Friday, August 30, 2013

Try Something New

I’m devoting some of the time I’ve gained by retiring to things that are new. I’m lucky in that my kids keep me up on new music. Their tastes range widely and they share new groups with me. But for the most part finding things that are new requires work. The internet helps. So, sometimes, does Face Book. Face Book is how I found Button Poetry. Someone shared a link, I watched my first video of a spoken poet, and there you go. I read lots of poetry as an English major and an English teacher but I never had time for poetry when I did social work. I was lucky if I could read everything I wanted in the newspaper.

Bear with me here. If prose writing: the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters that make up the books you read, or this piece here, were corn-(I know, it’s a stretch) then poetry is the whiskey that comes from it. Poetry is words which are mashed, cooked, distilled, and aged before presenting. Bushels of bushels of corn are needed to make one shot of whiskey. Prose writers explain, extrapolate, expand on, intertwine, writing for hours, months, and sometimes years to produce an 80,000 word novel. Poets skip all that and give you only the barest essentials needed to trigger your emotion and convey their thoughts in words which rarely number more than a few hundred.

Button Poetry exists online. It is writing and acting combined. Performance art. You click a button and a poet speaks his or her poem into a microphone before a video camera to an audience at an event called a poetry slam. And then the audience is multiplied by making the video available on line. The poets are young. I recently saw young poets reciting their work live at LitFest in Chicago to small crowds and bought the printed poetry books of some, but the books were an afterthought to the performance. Button Poetry does not give the viewer an option to read the poems in print, which is a mistake I think. But this is a new and different medium. Poetry slams are catching on and bringing original composition, art in the form of poetry, to young people everywhere, but particularly in urban areas.

The difference between simply reading the words and both hearing and seeing them spoken, by the author, are very different. I have an audio recording, somewhere, of an old and now dead poet T.S. Eliot reciting The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock, a poem he wrote in 1915. What you hear is a quivery and monotone voice using a very slow cadence which makes the poem even creepier than it seemed in black and white on a piece of paper. I think it’s just as well I didn’t see T.S. on video.

These button poets are emotional. It’s what makes their presentations and their poetry powerful. Poetry is really more of a hobby for writers these days. The amount of money that is paid by us to purchase poems and the money spent by the publishing industry printing books of poetry is shrinking, or has shrunk, to miniscule amounts. Printed poetry exists now mostly due to the largesse of charitable foundations and supporting gifts from corporations and good people. But spoken poetry, the words heard once before fading in the air and rarely, maybe never, read on paper has found a new and growing audience largely among the young and perhaps, through online efforts like Button Poetry, with older people as well.

Enough of me writing about it; give it a try. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) probably would not have chosen to attend a poetry slam and consented to be videotaped belting out I heard a Fly buzz-when I died but then Emily didn’t have the internet, a laptop, a smart phone, e mail, an I Pad, Face Book, or Twitter either. But you do.

I suggest you view Natalie Illum - "Blueprint" (you can click that) reciting the almost impossible to deliver poem by a daughter recalling her own brilliant but addicted father. While you’re there you could try (these are not links by the way) Dylan Garity’s “Friend Zone” or Denise Froham reading “Dear Straight People”. Anything Neil Hilborn does is great. They’re short. Try a bunch. And if you like, you can subscribe to Button Poetry for free (which is a problem all its own, but for another time). Button Poetry would be in the category of exposing ourselves to art, and the new ideas it creates, however it’s presented. If art is an individual trying to explain his experience with life in this world to you, these young poets are creating art at full volume. It’s not for everyone, but then nothing is.

Take for example last week’s update “Urn or Coffin.” I now realize everyone does not enjoy death and dying as a topic of discussion, but then I might have guessed that. Live and learn. Death is pesky though. Try as we might, it just won’t go away. Enjoy these poets while you still can.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Urn or Coffin?

I went to a visitation, the only public service for a 66 year old woman who died earlier in the week. It was sobering, how small the jar that held the ashes of the woman I remember standing in front of me, energetic, smiling. The man in line just before me crossed himself and bowed his head to the urn. It’s not the same thing somehow. There was a kneeling pad there but no one kneeled at the urn that I saw. I can’t get used to not seeing the body, although I might in the end prefer cremation. It’s a very different experience. Not that it matters what I prefer. I went there for the person’s family.

The woman’s husband recognized me from fund raisers and the like. I was relieved. The woman had worked hard at YSB for many years, retiring some four years ago. His recognition of me meant I was not a total stranger walking up explaining why I was there.

“(Name of the person now reduced to ashes contained in the pretty urn next to us) was a great worker who helped a lot of families,” I said. “But no family meant more to her than this one.” I managed to get the attention of her husband, daughter and son as I said this.

To the daughter I said “She talked about you so much at work. When I saw her she would tell me about your successes at college, your grades, your determination. She was so proud of you.” I was about her age when my sister died. I thought then that standing in line at the funeral home was a form of torture until I was in the line. Then I realized it brought strange comfort.

That is all I really came to say. I came to tell this family that their mother and wife talked of her love for them. You never know how close people are with their family, how demonstrative they are in sharing their emotions. In all likelihood they knew that, but I wanted to affirm it anyway. That was the whole purpose of my visit. I did express to the husband my surprise at his wife’s death because she was relatively young and seemed so healthy and vibrant just a short time ago.

“We knew she had some problems but we had no idea until the diagnosis how serious it was. It was incurable, which was strangely good in a way because she did not have to suffer treatment and if made the end very predictable. We knew exactly what was going to happen and were given a timeline, and that’s pretty much the way it worked out. She was prepared, and accepted it. She did better than us really.”

I left the line after that, skipping her siblings and extended family who I didn’t know. It was short. If it hadn’t been for the couple in front of me who used the visitation as an opportunity to recall with the husband story after story of good times shared with his wife now packed in the urn, I would have been out of there in ten minutes. I think like in golf there should be a funeral ranger, in some type of uniform, maybe a flag attached to him or her, who moves through the crowd and confronts slow line movers, excessive talkers, and informs them “I’m sorry but you’re going too slowly. I’m going to move you up now, drop you off further down the line, in order to speed things up.” Sadly I am aware of no etiquette established or even discussion of funeral line speed protocol. It’s rude to hold everyone else up and we’re too polite to address it. If there is talk of guidelines please tell me. I want to get in on it.

Sixty six, the age of the woman in the urn, is four years older than me now. During August I went to two events related to the death of a woman I’ve known for a long time who died at age eighty three, a much more comfortable twenty one years more than me now. Like my former co-worker she received a diagnosis of an advanced problem in a vital organ and sought no treatment. Instead she immediately told her daughters she wanted to throw a party; a big party with family and friends, a tent in the yard, a porta-potty, the whole deal. She created a menu for the guests; some food catered, some homemade. She told her daughters which women to ask to make what dish. We went to her party on one of the many wonderful afternoons that have graced us this summer. She was sitting by her garage when we arrived, beautifully dressed in a wheel chair. She sat next to her husband of sixty three years in something of a receiving line and welcomed each guest. She knew that we knew that she was soon to pass on. She thanked us for our kindnesses to her during her life and we thanked her in return for her spark, her wit, and her life. At the end of the party she made a little speech, with her son helping her, and then had her daughters take her into the house because she was tired. That was the last time most of us saw her. She was gone in a week.

She planned her funeral right down to the band, the songs they played, the scriptures that were read, and the route of the funeral procession to the cemetery. It was a more traditional funeral, with a coffin rather than an urn, but the end result was exactly the same. Her funeral was a moving experience. Her family shared memories of her as did the priest. We laughed at parts. It was as if she, and the life she lived, was helping us still in our grief.

Death makes old people think of time differently. Unless we’re lucky enough to know with certainty when we will die, like my two friends, we are unaware of how much time remains. But we know too well our time is limited. The end of life and the time that is left means far more to the old than the young. It makes me want to get busy. Please forgive me if I forgo some appointment, some commitment, some time you wish me to devote to a pursuit not my own. I think I’m going to be more selfish with my unknown quantity of time in the future. Here’s a poem written at the end of one of this week’s recent and yes, finite number of days that may help you understand why.

Whiskey poured late this afternoon,
into an early morning coffee cup,
dissolves the sugar and coffee dried in the bottom,
making Ireland taste at the same time
sweeter and more bitter.

The novel I am writing,
an account of building this shack,
which I’ve announced to my friends,
and they ask about,
gained no words today.

I did the crossword,
ordered more books,
checked my e mail and Face Book too often,
listened to the radio,
and worried unexpectedly.

And here I thought I was through with worry.

But at day’s end I managed to write this poem,
finish my whiskey,
and call it a day.

I’ll write more words tomorrow.

Friday, August 16, 2013

State Fair Revisited

I visited the State Fair this week, and it isn’t what it used to be. Like everything else, it’s changed, though not entirely for the worse. I get tired of old people complaining. So consider this not as a complaint, but as an observation of change regarding a summertime classic: the Illinois State Fair in Springfield.

There is no longer a Double Ferris Wheel in Happy Hollow. That grieves me. In fact, Happy Hollow is practically empty of rides, the space now home primarily to fancy fifth wheel campers and giant horse trailers. The carnival is now up near the Coliseum. But despite its move up, that carnival is decidedly low to the ground, very clean and by all appearances, awfully…safe. You might go so far as to call it wholesome. I know cleanliness and safety are good things, but there was something about walking down the hill into Happy Hallow as a kid that brought with it a sense of danger. And I’ve always liked danger.

For one thing, the people I remember running the rides in the past seemed dangerous. Before tattoos found their way beneath the skin of the middle class, we saw them on the “carney” people at the fair. A picture of a grinning devil with the “Born to Raise Hell” was popular on the biceps of the carney men. Their hair was long, often greasy, and they smoked cigarettes hard, Pall Malls and Camels, holding them between their lips as they operated the levers that controlled the engines that powered the rides. You could hear the gas engines groaning and smell the exhaust mixed with the smell of real canvas tents, cotton candy, and sweat. It was always hot at the State Fair, and hotter still amongst the rides and games in Happy Hollow.

The State Fair had things you could never see or experience at the County Fair. The County Fair had a real but tired old bear you could wrestle, but the Illinois State Fair had the “Cage of Death”. Two riders strolled through a trap door slowly, trying to catch the eye of a pretty girl, before they pulled on their helmets, kick started their cycles, and revved their engines. They rode their motorcycles inside a round steel cage crisscrossing within inches of each other, climbing the walls till they were parallel to the floor. It truly was unbelievable. Within the tent I heard nothing but their engines roaring as the tires of the motorcycles flashed past me but a few feet from the platform on which I stood with the rest of the crowd. I felt danger in the air.

The County Fair had the Tilt a Whirl which I rode over and over till I was out of money. If there wasn’t a line sometimes I would ride twice in a row. I was hooked on centrifugal force. In the Tilt a Whirl you and a companion, or you alone, were locked into a welded steel capsule with mesh for windows and thrown straight up then back, and eventually all the way around in a tight circle that pulled your jaw to your chest. You could barely raise your arms. Halfway through the ride the car stopped on top and reversed direction. The fairgrounds spun around before you as the gas engine raced. On the descent it seemed as if you would slam into the ground but then the car pulled up and flew past the carney who worked the levers, smoked cigarettes, and appeared bored. It was the best ride in McLean County.

But nothing was as good as the Double Ferris Wheel in Springfield. My Dad first took us when I was a kid. He introduced us all to that big ride. My older sister recalls shaking in fear as Dad held her on her first ride. I rode years later, held in by a single bar, the ride starting as a normal Ferris Wheel. Every car stopped, unloading, bringing on new passengers, traveling smoothly in a predictable circle, the car in which you rode pivoting and rocking slightly. You could rock the car yourself when stopped, but the carney man would yell at you. All was normal until the wheel you were riding, on the bottom, changed places with the wheel above you. That’s what brought the thrill, the screams, made the hair stand up on your arms. The big elegant swoop up, the sensation of turning, while climbing, stories high it seemed. The twin sensation of rotating while elevating was like nothing else. And then you were on top of the fairgrounds, looking out over all the barns and exhibition halls, higher than everything else, and turning. It was beautiful at night: the colored lights on the Ferris Wheel, the lights across the Fairgrounds and beyond.

When you were a farm kid living in Illinois in the 60’s you didn’t get high very often. Maybe on top of a silo, or a windmill, or painting the cupola on the barn. Illinois can be pretty flat. If you don’t look close you can find the geography boring. Getting high on the Double Ferris Wheel changed all that. The air seemed clean and clear up there, an escape from the heat, as you made a few turns on top. Then you realized you were going down, descending, plunging while turning back to the bottom, with that feeling in the pit of your stomach. I always thought that if something were to go wrong on the Double Ferris Wheel it would happen at that moment of the descent, the wheel coming off the parallel arms beside us, turning free in the air, crashing into the dirt and rolling away through Happy Hollow, killing all of us on board and the throng of fairgoers fleeing in our path. It never happened. My experience as a kid made me want to do it again. I was all set to do it Monday, Senior Citizen’s Day when kids over 60 got in free. A woman on the trolley on the way back to the parking lot at day’s end, after I expressed my disappointment that the Double Ferris Wheel was no longer part of the fair, said

“It’s been gone for years.” The State Fair has lost a great ride.

But the butter cow is still in the old brick Dairy Building. That’s where the McClure family of old started its day at the fair every year, and met at day’s end when it was time to go home and milk the cows. My Dad had a special feeling for the Dairy Building. Dad didn’t belong to much, the Presbyterian Church later in life, and the Masons. I never did understand the Masons. Dad was a fifty year member, wore a Masonic ring when he dressed up, had a fancy sword with fake jewels (couldn’t have been real, or was that Grandpa’s sword?), got his 32nd degree, whatever that means, and wanted me to be in something called Demolay, the organization for teenage Masonic wannabes. I had nothing to do with it and don’t know to this day what it’s about. The Masons most likely have suffered a significant decline in membership. It must be hell to market a secret organization. I don’t see the Masonic Lodge on Facebook.

However, Dad did identify strongly with being a dairy farmer. Prairie Farms Dairy, the company Dad shipped milk to after shutting down the little independent dairy that supplied raw milk and cream to Danvers until just after World War II, had a booth in the Dairy building and Dad showed up there every summer, usually the day they judged Jersey cows in the Coliseum. It was a big day because Dad bought everyone milk shakes and cheese sandwiches, which was a treat for us because we hardly ever ate away from home. Dad talked to the dairy guys in the Prairie Farms booth while we looked at the butter cow. Farmers, when you get right down to it, lead pretty solitary existences and need someone to talk to now and again. And farm kids are rarely in the presence of sculpture. So the Dairy building experience was a good combination for both generations.

I have to say this year’s butter cow was more elaborate than the ones I remember. In the old days they were very realistic, right down to the big veins in the udder. It was a big year if the butter cow sculpture exhibit included a calf. This year’s cow didn’t have that level of detail or a calf but it did have a bird on its nose, butterflies and saplings in the background, and was just… artier. Artier? Yeah. Farm kids use words like that.

In Iowa an animal rights activist group actually vandalized, desecrated some would say, the butter cow at their State Fair. I’m guessing security was poor. But who knew the butter cow needed tight security? And here I thought Illinois was the only state with a butter cow. But there it was in the Des Moines Register, a picture the Iowa butter cow all drenched in red paint. I posted a picture of the Illinois butter cow on Facebook and my cousin from Iowa sent me the news article with photo.

The group responsible was protesting the treatment of animals, and the conditions under which they live, to satisfy our human practice of eating meat and dairy products, neither of which we absolutely need in order to live. I get that but I think it’s odd they chose a dairy cow.

If you could find a swine sculpture of some kind, seeing that pigs are these days commonly raised in giant confinement barns, shot with hormones, and killed daily on a massive scale, that would be a more fitting symbol of animal cruelty. Or a three dimensional depiction of a cage jammed full of chickens which never touch the ground, peck each other to death in numbers that at some level are considered acceptable, and are handled in the roughest manner imaginable. Or today’s veal calves. Don’t get me started.
Unless I’m wrong, it is still in the dairy farmer’s best interest, however big the dairy operation becomes, that his or her cows be healthy and live long lives. On our farm we named our Jersey cows, not fancy names for registration papers but real familiar names we used among ourselves to talk about them.

“Martha didn’t give much milk today,” Mom might say.

“I’m not sure she’s feeling good. She didn’t eat all her feed,” Dad might have replied. “Let’s keep our eye on her.” Like that.

Dad named a particularly long-legged heifer who became a beloved cow Wilma after Wilma Rudolph, the famous Olympic sprinter in the 1960 Olympics. Next to her was Comet, and Margie, and at the end of the line on the East row of stanchions was Bigsy, who gave a ton of milk but had something of a weight problem. I could go on and on. While we shipped many of our milk cows to the sale barn at the end of their productive lives, some died on the farm of plain old age. Whether we shipped them or watched them die we felt real loss when they were gone. We were close to our cows. They were part of our everyday life and our livelihood. We raised them as calves, saw to their health, made them comfortable, celebrated the birth of their calves, and valued them very much, both as a herd and individually. I know dairy farming has changed, that the twenty four stanchion barn and the 190 acre farm we supported them with are now too small to be commercially viable, but I can’t believe that dairy farms and dairy cows have become a symbol of what’s wrong with agriculture and animal husbandry. Maybe like Mt. Everest, they just painted that Iowa butter cow red because she was there.

I wished I’d have been there to see the dairy cow judging, but it was the wrong day. Missing that, I did the next best thing by visiting the goat barn and watching the dairy goat show. We never raised goats but I always liked them. I have a goat story that I’ll share at another time. Colleen went to the arts and crafts building and I sat on the bleachers while they paraded dairy goats around the show ring.

I was there Monday, the day they judged Toggenburg, Nubian, and Nigerian goats. Tuesday was Alpine and LaMancha judging. (The LaMancha breed of goats are those little goats without external ears.) Wednesday they finish up with Saanen, Recorded Grade, and Sable goats. You can keep that in mind for next year. The goat people like to stick to the same schedule from year to year. Here’s an interesting thing about goat judging: adult male goats, the bucks, are not allowed at the fair. Unlike ram sheep, bull cows, boar hogs, roosters and stud horses they consider male goats to be too disruptive to bring to the fair. I learned that from the goat folks in the bleachers. I’m thinking that is where the concept “horny as a goat” comes from. Buck or Billy goats are just too rambunctious to be around all those does or female goats at the fair. Plus they smell bad. Stink so bad they can make a doe’s milk taste off, some say. So the bucks stay home while everybody else goes to the fair. The life of a Billy Goat: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

The dairy goat judge was a confident and fast talking woman, Yvonne Blosser, who seemed to know absolutely everything about goats. At the end of each class showing she took the microphone and explained to us in considerable detail why the blue ribbon winner was first and why each goat down the row, right down to the goat that got last, was accordingly placed. She referred to standards set down by the American Dairy Goat Association. But boil it all down, and she talked about udders and teats. Dairy goats have a purpose, and evidently the attributes that count for dairy goats primarily have to do with milk. It makes sense, I guess. So for more than an hour, I listened as Yvonne talked about the udder platforms, high and tight udder structure, and well defined teat separation. Let’s face it, you couldn’t talk about humans that way. Sometimes Yvonne would say one goat was better than another because of belly capacity, sturdy legs and hoofs, or good skin, but by and large it was the mammary equipment that mattered. I looked closely at the goats, but didn’t see them like Yvonne did. But then I’m no judge of goats.

To me the goats were simply cute. The kids jumped effortlessly, four hoofs off the ground, popping up in an instant. They let themselves be led around the show ring by little silver chains under their necks, turned this way and that, held in profile. Their owners scratched their backs so the goats arched their spines downward making their bellies look bigger. Yvonne actually called one of the Nigerian goats “stunning.” Upon hearing that adjective applied to her goat, the owner broke into a giant smile. I can’t say I’ve ever thought of a goat as stunning, but there you go. I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, or in this case the goat holder. And yes, in an acknowledgement to animal welfare activists out there, we do objectify and exploit farm animals. It’s the nature of the beast, so to speak.

The most surprisingly improved part of the State Fair was Conservation World, which is put on by Illinois’ Department of Natural Resources. In that nicely wooded part of the fairgrounds kids could shoot a BB gun, pull back a bow and fling an arrow at a target, hold a red eared slider turtle, and learn a lot about Illinois fish including the incredibly ugly Asian Carp invading our waterways. This was the place that seemed to draw the most families. There was woodcarving, a lasso demonstration, lots to do and many things in which kids could actively participate. As they did so, they learned a lot about science and nature. We saw very few kids on cell phones in Conservation World. They were too busy doing cool stuff. And nearly everything was free, which I think is important. It may be my imagination, but I think present day Illinoisans are walking around the fairgrounds with less money in their pockets than I remember from years past. Sure there are still rich farmers with fancy trucks and their own golf carts, but those of us just coming to look seemed a bit poorer than before. There ought to be good free stuff at the fair so everyone can enjoy that unique celebration of the good things Illinois has to offer, despite its bond rating.

If you want to get a different look at Illinois I recommend getting to know the people at the State Fair. Everyone was nice and it wasn’t crowded. But then it was Monday. Many Illinoisans (couldn’t it be Illinesians?) work on Mondays. But lots were walking around the fair too. And in a disturbing trend, many were rolling. There is apparently a whole segment of big people who have just plain given up on walking and bought little carts in which to ride around. I thought those mostly stayed in grocery stores. But they were out in force Monday at the State Fair. We even saw some two seaters occupied by two very wide people, couples sitting side by side, the electric motors on their little carts whirring madly, I imagined, to propel them. I don’t want to offend anyone, and I won’t pretend to know what afflicts these people that glided smoothly along the footpaths of the State Fair, but some of them looked as if they simply suffer from too many donuts. But hey, they got to enjoy the fair too.

Colleen and I did everything we set out to do and more: saw the butter cow, watched the pacers trot the track at the grandstand, bought salt water taffy, found the beer tent, saw the draft horses, the mules, the sheep, the hogs, the Jersey cows. You can’t beat the food at the fair. Between us we had corn on the cob, barbeque from the 4-H kids, rib eye sandwiches, and gyros, not to mention the milkshake at the Dairy building. It was a wonderful day.

If you go, don’t miss the butter cow at the Dairy Building and be glad you’re not in Iowa. And if you know where I can catch a ride on a Double Ferris Wheel, please let me know.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Old Friends

Last week I talked about our country’s military draft during the Vietnam War and how it affected men my age. This week I’d like to talk about a handful of those men.

Outside of school, segregation by age goes away. In the real world we live and work among people of all ages. In the Fall of 1969 a group of ISU college freshman found themselves all together in the seventeen floors that housed the vertical mass of young men coming to Normal, Illinois in search of the college experience. I don’t know how many men were there. There were more men on my floor than the number of students in my high school class (27), perhaps more than my entire school (106), probably more than the number of people then living in my hometown of Danvers (800). Manchester Hall was all men. Hewitt Hall next to it was all women. We were together, initially, only in the cafeteria. For a kid from a small town, with nine girls in his graduating class, it was a smorgasbord of women. I was eighteen.

As it happened four of us eighteen year olds men, who came together first in Manchester hall, lived together throughout our four years at ISU. We recently got together on a lake near Danvers. Now 62 or nearly 62, we’ve changed. We’re all pretty much retired. It was time. It’s been forty years since we graduated.

My wife says men don’t stay in touch like women do and she’s right. The last time we were together (we’re not in agreement on this) was at least 1987, probably 1989 or so. I made a pot of chili, bought a couple of cases of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and had everyone over to my new house on Caton road in Ottawa before we added on. My kids were little. When I told my daughter, now thirty, that I was getting together with my college friends she asked ‘Are those the guys that came to the house when we were little and stayed up all night playing cards in the dining room?’ Yes Maureen, those are the guys. The game was pinochle.
We moved out of Manchester Hall after one semester into a two bedroom apartment. We were six then. It was crowded. But we were finally free then of all outside rules governing life and living. We had to create our own of sorts. About eating each other’s food, doing dishes, having people over, cleaning, the mundane matters of life to which we all must attend. We worked it out somehow. It was wonderful and probably awful at the same time. I remember it as terrific.

We dropped two roommates and moved the next year to a decrepit old place in Bloomington. Life went on. We stayed in school. Outside our college apartments history happened and the world changed. National guardsmen shot and killed college students at Kent State University in Ohio. Members of the Weathermen blew up a college building in Madison Wisconsin. Universities across the country closed in protest to Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia. Jane Fonda visited Hanoi. The Vietnam War continued. The Beatles broke up. We stayed together.

We were among the last students to be exempt from the selective service system, and being inducted into the US Military, due to our status as university students. We had the last of the student deferments. Why did our country grant college students four year deferments? I’m not sure. We valued education? We believed those who would emerge with college degrees would benefit American society? Something like that. The concept became terribly unfair. African American men for example, who attended college at much lower rates than their white counterparts due to lack of resources, lack of tradition or history in the black community for continued education, served and died in Vietnam at a much higher rate than their white peers. The lottery ended that kind of discrimination for one. We were the last college students to be saved from the risk of war by having our birth dates thrown in a hat.

Our junior year we moved into an entire house closer to campus and stayed there for the duration. There we each had our own bedroom. We wallpapered the refrigerator in the kitchen, and put a separate fridge in the dining room for beer. Life was very, very good there. I painted my bedroom red and plastered it with art posters. It was in that bedroom that I heard on my clock radio, waking up one spring morning during my senior year, that President Richard Nixon ended the draft. The war was nearly over. I would never be a part of it.

So how did we turn out, these four men spared from the war and educated in the Midwest? What did America gain in exchange for exempting us from fighting and perhaps dying in Southeast Asia? You decide.

Jeff, born November 8, 1951 with draft lottery number 119, earned a degree in Industrial Technology and made a career of teaching high school near his hometown. He specialized in auto mechanics and took students to competitive car repair events. He raised three kids, put them through college, stayed close with his extended family, volunteered for the Lion’s Club and became a go to guy in his church and community.

John, October 5 #166, majored in Business and soon after graduating enlisted as an officer in the Air Force. He flew as a back seater in F-4 fighter jets in America’s peace time military here and in Europe. After retiring from the service he returned to take over farming his family’s acreage. In addition he worked at State Farm, in county government, and put another three kids through college.

Tom, March 5 #299, went on from studying Political Science to law school. He established a law firm that now includes one of his three sons. He also was very active in his community’s local democratic party. His firm’s practice has changed as the years have gone by but now in addition to representing a number of Housing Authorities has as its clients lots of small businesses, many operated by minority or immigrant owners. As we learned from Tom “you can’t believe the ways that immigrant business owners are challenged and taken advantage of in this country.” If I were a small business owner needing help I’d want a guy like Tom on my side.

And me? I feel like you know me and what I’ve done. I was born August 13, 1951 and my number in the lottery was 58. Yes I reported last week that it was 307. I was blown away that it was 307. I told my wife when I left the shack ‘You know what? All along I thought I had a low number, something in the sixties and here it turns out it was 307. How could I be so wrong all these years?’ It was easy. I looked at the wrong set of numbers on the internet. So I was right in studying hard after all. Good thing.

Among us since college we’ve had six marriages, lost three siblings, suffered a variety of illnesses, and gotten old. Life expectancy among American males living in Illinois is now just over 76 years. If the four of us all average out we’re now twenty three years past the midpoint of our lives with fourteen years to go. We’re a lucky group of guys. We’ve found love and support within our families. We’re all comfortable financially. More importantly our lives have been rich with positive experience. You can hear it as we talk to each other. We smile a lot. As we recalled the good and bad things we encountered in college, the triumphs, the good fortune, the low points, the arrests, the giant dog we adopted who chewed through the basement door, the motorcycles we owned and wrecked, the parties, I can’t go on. But trust me, without going into detail we have a lot for which to be thankful. More, I think, than our share. For one thing, we’re all still sharp enough to remember how to play pinochle, though some play better than others.

As a cohort we lived through trauma and the challenges life offers and appear to have come out on the other side whole and happy. I’m very glad to have these guys as friends. We need to get together more frequently. At the rate of meeting up every thirty years or so we have statistically seen each other for the last time, unless we all live till 92. But who knows? Maybe we’ll beat the odds again.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Luck of the Draw-Part 1

On August 13th in 1969, my eighteenth birthday, I registered for the draft in a hot little office somewhere in downtown Bloomington. For an occasion that was so momentous to me it turned out to be dull and mundane. While I put my life under the thumb of the U.S. military the woman behind the desk chewed gum. Immediately after leaving the draft board office I bought two albums, Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, one of which I still listen to. I went back to the farm, sat in front of the big wooden stereo in the living room and played the music loudly as I pondered my fate. Mom was not impressed.

“What are you doing? It’s time for chores.”

“I just registered for the draft.”

“Oh yeah? So does every other eighteen year old boy in the country. What makes you think you’re so special? Now turn off that record player, get out to the barn, and help your Dad milk the cows.”

Dylan’s Nashville Skyline was a happy country album which took up where John Wesley Harding left off, with a guy named Pete Drake playing pedal steel guitar. His band had even added a Dobro. With the war out of control, why in the hell was Dylan happy? I sure didn’t feel happy. Dylan’s protest days were evidently over. Mine were just beginning.

That fall while living on campus I joined the huge but peaceful march that snaked through ISU’s campus and downtown Normal protesting the Vietnam War. While I did so my older brother, an officer in the Air Force, flew night missions targeting the Ho Chi Minh trail in an F-4 fighter out of an air base in Thailand. I listened to both radicals and arch conservatives speak on campus. I took a sharp interest in politics and became critical of President Richard Nixon. On December 1 of that same year I was in the 11th floor lounge of ISU’s Manchester Hall watching the first ever draft lottery drawing on TV. It was held by the Selective Service System to determine the order of young men to be drafted. Three hundred and sixty five balls, one for each day of the year, were drawn randomly from one rolling cage while three hundred and sixty five balls with consecutive numbers were drawn from another. It was like a huge game of BINGO. When the two balls were matched we learned when and if young men would be called essentially to serve in the Vietnam War. The room was quiet. We had all received four year student college deferments from the draft board, the last ever to be issued, but the order of our birthdays on this list mattered.

It mattered a lot to Frank Lowell for example. Frank had learned, from knowing no chords at all in August, to play guitar amazingly well. He was forever coming into our rooms and saying “listen to this” before breaking into a popular guitar riff. He had just learned to pick that great opening to the Beatle’s “Blackbird” off the white album. Frank accomplished this by never going to class. While we slept he stayed in the lounge and played guitar. While we attended school he slept. Frank was flunking out, had already flunked out for all intents and purposes, and the number he got in the lottery mattered a whole lot to him because he would lose his deferment as soon as grades came out and immediately enter the draft. With a high number he could continue to sleep late somewhere else and play guitar. With a low number he would soon be in basic training. You could, with little imagination, call the lottery process a matter of life or death for Frank. He was born on April 24th, 1951. The ball that was drawn opposite his birthday had the number 2 printed on it. Frank’s face went pale when they put that single digit next to his birth date on the big board. He stood and left the lounge holding his guitar by the neck. It swung slowly as he walked back to his room, barely clearing the carpet. Frank was essentially gone.

I was lucky. My number was 307. Predictions were that no numbers over 210 would be called. In the cold calculations of conscription each number called yielded some known number of Army recruits. The number of recruits called up corresponded directly to the need of the Army for fresh live American male bodies. As it turned out no one would be called past 195. We didn’t know then that the war was beginning to wind down.

The previous year, 1968, was the bloodiest year of the Vietnam War for Americans when 16,899 young American died. 1969 was on a slower pace, and would end at 11,780 American casualties. 1970 would see 6,173 Americans die. Probably only God knows how many Vietnamese were killed, along with Cambodians, Laotians, Thais, and other Asians during those years. My friend Mike, a year older than me and the driver on a double-date to the prom when I was fifteen and lacked a driver’s license, joined the Marines to avoid the draft. College was never in his future. No one in Mike’s family had ever gone to college. He told me in great detail how the Marine officer in full dress uniform validated his papers in a ceremony in Chicago by dramatically drawing straight lines which formed an X over them using his sword as a straight edge. He was gung ho for a long time. Then he lived through the siege of Khe Sanh when so many Marines didn’t. The tone of his letters to me changed. In them he described napalm and its effects on people in graphic terms. It didn’t sound like MIke. He was wounded but sent back to the fight. When he was home on leave he had a nearly fatal collision alone in a car on his way home. He collided with a utility pole he passed every day of his young life till he left for the Marines and would never return to the war. The war and that accident changed his life forever.

For those of us paying attention to what was going on in Vietnam the Battle of Khe Sanh preceded by a few months the Tet offensive when everything we had been told about the US winning the war proved to be wrong. After waging a war primarily in countryside villages the Viet Cong attacked Vietnam’s cities. The cover of Life magazine featured a Vietnam regular army soldier firing a rocket launcher at the American Embassy in Saigon. The VC blew a hole in the wall surrounding the newly built four acre US embassy compound and occupied the grounds for six hours. All this after the US Army’s top officer General William Westmoreland earlier in the fall expressed his belief that the communists were weak and “unable to mount a major offensive.” He went on to say “I hope they start something because we’re looking for a fight.” In February of 1968 he definitely had one, and it was being fought by and large by conscripted young men my age.

Perhaps if we knew why we were being asked to fight and die we would have felt differently. By the end of the Vietnam War 58,220 Americans died. I did not then and still haven’t a clue why. I was confident no one actually believed in, or could look you in the eye and repeat with a straight face, the argument represented by the Domino Theory which held that if South Vietnam fell to the communists in the North then so would the rest of Asia somehow jeopardizing our American way of life. South Vietnam eventually did fall and when it did America hardly noticed. Many if not most young Americans were there I think simply out of a sense of duty, to not disappoint their father, their family, or their community. To allow oneself to be drafted was a huge risk, but to flee the draft by leaving the country was an enormous and perhaps irreversible sacrifice. There was no good way out. Some had schemes to flunk the military’s physical exam and some of those might have worked. Some tried to enlist in what looked like a safer branch of the military. Those of us with student deferments in 1969 studied hard. Those who turned eighteen in 1970 underwent another lottery with no deferments and no escape.

My friend Steve, a year behind me in school and also a Danvers dairy farmer’s son, got a low number in 1970 and enlisted in the Army rather than face the draft. He somehow found himself in Germany. Things could have worked out much worse for Pete, but as it turned out Germany and army life proved a daunting challenge for that farm boy as well. How might the lives of Pete and Steve and all of us have been different had the draft not hung over our heads? We’ll never have good answers to that, only more questions. Would the American public allow a draft of our own children today? I do think we know the answer to that one. I knew I was very fortunate in 1969, but I could only attribute my good fortune to chance. Something about it wasn’t right. (More next week.)