  Next has to be the Statue of Liberty, so many voices and languages making a joyful noise in celebration of our open arms.   Then in no particular order:  Storm King.  Emerson’s Grave, The Stonewall Inn, United Flight 93 Memorial, Antietam Battlefield, Walt Whitman’s Grave, Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C., and as always, the Lincoln Memorial.  Scott and Zelda’s grave, which I went to by myself, was quite moving.  St. Mary’s Catholic Church is taking wonderful care of the grave site, but when you think of both of their stars shooting so brightly and so quickly across the American firmament, it’s all rather too sad. 
Hanging with My Friends

What were you favorite places just to hang out?
I really enjoyed Narragansett.   Then, again in no particular order, I really liked Beans in Belfry Coffee Shop in Brunswick, Maryland.  The town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  Greeley Park in Manhattan.  Mudhouse Coffee Shop in Crozet, Virginia.  Daedelus Bookshop in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Bruised Apple Bookshop and the Peekskill Coffee Shop in Peekskill, New York.  Downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. The Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford, Pennsylvania.  The City Tavern in Philadelphia,. The Poe House in Hendersonville, North Carolina.  S and T Soda Shoppe in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

Are you going to write about beer anymore?
Certainly, my problem is that for a while I was drinking so much so often that my notes got too thick and cluttered.  I was having trouble getting the information down in a coherent fashion.

Were you drunk?
No, I was not drunk.  But I have tasted a large number of beers on location.  If you do a couple of flights a week, there are a large number of beers you have to have an opinion on.

Thank you.  That’s all I wanted to ask.  Is there anything you want to add before we go?
I guess just this.  I am surprised by how much I truly enjoyed being on the road.  I was really grateful to rest for a couple of weeks in Pittsboro with my sister and her family.  But I was quite ready to get back at the helm.  I know there is a lesson to be learned—much to be learned about America—during our moments of stasis here in Texas.  But I am ready to learn it and get the heck out of here for another five or so months.  Fingers crossed.

Soundtrack.  Roger Miller:  "King of the Road."