Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Captivated by Numbers

We are seeing a lot of graphs these days.  Graphs portray numbers visually.  They represent facts and suggest trends.  With a graph you can see the measure of some slice of reality, what has happened and what is likely to happen next.  Graphs have become part of our language and our thoughts.   “Flattening the curve” means more today than it ever did.  When you talk of deaths caused by Coronavirus, flattening the curve means saving lives by reducing lives lost to the pandemic. 

Since March, I have been glued to the news.  I have not paid this much attention to media coverage of world events since the Vietnam War over fifty years ago.

While the war was far away in Southeast Asia the conflict affected me directly.  American men were dying in Vietnam.  I was fast approaching draft age, and at age 18 I would graduate into the highest risk category of all.  Young men my age were being forced into the military, sent to Vietnam, and killed.

Today’s threat to Americans threatens all humans on the globe.  Coronavirus does not discriminate between who it attacks, but the most at risk of dying from the virus are older people.  Ironically, at age 68, that puts me in the high-risk category again.

My kids remind me of that all the time.  They quiz my wife and I about our behavior and scold us if they think we are taking undue risk.  They worry about losing their mother and me to this disease.
As if fear and grief can be represented by numbers, human beings measure horrible threats by counting deaths.  Raw data, in this case the number of lives lost to the pandemic may act as a rough indicator of harm, but it fails miserably at representing the damage radiating from each soul ripped from us prematurely.

Needless death traumatizes families, caregivers, faith organizations, and whole communities with lasting effect.  Yet our data driven world persists in finding one number that matters most.  My most watched scorecard these days is the daily number of Coronavirus deaths in America.  They roll up like dollars on a TV charity telethon tote board, or numbers on the dials of old mechanical automobile odometers. 
Every time a writer (including me) puts up an aggregate number of deaths there should be a disclaimer that goes with it lest our humanity gets lost in the math.  Maybe this.

The reader is asked to remember that these numbers are made up of individual deaths.  Each by itself, one piled on top of another, represents a call to the deceased’s spouse, parents, extended family, friends, lovers, classmates, acquaintances.  Each death results in shock, grief, an obituary, funeral ceremonies if allowed, lifelong trauma, and a lessening of our humanity.  The effect of those deaths is not singular but exponential.
We now believe the first person died in America from Coronavirus on January 25, 2020.  At least that is when we started counting.  On April 28th, 94 days later, 58,947 were dead from the Coronavirus. On that day, the pandemic in America eclipsed the 58,319 deaths we suffered in Vietnam.  Numerical fact.  That number has been tattooed somewhere in my brain for some time now.

On April 29th, the very next day after the pandemic in America exceeded American deaths in Vietnam, Jared Kushner, the President’s son in law, said this to Fox News.

“This is a great success story, and I think that’s really what needs to be told.”

I am posting this on July 7, 2020.   As of yesterday, 132,573 Americans had died from the pandemic.  It continues and will continue to grow.  Our country has now lost more than twice the number of Americans killed in Vietnam and is, I’m afraid, on its way to tripling that awful number.  The curve has not flattened.  I don’t think “success story” will be among the words used to describe this time in America’s history.

Can we compare lives lost in a struggle with a rampant virus to deaths in a political armed conflict?  Let me give it a try.

The arc of American deaths in Vietnam occurred over twenty years.  The first American died as a result of the Vietnam conflict in 1955.  Injuries which caused the last death occurred in 1975.

“Flattening of the curve” was not a concept I recall discussing then.  We just wanted the war to end.  During five of those twenty years, 1966-1971, 47.5% of all the deaths over 20 years occurred.  That is a total of 27,717 American young people killed, primarily young men, up to 30% of them drafted.  Countless more enlisted to avoid the draft, trying desperately to take some control over their future.
It had better be damn important, whatever the event in question, to risk such an outcome, to suffer that amount of sheer human loss, don’t you think?

I did a little research and asked my son Dean, who is studying data science, to take the data I found and make a graph of Americans killed in action in Vietnam by month during those five years.  A graph like the ones we see so often today about the Coronavirus pandemic.  
We have for years touted that we strive to make decisions “based on data” while then continuing to do what is politically or economically expedient.  Data is supposedly considered, but too many decisions are still made based on intuition.  Hunches are played, like bets in a casino, with the most important of matters.  Life and death being one.

I think we were powerless to stop this virus entering our country, spreading through the population, and killing vulnerable people among us.  What was in our power was to minimize it through effective leadership, sound policy, and the wise use of resources.  What we had hoped to see, as time went on and we learned more about the virus, was deaths going down.  Flattening the curve would save lives.
We had a lot more control of the fate of our soldiers in Vietnam.  During the month of January 1966,
196 Americans were killed in Vietnam.  I was 14.  The American public would not see another monthly death total that low until I was 20, in October of 1971, nearly six years later.  How did America allow that to happen?  And why?

Between those two dates, monthly deaths rose steadily.  1967 began with 403 deaths in January and ended with 486 in December, with more Americans dying each successive month than the last. That steady monthly increase would continue until the worst monthly death toll of the war, April of 1969.

In April of 1969 I was three months away from graduating high school.  Early in May, we learned that 543 Americans were killed the previous month.  And then they began to drop, agonizingly slowly, finally falling below 200 (ironically to 196) in October 1971.  To see the rise and fall of Americans Killed in Action in Vietnam during the worst five years of the war (Jan. 1966-Dec. 1971) look at this.


America’s role in the Vietnam War started under Dwight Eisenhower in 1955, grew during John F. Kennedy’s almost three years as President, expanded and peaked during Lyndon Johnson’s five years, continued during Richard Nixon’s five and a half years, and finally ended under Gerald Ford on April 30, 1975. The graph above represents the worst five years for American deaths.

The President in office for the majority of those awful five years, and thus responsible for those deaths, was Lyndon Johnson.  He expanded the war, increased the draft, sent more American young men to Vietnam, began heavy aerial bombing campaigns, and trusted his generals and the Secretary of the Department of Defense, Robert MacNamara, when they assured him they were about to gain the upper hand in the conflict.  “Light at the end of the tunnel” was LBJ’s catchphrase.  As Johnson’s presidency went on, that light grew dimmer and dimmer.

So how was the curve flattened in Vietnam?  Americans, led by young people, protested the war and opposed Johnson and his Democratic administration.  The human price paid for success in Vietnam, always ill defined, finally became too high for Americans to accept.
Large and sustained protests took place across the country against the war and were coupled with relentless reporting by journalists on the reality of the situation in Vietnam and the decisions made by the Johnson Administration.  The real tragedy is not that America lost the war, but how long it took to bring it to an end.

Lyndon Johnson, facing likely defeat, announced he would not run for re-election as President.  At a bloody convention in Chicago where protestors, largely students, were beaten mercilessly the Democrats selected Hubert Humphrey as their candidate.  Republican Richard Nixon, claiming he had a “secret plan” to end the war, became President in January of 1969.

The Vietnam War continued throughout Nixon's presidency, which ended on August 9, 1974 when he was abandoned by the Republican party and resigned facing certain impeachment. His Vice President and successor, Gerald Ford signed a peace agreement and ordered U.S. troops out of Vietnam on May 7, 1975.

It took five years and two months for the war come to an end after Nixon was elected on the promise of bringing the troops home. During that time another 14,000+ Americans died in Vietnam.

The outcome of the war following America’s final withdrawal was the immediate reunification of Vietnam.  North Vietnam took over South Vietnam almost the day the United States left.  That result would likely have taken place regardless of when America decided to leave.  Why did we wait so long?

How many Americans died needlessly in Vietnam?  You can’t calculate a number.  But you can mourn their loss.

The number of Americans lost in Vietnam, 58,319, is a number I keep in my head.  When I walked into work the morning of September 11, 2001 and learned the World Trade Center’s twin towers were on fire, and soon to collapse, I asked my staff how many workers those office buildings held.

“Why are you thinking of that?” one asked.

“Because we lost 58,319 Americans in Vietnam.  If we lose more than that today it will be America’s worst tragedy ever.”

As it turned out 2,996 Americans died on that day.

In Korea, America's death count was 36,574.

I kept a running count, updated weekly, of Americans killed in the Iraq War on my office door at work.  Iraq was another conflict I believed unnecessary and misguided.  That number ended at 3,836.

America’s intervention in Afghanistan cost the lives of 2,372 military personnel and another 1,720 civilian contractors for a total of 4,092. 

The Vietnam War was America’s most deadly conflict since World War II, taking from us 58,319 Americans while accomplishing little if anything.

How many Americans will die needlessly during the Coronavirus pandemic from a lack of effective leadership, the absence of sound policy based on data and science, and the poor use of resources by our government?

You cannot calculate a number.  But you can mourn their loss.

And like America's reaction to lives lost in Vietnam, you can guarantee those responsible for these needless deaths pay a heavy political price for their ineptness.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Keeping Vigil

I signed up online to take the 4:00-5:00 a.m. time slot at my church’s 24-hour vigil against racism because I’m up then anyway.  I have this moveable hour or so when I wake up, for no particular reason, and think about all kinds of things.  Sometimes it’s the worry hour, sometimes the planning hour.  Whatever it is I rarely get out of bed.  My goal is to get back to sleep if even for a little while.  Usually I succeed.  I thought I might as well be awake downtown than lying in a bed on Field’s Hill.

It’s pretty quiet downtown at 4:00 a.m.. After the transition from the family who began at 3:00, I checked in and reviewed the rules, which I always consider suggestions.  The organizers agreed to have an Open Table congregant there at all times, we were to direct and inform visitors how to handle bathroom use, call the cops if something went wrong, etc..  Everything was covered.  Although the event was put together quickly, we had over 120 people committed to keeping vigil with us, either in person downtown or virtually at home.  I had never participated in a protest quite this organized.  

I was at the opening ceremony held in the park across the street Monday June 8th, and I would attend and play a part in the closing ceremony June 9th, but it was that hour in the dark beginning at 4:00 which proved to be most meaningful.  I was personally moved and didn’t expect to be.

Ten minutes after arriving it was just me, and a quiet man sitting on one of the lawn chairs behind me who had been there since the vigil began.  It was me that asked, at an Open Table organizing meeting in preparation for the event, what one did when they kept vigil.  I learned from our pastor the event was intended to Acknowledge, Amplify, and Act to end racism in our country and beyond.  Our presence is our testimony.

You could pray, you could simply be silent, and you could respond to questions from visitors if asked.  There was chalk for creating art or leaving messages on the sidewalk.  There were candles those attending could light and leave on the steps of the church.  But the event was not about activity.  It was about presence.  It was about standing up and showing the community exactly where you stood.

Our church is on a busy street, Columbus Street in Ottawa, which is also Illinois Route 23, but it wasn’t very busy between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. Monday morning.  I stuck my rosary in my pocket before I left the house.  It seemed a perfect time to pray.

The rosary takes a while.  It always settles me down, getting through all the prayers, remembering which comes next.  The task of rote recital tends to push out the clutter in your mind, but it does not tax it so much that you can’t think of other things as you pray.

In the summer of 2018, I made a solo road trip in the Buick through Alabama on the Civil Rights Trail.   I came home and began to blog about the experience.  I wrote 13 posts in all, beginning on 3/29 and ending on 7/26/19.  They are still there if you scroll down far enough. 

Most of the writing summed up my times in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma where I followed the paths walked by the Civil Rights leaders Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, along with Governor George Wallace and Eugene “Bull” Connor who blocked their way.

By visiting historical sites and museums I learned vivid lessons of racism in America that took place when I was a kid on the farm.  Some of it I had watched on black and white television.  I stood in the park in Birmingham where dogs were set on children and protestors were knocked down by fire hoses and rolled down the sidewalk.  Racism in America is a long and extensive story.  None of it made it into my textbooks at school. I was amazed at what I discovered.  I knew the awfulness of it in a fashion, but it didn’t hit home till I saw it up close.    

I followed my observations on that trip with basic history and facts from Wikipedia and more in depth reading other various other internet sources.   The history of racism in America is all there, but its buried away from white America’s consciousness.  Personally, I don’t think white people want to know.  I wrote so many posts on racism because I wanted to shine the small light of Dave in the Shack onto the injustice I discovered as a 67-year old white American Yankee.  I found it hard to stop writing about it, but I did.  I lost readers steadily as the posts piled up. 

I moved on to other topics.  And then racism coupled with violence, as American as apple pie, slapped me in the face again with the murders of Amaud Arberry and George Floyd.  Now it seems impossible to move on.

While I prayed the rosary, I bowed my head and closed my eyes.  When I finished, I looked up at Washington park, the Ottawa main square directly across from Open Table church.  In the middle of the park are statues of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, and on a wall facing the park a mural of them debating.  They commemorate the first Lincoln Douglas debate held in the park on August 21, 1858.

The big issue of the debate was the question of extending the right to own slaves to the western states about to be formed.  Lincoln, a Republican, was solidly against the proposition, representing the views of many who called themselves abolitionists, proponents of the abolition of slavery.  Douglas was a Democrat who was opposed to the federal government making that decision.  He favored states be autonomous and free to make their own decision on slavery.  He feared abolishing slavery, or even preventing its expansion, would lead to civil war.  The issue was the morality of slavery, the ultimate subjugation of black people, and the country was divided.

Lincoln and Douglas were vying to be elected to Congress as senator from Illinois.  Lincoln lost his bid for the Senate, but became a national figure by representing those who favored the eventual abolition of slavery.  He was elected President in November of 1860, and took office in March of 1861.

Eleven states seceded from the union almost immediately after Lincoln took office.  America’s Civil War began in April with the siege of Ft. Sumpter.  Lincoln eventually presided over the Union Army’s victory when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox on May 9, 1865.  He was assassinated 37 days later on April 15th of that same year, at age 54, not quite seven years after speaking out in the park I was gazing at in the middle of the night.  He was both elected president and assassinated for putting his belief that slavery was wrong into action.  

The church behind me, Open Table, was established as a Congregational church in 1840.  Congregationalists in the mid 1800’s predominately favored the abolition of slavery, though each congregation was autonomous and fiercely independent. Owen Lovejoy of nearby Princeton, a Congregational minister in that community, was a prominent abolitionist in Illinois and a friend and early supporter of Lincoln and the Republican party.   No doubt he was across the street listening to that debate.  The history of the struggle for black equality has deep roots in America.  I felt as if I was still standing in the middle of it. 

The Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the civil war did not achieve equality for black people, nor did the 13th ,  14th , or 15th amendments to the constitution, the Federal Reconstruction Act following the Civil War, or the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1875, 1957, 1960, 1964, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Legislation hasn’t created black equality because discrimination based on color is baked into the very fiber of America. It is systemic and pervasive.  Racism is rooted in our hearts.  At least it has been.   

The vigil I participated in was conceived and carried out by a 14-year old member of our church.  She felt she, and we, had to do something.  We supported her. That is how we will reach true racial equality in our country.  Young people, both black and white, will demand it.  And I believe they, along with awakened Americans of all ages, will accomplish it.  Young people and their unabashed rejection of discrimination against the LGBTQ community led us to embrace the federal approval of gay marriage.  I think they will succeed in defeating systemic racism where other generations have failed. 

As I looked into the park I considered the many lifetimes devoted to bringing racial equality to America, from Harriet Tubman to Abraham Lincoln, from Martin Luther King to Ta-Nihisi Coates, each with an intense desire to affect change, but frustrated when it was not achieved.  Then a bird began to sing.

Birds don’t know the time, but they sense the coming of the dawn.  And when their day begins, they celebrate with song.  I’m not often outside when the birds begin to sing.  Sometimes I’m awake in the house and hear their songs faintly.  But usually I don’t notice, or I’m asleep.  Standing across from the quiet of the trees in Washington Park, more birds joined in and their song formed an early morning choir. 

When I was young, I would occasionally stay up all night.  Those were typically good nights, so good I lost track of time.  When the birds sang, I was surprised.  My thoughts often ran along the lines of “oh no, I have to be at work in three hours.”

Now that I'm older and for the most part much more sober, I find the sound of the birds a blessing.  I think you and I, led by the good young people of America, are on the brink of a new day.  Listen for it, be supportive, don't lose hope, and for God's sake don't sleep through it.  It is going to take all of us to make this happen.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Digging Thistles

I was fortunate to be given space on an organic farm to plant a row of vegetables.   The farm is six miles from my driveway.  It has buffer zones separating it from the flat Illinois corn and bean ground around it.  One of the big crops on the organic farm this year is sunflowers.  That stand of flowers is going to be beautiful. 

The plot where my row is planted is part of a large garden that I would call a truck patch.  Big garden with rows of all kinds of vegetables.  I would show you a picture, but my row is embarrassingly crooked.  Next year I’ll use a string. 

I have forty plants.  Four kale (two Red Russian, two long leaf), twelve tomatoes (plums and slicers), and twenty-four peppers (serrano, habanero, cayenne, poblano, Thai hots, various others).  They are in full sun.  My hosts supply saved rainwater for watering from tanks connected to the gutters of their big metal shed.  A long hose stretches to all parts of the garden.  It is a great system.  We’ve had lots of May rain, so the tanks are fairly full. 

As an organic farm, there are of course no herbicides, pesticides, or chemicals of any kind.  The ground is enriched by pelletized chicken manure from an organic chicken operation.  I like the concept, but when you are up close to an organic plot you quickly see the difference between the neighbor’s corn and bean fields.  Weeds.

Modern herbicides do a frighteningly thorough job of eradicating weeds.  Weeds were a fact of life on the farm I grew up on.  There were all kinds of weeds we knew by name and fought annually; butter print, ragweed, giant ragweed, lambs quarter, foxtail, pig weeds, thorny pig weeds, jimson weed, goose grass, bull nettles, horse weeds.  The list goes on and on. 

At some point in the sixties my Dad bought a sprayer, actually just a cart for two fifty-gallon drums with booms and small sprayer heads.  He was never comfortable mixing and handling the cans of expensive liquid weed killers.  He mowed weeds before they went to seed, and cut them from the beans with weed hooks, but what he liked best was digging them up by the roots.  Especially the thistles. 

Canada thistles could grow to be the size of small Christmas trees.  At the very top where a star would go a purple seed pod formed.  If and when it opened the seed would scatter in the wind.  I always thought of that line from the Christmas poem “and away they all flew, like the down on a thistle.”

Canada thistles were the bane of my Dad’s existence.  Well, that may be a little dramatic, but he hated them.  I don’t think he ever blamed the Canadians, but he was always on the lookout for fields where farmers let them go to seed.  He believed there should be a special place in hell for those farmers, and he was determined not to be one of them.

And so, on our farm we dug thistles.  It was a job always waiting when it seemed there was nothing else to do.  Dad taught me how to dig thistles in great detail, telling me about the plant..  He studied things like that.  He was most intent on getting thistles out of the pastures.  They could be easily seen there.  And Dad would never use chemicals where the cows ate grass.  It had to be done the old-fashioned way.

Some part of weed control was related to what the neighbors thought.  Yes, weeds rob crops of nutrients from the soil and its true they sometimes shade crops from the sun, but they are also a blemish on a farmer’s reputation.  Dad wasn’t having it.  Especially when it came to those damned Canada thistles. 

We strode out to the pasture, each with a spade, and approached an invading thistle.  Dad began explaining his personal technique for combatting thistles. 

“You gotta think of thistles like icebergs.  The most dangerous part of them is below the surface.  That’s why we dig them instead of cut them.  Cutting thistles only sets them back for a while.  Digging them gives you a chance to kill them off for good.  It’s the roots.  All about the roots.”

He jammed his spade up close to the base of the thistle and drove it deep in the ground with his boot.

“Good to dig thistles after a rain.  The ground is softer.  They come up easier.”

He pried down on the spade handle, using it like a lever to lift the thistle up.

“Watch that dirt around this thistle.  If the dirt begins to lift and the thistle stays put, like this, you’re not deep enough.  You want to get under it.”

He pulled the spade out and reset it on the other side of the thistle, this time jamming the blade in deeper.  He pried it up again.

“OK, see how I’ve got the whole thing coming up?  That’s what you’re looking for.  On a big thistle you many have to use your spade all the way around it to get it to lift.  But that’s what we want.  The goal is getting the root out without snapping it off.”

He pried some more and then lifted the thistle up and out with a big dirt ball around the root.

“Look at this.”

He hit the dirt ball with his spade revealing a long white tap root with smaller roots and tiny white root hairs branching off.

He knocked the dirt off the root completely and scraped it back into the hole where the thistle once stood.

“Leave it out in the sun to dry out and die.  If you dig it out and leave it lie there with the dirt on the root it will re-root itself.  Especially if it rains.  I’ve seen it happen.  It sends down roots, curves its head up toward the sun, keeps on growing like nothing happened.  There’s a reason there are so many of them.  They’re damn tough.”

“But if we dig ‘em out good we get rid of them, right?”

“Well, we knock them back considerably.”

He didn’t want to tell me he’d been digging thistles his whole life.  Canada thistles are a weed you can control to some degree.  But without chemicals you can’t defeat them.  It is impossible for every root hair to come up out of the ground when a thistle is dug.  And then there’s the problem of those downy seeds.

“So, we’re going to have to do this again next year?”

“Yeah, most likely.”

That realization dampened my enthusiasm for thistle digging considerably.  It was hot out there.  Digging, stooping, slapping the dirt off those roots was hard work.  And monotonous.  I looked across the pasture at the job before us.  There were potentially days and days of thistle digging ahead. To make things worse, that first day turned out to be a teaching day for Dad, a learning day for me, and the last day Dad helped me dig thistles.   From there on out it was just me. 

That’s what I’ve been thinking about since the day I put my plants in the ground on the organic farm.  There’s a lot of thistles out there.  After that first day I put a spade in the trunk of the Buick, along with a hoe.  There used to be golf clubs there.

I went after the big thistles first.  They were on the edge of the plot where the ground had not been tilled.  They had long roots, probably from being mowed rather than dug.  It was hard to stop.  I wasn’t sure how long it would be before they went to seed, but I wanted to get ahead of them.

I’ve been going out every morning.  I say I’m going out to check on my plants, but to be honest I go out for my sanity in equal measure.   Most days it is the only place I go.  I haven’t put gas in the Buick for three weeks.  I water, prop up plants that are leaning, pick blossoms off the tomatoes and peppers.  It’s too early to make fruit, I want big healthy plants first.

When I am satisfied my plants are in good shape, I turn my attention to the thistles.  As my plants grow, benefitting from the sun and the rain, so do the thistles.  I’m getting tiny thistle sprouts in my row.  I’m nipping those bastards in the bud.  I attack them just like they were big, get way under them, pry them out, break the dirt off from around and inspect the root to see if I got all of it.  Sometimes I dig deeper trying to find and destroy pieces of root I might have missed.  It’s a little obsessive I agree.  But it feels good.

When I’m done, or tired, I sit on the edge of the trunk with the lid up, have a cup of coffee from my thermos, and look around.  I listen too.  There’s a lot of birds out there, especially in the buffer zones.  I check out the conventional farmers around me.  Sometimes I finish the crossword puzzle.  I try to keep my phone in my pocket.  It’s a nice part of the day.

I last dug thistles fifty years ago.  Dad, if he were alive, would be 111.  Yet sometimes when I’m out on that farm it feels like he’s with me still. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Knowing Jack

I got to know my wife’s Uncle when I was turning 49 and he was 87.  One of my brothers in law, husband with skills and tools of another of Jack’s nieces, was trying to help him stay in his old farmhouse in Dimmick township.  I became the gopher on the job.

That house had significant problems, plumbing among others. It was Jack’s parents’ house.  He had never married, was long past retirement, and lived as a solitary man. Jack occupied only a few of the rooms that once housed his large family.  The unused rooms were like a museum of a past life.

Jack lived simply.  Realizing calendars could be reused, that there were only so many combinations between days of the week and January 1, and factoring in leap year, he had a complete set of wall calendars from a long closed local bank.  The ones with the big numbers they gave out free.  As the years rolled on, he reused the calendars when January 1 lined up with the right day.  When an old calendar was hung in a new year, he crossed off the previous year it was used and wrote the new year in magic marker.  In the margins were strings of the years of Jack’s life in his own hand.

Jack was a White Sox fan, a democrat, and a Catholic but he was also part of a close community. He talked of his neighbors kindly, as if they were family, and many of them were.  He was grounded in the people and the land around him.  Jack served in Europe in WWII and was a prisoner of war but returned to Dimmick where his heart and his church were.  

Jack’s farmhouse, save for the priest’s residence long since rented out, was the closest residence to Sacred Heart Church.  As the number of families and Catholic church goers in Dimmick dwindled, a reorganization made Sacred Heart part a larger parish in LaSalle.  The church was served primarily by visiting priests. Jack dreaded the possibility of seeing his church close, the place where so many of his family were baptized and married, waked and buried. 

Sacred Heart had no plumbing and was unheated during the week.  During Lent, entrusted with a key, Jack would go to the church alone, do the stations of the cross, and pray the rosary.  Some days, he told me in secret, it was so cold he could see his breath.  Risking blasphemy, Jack would wear his stocking hat on the coldest days while in the pew.  He would wear one glove, alternating hands so he could still feel the rosary beads with his fingers.    

I knocked on his door one day with some food my wife made him.  He was sitting in his chair, the door unlocked.  He yelled for me to come in and as I stepped through the door, he put a clothespin on a rosary bead so he could return to his prayer and not lose his place.  

Jack was he most devout man I ever met.  He spoke about God like he talked about the White Sox, openly and frankly. He taught me how to pray the rosary.  He also taught me that prayer was a conversation with God.

“If you don’t ask him direct questions, I mean really pointed questions, he’s not gonna tell you a thing.  You got to be persistent.  And even then, he might leave you hanging.  He’s had me hanging for quite a while now.”

“What are you trying to find out from him Jack?”

“I’m trying to find out why he’s keeping me around.  It is pretty hard to see the sense of it some days.  I mean, what am I accomplishing?”

“Well, you’re teaching me things Jack.  That might count.”

“Oh yeah but you got plenty of things to do.  You got kids to raise and a wife to support and a job to do.  I have none of that.  I have some fence to make and a few cows to take care of but what does that amount to?  I want to know what God has in store for me in the rest of my life.  I think there must be more, but I don’t know what it is.  And he’s not helping.”

“So, do you pray for God to tell you?”

“In a way.  I mean I don’t expect him to speak to me. But he could show me. Is that asking too much?  I mean, I would catch on if he would just give me a clue.  But he’s left me in the dark.”

Never had I known a man whose life appeared so simple yet was so engaged with the world.  He complained about nothing and felt equal to everyone.  The world both amused and fascinated him.  Sometimes when I visited, I felt as if he had a list of topics waiting to discuss with me.

He was interested in county government, farming innovations, changes in education, baseball, national politics, you name it.  He would talk about the past if you asked but he was much more interested in the future. 

The twentieth century was ending, and he was fascinated with how computers were changing the world.  He thought all the “dot.com stuff and emails” were crazy, but at the same time he wanted to know how it was all going to turn out.  He saw the digital world as a means to avoid real conversation.

“I don’t know about that Jack.  Think of an email as a letter in your mailbox on the road there.  You can get a letter from a guy in the morning, send a response back at noon, get another letter from him in the afternoon, and send back another response before you leave work.  I think we communicate more now than ever because of computers.”

“Is that how its working now?”  He paused.  “I have to say I never thought of that. Yeah that could add speed to working out a problem.”

“You want us to hook you up Jack?  I bet we could find you a used computer for not much and get you online pretty easily.”

He laughed and shook his head. “No thanks. I think I’ll pass on this one.” 

Jack worried about his health.  He thought he was declining, as I am told many past 85 years of age do.  In bad weather he would work out by climbing up and down the steep stairs to the cold unused upstairs bedrooms.  He said like old ballplayers, his legs were giving out. 

When days were fair, he would walk up and down the lightly trafficked blacktop road that ran past his house.  Down the road were the houses of his widowed sisters in law, living on patches of ground carved out of his father’s farm and handed down to their husbands.  Jack looked after them as best he could when they let him. 

One winter day while walking down the road he thought he saw smoke coming from the house of his sister in law Marguerite.  As he got closer and the smoke cloud grew his heart began pounding and he broke into a run.  As he turned into her lane, he saw flames.

Marguerite was bedridden, recovering from cancer surgery.  He believed she was trapped inside.  He yelled for her and her son and tried to open her door.  Jack was looking for something to break a window with when a fire truck barreled down the lane.  A volunteer fireman, a young man he knew well, told him to stand back.

“But Marguerite and David!” Jack yelled.

“They’re OK Jack.  David woke up to the smoke, put the call in to us, got his Mom in the pickup, and drove her to the hospital.”

The house could not be saved.  Marguerite never moved back.  It was her last day in Dimmick township.

Later when Jack recalled the morning, still emotional in the retelling, he told me this.

“I thought I was there for that purpose.  I thought God kept me alive to save Marguerite and David.  But I guess that wasn’t it.”

He looked pensive, as if he was about to tell me something else.  I waited.

“I’m a little worried, not much to tell the truth, but its a thought.  What if God  tried to get me into that smoke-filled house to bump me off?  But then, that wouldn’t be like him.”

“I wouldn’t worry about God doing that to you Jack.  That doesn’t sound like the God you talk to me about.”

“No, you’re right. It’s not.  But I’m glad the door was locked anyway.”   

Jack may have been frustrated with God, but he never stopped talking to him.

In March of that year Jack and I planted potatoes, Kennebecs and Pontiac Reds, on a patch of his land. Like good Irishmen we tended them well.  After a rain in July we dug for new potatoes.  I brought a spade fork and began turning up the dirt  under the plants exposing the potatoes.

Those Irishmen in Dimmick said the word potatoes fast with no “T” sound.  It was as if it were one syllable; “Budayduz.”  Jack liked his new "budayduz" red, so we dug some of the Pontiacs.  It was a good year. We got rain when we needed it but not too much.

As I turned over the potatoes, Jack gathered them into a bushel basket.

“Let me try that,” he said.  “It’s been a long time since I dug potatoes.”

Jack was a slight man.  He jammed the fork into the ground, put his boot on the top edge and pushed, but it barely moved.  He made another stab at it, then looked up at me.

“Nope. Too old for that anymore I guess.”

Not long after Jack had open heart surgery in Peoria.  He knew the risks given his age, but insisted the surgeon try to repair his failing heart. It was 2001 prior to September 11th. The surgery had not gone well, and the doctor told the nieces he doubted Jack could recover. 

I visited him in ICU.  He was struggling.  His kidneys were beginning to fail, and he was very swollen.  When I first entered the room, Jack was asleep.  He had an oxygen mask and lots of IV lines.  I went to the gift shop, bought a rosary, returned to his bed and waited for him to wake up. 

“Jack, how about we do the rosary together?”

He nodded.  I put the beads in his hand and said the prayers out loud the way he taught me. Start with the Apostle’s Creed.  Always say a Glory Be before the Our Father, follow it with ten Hail Marys (a decade).  Then repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat.  When he couldn’t advance the beads, I pulled them through his fingers.  Praying the rosary takes a while.  Jack stuck with it.  When we were finished, he nodded again and went back to sleep.

Jack died a few days later and we had a funeral service at his church.  Later that year they closed Sacred Heart.  There was a niche in the sanctuary wall where they kept the hosts.  Inside the niche was a flickering red light that was always on.  After the priest said the final mass, he put the container of hosts under his arm, shut the light off, walked up the aisle and out the door.  I’m glad Jack didn’t see that.  For him, the light never went out.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Classical Music and Corncobs

I intentionally skipped the news today.  It was driving me crazy.  Instead, bright and early in the shack, I poured a cup of espresso and put Beethoven in the CD changer.  Ludwig von was born 250 years ago, and because of that the discount CD catalog I get featured his stuff.  I bought a couple.  I hadn't gotten around to listening to them.  Somehow, I decided today was the day. 
While talking to a friend a couple years ago about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker and saxophonist Art Pepper  I mentioned CD’s.

“You mean real and actual plastic discs you play on a mechanical device?  I’ve heard people still buy those, but I didn’t know who.  So, it’s you.  You never heard of Spotify?”

“I’ve heard of it sure.  But I have good speakers in the shack, mounted at ear level, with a subwoofer in the corner.  Its better than what comes from some little sound bar.”

“I suppose you have a turntable for vinyl too.”

“I do.”

“That’s nostalgic.”

“Not really.  A needle on a vinyl record makes a warm silky sound.  You should try albums again.  When you hear the sound, you’ll remember.”

“But that means you can only listen in the shack.  You’re tied to a fixed place with your collection.  Spotify travels with me.  I can hear almost anything ever recorded anywhere, anytime.”

”I know its old technology, but I don’t mind.  The shack is all wood.  Eleven and a half foot square, with a vaulted ceiling.  The acoustics are good.  When I turn up the volume I imagine I’m listening from inside a giant guitar.  Maybe a big cello.  I don’t mind being tied to it.  Someday when you’re in the neighborhood you should drop in.”

“I will.”

He probably won’t.  He lives in Los Angeles.  I’d love to have him for a visit, but I doubt a trip to Illinois is in his future.

As it got light out this morning, I put the Beethoven CD into my set up.  Turns out Ludwig wrote music especially for string quartets.  The Artemis String Quartet was two violins, a viola, and a cello.  I thought they could have used the nice low sound of a big doghouse bass in the mix, but they didn’t.   

This Artemis group recorded Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1 in F major and String quarter No. 12 in E flat major.  Long liner notes came with the CD, printed on glossy paper in English, German, and French.  Unless I’m mistaken, you don’t get liner notes with Spotify.

Commentators on classical music write very differently from say, the stuff written in a Bob Dylan album.  You don’t need much to catch the highbrow flavor of it. 

After talking about the development of “the quartet genre”, throwing in words like Rococo, and dropping the names of not only Haydn and Mozart but also some rich Prince Lobkowitz, the classical expert finally got down to the music.
“The entire movement derives from a short, strongly rhythmic motif and coils around a single note.”

But does he tell us what the note is?  Where to find it?  No.  He goes on. 

He went on to create a sentence where he included not only the words “contrapuntal, augmentation, and diminution” but also “adagio, affettuoso, and appassionato.”

But my favorite line was this.

“…the scherzo has the effect of a satyr play-it scurries along and is notable for its syncopations and pungent grace notes.” 

Wait.  Did he say pungent?  Pungent is an adjective used for taste or smell. The writer is German.  Maybe he got crossed up with his translator.  But pungent?  Vinegar splashed on ham and beans is pungent.  Spicy peppers roasting in a hot cast iron skillet are pungent.  But pungent musical notes? 

Imagine sitting around listening to some great and unforgettable modern album like Wake of the Flood by the Grateful Dead.  You know the album.

The front cover pictures a hooded old person with a scythe and a shock of wheat.  Behind the person, framed in a circle, are bands of blue; dark blue water with light blue sky above it.  Laughing crow on the back.  Oh, sorry.  You only listen to Spotify.  You don’t know about the nice art found on old 12x12 carboard covers.

Anyway, you and a friend are listening to “Eyes of the World” on Side 2, written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter.  It’s a breezy song that lifts you up and carries you along.  Jerry Garcia plays a repeated guitar lick that always makes you happy when you hear it.  You smile.

But it’s unlikely you would turn to your friend and say “Did you hear that guitar?  Pungent don’t you think?”

“I agree wholeheartedly.  Quite pungent in fact.  One finds oneself enthralled.”

I played Beethoven because I wanted beautiful instrumental music only.  No lyrics.  I took a day off completely from both the news and the virus: the politics, the death, the science, the heartbreak, our ruined economy.  Not only did I shut out the news, I shunned spoken words entirely.

The sound of four good musicians playing Beethoven’s soothing and mellow chops for strings helped get my mind off the world around me and onto the small world of my stove, my woodshed, and the fuel I burned this Illinois season.  I was out to write a story about my relationship to fuel.

I heat my shack with  a wood stove from late September to early May.  At the beginning of fall I had a fair bunch of oak stacked in the woodshed, which had previously hung dead on a nearby tree. Oak is my favorite fuel.  It’s the go to, hot burning, long lasting stuff.  I hired a guy with a boom truck to take big limbs down off a tree by the ravine because I feared they would fall on the shack.  After the limbs were cut to length and stacked, I was not entirely convinced it would get me through the winter, but I was hopeful. 

I have several kinds of fuel.  Woodworkers bring me boxes of scraps from their shops.  It is dry and good for getting the oak going.  Sometimes they include small chunks of walnut or other fancy hardwood, which seem wrong to burn.  But what do you do with wood, no matter how fine, when it is that small?  That’s why the woodworker parts with it after all. 

My friend Joe brought me buckets of cherry wood three or four inches in length.  Someone gave him cherry logs just a tad too long to fit into the wood stove in his living room.  He cut off the ends to fit, saved the chunks, and when he saw my little shack stove said, “I’ve got some wood at home for you.”

I take everything.  As word of that fact got out, I ended up with left over paneling, some finished laminate flooring, particle board, the fronts of old cupboards, you name it.  That is the kind of stuff you save for a while in your garage, sometimes for years, before finally saying to yourself “What am I ever going to do with this?”

In addition to wood, I was fortunate to also receive pinecones from friends and relatives.  Pinecones, especially the bristly ones that have spread out and dropped their seeds, are wonderful fire starters when laid on top of brown paper bags.  I had gobs of them, five big black plastic garbage bags full at least.  I thought I would never run out.  They lasted till the middle of February.

I also have a corn cob angel who stocks me up every other year or.  Seems the land she owns alternates between beans and corn and when its in corn she gathers cobs for me.  When she dropped them off it seemed like a mammoth amount of cobs, two garbage cans full.

I use the corn cobs to extend fires.  When you need more heat but don’t want to burn more wood, like at the end of the day, nothing is better putting a stove full of cobs on top of a bed of coals and waiting for that big whoosh when they catch.  Cobs burn hot and fast.  Its May.  Beside my stove is a five-gallon bucket half full of cobs.  That is the last of them.

Fuel consumption depends on more than the weather.  While it was not the coldest winter, I was here for almost all of it.  I missed a cold ten days while in El Salvador on an eye care mission, but due to the pandemic I had to cancel my road trip to Florida in the Buick and a leisurely return home.  That trip usually results in two weeks of a closed up and cold shack, which is the beauty of a shack with no plumbing.  Shut the door and forget about burst pipes.
It seems as if I have been in this shack every day since I made it back from Central America.  Not that that is a bad thing.  But because of that I burned more wood, pinecones, and corn cobs than normal.

Lucky for me my brother helped.  Denny brought six long 5x8 pine posts to me at the end of summer.  When he first acquired those posts, he pictured them as perfect for a woodworking project he was carrying around in his head.  He probably saw not the posts at all, but pieces made from it, all planed, cut with a band saw, spun on a lathe, sanded, stained, and lacquered.
Either something about the project or something about the wood made the image of that finished project incompatible with reality.  At the very moment Denny concluded that, the future of those pine posts was transformed from furniture to fuel.

He brought the timbers to me.  They didn’t look like much on the outside, gray and weathered, but they split up and burned like a dream.  Clear dense wood with no knots.  Pine does not have near the BTU’s of oak mind you, but this pine caught quickly and burned hot.  Those pine posts heated the shack for quite a while.  I burned them up at the beginning of the cold weather to conserve oak.

When I began to get low on scrap lumber looked again at the stuff in the pile I was reluctant to burn.  Leftover tongue and groove fir planks I floored the shack with, tongue and groove cedar siding, flooring from the old chapel in our church that came out in a remodel.  I found rafter tails and other 2x lumber left from framing the shack.  Some of them had my daughter’s handwriting on them, or mine, pencil notations of cuts and angles, from when we built the shack 9 years ago.  I got sentimental over them, saved a couple, and burned all the rest. 
I resorted to looking through my own garage.  For some reason I saved wood handles from tools I’d broken.  A handle from a hoe, the busted off handle of a long-handled shovel I pried on too hard, a pitchfork handle that couldn’t take the strain.  Why did I keep them?  I have no idea.  They were cut up and burned in the shack stove just this past week, their existence converted to heat and a little smoke up the stovepipe. 

The list goes on.  The old mailbox post I patched together repeatedly after it was hit by the snowplow.  Wooden handles painted red from the old wheelbarrow that rusted through.  Various short pieces of 4x4 or 2x4 I thought I might use someday but never did.  One block of wood I remember tucking away because I thought it would be perfect for putting under a car jack on a soft gravel shoulder.  Hadn’t touched it in twenty years.  That block of wood and everything else ended up in the stove, converted to new energy.  It was liberating.

However, some wood survived because of its own stubbornness.  My neighbor Bill finally cut down his dying blue spruce tree.  Must have been 30’ tall.  Trunk straight as a string.  I coveted the logs.  His son cut them up into three-foot lengths for me.  I’ve had them stacked by the woodshed for two years.  I kept thinking I would hit them with the splitting maul and theywould fall apart like butter.

No such luck.  All those branches radiating out from the blue spruce trunk locked the grain of the wood together tighter than wallpaper.  That logs just sit there, waiting for a bonfire.  I don’t think the spruce locked in them will ever see the inside of my stove.
Thankfully, the temperature continues to rise.  Soon, I will forget about fires in my stove and get out the fan.  Just as the shack lacks plumbing, it also lacks air conditioning.  Fuel and heating will be the farthest thing from my mind in July.
But sometime before fall I will need a plan for acquiring more fuel.  That means dedicated and thoughtful deliberation or, failing that, a mad scramble of some kind before it snows.  Either way, getting away from the news is a good way to start.

And beautiful music helps.