Lessons in Virtue

I am in the process of reading a book entitled On Reading Well and discovering that I am not doing a very good job of it. Wellness in this case is about mining the emotional depth of any literary work; a concept I can fully embrace in thought but struggle to execute.

The ore to be mined in this particular expedition is virtue, an abstraction which I find appealing but one which can quickly elude most of us, who confess to the sin of concrete thinking. To discuss a topic such as virtue one must dabble in the arts of philosophy, theology and pure speculation. The result on my part is the tendency to rationally go astray without really trying.

The author of my conundrum is Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Her credentials are well documented on the inside back panel of the book’s jacket. She is to be respected for her academic prowess and scholarly affiliations.

I also know her to have been a very avid reader from a young age. This comes from reading her well annotated memoir Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me. My guess is that this childhood avocation is what really sets us apart and makes her writing something of a challenge for me to understand. I barely learned to have Fun with Dick and Jane, the literary nemesis of my first grade experience, while Professor Prior was conversant with far headier stuff at the same age.

Had it not been for the film adaption of a Hardy Boys mystery shown as a serial on the original Mickey Mouse Club, my interest in books would have remained non-existent. I enjoyed the TV version of the story and when a friend said he had the book on which it was based, I hesitantly became a reader in order to relive the joy of the episodic tale.

Besides solving once again the mystery of the missing loot, I also discovered the reality of books and movies being related in name only, sharing little more than a title, character names, and basic storyline. Books have more of everything the movies and TV shows cannot even dare to contain by both providing the details of the hero’s journey as well as the time it takes to tell it all.

Then again my older brother, who I idolized, was a reader. By the time he went away to college, I was curious enough about books to pirate his paperback book collection during his absence. Six years my senior, taking on this clandestine reading assignment meant making the leap from While the Clock Ticked (Hardy Boys Book 11) to John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. The world never looked the same to me after George shot Lenny as an act of mercy. It made me an adult… or so I thought. At least my reading habit took on new life.

My attraction to Professor Prior’s work came by way of an on-line article in which she demonstrated how you can gain insight into a fictional character’s character by what is revealed in the story about their reading habits. A clever concept and one I have personally witnessed.

Charles Dickens, one of my favorite authors, was good at using this technique. Just read A Christmas Carol to learn about the young Ebenezer Scrooge’s reading habits or spend some time with his literary cousin, David Copperfield, in the book of the same name. You will find that their affinity for literary adventures is insightful as to understanding their youthful frame of mine and their subsequent future development.

Getting back to my struggles with understanding Professor Prior’s approach to the study of virtue and its presence in various literary works, I have decided to make use of her scholarly achievement to advance my own selfish writing aspirations by launching into a new series. What I propose is a virtual classroom exchange about virtue, if doing so is not unethical.

Such an approach could serve as an antidote to my Covid induced lethargy in posting weekly weblog messages by giving me something to write about over the next several weeks. It means I must actually study the content On Reading Well instead of addressing it as a casual reader. This will require a lot more thought equity on my part in order to write meaningful essays as if I had actually paid to be one of Professor Prior’s in-class students at Liberty. What a way to start a series on the value of virtue.

In the Company of Sheep

Jesus was a good teacher; good in this sense being both moral and effective. Among his many gifts was the ability to tell stories, which were insightful as well as entertaining. Sometimes, when his themes relied on humor, the laughs came at the expense of his political and religious adversaries, whose elite status he disabused in ways that delighted his far less powerful audience. Ultimately his stories changed lives and in so doing eventually changed the cultures in which his teaching was put into daily practice by those who were faithful to the message.

Even if we set aside his claim to deity, he proves to be an ethical healer concerned with the wellbeing of the anonymous masses he termed the salt of the earth. Lacking affluence and political clout, they were the people whose troubles he sought to alleviate. He did this by impressing on the people’s hearts, minds and souls the importance of influence instead of power, guidance instead of command.

His was not just a tutorial commission, however. And without making any promises of attaining wealth, good health or prestige he enticed others to follow his methods based on one word, sacrifice. Then he carried out this line of thought to its logical conclusion, making Calvary the ultimate example of his self-denying perspective. Love of self was left to his executioners.

His last recorded story was punctuated by an illustration of a King, who divided his people into two groups in the same way a shepherd divides his herds, separating the sheep from the goats. The distinction between the two types of animals is easy to understand based on their physiology. The distinction between the two groups of people the animals symbolized was based on something far more subtle, their service to others.

To be in the company of the sheep was to be blessed. The people who comprised this group were praised for helping others by providing the essential elements, which determine one’s quality of life: food, clothing, shelter and fellowship. No frills. No fame. Just the fundamentals for a sustainable lifestyle. The practitioners of this philosophy of ministry were subsequently referred to by others as those who have turned the world upside down.

Fast forward to the present day when a pandemic has forced us into an eerie isolation only to be eclipsed by a political upheaval, which has compromised the integrity of both our governing leadership and those who report on their actions. People are afraid of both the present and the future due to the unending nature of the corona virus, the violence accompanying protests about racial injustice and the consequences of the upcoming presidential election. Proposed solutions, made in the form of accusations, abound.

Despite the political rhetoric which permeates the various media outlets, what is needed cannot be found in another government defined program. What we need can only be found in the company of sheep, who meet needs on a very personal and practical level.  Here we can excel at ministering in light of the present conditions, not cowering under the intimidating pressures they present.

It is best to find one’s self in the company of sheep. They have an agenda beyond reproach.

Chevy Chronicles: Part 5

If virtuosity is a word can virtuality become one too? The reason I ask is that these days, for me at least, all activities seem to be virtual. This past weekend I participated in a virtual conference thanks to the technology available to us now, allowing us to dress appropriately from the waist up and talk to other talking heads similarly attired. It is the new business dress code for a new business mode of operation.

The virtuosity in my life is the one activity I can engage in, which requires physical presence. It is my continued grinding on the metal components of the ’63 Chevy pickup undergoing a much needed transformation. No computer can do this work for me. And that’s okay with me. The truck is a priceless family heirloom my father purchased new. It remained idle after his death, enduring the harsh but dry conditions of the northern California climate near Redding. It now resides in Wisconsin, inside a shop building and is being stripped of old paint and surface rust on its ways to looking like and running as good as new.

With the engine removed and undergoing repair in a professional shop, the B-team (which is me) attacked the engine compartment with grinding wheel in hand. A younger enthusiast would have found this task dull, perhaps, but easily accomplished with convenient access to the right tools. The tools at hand are the right ones for the job. It’s just that the one wielding them is not. Too many years and too many injuries to back, shoulders, hands and knees means the task requires as many breaks in the action as I can possibly justify. It helps to bring a full thermos of coffee to the job site along with a thirst for caffeine to provide that justification.

No fear. The grinding on this part of the truck’s anatomy is complete. A coat of black primer has been applied as a visible indicator of progress. More grinding is underway. Now I am focused on what is external. Much more coffee will be needed as my virtuosity with the grinding wheel will defy the law of virtuality in other aspects of my life. The dress code, though, is to my liking; jeans, ragged tee shirt and work boots. It is the tinkering man’s appropriate attire.

Chevy Chronicles: Part 4

I am not one for writing about political or social movements as I am not a participant in either these days and my management mantra during a modestly successful career as a non-profit administrator was to never talk politics, religion or football. When you rely on the good faith of donors to power your financial engine, it pays to avoid controversy. That mindset helped to keep me occupied with a lengthy probation period known as gainful employment.

These days if I adhere to this old standard, even though I am now retired, it doesn’t leave you much to write about since observance of the current guidelines for social distancing and self-quarantine keep you from having anything else of substance to talk about. Hence the fact that I can work in isolation in a shop, where I am operating pneumatic tools to grind the decades of rust and grime from the parts of my father’s 1963 Chevy pickup does give me a topic to write about. I also like to provide some photographic evidence of our progress.

When doing this work I do wear a mask. Not that I fear contacting the Covid-19 virus from a car body. But the amount of dust and dirt floating freely off of the crimped wire-wheel attachment of my drill motor could still have a serious and negative impact on my septuagenarian lungs. And who needs an underlying medical condition these days? Things could get worse.

The area of the truck which has received the greatest amount of my attention is the now empty engine compartment. The motor was pulled and completely disassembled, thanks to the mechanical knowledge of my cohort, Dave Lee. The block is in the possession of another mechanic, who cleaned it in preparation for boring the cylinders. Other work of a technical nature beyond my understanding will also be done. I’ll know the details later when I get the bill.

In the meantime I am worrying the metal components needing the type of cleaning I can do. Besides the mask, which keeps me in compliance with the pandemic guidelines, I am faithfully using ear and eye protection. The particulates grinding makes come with their own ability to inflict damage to the human body. I have already been stabbed a few times by small wires breaking free of the fast spinning wheel.  

Life is good, though. The work keeps me occupied and focused on a worthy task. Otherwise I might be likely to generate my own protest against some form of discrimination by some currently unidentified culprit. Give me time to think about it and I will find something to complain about and someone to blame. Fortunately restoring a family heirloom is the antidote of the moment. Hopefully the restrictions imposed by an unseen virus will abate before the final steps in the truck’s return to glory are complete.

A road trip will be in order when that day comes. To fulfill my dream, it would entail the freedom to pursue a destination of my own choosing with the love of my life once again beside me in a physical proximity only a bench seat can provide. I will need to work on my technique for letting my hand casually slip off its hold on the gear shift knob and onto a waiting, compliant knee. The thought of such a moment is the substance of which dreams are made.

Chevy Chronicles: Part 3

It has been several months since I posted an update on the restoration of my father’s 1963 Chevy pick-up. It is amazing how far reaching a pandemic can be in its ability to shutdown occupations and hobbies. The good news is that the easing of restrictions has allowed me to return to fulfilling this old man’s aspirations for driving a vintage vehicle once again with a strong family pedigree.

This is the motorized contraption in which I learned to shift gears, both literally and figuratively. It powered us on many a family vacation, when the over-the-cab camper was attached. It hauled a lot of young folks to the beach, when it was lawful to ride in the bed of a pick-up truck. And on those occasions when it was not loaded wall-to-wall with people, it easily handled a friend and me with our surfboards as the only cargo. It was a rather unglamorous three-quarter ton machine, but it served quite well as a romantic getaway during an inexpensive date. In this modern age of economic car design I think we’ve lost an appreciation for what a bench seat can do for the sake of teenage love. It was not desire under the elms, ala Eugene O’Neill. Just a dark spot on a back road, where no one would likely pass by, their innocence ruining ours.

The achievements last fall for the truck’s return to glory were modest. We started on a total rebuild of the wheels and brakes. My part was cleaning parts. My friend Dave’s part was all the technical stuff, resulting in functional brakes, plus the acquisition and installation of new rims and tires. The truck’s first form of transit out of and back into the shop was by people power. Thankfully the wheel work was a success, minimizing the strain on an old man’s back and legs when muscling the vehicle around and about.

I also put a lot of effort into cleaning out the cab. This required removing that wonderful bench seat along with the behind the seat gas tank. Then we excavated years of accumulated debris hidden in every corner of the cab. What joy there is in eliminating all the nests so carefully constructed by various pests, who inhabited the truck during its many years of sitting idle in the California sun. The seat was shipped off to be reupholstered and a new gas tank ordered to replace the sieve the original tank had become.

All is back now. The seat is being kept under cover, while further interior work takes place. The new gas tank has been installed. It just needs a new sending unit, ordered separately. Rubber floor mats are on order. The doors have been removed and the hinges made functional once again sans rust. Throughout the process minor assessments were made to determine what to do about replacing the missing or damaged requisite for a road worthy machine. The windshield is cracked, rearview mirrors AWOL, and the floorboards in the truck’s bed weathered beyond recognition. There is much to do and since I am not going anywhere, there is ample time in which to do it.  

The next major step is a complete overhaul of the engine. That means the dollar signs are looming ever larger as we make progress towards the truck’s movement – under its own power that is.

Grandma Was a Laundress

Could anything be more innocuous than writing about the laundry? Most of us do our own these days with intelligent soaps, conditioners, fabrics and machines to prevent us from damaging our clothes, while keeping us socially acceptable without the aid of enforced six foot intervals. It’s still a chore, but easily handled thanks to the technology, which has made us a wrinkle-free society.

Cleanliness is important. It has been so for more than a century in the industrialized west. We know about the health benefits of good personal hygiene. We also know, but choose not to mention, its relevance in helping us to determine friend from foe; clothes being an undeniable marker at any distance.

Well turned out attire has served as a convenient means for determining the acceptability of those we don’t know personally but characterize on sight. Cuffs and collars have reigned as social arbiters for generations. They are hard to hide even when we employ the best accessories in coats, vests, scarves and ties. The hint of a stain or wrinkle upon them is an unassailable verification of another’s status as an unworthy acquaintance who is to be politely shunned.

My interest in the laundry, specifically as a once important trade, has nothing to do with any doubts about my own acceptability and everything to do with family history. Previous messages have followed a paper trail about my father’s union work, confirming his role as a reform movement leader for the bakery and confectionery workers during the last half of the 20th Century. Now my attention is on the work of my maternal grandmother, who was a laundress in a small Oklahoma town in the decades prior to my father’s ascent in authority.

I knew my grandmother as a loving matronly type. She lived with us during the school year to help my mother, her only daughter, raise three boys of varying intelligence and social activities. I was too young then to think about her as anything other than an elderly, benevolent family member, who gave me two dollars each year for my birthday. She died at the age of 75 in the year that I turned 13. Her legacy survived in a few black and white photographs we kept in an album and the stories my mother and uncles would gladly share at family gatherings.

From those stories I learned that my grandmother was not acceptable to her in-laws. My research shows that my grandparents had a civil wedding despite their Christian faith and church attendance. I also know that my grandfather eventually abandoned his father’s trade as a cattleman and took up manual labor in the oil fields. His was a common man’s version of an abdication for the woman he loved.

The reason? My grandmother was a laundress. She was beneath his family’s sense of class, which is hard to fathom given that the old man made his fortune running dirty cattle. But such is the fickleness of human sensibilities. The in-laws had the means to build one of the largest houses in town and their clothes were laundered for them where my grandmother worked.

Arwen P. Mohun, associate professor of history at the University of Delaware, wrote in her book Steam Laundries (The John Hopkins University Press 1999) that “Despite the undeniable impact of scientific ideas, ordinary consumers clung more tightly to the symbolic definitions of cleanliness.” Ironically this clinging included the perception of an “indelible lack of cleanliness” in those who did the dirty work of removing stains and odors from other peoples’ clothes. A laundress was “fundamentally ‘dirty’ in a way that no amount of scrubbing could cure.”

My grandmother quit work to raise her family, but her separation from the despicable trade was short lived. My grandfather died in the 1920 flu epidemic after eight brief years of marriage. He left behind a widow with three small boys who was four months pregnant with my mother. The wealthy in-laws did nothing to help her following my grandfather’s death so she returned to the only work she was qualified to do and left her brood to the daily care of her mother and three half-sisters.

She labored in the laundry business until the end of World War II. With three sons and a son-in-law safely returning from their military service, she was afforded the honor of retirement. She lived with her children, rotating for brief bits of time between the four families. But my family received the lion’s share of her love and devotion thanks to mom being proficient at producing boys. Three of us, in fact, just like grandma. My parents, though, had the sense to stop before a baby girl emerged and had the chance to spoil our good life.

Many years after my grandmother’s passing a distant cousin from the “in-law” side of the family wrote about her in his newspaper column. The occasion was a family reunion of those of us descended from a lowly laundress. He acknowledged that such a large and friendly gathering could not have occurred on his side of the family. He attributed the affection shared among as her doing, the result of a character imbued with love and generous to a fault. Near the close of his piece he addressed my grandmother in spirit with the words:

“Lula Fowler Barr, you ought to see the harvest of happiness from the garden of love you tended so well.”


Will the 20s Roar Again?

One of the persistent parallels being drawn today concerns our current pandemic and that of the Spanish Influenza variety, which struck in at least three cycles from 1918 to 1919. Most disconcerting among the messages touting the potential repeat of infectious history is the thought that a second round of Covid-19 will have the same devastating effect as round two in the fall of 1918. October of that year is said to have been the deadliest month in U. S. history. 

No one today, no matter how well trained in the study of infectious diseases, can truthfully say yes or no to the question of “Will there be a second round?” And if there is, “Will it prove to be deadlier than the first?” But the dire warning of a second deadly cycle persists in social media posts.

One major factor missing now that was prevalent then is that the world was engaged in another type of pandemic, World War I. Young men from a wide array of nations were packed into close contact to one another on board troop ships destined for the worst of conditions trench warfare can manifest. Aided and abetted by these horrendous factors the milder virus at the heart of the spring outbreak apparently mutated into something far more aggressive and deadly.

Healthy young men succumbed to the disease at a higher rate than anticipated. Scientists of that era had no clue what a virus was. No medical treatments worked. The cloth masks of the day were too porous to prevent the unknown culprit of microscopic particulates from being inhaled. And attempts at non-medical intervention – store closings and social distancing – were inconsistently invoked. In light of everyone’s ignorance about the nature of the disease, the specter of an angel of death prevailed.

November 1918 saw the rapid decline of influenza cases and the end of the war. The virus continued to mutate but into a weakened state that was less contagious and less deadly. The consensus is that a third outbreak did occur in the spring of 1919, ending by late summer. Some scientists do suggest that a fourth round occurred in 1920, but the lack of evidence prevents a consensus on this.

The world, especially in the West, entered a new normal following the ravages of both war and disease. It was surprisingly anything but dismal and restrictive. The people who survived the scourge of war and the unexplained peril of the most deadly disease since the Black Plague went ballistic. We call that period of euphoric celebration the Roaring Twenties. In France it was known simply as annees folles, the crazy years. Think flapper, jazz, dance marathons, bathtub gin and flagpole sitting (all pursued in the spirit of anything goes) and you get the cultural drift of the age. Prosperity was rampant, though built on a bubble as the 1929 stock market crash would eventually prove.

So here we are on the verge of the 20s again. And if we are drawing parallels between our current crisis and that of a hundred years ago, my question is “Will the 20s roar again?” Will we be just as enthusiastic for a new wave of personal freedom like the survivors of a prior century, when they were released from the bondage of unassailable death on the home front? And will it be just as frivolous; a victimless crime of passion in the form of an ostentatious display of carnal wealth?

Here is my prognosis.

What we want, we want now! Forgetfulness is in our collective DNA coupled with a type of fatalism that invites self-gratification at every level while there’s still time. Social distancing, obsessive hand washing, surgical masks and business closures will dissipate in the mist of the past as uncomfortable experiences always do. This is the type of mindset that comes with being human. It mutates of its own volition in the hearts of every consumer; a passion which crosses the lines of class, culture and complexion.

Of course the 20s will roar! The difference this time will be the range of activities on display in the grab for pleasure. The richest will be able to finance a faux bohemian lifestyle emulating the Left Bank of the 1920s, while the poorest will still be poor and angry and potentially volatile. Expect the current decade to roar if only at this flagrant disparity.

When You’re Not Invited

If you have a Facebook page, then you have likely seen one or more of your friends accepting the challenge of listing their ten favorite albums over a ten day period. It seems that in this self-quarantine era, with people having a lot of idle time on their hands, more of these challenges have taken place. At least, that’s the way it seems to me.

One of the rules of the game involves nominating someone to do the same after your ten albums have been revealed. I have yet to be nominated, which leads me to think that I need to unfriend a lot of people. It has also prompted me to consider what ten albums I would have posted had I been asked. Clearly the advantage of being a blogger is that you can self-nominate in keeping with the spirit of self-isolation in the year of the plague.

Three rules drive the following top ten list. First is that the album was owned by me at one time, cost being a good indicator of value. The second rule is that the album is prized for all of its tracks, not just the one or two, which dominated the pop charts for a brief time. And the third rule is perhaps most important of all. The album influenced my viewpoint of life in all of its wonderful facets and helped to shape the content and style of my own writing.

The Highwaymen: The Highwaymen (1960) – This album is exempt from rule number one in that it cost me nothing. It was a birthday gift from my mother. Prior to this the paltry records in my collection of two consisted of Dave Seville and the Chipmunks and a husband/wife duo singing their own compositions of nursery rhymes set to music. I think the latter record was pressed on red vinyl. I was in grade school when The Highwaymen released this album, featuring the mega-hit Michael Row the Boat Ashore. But I was more enamored of the other tracks and learned the lyrics to them all. It was my formal introduction to folk music, which perhaps served as something of a buffer against the influence of surf music that was soon to overwhelm us all.

Blowin’ In The Wind: Peter, Paul and Mary (1963) – Another rule one violator, this PP&M classic was another gift, prized by me because it was more adult (becoming one was a driving aspiration) than their previous work featuring a magic dragon. It also made me a vicarious Dylan fan as I came to enjoy his artistry when sung by a person or group with actual vocal talent. Sadly for me it was forty some years before I got to see Peter, Paul and Mary perform live. I prefer vinyl over digital in terms of sound quality, but live performances, with all their flaws, is better than the firmly controlled studio performances.

Reflecting: The Chad Mitchell Trio (1964) – My third and final rule one violator was a gift from my older brother. He wanted me to appreciate music with a message, meaning political in substance as the trio’s recording of Barry’s Boys indicated. But once again I immersed myself in every track and became a fourth member of the trio, with performances limited to my bedroom. I enjoyed singing along with the trio, while down the hall in my brother’s room came the sound of Joan Baez’ voice (another Dylan interpreter), which proved to be an indirect influence on me at a time when I was about to enter high school. 

Sunshine Superman: Donovan (1966) – When the British invasion hit all of America’s rock radio stations, I was not immune to the music of the Beatles, Stones and others. In fact my very first date with a girl, whose qualification was that she was the cutest in my class, was to see the Dave Clark Five perform at the Melodyland Theater in the Round in Anaheim, CA. But all the rules stated above came into play with my acquisition of Donovan’s album. This release also coincided with my first attempts at writing poetry, which unsurprisingly imitated the themes of this album more than any other I had enjoyed to-date. 

Surrealistic Pillow: Jefferson Airplane (1967) – Up to this point rock music was something I listened to almost exclusively on the radio. My meager investments in the rock genre were pretty much limited to 45s. Even in the late 60s these small discs were still very common as the initial release format for the songs deemed to be the best way to introduce the eventual release of a full album. White Rabbit was that initial hit, but hearing the full album at a friend’s house prompted me to buy the full package. That first encounter with this music held another significant marker in my life. My friend and I listened to the music together. Previously my musical interests were enjoyed in isolation, except for that date to see the DC5. This album was the basis for discussing and analyzing everything from the songs to the meaning of life in general. The friendship and the music were all of one piece.

Forever Changes: Love (1967) – I was a senior in high school when this album was released, but I did not know about it for another year, when I entered college and my tightly constructed life with friends I had known since grade school abruptly disappeared to be replaced by the far more expansive and less restrictive environment of academia. I was there primarily to get a student deferment and avoid the draft, but to my surprise Love was waiting. This was not a wildly popular album and I purchased it almost on a dare from the person who recommended it. I virtually played this album until the grooves wore out. To enjoy it now I listen to the CD version.

Songs of Leonard Cohen: Leonard Cohen (1967) – Cohen for me became the Dylan for most everyone else. I liked his words, his melodies and his voice, the latter being the primary feature that definitely set him apart from Dylan. This album also holds the distinction of being one of the first that I pirated. I purchased a Christmas gift for myself, a reel-to-reel four track stereo tape-recorder (high tech for those days) and started recording at random the music my friends supplied me for free. And that’s how I discovered Cohen. It was also a time when I wanted to learn to play guitar. I bought his songbook and roughly reproduced his work, which in turn shaped my own writing efforts – now no longer existent thanks to a paper shredder. The value of these equally pirated songs of my own creation was better served as garden mulch than musical verite. 

Crosby, Stills and Nash: Crosby, Stills and Nash (1969) – The concept of a super group was not new with CS&N, but it was the first to influence me. Perhaps the manner in which I was introduced to it captured my interest first. I listened to it with a small group of friends one evening with home grown joints making the circuit around the room. The peaceful ambience added to the mellow harmonic sounds of instruments and voices. Since I was an aspiring though pathetic musician, the album opened my thoughts further to what a song can be when the words and the music form a natural blend. Admittedly this was a studio album, but I did see them perform live years later. Vocally they were just as good. You just needed to prevent a stoned Crosby from playing guitar. 

Blue: Joni Mitchell (1971) – This lengthy presentation of my ten most influential albums is done in chronological order. If I had done it by most lasting favorite, we would have started here. For one thing, it came out the year I was married. My wife and I were in absolute agreement about it more than anything else in our newly licensed relationship. But alone, I am simply in awe of both her lyrical and musical talents. For all my aspirations, Joni alone surpasses anything I could ever achieve with or without accompaniment.

Don’t Cry Now: Linda Ronstadt (1973) – In comparison to the other nine albums, my choice of this one makes Linda the outlier. The selection is based almost exclusively on the voice. She is supreme of all the female rock stars in my opinion. I never missed an opportunity to see her perform live when she closed the summer season at the Universal Amphitheater in LA. And if I were to compile a soundtrack for the 70s it would celebrate Linda and her cohorts in creating the Southern California sound: J D Souther, Jackson Browne, and the Eagles. Those were good times and I am glad I did not miss them.

There are several runners-up to this list, music I listened to and grew by. But the game is limited to ten. And though I was not asked to participate, a web log message is what you do when you’re not invited.

Social Distancing 1946

These past three weeks I have written about a family matter of 1950s origin. It concerns my father’s work as the secretary of a union local and his encounter with a couple of legendary figures, John F Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa.

My renewed interest in this episode of family history was sparked by the recent release of a book and a Netflix movie about Hoffa’s disappearance and presumed murder. The book, In Hoffa’s Shadow by Jack Goldsmith, was of special help to me since it affirmed a couple of key points I believed to be true based on my mother’s fragmentary recollection of what happened when I was too young to understand the full implication of my father’s close encounters with the famous and the infamous.

Oddly enough, I must commend the self-quarantine restrictions of the Covid-19 lockdown for helping me add a little more substance to the residue of mother’s memory. My antidote to the boredom of isolation was scouring family memorabilia horded in cardboard boxes confined to the closet in their own form of social distancing.

Among the many treasures saved over more than a century of family history were three newspaper clippings, which supported mom’s account of dad’s participation in a reform movement that brought him into contact with a Senate investigation committee, of which Kennedy was a member, and an open conflict directly with Hoffa. Dad won. And he outlived them both, passing away at home, peacefully in his own bed and the age of 68. Kennedy and Hoffa did not do so well.

There was another interesting find among the paper ephemera that is providing me with the content of this week’s message. It was an invitation to a birthday party for my older brother. In 1946 he turned two years of age and the invitation was sent to a couple of our cousins. It would have been a pretty common affair and of little concern to me more than seventy years later except for one little side note my mother penned to my aunt.

In addition to the time, date and place of the party, my mother thought it necessary to let her sister-in-law know that there was a local outbreak of polio in the small town where my parents were living post World War II. Mom promised that no other children would be invited to the party as she had wished. This was something of an enticement for the other family members to make the short trip from where they lived so that they could be together one more time before my folks left Oklahoma for good in pursuit of the sunny promised land of California.

Social distancing during the summer months when polio outbreaks were common though unpredictable was not mandated by the state or federal governments. It was something people did on their own back then to protect loved ones from infection. Mom’s note on the birthday invitation indicates how she put the cautionary measure into practice, shunning non-family members but holding close to blood-kin as a safe way to fulfill the need for social support sans masks.

Covid-19 has brought fear into the lives of people once again just as polio once did, spanning a lethal tide of death and disability over several decades, not just a season or a year or two. The development of a vaccine changed all of that to the point where people today probably never give a thought to being afflicted by something prior generations regarded with abject fear.

Today Dr. Anthony Fauci has emerged as something of a folk hero for daily reporting on the nature of the Covid-19 threat in terms people generally understand and trust. But his celebrity status pales in comparison to that of Jonas Salk, whose team of researchers produced the first polio vaccine used in the US in the mid-50s. It is said that when President Dwight D. Eisenhower awarded Salk a medal in a Rose Garden ceremony, that the leader of the free world teared up when making the presentation, which is something he did not do just a few years before when he announced the defeat of Nazi-led Germany. This gives us some sense of the magnitude of Salk’s discovery in delivering relief from a terrifying though unseen enemy.

I can remember lining up at school (likely as a first grader) to be vaccinated. I promised myself not to cry like the other babies in my class, simply because my best friend was standing next to me and making taunting comments about the criers. I remained brave through the entire process, being more fearful of shame than the needle. And as I recall this was an annual process as Salk’s vaccine had a short-term benefit. Better was the eventual use of an oral vaccine discovered by Albert Sabin and his research team. Not only did this eliminate the trauma of standing in line waiting to be poked with a long, silvery needle, but the new delivery method was that of a sugar cube, which was no more traumatic than having dessert.

I share this story with those who fear that life as we knew it just a few months ago will never reappear for us again. Such a mindset seems to me to be too much the result of watching programs which dramatize various projections for a zombie apocalypse of cataclysmic proportions. If any of these modern day prophesies prove to provide a foretaste of life in permanent lockdown, then it would be catastrophic since I am anxious to see how well Tom Brady does as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Bucs. And it would be tragic if the US women’s soccer team achieved payroll parity with men by both of them earning zero, meaning not playing.

I am a believer in the efficacy of science to deliver us from the current evil. We just need the politicians, mainstream and social media mavens, and our beloved late-night talk show hosts from getting in the way by exploiting peoples’ fears. Let the Salks and Sabins of the world do their work. We need to be encouraged with leaders who model patience and have some faith in the wisdom of an ancient king who comforted his people with the certitude that “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

So will birthday parties, World Cup glory (with pay equity) and possibly a playoff berth for Tampa Bay.

The Hoffa Thing

Let’s review.

I am on a quest to validate at least two of the things my mother told me when I was a young boy. One of these is not about having a guardian angel, which is another story she told me. It was meant to help assuage my fear of the dark. It didn’t work.

The two things she told me of current concern are 1) that my father appeared before a Senate investigating committee on which then Senator John F. Kennedy was a member, and 2) he survived a direct confrontation with the infamous former president of the Teamsters Union, Jimmy Hoffa.

My renewed fascination in these tales of family history was sparked by the publicity surrounding the release of last year’s Martin Scorsese movie, The Irishman, which purported to tell the story about how Hoffa was murdered, and the far less publicized – but far more factually accurate – release of Jack Goldsmith’s book In Hoffa’s Shadow.

From Goldsmith I learned that there was a Senate investigating committee formed in 1957. Chaired by Arkansas Senator, John L. McClellan, the Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management included John F. Kennedy as a committee member and his brother, Bobby, as legal counsel. It is possible that this is the committee mom meant in her tale of dad’s testifying at a Senate hearing since the McClellan people did investigate the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union of which dad was an officer in Union Local 37 in Los Angeles.

Goldsmith also mentioned Hoffa’s attempts to expand the influence of the Teamsters Union by organizing the shops his truck drivers served by either delivering or picking up product from those shops. Bakery and confectionery workers were prime targets as their own union was contending with an internal conflict that weakened their power and bargaining position. Hoffa, the true focus of the McClellan committee and Bobby Kennedy’s vindictive inquest, was offering a solution to their troubles. Dad, as part of a reform movement within the baker’s union, stood in opposition to those efforts.

Goldsmith’s book lent credibility to my mother’s veiled comments about dad’s career. This prompted me to do an on-line search about the existence of the McClellan committee’s records. The search results directed me to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website and my solicitation of help of the NARA staff. Their initial response was favorable but then the shutdown came as a result of the Covid-19 virus and my quest was put on indefinite hold for the duration.

Last week I wrote about finding three vintage newspaper clippings among my mother’s keepsakes. This occurred as part of my attempt to put my self-quarantine hours to good use by sorting through family photos and documents. Two of the articles reported on dad’s participation in a Federal court case, which involved the successful ouster of James G. Cross from the presidency of the Bakery and Confectionery Worker’s Union. This affirmed mom’s claim that dad did go to Washington, D. C. to testify, but not about his possible appearance before a Senate investigating committee.

Hopefully the NARA records will eventually provide some further clarification on this point. If dad did meet with the members of the Select Committee, then his testimony should be a matter of record and kept safe in the NARA files. Time alone will tell.

The third article was about Hoffa’s attempt to bring the divided factions within the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union into the Teamsters Union. The article contained a surprisingly pleasing account of how Hoffa was contacted at the San Francisco airport and told that his proposed meeting with baker’s union officials scheduled to take place in LA had been cancelled. Consequently the merger never took place.

Here’s the thing. In mom’s account dad is the one who placed the phone call to Hoffa at the airport and told him that “There’s nothing for you here in LA.” This statement is not in the newspaper article, so I cannot push it as labor history with any certitude. But mom was right about the basics: Hoffa did try to bring the various locals of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers Union into the Teamsters Union; he was getting ready to fly to Los Angeles for a meeting with union officials to broker a deal; and he was contacted at the airport with the message that there would be no meeting.

Dad’s personal involvement with this venture is affirmed, however, in this newspaper article written by Harry Bernstein, the labor reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. Bernstein did not acknowledge our family legend of dad telling Hoffa there was nothing for him in LA. But he did quote dad about his opposition to the baker’s union being absorbed by the much larger and more powerful Teamsters Union and why. The quote for the record states, “I certainly am not interested in spending months and months trying to get our union out from under a dictatorship, and then having it go into what amounts to perpetual trusteeship.”

Growing up we had our own vow of silence about dad’s work in the union. And he by nature was not one to boast about anything he did. Mom, on the other hand, was proud of his honest endeavors on behalf of the union membership and thankfully did yield to her gift for gossip by letting us know of his leadership in a reform movement as a stalwart defender of the union’s independence.

I wish dad were here now. Maybe my senior adult status would allow him to open up to me man to man about these two episodes, which occurred some sixty years ago. And who knows, maybe there were other stories of equal magnitude concerning his impact on labor relations. It would be nice to know about his many achievements.

Ultimately I am left with two realizations. First, mom’s version of events involving dad and the likes of Kennedy and Hoffa has been partially vindicated by the newspaper clippings she saved. And second that dad died peacefully at home in his own bed, unlike the tragic demise of two of the most powerful men he encountered during a long and satisfying career benefitting others.