Archive for November, 2017

  • Blog
  • November 26th, 2017

THE FORGOTTEN CORNER

By Joel M. Vance

“Let’s get it while the gittin’ is good!”
Those words of wisdom from the Midnighters summed up why we took a gravel road several miles South of Cramer Hall, to hang out at what had been a local watering hole for area farmers, until a couple of redheaded rowdies from Keytesville, Missouri, bought the place and turned it into the world equivalent of Studio 54, although with far fewer celebrities, and only a University of Missouri fullback as bouncer.
Where once the drinker’s uniform was Big Smith overalls and run over boots, coated liberally with cow shit, the new uniform was a blue Oxford cloth button down shirt, covered with a V-neck sweater, and trousers called cords, a kind of seersucker fabric, succeeded in the colder months by blue jeans. The footwear of choice very likely would be blue suede shoes, in keeping with the Carl Perkins anthem of the day. The grimy old farmers who had depended on Andy’s grumpily departed for some other rural beer joints where they could nurse their Griesedieck Brothers or Country Club beers in peace, without the clamor of “Work With Me Annie” blaring on a jukebox.
It was called Andy’s Corner, and no one knew who Andy was because the two owners were CR and Billy Dale Foster, dispensers of Griesedieck Brothers lager, and other sadly lamented low-cost brews of the late and equally lamented 1950s. Both were graduates of Keytesville high school as was I. CR had spent time in the Navy, and both were enrolled as students at the University of Missouri. Both were legendary chick magnets at KHS and had carried that romantic prowess over to the University, which possibly accounted for the popularity of Andy’s with some coeds, although probably not so much with their testosterone infused dates.
Cramer Hall was one of four dormitories on what used to be the south end of the University of Missouri campus, grouped like a quartet of medium security prison compounds, or possibly like the four corners of an old West military post, positioned for maximum security against Indian attack. Cramer and Stafford both had been built in 1946, an upgrade from the first postwar dormitories, which were no more than Quonset huts adapted to civilian use. Those were called TDs—temporary dorms— with all the charm of a US army barracks. All I remember about the TDs was that I was enormously glad I didn’t live in one. A student committed suicide in one of them, possibly because of having to live there.
By contrast with the Spartan temporary dorms, Cramer and Stafford along with the other two dorms—Defoe, which was the first of the four, and Graham were luxurious. Each room, shared with a roommate, featured a bed which was every bit as comfortable as sleeping on a 2 x 12 pine plank, a desk and a closet. Spartans had better digs. In later years there would be window air conditioners, but such modern innovations were beyond the imagination of those who built and furnished Cramer Hall. Also in later years, the dorms would become coed, a concept as unthinkable in the 1950s as if the Pope had been spotted at Andy’s Corner sharing a beer with Nikita Khrushchev.
Excitement was sparse in Cramer Hall. A housemother prowled the halls like a KGB operative sniffing out illicit beer or any whiff of corruption. Each floor had a resident student/monitor who was, however pleasant to fellow inmates, a member of the establishment and thus to be regarded with deep suspicion.
A basic problem with drinking beer is that inevitably it works its way through the internal plumbing and demands release. Andy’s Corner had not evolved enough to feature indoor plumbing, which was not a problem for guys, for whom the outdoors is a urinal and any spot is appropriate for release as long as someone’s foot is not in the way. But the distaff side had no recourse other than to hold it and pray that willpower would last until safe delivery back to civilization. There was an outhouse, a unisex structure so disgusting that no one dared go inside, no matter how imperative the need.
Guys, being pack animals, sometimes would exit the Corner and head for the outhouse, not to go inside but instead to stand in an informal semi circle and engage in athletic competition not, so far anyway, sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. The idea was to see how high on the outside wall of the outhouse one could pee. Honored was he who could arc the stream higher than his head.
There were no trophies or gold medals awarded to those with firehose capability, but there was satisfaction in the knowing and in peer appreciation. Meanwhile, inside the Corner, dates patiently waited for the return of their incontinent warriors, listening to “Work With Me Annie” and possibly wishing either that they had not drunk so much beer or that they had never agreed to this nightmarish date.
Andy’s Corner was not just sunshine and shadow and peeing contests. There was one unmemorable night highlighted by thunder, lightning, and the threat of University retribution, which in those days at least was Draconian. It happened this way: my date was Marty Leist, an increasingly serious relationship which would result in, so far, 61 years of marriage. Marty had to be back in her dorm by 10 PM or the hell of University retribution would fall heavily upon her delectable form.
I had borrowed a car for the evening from a dorm mate, whom I didn’t know all that well, with his admonition to “take care of my car or you’re a dead man” echoing in my ears. But the prospect of an evening night clubbing at Andy’s with Marty overwhelmed any trepidation I might have felt about risking death at the hands of a fellow Cramer Hall inmate.
We were sitting in a booth at Andy’s and a mid-Missouri storm brewed up outside. The beer was good, intimacy of the moment overwhelming. But the dreaded 10 PM curfew drew ever closer and finally we dashed into a driving rain and jumped into the borrowed car. But the damn car wouldn’t start! After grinding futilely on the starter until I was afraid the battery would die, I raced back inside and, almost on the verge of tears, explain my plight to Billy Dale. There were few customers and he turned the bar over to somebody (probably someone under age) and we got Marty home to Johnson Hall with a few minutes to spare.
As I said, Cramer Hall ultimately would become coed. Girls were sequestered in Johnson Hall, a monolithic building, operated much like a woman’s prison. In the 1950s a girl so much as one minute late was subject to what they called late hours, and enough accrued late minutes would result in a reduction of credit hours. Guys could stay out all night if they wanted to, but let a girl be a moment tardy at home base and she risked losing credit hours, for which she had paid good money. Nevermind that she was a straight-A student or a pillar of campus society—in the rigid minds of the administration she was a potential fallen woman. It’s a wonder they didn’t have stocks erected at Johnson Hall and an ever-heated branding iron with the fateful letters L.H., meaning late hours, to be burned on the errant girl’s forehead.
Billy Dale left me at Cramer Hall, sodden and sullen because I didn’t even get a good night kiss from Marty, and with the unwelcome chore of explaining to the car’s owner the next morning why it was still at Andy’s corner while I was at Cramer Hall. I never asked to borrow his car again. I think it was a De Soto and there is good reason why that car company no longer exists–the damn things won’t start in the rain.
In the succeeding years since Andy’s Corner was in full flower, the area South of Columbia has suffered the blight of urban sprawl and now practically is a new city. There is a new paved highway replacing the old gravel road and there is no Andy’s Corner with attendant outhouse. A jazz pub named Murry’s claims to be on the spot where Andy’s once stood but I have my doubts, because the location does not jibe with my memories. Guys wouldn’t dare go outside now to pee without risking arrest for indecent exposure and the girls have their own indoor restroom. The music often is live and does not feature the Midnighters or songs like “Work With Me Annie”. Beer costs more than a dime a glass or a quarter a bottle. Griesedieck Brothers and Country Club folded their tents long ago and so have at least some of the habitués of the old Andy’s Corner. Cramer and Stafford Hall died a tumultuous death in 2010, when the University demolished them to make way for an expansion of the ever sprawling medical complex.
Back when I was much younger and prone to fantasizing I had a recurring fantasy about how to ensure world peace. It was a time when the US and the Soviet Union were at missile point to each other and every day brought the threat of nuclear destruction. I would fantasize that if we could get Nikita Khrushchev and Dwight Eisenhower together for an afternoon at Andy’s Corner, armed only with enough money for as much Griesedieck Brothers beer as they could hold and a pocket full of nickels for the jukebox, which would have only one recording on it, that of the Midnighters singing “Work With Me Annie”. When they would walk out into the crisp 1956 autumn sunshine, perhaps headed for the rickety outhouse for a peeing contest, to see which one could hose higher on the stained siding of that venerable edifice, the world would be at peace, without threat.
In those long ago days, we had Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table at the United Nations to no discernible rock ‘n roll rhythm, Richard Nixon later would record his own melody of treachery on tape in the White House. Possibly we could get Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump together for an afternoon of tippling at Murry’s, but somehow I don’t think that would solve the problems that we face in today’s tumultuous times.
I remember one beery afternoon at Andy’s when the beer was free. I don’t remember the brand but it was awful stuff. The jukebox blared and the air was thick with cigarette smoke. “How do you like the beer?” asked a stranger and I replied, “Tastes like horse piss but it’s free.”
“Glad you like it,” he said. “I’m the one that’s buying it. A promotional thing.”
And the Midnighters sang, “Work with me, Annie/Let’s get it while the gittin is good!”

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  • Blog
  • November 19th, 2017

TO REMOVE OR NOT TO REMOVE

By Joel M. Vance
Call it an ethical problem, call it a crisis of conscience or call it who gives a rat’s ass, but whatever you call it the problem is mine and I’ll have to deal with it, probably by ignoring the whole thing. It involves a gravel road, a statue in a city park, and a notable honor accorded me for which I am both grateful and baffled.
The road is an undistinguished gravel diving south from an East-West transverse Road, South of Dalton, Missouri, indistinguishable from any of the many gravel roads that lace southern Chariton County like the strands of a spider web.
Here is the situation: the road is named Val Verde, which is the same name as a plantation owned by Sterling Price, a Civil War Confederate general. The road is just South of Dalton, where I lived for a decade in the 1940s and 50s. Now here is where it gets complicated. General Price actually captured my great grandfather and his brother, both Union militiamen who thought they were soldiers and who set out to defend Glasgow from the rebels in 1864.
Glasgow was and is a town of not much significance on the Missouri River, which did give it some importance during the Civil War due to its location overlooking the river. I suppose it could have been a Confederate or Union stronghold on the order of Vicksburg, but instead it was where after a half day, barely noticeable encounter, Price’s army captured the two Vance brothers and their ragtag company, and sent them back to their farms via parole, rather than shooting them outright or sending them to some pestilent Confederate prisoner of war camp.
Now, and for many decades, there has been in the city park of Keytesville, where I went to high school, a statue of General Sterling Price, who was not born in the town, but is claimed by it as a native son. And in the year 2010, I was the honored resident of Chariton County during the annual Keytesville Festival called (are you ready for this?) Sterling Price Days.
As that year’s honoree, I got to make a talk at the local high school auditorium to an audience, I can only characterize as politely indifferent, and then my wife, Marty and I got to ride in the back seat of a convertible in the annual parade down Main Street, waving at people in the manner of a returning war hero. No one threw confetti but they did smile and wave back, better than throwing bricks and rotten tomatoes in recognition that I was nothing more than the legatee of a damn Yankee.
Amid today’s nationwide hoohaw over removal of Confederate symbols, especially statues of prominent Confederates, how can I, as the descendent of a less than notable Union soldier— a captured one at that— reconcile being honored during Sterling Price Days, practically in the shadow of a statue honoring a notable general of the Confederacy?
Keytesville is not a notorious Confederate stronghold, as are many other towns, especially in the South. There have not been and doubtless never will be demonstrations on the order of the one in Charlottesville, Virginia, organized by right wing extremists, unregenerate rebels, and neo-Nazis. Price Days is not a recognition of the supremacy of the Confederacy, nor is it a call to return to the days of yore. It simply enough, is a celebration of long-standing, that originally began to recognize the accomplishments of a local boy who did more than just about anyone else in town, even if it was for a losing cause, and which has evolved into, simply enough, an occasion for everyone to have a good time.
Chances are if you ask most of the adults on the street or give a pop quiz to the students at Keytesville High School, challenging them to tell you in 100 words or less who Sterling Price was and what he accomplished in the Civil War, the best you can hope for will be a blank stare. General Price, before he led troops in the Confederacy, was a governor of Missouri, and before that a successful battlefield commander in the Mexican war.
Likely you would get a similar blank stare from Keytesvillians, were you to ask them to tell you about Maxwell Taylor. Taylor likewise was a general, probably also a Democrat, as was Price, whose military credentials are light years advanced over those of Sterling Price. Born in 1901, Taylor was the commander of the 101st airborne during World War Two. He later commanded the Eighth Army in Korea. The 101st was one of two airborne divisions to parachute into Normandy on D-Day and his outfit included Roy Joe Finnell, my first cousin, who was injured on landing behind German lines and had to fight with a broken back for several days until he linked up with Allied troops and was evacuated to England.
General Taylor went on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appointed by President Kennedy. He also was the ambassador to South Vietnam for a year, amid other honors. He died in 1987 at the age of 85. Perhaps Keytesville’s lack of appreciation for General Taylor has to do with the fact that he was raised in Kansas City and graduated from high school there. On the other hand, Price was born in Virginia and when he did move to Missouri it was not originally to Keytesville but to Fayette, a few miles from Glasgow, where in future years he would capture my great grandfather.
Thus, my connection to Gen. Maxwell Taylor is far more immediate and personal than one to a Civil War Confederate general who captured my great grandfather and his brother (who also happened to be the great grandfather and great grand uncle of Roy Joe Finnell). Curious oddity is that the headquarters of Sterling Price Days is on West Finnell Drive in Keytesville. There is a Maxwell Taylor Park in Keytesville where visitors with RVs can find a utility hookup and campsites. But you will find no statue to Maxwell Taylor in the Keytesville city park or anywhere else within the town and there are no celebrations or parades to honor General Taylor. Something in this tangled relationship does not make sense, but I’m still a long way from calling for the removal of Price’s statue and the erection in its place of one to honor Maxwell Taylor.
All I have in common with Sterling Price is a gravel road, the next one west of Val Verde which unaccountably is named Joel Vance Avenue. Price’s road is not named for him but named for his plantation where the workers were African-American slaves. And my road is an avenue, while Price’s Val Verde is a plain old road. Take that, you defeated Johnny Reb.
Why there is a road named for me anywhere is a mystery whose solution calls for the talents of Nero Wolfe. I’ve tried various County agencies, asking who might’ve been responsible for putting my name on the county roadmap and each one keeps referring me to another one until I’m back at the beginning. The road even as an avenue lacks the charisma of, say, Broadway in Manhattan. It dead ends at the upper end of the Dalton Cutoff lake and the only building on the mile-long stretch of road (excuse me, Avenue!) Is an abandoned house.
I don’t mean to downgrade Sterling Price. After all he was a governor of Missouri and by all accounts, a good one. On the other hand he is the textbook definition of a sore loser. After the Civil War, in contrast to Robert E Lee and other defeated Confederate generals who accepted that defeat, Price gathered the remnants of his army and fled to Mexico, offering his services to the Emperor Maxmillian, who declined. A year later Price returned to the United States and shortly thereafter died and is buried in a St. Louis Cemetery. His statue at in the Keytesville Park dates to 1915, and the 2017 celebration of Sterling Price Days was the 50th such event.
You might call North central Missouri a hotbed for the breeding of notable generals. Not only do we have Maxwell Taylor from Keytesville, Sterling Price from Keytesville (via Virginia), Omar Bradley from Moberly, and John Pershing from Laclede. (Gen. Pershing died in 1948 at the age of 87 and is buried in 624-acre Arlington National Cemetery which is on the site of the pre-Civil War estate of the Robert E. Lee family). We might also include Jo Shelby, who although born in Kentucky, settled near Waverley on the Missouri River. Two months after Gen. Lee surrendered and the war ended, Shelby, along with about 1000 rebels, fled to Mexico where, as did Price, he offered his services to Emperor Maxmillian and, like Price, he was turned down. He returned to Missouri, took up farming, and became a US Marshall, and died in 1897 and is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, in Kansas City.
The battle of Glasgow was a bit of a last gasp effort for Price and his army which, by then was in disarray. He had been defeated at Pilot Knob in Iron County, in southern Missouri only a week before, and had thoughts to capture Jefferson City only to realize that it had too many guns for his weaponry. He thought Glasgow had a storehouse of weapons and supplies and launched about 1500 men against the 800 union militiamen station at Glasgow, including those Vance boys. Starting about dawn, the Confederates (commanded by none other than Jo Shelby) blasted away at Glasgow and at 1:30 PM the Union boys surrendered. According to testimony. The Yankees were given ”uniform kindness and gentlemanly treatment.”
Price’s Army shortly would be whupped up on at Westport near Kansas City, and he would retreat into Arkansas until the end of the war which, in his eyes, never really ended.
So there you have the whole complicated story of the Vances, the Confederate general a couple of gravel roads and my personal and cherished honor as being a distinguished citizen of Keytesville and Chariton County. I’m proud of that and proud of the leaning road sign that points South down Joel Vance Avenue. It is not given to many Chariton County citizens to be so recognized. I love to read about Civil War history, but have no desire to relive it.
People who fly Confederate flags or wear white sheets and burn crosses are despicable, the scum of humanity who parade their paranoid and hateful symbols under the guise of patriotic or religious belief. Those are the dirty remnants of a lost cause that should be condemned, not the removal of statues dedicated to notable Confederates. Fighting a war that ended 150 years ago is a useless exercise and a waste of time that could be better used in ending the turmoil that divides the country today, not wrangling over the turmoil that divided the country so many years ago.

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  • Blog
  • November 11th, 2017

MOORE IS LESS

By Joel M. Vance

In 1959 my wife, Marty and I fled the land of grits and hominy for Missouri, a move that couldn’t have come too soon. Now the rest of the world has gotten a graphic reminder of all that motivated our move.
Roy Moore, the Republican candidate and putative shoo-in for United States Senator from Alabama, has gotten caught with his hand in the panties of a 14-year-old girl, a transgression that, even in Alabama, with a reputation for some of the most disreputable politicians in the history of the country, might be enough to deny him a seat in the Senate.
Moore, already a discredited judge, still had enough credits with the credulous voters of Alabama, who were willing to ignore every one of his outrageous statements over the years, but who may not be able to ignore this over-the-top indiscretion.
Although, given that Alabama voted for Donald Trump to be the president of the country, a man who brags about his ability to fondle women’s underwear, anything is possible. Alabama has a long and inglorious history of electing politicians who, in a just society, would be serving prison terms. But then you have to remember that Alabama is a state where formal dress often is considered a white sheet, and a weenie roast historically often featured a black person as the main course.
The Republican primary was a typically bizarre Alabama political Keystone Kop melodrama. Moore ran against Luther Strange who had been appointed to fill the unexpired term of Jeff Sessions who had been appointed the nation’s attorney general, the top cop on the federal level. Sessions, of course, is at the heart of the investigation into the Russian meddling in the 2016 election which saw Donald Trump unaccountably become president.
Strange was the Attorney General of Alabama, who was investigating the governor, who was involved in a scandal of his own. Governor Robert Bentley was accused of having an overly cozy relationship with one of his aides, some of which was recorded and the salacious tape was played widely to the amusement of everybody not involved. So what happens? The governor appoints Strange to fill the empty seat of Jeff Sessions— rewarding (and derailing) the very fellow who was investigating him for sexual misconduct. Bentley resigned ahead of being impeached.
So you have the governor of the state hanky-pankying around with an aide, suspected of cutting a deal with his attorney general, the fellow who was investigating him, who in turn was defeated in a primary battle with a discredited judge, who now has been implicated in his own sexual scandal.
Alabama politics as weird as it almost always is, can’t get much more convoluted than that and, if you happen to live almost anywhere else, laughable. One of the former governor’s spokespersons, Angi Stalnaker, summed up Alabama politics thusly “all of our corruption up until now had been our own private family embarrassment.”
I started working for the Alabama Journal, a newspaper of not much renown, in 1956, the tail end of the political reign of perhaps the most colorful politician Alabama has spawned—and that’s saying a lot. Big Jim Folsom, 6 foot eight and 250 pounds, was coming to the end of his term as governor, ultimately brought down by a combination of outrageous behavior, not the least of which was appearing drunk on television.
He was called Big Jim, for obvious reasons, but also Kissin’ Jim for his habit of planting one on every pretty girl he met. I heard that once he tried that with a University of Alabama cheerleader and she responded by slapping the snot out of him. He bragged about his amatory overtures, but said that he confined his smooching to women 16 and up, unlike the present Republican senatorial candidate who apparently has no lower age limit. “It was sort of like baby kissing” Folsom said, “Only I started with the 16-year-old ones and worked up from there.”
Folsom was, as were all most all southern politicians of the day, a Democrat. It was only in the 1960s and later that the xenophobic Democratic party switched identities with the Republicans and today’s Republican is similar if not identical to the Democrat of the 1950s and 1960s.
Stories about Kissin’Jim were legendary in the Journal newsroom. He would show up drunk at a news conference and the reporters would enjoy his bawdy repartee with them. One possibly apocryphal story was that when he was barnstorming through southern Alabama some redneck shouted out, “Jim, they say you been stealing up there in Montgomery.” To which Folsom replied, “shore I stole. You want all them sons of bitches up there to get all the money?” And the crowd cheered.
The Folsom era ended with a typically knotted Alabama political Gordian knot. His successor was George Wallace whose second wife was Folsom’s niece. And Folsom had a well-publicized affair with the 18-year-old daughter of Earl Warren, later to be the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, and a noted liberal who spearheaded the decision by the court to end segregated schools in the South. Wallace famously would go on to stand in the door of the University of Alabama to deny Autherine Lucy, an African-American, access to the then all white University.
To give Folsom his due, he vowed to uphold the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation order because as he said it was the law of the land and he would obey the law of the land. I worked with a fellow who had been a school principal in a rural Alabama school and who said the same thing—that if it was the law he would obey it and desegregate the school. He was fired by the school board.
I think that it may have been the morning before we left Alabama for good. Marty and I went out for breakfast. And I decided to try grits with my eggs and bacon. I discovered that, along with hominy, grits constituted the epitome of Alabama cuisine and it was time to hit the road. If Alabama politics had not curdled my soul, a diet of grits and hominy was sure to.
We headed back to Missouri which, in those days, was scarcely more advanced in civil rights than Alabama, but at least we didn’t endorse the Klan, white citizen’s councils, and other examples of Southern social clubs. We stuck with the Kiwanis Lions and other more traditional and acceptable guy gatherings of white middle-class males.
Still to come in the Southland I happily left behind were the murders of civil rights workers, the bludgeoning of marchers seeking equal rights, the loosing of police dogs and fire hoses on yet more protesters of school integration by such stalwarts of bigotry as George Wallace and Orville Faubus.
Still to come also was Roy Moore, the latest incarnation of bizarre Alabama politicians. His explanation for his behavior and the interpretations of his supporters are like dialogue from the most fervid imaginings of Lewis Carroll. Alice would have fled in horror— bad enough to be harangued by giant rabbits and deranged hat makers, but attempted diddling by Roy Moore is beyond Wonderland and well into the territory of Hell.
Moore was appointed as a judge by then Alabama governor Guy Hunt who would be convicted of theft for converting $200,000 campaign contributions so he could build a marble shower and buy a lawnmower. Hunt resigned in disgrace in 1993. Moore twice was kicked out of the judiciary, once for defying a court order to remove a plaque containing the 10 Commandments from his court room, the second time for willfully and publicly defying the orders of a United States District Court. In 2016 Moore was suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court by the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission which found him guilty of six ethics charges, stemming from his defiance of previous court orders.
Since then Moore has been active railing against same-sex marriage, homosexuality, Islam, and anything he doesn’t like. Moore did explain that he probably did date younger women when he was in his 30s but never, he stoutly maintained, without having gotten the consent of the girls’ mothers, an explanation that raises eyebrows high enough to cause vision problems. Can you imagine the parents of a 14-year-old giving consent to their daughter dating a 32-year-old man? Daddy would be busy searching for shotgun shells while mom would be busy dialing 911.
If you have seen the news stories about Roy Moore and it is difficult not to have, you doubtless have seen him riding a horse. Other than the fact that it’s difficult to separate him from the back end of the horse I am invariably inspired to comment to the television set with a suggestion that other than committing illegal shenanigans with underage girls he should also consort with, as the phrase ends, ” the horse you rode in on.”

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  • Blog
  • November 5th, 2017

ONCE AGAIN

I’ve posted this piece several times since I wrote it several years ago. Every day seems to bring new divisions in the country and new animosity among people that used to be United—or at least most of the time. We are a country of immigrants, of diverse religious, political, and social beliefs, and that is our strength. It is, when we forget, that we begin to become unraveled. I’ve submitted this for publication at least two dozen times and no one has seen fit to publish it. Perhaps it’s just no good, perhaps the editors are idiots, perhaps I should retire and listen to Beethoven.

By Joel M. Vance
It was Veteran’s Day and our local symphony orchestra preceded Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a tribute to the nation’s servicemen and women. “Bring the house lights up,” said the concert master, “and all those who have served in the military stand up.”
Quite a few men stood, mostly bent with age and various infirmities. I didn’t stand, although I spent 13 years in the Reserves and National Guard. But when I was in the Guard we attended weekly drills, and for two weeks each summer we invaded northern Minnesota to keep the nation safe from people named Olson.
I didn’t feel entitled to be showered with the same appreciation given to men who actually did risk taking a bullet for us.
The old men sat and we hunkered down for the musicale. The first number was a medley of patriotic songs. “Over There” echoed from the War to End All Wars (several wars ago) and that morphed into “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” I appreciated the homage to the guys with the long guns in “The Caisson Song,” even though I never saw a caisson during my tenure in the artillery.
And finally they played “American the Beautiful” and I realized that my eyes were wet. This is a beautiful country, not like any other. It offers everyone the chance to be something, just like it promises.
Some citizens choose to be evil, mean, obnoxious, bigoted and awful. Others choose to be saintly. Some go to church, well, religiously, while others just as religiously avoid it. Supposedly Stephen Decatur said, ”… may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!” Since, it has been corrupted to “my country—right or wrong” but if every citizen hewed to that philosophy we still would be paying homage to a queen and eating boiled kidneys.
We are a nation founded on civil disobedience. My immediate response to bumper stickers reading “My country—love it or leave it” is anger because what they really mean is “my country—love it my way or leave it.” And it’s not “my” country. It’s ours, mine too, even when I disagree with the bumper sticker bigots.
We should acknowledge that maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are…and try to do better. It’s not fruitful to talk only of the glories of the mountains and the prairie and the oceans white with foam…and ignore the ghettos and the mountain top strip mining and the many other abscesses on the face of the nation.
But to concentrate on those open sores at the expense of all that’s right with the land is as wrong as refusing to admit them. There is no anthem called “America the Ugly” and I hope there never is. We can’t control the occurrence of hurricanes, ice storms, floods or, most of the time, wildfires, but we can control the ugliness and despair of human life. We just don’t try hard enough.
It sounds Pollyannaish, but the alternative is to grumble and carp and create a sort of national dyspepsia. There is no cosmic Pepto Bismol. I hark back to the Eisenhower Decade, the 1950s when I graduated from high school and college, got married and participated in creating our first child—a momentous time that is accused today of being a national nap.
Maybe so, but it also was the decade when the high speed interstate highways we love today were born, when the Korean War ended and when we enjoyed postwar prosperity, economic growth and that 10-year nap. Conversely, it also was a decade when we overused pesticides, swallowed the family farm with a corporate one, used the mega-machines developed for war to create environmental outrage, and heard the first whispers of Viet Nam and the racial unrest that would plague the 1960s—evil twins that still haunt us today.
We will always be a nation at war with itself specifically because of our freedom to do so. For every mining entrepreneur who would rip the top from a beautiful mountain to get at the precious ores beneath there is someone who will tie himself to a tree to prevent it. For every sodbuster who would upend the last native acre of native prairie with massive plows there is someone who would buy that prairie only to leave it alone to bake in the summer sun and bend beneath winter’s nor-westers.
While diversity can be aggravating, it’s what makes this country the confused whirlwind it is. It’s no great revelation that we live in a country that embraces every form of human behavior that offers vistas from majestic to dismal.
So once in a while it is helpful to the human spirit to hear a local symphony play “America the Beautiful” and really mean it.
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