Archive for February, 2011

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  • February 22nd, 2011

Faulkner in Ponca City

Note: My computer went to Pixel Paradise so I’ve been offline for a few days.  Apologies for not savaging the right wing and otherwise offending folks.  I’ll try to do better from now on.

By Joel M. Vance

I’m not a big believer in ghosts.  Once participated in a psychic investigation in an allegedly-haunted mansion and felt or saw nothing.  Only once have I been uncomfortable in a place with the feeling that there were unquiet and also unseen entities.

That was in Ponca City, Oklahoma, at the Marland Mansion.  It was a hot summer day, so there was no reason for me to be cold, but I was chilled and uncomfortable in the place and felt unwelcome.  If ever there was a place that SHOULD be haunted, it’s the Marland Mansion.

E.W. Marland was Oklahoma’s first oil baron.  At his peak in the 1920s, he was among the richest men on earth.  Later, he was both a U.S. congressman and a New Deal Democratic governor.

Marland oil made Ponca City, today a trim community of 35,000 in north-central Oklahoma, near a good fishing lake, progressive and the epitome of Clean City, USA.  The Marland Mansion is the town’s pride, along with the statue memorializing Pioneer Woman that Marland commissioned.

Marland was a high roller.  He loved to fox hunt and play polo, drink and gamble with his friends.  His initials were on everything he paid for.  Elaborate carved friezes in the mansion commemorate his favorite bird dogs.  At one time he controlled one-tenth of the world’s oil supply.

At the peak of Marland Oil a third of Ponca City’s citizens worked for him and even today, seventy years after Marland died, townspeople are careful not to speculate on his shortcomings, as if he might return from the grave and take it all back.

His mansion, completed in 1928, took three years to build and had 55 rooms.  It had a leather-lined elevator as well as other refinements that were state-of-the-art at the time.

It also had, for me, a chilly and gloomy feeling, as if the unhappy people who lived and died there still were around.  But maybe that’s my hyperactive imagination at work, reacting to the weird story of the Marland family.

The mansion, today owned by the town and open for tours, features a ballroom with a gold leaf  ceiling that cost $80,000 when it was fashioned, and a pair of Watford crystal chandeliers whose original price tag was $30,000.  It had air conditioning when that was virtually in the experimental stage, and an indoor swimming pool.

The grounds had five lakes, an artist’s studio and a formal garden that required the services of 85 gardeners.

But the Marland family’s personal life was the stuff of Greek tragedy.  Marland’s first wife, Mary Virginia, was childless, so the couple adopted a niece and nephew of Mrs. Marland, George, 12 years old and Lydie, two years younger.

Naturally, the blood family was delighted to have the proverbial rich uncle give the kids everything—their father was a pushcart peddler, a long way from an oil magnate.

It wasn’t long before Marland and Lydie were inseparable.  He doted on his adopted daughter and she on him.  In the careful words of a Marland Mansion tour guide today, “They grew closer.”  How much closer can only be speculated on, but the rest of the story sounds like a scenario for a Faulknerian novel of Southern decadence.

E.W. moved Lydie’s bedroom next to his.  His wife took a bedroom far removed in the  mansion, then became ill with cancer, finally became more reclusive and morose and took to the bottle and drugs.  She died in 1926.  Two years later Marland had Lydie’s adoption rescinded and he married her.  Years later, a woman named Mrs. E.L. Cloyd, claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of Marland and Lydie, born in 1927, before their marriage.  Evidence indicates the claim was true, but Mrs. Cloyd didn’t press it.

At her marriage, Lydie was as old as the century, a quintessential flapper of the Roaring Twenties.  Marland was 54.  He doted on her.  There is a huge painting in the mansion of Lydie, a very pretty woman…which features a dark snake at her feet.  The snake is unexplained, but symbolists could have a field day.

Lydie's portrait

Almost as if their marriage had triggered some dark fate, Marland’s world began to disintegrate.  He lost an estimated $85 million in Depression dollars to the J.P. Morgan banks and the government and before the 1920s ended, there was no more Marland Oil (today it is Conoco).

Embittered by his losses he ran for Congress in 1932 and much of his campaign oratory was directed at the “money trust” bankers who had done him in, especially financier J.P. Morgan.  Marland served one term in the House of Representatives, then ran for Governor of Oklahoma in 1934 and won.  He later lost two campaigns for the U.S. Senate.

He and Lydie returned to Ponca City in 1939, but couldn’t afford to live in the mansion so they remodeled the chauffeur’s house and lived there.  In 1941 Marland sold the mansion to the Carmelite order.  It had cost $5.5 million and the sale price was $66,000.

E.W. Marland died at 67 in 1941.  The Marland money was largely gone.  The town forgot Lydie, now a middle-aged widow.

But Lydie was not one to let her home town want for scandal.  In 1953, she vanished, rumored to have run off with a 34- year-old meter reader with the city water department (who, for a time, was suspected of murdering her).

Some in town knew where she was for the next 22 years.  Her taxes always were paid and the estate drowsed on without her.  It came to light later that she had lived in New York and on the West Coast and had taken part in anti-Viet Nam and pro-civil rights protests in Washington.  In 1975, she came home, the last of the Marlands (her brother, George, had died in 1957 during her lost years).  Lydie chose to live in an outbuilding on the mansion grounds.

She was reclusive and increasingly erratic, though those who knew her characterize her only as “sad” or “unhappy.”  One says, “She said once, ‘they’ve all forgotten me.'”

Still–she began to dress more and more bizarrely and sometimes would be seen on the estate grounds dancing with invisible partners.  The Mansion was dedicated in 1975 as a city project but there are no photos of Lydie, nor was she involved in the celebration.  Perhaps that was by choice, for by then she was rarely seen.

Lydie Marland died in 1987, ending the often sad and often bizarre story of the Marland family.

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  • February 14th, 2011

Orphans In The Storm

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By Joel M. Vance

They’ll be talking about the Great Blizzard of Ought-Eleven for a hundred years.  Kids today will tell their grandchildren how they were cut off from the world for hours when the satellite dish went down and they couldn’t get a cell phone signal.

Oh, the horror!

Blizzards….we’re not talking a snow with softly falling flakes, some wine, firelight, a setting romantic enough to turn a monk into a Hollywood horndog.  No, this is snow right off the polar ice cap, with testicles, the kind that blows right up your nose and turns you into Frosty the Dead Snowman.

Twice I have been sidelined by nor’westers that locked up the Interstate and forced me into refuge in unlikely places.  Once was in Oklahoma; the other somewhere in the middle of Kansas.  Both times the resident Mom and Pop came to our rescue.

Four of us set out in a car from Jefferson City, Missouri, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a conference.  All was well for 400 miles.  We ate peanuts and told stories.  The blizzard hit quickly and violently, the way those spring storms savage the Plains States.  Teddy Roosevelt lost his herd and his shirt when a blizzard killed all his North Dakota cattle back in the 1800s.

We were in that no man’s land of western Oklahoma where an oil well derrick is the only thing between you and the howling wind.  Snowflakes began to fall, a few at first, then a bunch and finally a whiteout.  Some little town was the last outpost between us and nowhere.

We spied a huge Ramada Inn on the south side of the highway.  No rooms–it was filled with bankers having an annual convention.  Just across the highway was a little motel run by an old couple barely hanging on.  We got their last room featuring a black and white television that apparently showed Lawrence Welk 24 hours a day.

About 9 p.m. I zoned out on the Lennon Sisters and one of the other fellows and I put on the insufficient jackets we had thought would be clothing enough for the desert Southwest, and trudged into the storm, across the closed-down highway to the Ramada where there was a bar and a badly-needed drink.

Storm it was!  The blinding snow was horizontal to the ground, driven by a shrieking wind.  The lights of the Ramada, only yards away, were almost invisible in the blizzard.   We staggered in the door, coated with snow, and heard the distant sound of a Bob Wills Texas Playboys clone band playing Western swing.

We sank gratefully into chairs in the bar and the waitress said, “What’ll you have?”

“Bourbon and water,” I said.

“Do you have a bottle here?” she demanded, every bit as friendly as a puff adder.  Apparently my Missouriness stuck out like floating crude oil on the crystalline pond of her evening.  it was a bottle club.  You brought your own and they served set-ups.  Only in Oklahoma where every other guy is a bootlegger would you find such arcane liquor laws.

“Well, where can we get a bottle?” I asked.

“You can go to town,” she said.  “It’s only a couple of miles.”  She leaned on the bar, daring me to whip out a pair of snowshoes.

“I barely made it across the highway,” I said.  “What am I gonna do—take a dog sled to town?”  She shrugged.  Not her problem.  Frustrated I went to the restroom.  A friendly drunk banker stood next to me and I had an inspiration.  This only work with drunks.  “Boy, I sure wish I had a drink,” I muttered to the guy.  “Damn storm—can’t get to town to get a bottle.”

“You need a bottle!” he cried.  “Meet me out in the hall.”  He staggered through the door to the banquet hall, releasing a blast of “San Antonio Rose,” and shortly was back with an unopened fifth of Jack Daniels Black Label.

“There you go!” he said handing it to me. He didn’t even ask me for collateral.   Now that we are in a banking crisis and folks are down on bankers, I’m here to tell you that there are true Samaritans among them.

Especially when they’re drunk.

Then there was the time that eight couples headed across the Plains to ski in Colorado.  We made it as far as mid-Kansas when the blizzard turned Interstate 70 into a slalom course and KDOT quickly shut all the gates, trapping us along with many other orphans in the storm.  We ground to a halt.  We ran the heater periodically all night long, sleeping fitfully.  I hadn’t slept that uncomfortably with a bunch of folks since I was on field maneuvers in the National Guard.

One wife was convinced we all were going to die.  While it was an adventure for the rest of us, it was the end of life for her and she spent the night writing goodbyes to her children.  She seemed grumpy when dawn came and she still was alive—she had wasted all that whine time.

Daylight brought the sight of a Coors truck stranded directly ahead of us in the deep snow.  The driver, another Samaritan in time of need, shared his bounty with us.  Toward evening plows cleared the west-to-east lanes and we crossed to the cleared lanes, risking a head-on collision to reach a Stuckey’s a short distance away.

We pulled into the lot and sent a delegation to ask for shelter, much in the fashion of Joseph and Mary, only with nobody having contractions except the panicked wife who still wasn’t convinced she was tomorrow’s headline.  The Mom and Pop who ran the place were less than enchanted to have 16 visitors more interested in a place to sleep and stay warm than in buying Kansas postcards and rock ashtrays.

But finally they agreed to let us sleep in the place and even fix breakfast on their grill if we would leave them money for what we used.   That night, lying in my sleeping bag under the rock ashtrays  I heard the rustling sounds of the other 15 settling in for the night.

“The Waltons” was popular on television, and from all over the darkened Stuckey’s we heard voices saying, “Good night, Ma.”  “Good night, Pa.”  “Good night John Boy.”

I fell asleep to the sound of Coors-inspired giggling.

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  • February 8th, 2011

Labor’s Meistersinger

By Joel M. Vance

Labor has a voice and it’s that of a lanky nonagenarian with a long-necked banjo and a gentle spirit.  Pete Seeger for more than 90 years has been like the singer in one of his favorite folksongs, “I’m just a poor wayfarin’ stranger, a-travelin’ through this world of woe.”

He hung around with Woody Guthrie who wrote the unofficial American anthem “This Land Is Your Land.”  And it was Pete Seeger himself who wrote the anthem of black America “We Shall Overcome.”  When the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over the world, he summed it up with “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”

Now he’s past 90 years and he has outlasted Joe McCarthy and his sleazy band of thugs and he is thought of today as what he always has been—a spokessinger for the common man and the best friend a union guy ever had.

His role as minstrel for the union man dates to 1939 when he sang in concerts for the New York Dairy Farmers Union. He and Woody Guthrie gypsied around the country until Seeger was drafted in 1942 and served in the Pacific.  He returned just in time to have a head-on collision with McCarthyism—a long-running battle that he ultimately won.

Pete Seeger is a great American, no matter what the witch hunters of the 1950s said about him.  He has never stopped sticking up for the little guy and he has never stopped sticking up for the environment.  He was traveling the length of the Hudson River long before today’s environmentalists took it up as a cause, singing about the industrial outrages being committed against this gem of a river.

Seeger did belong to the American Communist party for several years in the 1940s when the Soviet Union and Joe Stalin were our allies against Germany.  He said his father Charles, whose family dates to the Mayflower, got him into communism.  Both later became disenchanted and quit.

Seeger has said, “Some of my ancestors were religious dissenters who came to America over three hundred years ago. Others were abolitionists in New England in the eighteen forties and fifties.”  Seeger became involved with civil rights in the 1960s and joined the growing disenchantment with Viet Nam, still later he crusaded for the environment.

In 1967, he wrote an angry song titled “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” which he sang twice on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour—the first time the song was cut by censors and the second time it did get broadcast The song had been inspired by a training accident when an incompetent officer led his heavily-loaded platoon into deep water, resulting in the captain’s drowning.

But it really was about Viet Nam and everyone knew it.  “And the big fool says to push on….” was the repeated line and when Lyndon Johnson heard it he no doubt entertained dark thoughts about where he’d like to stick Seeger’s banjo.

Seeger is quoted as saying, “In the sixties, during the Vietnam war, when anarchists and pacifists and socialists, Democrats and Republicans, decent-hearted Americans, all recoiled with horror at the bloodbath, we came together. “

Seeger testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955 and basically told the glowering politicos to stuff it.  He said he had a right to free speech under the Constitution and it was none of their business how he used it.

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs,” he said.

He went on to explain Americanism to people who should have known it already:”I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, that I am any less of an American than anyone else.”

Ultimately he was cited and convicted of contempt of Congress (which today would put much of the public behind bars) and sentenced to 10 years in prison.  After a year the charge was dismissed and by 1969 he was more environmentalist than subversive (or maybe those are the same thing).

He and friends launched a sloop named the Clearwater on the Hudson River and his campaign to clean up and keep clean this great river has continued ever since with measurable results, although it’s a continuing battle.

What kind of example has the life of Pete Seeger set for his fellow Americans?  Well, he wrote “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to crystallize the evils of racism and nuclear threat, but he also has written sweet songs for children. Back in the 1950s, before the McCarthyites got their claws in him, he led a group called the Weavers who had a huge popular hit with “Goodnight Irene,” as well as some others such as “The Midnight Special” and Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You.”

Before that Seeger and a group of proto-folk singers set the standards for everyone who has come since.  There was Woody Guthrie, of course, but also Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Leadbelly and Cisco Houston and many others whose names largely are forgotten today.

He and his wife, Toshi, have been married since 1942—a marital longevity that most happy couples can only hope for and most couples in general never come within a light year of.

“I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other,” Seeger has said.  It won’t happen, but it’s a nice daydream.

And he taught me how to play the banjo.  Not in person, unfortunately, but through his 1948 Manual “How to Play the Five String Banjo” which has been through numerous printings and revisions since.  Because I liked his music and banjo playing I bought both the book and a banjo.

Fifty years later I realized it was time to say thank you, so I sent him one of my books and told him that he had inspired me both musically and philosophically.  I got a nice note of thanks and a couple of bumper stickers reading, “Gravity Is Only a Theory.”

“Give these to your friends in Kansas,” he wrote.  Old crusaders never die—they just keep singing against whatever big fool is saying to press on, no matter what.

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  • February 3rd, 2011

Dream Girl

By Joel M. Vance

I hope you’ll forgive me, Marleen, but it has been more than 50 years and I’ve grown up.  You are still 17 and beautiful—my dream girl.  You really were in a dream last night–actually still tonight, for when I came awake at 5 a.m., I got up and began to write this.

You were my dream girl in high school girl, with eyes that flashed, a dimpled smile, and soft, dark hair that draped across your shoulders.  Your cheeks bloomed.  It was always spring on your face, Marleen: full of life and color.

We should have been a couple at Keytesville High School.  We matched so wonderfully back in 1952.  We both were little.  I was five-seven, but you were just the right amount shorter.  I could have leaned forward and kissed you on the forehead if I’d had the nerve.

I didn’t, of course.  You were dainty, with the lingering softness of what they inelegantly call baby fat.  Girls wore fuzzy sweaters in the 1950s and there never has been an article of clothing better designed to show a soft curve.

Forgive me for saying things that I couldn’t have said in 1952 if you’d used thumbscrews on me.  You were going with the West Point cadet you ultimately married and still are married to; I was skinny and as dumb as livestock when it came to girls in general and you in particular.

I was all talk, wisecracks and bluff but around you, I could only mumble and stumble and act the fool.  I lived six miles from town and a dozen miles from you, didn’t have a car, didn’t have any money, and was a shambling hayseed.    One girl I dated told her best friend who then told me with cruel satisfaction that I was “as green as grass.” It was an unerringly accurate description.  I had the savoir faire of a tuna fish.

You were the most beautiful girl in school and you were unofficially engaged.  A girl who was going steady was off limits to any but the boldest, and a girl who was unofficially engaged, especially to a West Point cadet, might as well have been Rita Hayworth in a movie at the El-Jon Theater.

I hope you won’t consider it disloyal when I say that my life has been wonderful without you.  A dream is art and life traditionally does not imitate art.  Fantasy doesn’t admit cold and bitterness and heartbreak.  We’re all 17 and holding in our dreams.

Now, first light is beginning on a dreary early March day.  In the dream I had last night, I’d gone back to Keytesville High School’s reunion.  They have one every year, but I’ve only been to a couple in the 50-plus years since we graduated.  At one I didn’t recognize my cousin who had aged, lost his hair and acquired a big gut.  He’s younger than me…but in my mind, I’m still 17 years old.

I bored my wife for a week before the reunion I did go to, saying I hoped you would be there.  My wife knows you’re my dream girl, the prettiest girl at Keytesville High School.  She’s not jealous; she knows my memories are quixotic creatures of a hyperactive imagination.  She was disappointed for me when you didn’t come.

She also knows that she is my reality.  We have been married—and in love– for 54 years and have five grown children.  We still delight in each other and when I look at her and hold her, I feel complete.  I don’t really need you, Marleen, but I need the thought of you, just as some children need an imaginary playmate.

In my dream, I had only stopped in to drift along the edges of the reunion activity, observing, but not being observed.  There was no real reason for me to mingle–you weren’t there or so I thought.  Then someone showed me a panoramic photo of the reunion, a big wide-angle shot of the gymnasium floor with hundreds of people sitting at tables and assembled in little conversational groups.

You were in the upper left hand corner, fairly far back, sitting at a round table.  I have no idea whom you were with because I saw only you.  You claimed my eye instantly and my mouth went dry.  You were there!

Or you had been.  “I didn’t know Marleen was coming!” I squeaked to whoever had showed me the photo.

“Yes,” the shadow person said.  “She was here a while ago.”

But you had gone.  You had come and I had missed you because I didn’t mingle.  Was this symbolic?  Was my subconscious telling me that I should have been more assertive when Mr. Eisenhower was president?  Big secret–any two-bit psychologist could tell me that.  My subconscious demanded a happy ending and brought you back to the reunion.  There was a time shift in the dream, and we were talking.  Dare I believe you came back to see if I were there?

As we talked the years melted away.  I don’t know how I looked to you, but you looked splendid to me.  My dream mind aged you but my imagination was wonderfully kind to you.  You were far from matronly (and far from more than 70 years old, at least as most of us appear at that age).  You were unlined and trim and nicely-dressed, though I’m unobservant enough that I can’t tell you what you were wearing.

You looked much as you had looked in our senior year when we played the mischievous twins in the class play, a typically stupid Keytesville production.  Kids today mount elaborate, costumed productions of South Pacific or West Side Story.  We put on The Daffy Dills, a silly “comedy” written by the literary equivalent of Clem Kadiddlehopper.

I was only in those plays because it gave me a chance to be close to you.  Especially when we were the daffy Dill twins.  You kissed me backstage one night at practice.  Do you remember that?  I always wanted to kiss you, but nothing could have made me try.  We were talking backstage and no one was around and you stepped close to me and kissed me.

Maybe you were practicing what they used to call womanly wiles before the days of femlib.  You didn’t have to practice with me.  I was the easiest target in the gallery.  I was a two-inch putt, an uncontested layup.  Probably you were just having a little mouse fun while the cat was off at West Point.

But you gave me something to dream on before we turned in different directions.

I just looked through our senior yearbook, the Regit, which was “Tiger” spelled backward.  I don’t remember whose idea that was, but I hope it wasn’t yours or mine.  At that, it’s better than Tiger Folleader, the previous name.  Folleader was a clumsy conjoining of  follower and leader.

Your photo is the first among the seniors.  You are looking back over your shoulder, as if someone you cherish had just called to you from behind.  Perhaps it was me, but I doubt it.  More likely it was your mother saying that your cadet was telephoning from West Point.  I’m at the lower right hand corner of the page, you at the upper left.  If it were me you were looking for, you would be looking slightly down.  No, it probably was the cadet.

I’m saddened to find that you wrote nothing in my yearbook.  Maybe I was too shy to ask.  According to your capsule biography, you were class officer, Barnwarming queen, pep squad leader for three years, editor of the yearbook, student council and glee clubber.  I was on the track squad with a penchant for knocking over hurdles.

But in my dream I was unbelievably at ease and articulate.  You said you had to go, but I pleaded with you to stay and talk, and you did–but I knew if I didn’t keep your attention, you would vanish and my dream would end.  You asked me to show you something that I’d written and, the way it happens in a dream, a computer was handy with some past stories of mine stored in it.  I sat at the keyboard and you leaned over my right shoulder, watching the screen.

I couldn’t remember the commands and my fingers fumbled and hit the wrong keys.  Finally, I was able to call something onto the screen and you began to read it.  I’ll never know what happened after that because the dream began to fragment.

The moment had passed, but it had been so real, so immediate.  Shortly after, I woke and came down to begin writing about it.

Why would I dream of you in such detail and so vividly after more than 50 years?  I don’t think I’ve ever dreamed about you before, though I’ve occasionally thought about you.

It’s not that I need you, Marleen, that there are regrets.  I have no regrets.  It’s not that the backstage kiss was better than any kiss since.  Actually my wife is the best kisser I’ve ever known.  I put you on a pedestal in high school and I keep you there still, but it’s not that there was some poignancy, some intimacy that I long for.  Given circumstances, there wasn’t even a what-might-have-been.

There’s just me being incurably romantic even when I’m asleep.  You’re among my souvenirs, with the yearbooks and the dated photographs.  Every now and then a sympathetic caretaker steals into my dreams and dusts them off and holds them up for me to see.

So, Marleen, I hope you come and visit me in dreams once in a while.  Nothing tawdry, you understand.  We’ll continue to meet at reunions during R.E.M.  Perhaps we can dance, even though I was a terrible dancer in high school.  I don’t think we ever danced, even my limited and clumsy foxtrot.  Except for that one kiss, I don’t think my arms ever were around you.  And even then, it was a tentative clasp that lasted only a wonderful instant before we broke apart and you laughed with your dimples and I blushed furiously and made some stupid wisecrack and wished I knew what to do next.

There’s a line in a song: “Give me a kiss to build a dream on…”  The dream of you always is fresh and wondrous.  The reality of you?  Well, I’m sure it would be pleasant.  We would visit and chat like old friends and remember our classmates and laugh about The Daffy Dills and maybe even joke about that kiss.  But dreams are soap bubbles and reality is a sharp pin.

You would no longer be the Marleen of 1952, nor even the dream Marleen of last night.  You would be a Marleen, but not my Marleen.

I think maybe it’s better that you stay my Marleen…and that I go upstairs and brew a cup of coffee.

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