Friday, October 26, 2007

The World War II Memorial

In Search of a Sense of Place
Washington Journal
Richard Allen Hyde

October 26, 2007


I spent a lot of time on the National Mall during this warm and almost rainless summer of 2007. Every day was a good day for bicycling around the city and the great central park at its heart. I did not particularly like The World War II Memorial when it replaced the old the Rainbow Pool, just off 17th Street directly west of the Washington Monument, several years ago.

Nonetheless I found myself visiting it often and finding that it gave rise to a lot of thought. The fountains are beautiful and the old Rainbow Pool certainly needed fixing up. It attracts a lot of visitors, including, touchingly, World War II veterans, increasingly frail, having their photographs taken with loved ones and the memorial as a backdrop. With the passing of time, the surrounding trees have gentled the vertical forms of the memorial into the environment and it does not look so shockingly new.

Nonetheless, this memorial has problems. The major problem dates back to the enabling legislation in 1993 that called for a memorial to the efforts of World War II veterans and the nation. Such a memorial would be appropriate for any number of sites in Washington, in or at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery, near the Roosevelt Memorial, or some other site off the central axis of the Mall. The current site, which no one in 1993 even considered, cries out for a lot more than a veterans memorial.

The focus of a war memorial on this site, should not be on veterans, or the nation, or on the war itself, but on the overarching meaning and purpose of the Second World War. The focus of the Lincoln Memorial is not on the Civil War itself, and certainly not on its battlefields (the architectural focus of the World War II Memorial), which are well-preserved and memorialized elsewhere; but on Abraham Lincoln and his words, chiseled in stone, that articulate the meaning of that war for all people and generations to come.

No memorial can do justice to those who have sacrificed in war. Memorials are for the living. Memorials should instruct the living in the reasons for the sacrifice, inspiring us to live our lives in a way that honors those who died. Lincoln said at Gettysburg,

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they [those fallen in battle] did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

The National Mall is defined by the Capitol on the east, the Lincoln Memorial on the west and the Washington Monument in the middle. John Hay, who served as personal secretary to Lincoln and later as Secretary of State, well articulated the importance of the area west of the Washington Monument: "As I understand it, the place of honor is on the main axis of the [MacMillan] plan. Lincoln of all Americans next to Washington deserves this place of honor. He was of the immortals. You must not approach too close to the immortals. His monument should stand alone, remote from the common habitations of man, apart from the business and turmoil of the city; isolated, distinguished and serene." Lincoln gets this position because his life and words so clearly enunciated the broader significance of that great civil war. His memorial, fittingly, is not an arch of triumph, which was proposed, but a temple of unity and freedom, which are clearly celebrated in the speeches chiseled in the stone walls and in the murals above.

The practice of American democracy is a constant negotiation between unity and freedom. To the Lincoln statue's right, across the Tidal Basin, rests another temple of unity and freedom: Jefferson’s. The two temples constantly put forth the noble words, a philosophical anchor to the often rancorous debates within Congress and between Congress and the President. At the center of the architectural debate is the Washington Monument, around which the other buildings revolve in perpetual conversation.

Anything that gets between these five buildings must have something terribly important to say. It must do more than congratulate the nation for having won a war and thank its veterans in particular for having done the heaviest lifting. It must articulate, in the way the Lincoln Memorial does, not just the national, but the universal significance of this victory. This would be the case whatever the war. It is even more the case for World War II, which was an allied effort from start to finish. We fought the Civil War to save democracy as an appropriate form of government for a great power. Four score years later, we fought another war for the same reason, when democracy was even more threatened.

Of course, the debate over the meaning, not to mention the purposes and causes of World War II, will reverberate through chancelleries, universities, newspapers, bars and coffeehouses for centuries to come. Some see it as the defeat of fascism, or militarism, or Nazism. Some see it as the triumph of democracy over a much graver threat than the royalism that attempted to strangle infant American democracy in the crib. Some see it as the finest hour of the British Empire or the pivotal event of the American Century. Some combine these latter two views to proclaim World War II, Soviet participation notwithstanding, as the triumph of the English-speaking peoples, and Anglo-Saxon notions of government.

These views all merit consideration, but only one deserves a stone monument in the nation’s front yard: the triumph of democracy through collective security. It was not at all clear during the decade of the 1930s that democratic governments would survive the threat of totalitarian regimes of both the right and the left. At the beginning of the war, it was widely wondered -- quite justifiably so -- whether the world’s remaining democracies could work together to defeat a common foe. Thus World War II tested a proposition as profoundly as the Civil War did: whether nations conceived in liberty could long endure. Allied leaders, sobered by the near failure of this proposition, decided to found the United Nations before the war was even over, and no decent, sober person anywhere, wanted the United States to stay out of this League of Nations, Round Two.

Almost all political commentators agree that the United States of America is the world’s only superpower. It does America no good, however, to make this point too loudly or too often. There is considerable debate today, as there long has been and well should be, about unilateralism and multilateralism in American foreign policy. Whatever the merits of each, World War II was incontrovertibly a multilateral effort. The United States did not defeat fascism, militarism and Nazism by itself. It behooves us to clearly celebrate this fact in any national World War II Memorial, especially one in such a prominent place. The triumph of democracy through collective security should be the theme of this memorial. Our soldiers died not just for one nation free and interdependent, but a globe covered with nations free and interdependent. As after the Civil War, out of this struggle demanding allied unity should come a new birth of freedom. A World War II memorial in this place should clearly articulate this faith.

Washington Journal

In Search of a Sense of Place
Washington Journal

Richard Allen Hyde
October 20, 2007


It has been a dry summer in Washington. There may have been two inches of rain since May. Grass that has not been watered turned brown in early August. The humidity has generally been low by Washington standards, although, of course, there have been days when your skin felt like it had thousands of tiny insects dancing on it within minutes of stepping outside. Now with leaves slowly turning and still no rain, the weather reminds me of Califonia, where late summer fades imperceptibly into fall and fall seems like it will last forever. In Asia they call this monsoon weather: Dry, dry, dry. Finally it rains.

Yes, it has also been hot. It is always hot in Washington in the summer. This summer was about normal in that respect. But it has not rained. The grass on the National Mall is in desperate need of rain. I am told that there is no money in the National Park Service’s budget for watering.

Literature majors know that this is the background of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland. Even non-majors probably know that too much has been made of that poem already. Nonetheless, it has never been more apt. Weather is not the only dry phenomenon in Washington these days. Washington waits for a new president as anxiously as farmers await the rain; people here are just as surly as when the rain does not come and the crops are ruined. The rain, the actual, physical rain, will come a lot sooner than the change of government, probably before even the first primary election, which is still months off.

The Bush Presidency staggers on. Everyone, including Republicans, is sick of it. As in some species of ants, the main body is long since dead, but the stinger, the vaunted public relations team, keeps on fighting. Elsewhere, the whole political apparatus is afflicted with the dry heaves. Politicians keep opening their mouths to speak, but nothing comes out.

Yet unselfish acts occasionally take place in this city. The Bush administration announced stronger sanctions against and froze the assets of the weird generals who run Burma. President and members of Congress warmly welcomed the Dalai Lama and gave him a medal, which left the Chinese government fuming. Acts like this remind us that freedom is still the name of the game in Washington, and throughout America. Our government, like all government, everywhere, makes compromises. Likewise, it makes clear occasionally what it ultimately values. In this country, it’s freedom.

I have been reading David McCullough’s biography of President Truman, the unremarkable man who became FDR’s third vice-president after the charming and personable Henry Wallace became just a bit too loopy to be vice-president to an obviously ailing President Roosevelt. The unremarkable Truman became a remarkable president.

When he first arrived in Washington, as a senator, in 1935, he generally walked from his apartment on upper Connecticut Avenue to the Capitol (over five miles), arriving so early that he was issued a special key to get to his office. As President, he made momentous decisions. He was his own chief of staff. He was the last president to write his own speeches and the last with only a high school education. He reorganized the entire foreign policy apparatus of the government, combining the War and Navy Departments to make the Defense Department. His Secretaries of State, George Marshall and Dean Acheson, were perhaps the best ever to hold the office. The Marshall Plan, which loaned or gave Europe billions of dollars when a billion was still a large number, has been characterized as one of the most unselfish acts ever undertaken by a government. It was also one of the wisest. Europe is free today because of it. Where would we be without it? Truman held 324 press conferences.

Harry Truman certainly waged the most remarkable election campaign for president in the history of the office. After being counted out by pundits and pollsters from beginning to end, he won the popular vote by over two million. His party won both houses of Congress by wide margins. Disregarding the polls, the people spoke. Democracy worked.

The often-overlooked fact of this storybook campaign is that a shift of less than 50,000 votes in Illinois and California would have given the election to his opponent, Thomas Dewey. This is something to ponder, for it is quite possible that the popular vote winner of this coming election in 2008 will lose the election. There is no telling at this point whether the disgruntled winner/loser will be a Republican or Democrat.

Let us assume that Hillary Clinton and Rudolf Giuliani, both of whom are intensely disliked by members of the opposite party, will be the nominees. It will certainly be a close, hard-fought election. How will the supporters of either of these candidates feel about winning the popular vote yet losing the election in the electoral college? It is not clear who will be more insufferable, as winner or loser, with such a result. George Bush won a contested election and has not had a popular presidency. Can we afford to do this again?

Let’s face it: the electoral college has long outlived its usefulness, if it ever had any to begin with. The primary system worked fairly well, for a while, but now it is time for it to go as well. It is high time for a complete federal election overhaul: one national primary day and abolishing the electoral college. Federal election standards, and funding, for all elections. I believe it is in the interest of both parties and the entire electorate to do this.

I know the argument for primaries: it gives at least a few voters the opportunity to see candidates up close and ask questions. But why should this privilege go to voters in the same states year after year? Further, I submit that the system no longer works to give lesser-known candidates a chance. The candidate with the most money and backing from party leaders usually wins, and that candidate has often been a second-rate candidate. We have had numerous chances for a fresh faces: Gary Hart in 1984 (four years before he self-destructed), Bill Bradley in 2000, Howard Dean and John McCain in 2004 all would have been more interesting candidates than what we ultimately got. They ultimately were done in by superior funding, powerful backers and television. Bill Clinton is the notable exception. Can anyone even name whom he was running against in 1992?

So why bother with the charade? Either reform the primary system or let the party leaders and a few super-rich folks get together and choose the candidates in a beautiful, air-conditioned corporate retreat center (the proverbial smoke-filled room is long gone) in July and start the campaign right afterward. Save everyone a lot of time and trouble.

Copyright, 2007
Richard Allen Hyde

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

In Search of a Sense of Place. July 10, 2007.

In Search of a Sense of Place
RAH from Washington

July 10, 2007


Martin Luther, American.

Martin Luther was one of the greats, whose preaching and writing has made a huge impression on the United States of America.

No, I did not leave off the last name. Martin Luther King indeed had a great impact on America, but it is his namesake that inspires this particular meditation on the city of Washington and the United States of America this Fourth of July week.

What makes America America? Or, generally, what makes a place a place?

Significant geography, geology, physical characteristics: location, location, location.

Also significant historical events, important people, people in general; what people do here and have done here. What people think about here.

A book has come out comparing the United States and its capital to Rome. The history and thought of Greece, Rome, Israel and Europe all have exerted their influence on the United States. This influence is easily discovered, not to mention that of Africa, Asia and countless other histories and thought-forms. America is a melting pot, a salad-bowl, a crucible. And, unquestionably, America is a free country.

Today let me give Luther his due. Without him, there would be no United States, or Abraham Lincoln, or Martin Luther King speaking about freedom from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Luther’s understanding of Freedom and Love, in brief, are what transformed the medieval world and more than any other ideas, or forces, led to all of us in America being here and now, July of 2007, with a capital on the banks of the Potomac. Let me trace this trajectory by means of a picture and a story.

Two years ago I was asked to lecture at the State Department School of Foreign Service on the history of religion in America because our press and cultural affairs officers were getting a lot of questions on this topic. I could think of no better way to begin than by showing the cover of the paperback edition of Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness. The cover shows a parting of the clouds and a pilgrim in classic garb in the palm of God’s hand. It is a simple, crude, even childlike, yet almost breathtaking drawing for it well conveys a sense of America as God’s chosen land and Americans as God’s chosen people.

In the introduction to the book, Miller tells how he got interested in the New England Mind and its continuing influence on America and the world: “To bring into conjunction a minute event in the history of historiography with a great one: it was given to Edward Gibbon to sit disconsolate amid the ruins of the Capitol at Rome, and to have thrust upon him the ‘laborious work ‘of The Decline and Fall while listening to barefooted friars chanting responses in the former temple of Jupiter.”

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) served in the British Army and was in Rome around the time of what the Europeans call the Seven Years and Americans call the French and Indian War (1760-something). After this experience he wrote the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in which, in short, he blamed Christianity for the fall of the Rome. As Christianity became the official religion of the Empire, the best and the brightest became leaders of the church rather than going into the military or into the government and the ancient Roman virtues and martial spirit fell away, or so he argued.

“It was given to me,” continues Miller, “equally disconsolate on the edge of a jungle of central Africa, to have thrust upon me the mission of expounding what I took to be the innermost propulsion of the United States, while supervising, in that barbaric tropic, the unloading of drums of case oil flowing out of the inexhaustible wilderness of America. . . . What I believe caught my imagination, among the fuel drums, was a realization of the uniqueness of the American experience; even then I could dimly make out the portent for the future of the world, looking upon these tangible symbols of the republic’s appalling power. I could see no way of coping with the problem except by going to the beginning. . . . The beginning I sought was inevitably – being located in the 17th century – theological.”

He wrote this in 1956 of an experience that had taken place thirty years earlier, in 1926. There is much irony, of which Miller was certainly aware, in this juxtaposition of Gibbon blaming Christianity for the fall of Rome and Miller, a self-avowed atheist, crediting Christianity for the rise of America, for providing the innermost propulsion for the Republic’s appalling power.

What was the result of Perry Miller’s quest? What did provide the innermost propulsion? I believe the answer in brief is these two words, much meditated upon by Paul, Luther, Calvin and the Reformers, and ultimately Abraham Lincoln and every living American: freedom and love, especially freedom. The quest for freedom is what America has been about from the very beginning and it is what Christianity was about from the very beginning. I know this sounds rather audacious, but try it on for size.

Admittedly, Jesus did not use the word “freedom” very much, just twice, once in Matthew and once in John, for five uses of the Greek word “eleutheros” altogether. “Eleutheros,” by the way, has become a botanical term which reveals the meaning of this word: It means, simply, “wild, “ as in eleuthero ginseng, wild ginseng, which grows all over the northeastern United States. It’s the best ginseng root in the world, I might add.

But it is no exaggeration to say that freedom was of utmost importance for Paul. Paul uses the word “freedom” in his writings over twenty times and it is a key concept in his letters to the Romans, Corinthians and Galatians. In Paul’s understanding Jesus sets us free from sin, free from the fear of death, free from death itself. If Paul were here to be questioned on the matter he might say that Jesus did not talk about freedom much, but He WAS freedom, and love, and a lot of other qualities besides. He embodied freedom and love and made it possible for us to exercise both. There is some speculation that his preaching about freedom is what landed Paul in jail and eventually got him executed. For freedom has not always and everywhere been viewed as positively as we Americans do. Freedom is often confused with license and this confusion can lead to dangerous consequences.

To go back to the beginning, here is what Paul wrote to the Galatians:
Galatians 5: 1: For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
13: For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.
14: For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

This talk of freedom, and love, did not languish in the Bible unnoticed, but it really achieved salience when a young German monk named Martin Luther studied the letters of Paul intensively and extensively and based his rebellion against the papacy upon it. Quite early in his tumultuous life as a reformer, in the tumultuous year of 1520, Luther penned a letter to Pope entitled:

On the Freedom of a Christian - Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen

In this letter, Luther claimed that as fully forgiven children of God, Christians are no longer compelled to keep God's law, the Old Testament law, or any law; however, they freely and willingly serve God and their neighbors. The core meaning of the Gospel, according to Luther is that Christians are free to love.

The exact two sentences from the German are:
A Christian is a free lord over all things, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all things, subject to all.

This work is very forcefully written (in German; the Latin is surprisingly different) in paragraphs beginning: Firstly. Secondly. Thirdly. And so on, paragraph after paragraph until, finally, ‘Thirtiethly.’ No introduction, no conclusion. It ends with ‘Amen.’ You can imagine Luther’s fist banging on the lectern as he makes his points, one after the other. He also attached to this letter a clever, cheeky, outrageous introduction and, without waiting for a reply – I don’t think he expected one - printed thousands of copies in both Latin and German. It sold like hotcakes. Then, basically, he had to run for his life.

This act – Luther defining Christians as free persons bound to each other by love, not by fear of a sovereign - was the beginning of the modern understanding of human beings as citizens, not subjects. It was rightly considered revolutionary in its time and of course it was and is, still revolutionary, audacious.

Freedom and love, love of freedom, being free to love, are what have provided the innermost propulsion to these United States and the American people. This spirit of reformation transmitted itself through Calvin to the New England Puritans and it soaked into the American soil and it has born a rich harvest with astounding consequences, from our great Civil War to barrels of American oil being unloaded in the Congo in 1926, to Americans landing on beaches from Normandy to Guadalcanal, to American culture recognized, for good or ill, as friend or foe, throughout the world we live in.

This spirit of reformation has been articulated by many Americans, but by no one so well as America’s answer to Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln. It is a commonplace of religious studies that America has produced a lot of religion but not many great theologians, that religion has thrived in America while theology has gone bankrupt. This statement, while clever, is seen as less true when you understand that America’s greatest theologian is disguised as America’s greatest president.

Now I do not claim that Lincoln read Luther – he probably didn’t. But he did read the Bible assiduously, especially as the Civil War dragged on. And while he never joined a church, he did attend one throughout the war, quite regularly, the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church downtown. I do claim that this Reformation understanding of freedom and love had simply soaked into American culture at the time and emerged in Lincoln’s speeches with astounding clarity and power.

At Gettysburg in November of 1863 Lincoln concluded his two minute address with a one-paragraph peroration:
“It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us – through love be servants of one another - - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom . . .”

After a terrible civil war, he promised us a new birth of freedom.

In so doing he reiterated what he had already said in his Second Message to Congress in December of 1862:
“In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.”

And what he already said in an extemporaneous speech he gave on February 21, 1861 to a crowd gathered at Independence Hall, Philadelphia:
“I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was kept this confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance . . . . “

Freedom for Lincoln and I believe for Americans in general, is somewhat akin to the Hebrew notion of Shalom. Shalom is not just the absence of war or conflict, but the presence of something precious and essential for human life. Likewise freedom is not just the absence of constraints, but the presence of human dignity, a quality that we treasure for ourselves and recommend to all people. Freedom is the prerequisite virtue for all other virtues. Lincoln and so may other Americans essentially secularized the concept of Christian freedom and made it the law of the land and the cornerstone of the American way.

How appropriate then MARTIN LUTHER King arose not long ago to claim freedom for all Americans, his voice ringing like the Liberty Bell from the steps of Lincoln’s Memorial, proclaiming freedom throughout the land.

The short story of American history is that America fights for freedom. Our war memorials all over Washington demonstrate this. Let me just mention one to get us up to date, the most recent one, the World War II Memorial on 17th St. at the heart of the National Mall.

In my opinion this World War II Memorial makes too many statements, yet it is starting to blend into the site and the fountains are quite beautiful. Amidst a number of statements engraved on the walls, we find one that is almost spine-chilling in its resonance:

“We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

The author of this terse and tough-minded quotation is none other than George C. Marshall. If we remember that this General Marshall was also the author of the Marshall Plan, we get a sense of what freedom means in America. Freedom is not just absence of conflict or absence of foreign control, but the presence of well-being. Marshall recognized that if we did not help Europe economically, Europe would not remain free.

We cannot read his statement now without being stunned into philosophy, especially if we walk along the reflecting pool to ponder the memorials to Korean and Vietnam War veterans, or read the newspaper. American power is not overwhelming. The wilderness of America is not inexhaustible.

We do not know how the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan will turn out. However they do, I think it important to remember at the beginning of this summer that America, the Idea of America and the ideals of America will remain strong. America will remain a free country and we will remain a free people; and a free people working together may not always be overwhelming but are certainly unconquerable; and the love of God will remain inexhaustible.

It was Martin Luther who brought these ideas from Saint Paul to the fore: for freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore in freedom, and with freedom, love.

Martin Luther, American. America would be a far different place without him.

Copyright, 2007
Richard Allen Hyde

Washington to San Francisco

In Search of a Sense of Place
Washington, DC to San Francisco Bay.
Summer, 2001.

By Richard Allen Hyde


1. Washington to South Bend
2. Lake Michigan and Chicago
3. Across the Prairies and Plains
4. Over the Rockies: Fort Collins to Salt Lake
5. Through the Desert: from the Salt Lake to the Sierra
6. The Golden Hills of California


Washington. July, 2007.

I drove across the country six years ago, in July of 2001, from Washington, DC to Berkeley, California. Having made the trip before and knowing that long periods of boredom awaited, I decided to make an informal study of the different places I noticed as I went along.

How many distinct places are there along this route? People talk about East Coast, Midwest, South and the West Coast. Clearly that is not all, but what else is there exactly? I knew that I would start out in Washington and end up somewhere else, but where exactly does the Washington area end and somewhere else begin? How many “somewhere elses” would I notice? And how would I know? Since I did not have a lot of time, I decided to keep the study simple and rely for clues upon what I could see from the road, hear on the radio and read in the local newspapers. This is the trip that began my search for a sense of place.


1. Washington to South Bend, July 2001.

I start out on a warm and sunny July 1st, 2001 driving slowly up Connecticut Avenue, where I came to get a tire fixed before departing. I have only lived in Washington for two years, but have been a frequent visitor for much of my life and have long considered it my second home. Shouldn’t a nation’s capital always be a second home to its citizens? I wrote my doctoral dissertation about the National Mall. For the better part of five years I read books and monographs about the city, its history and its monumental core. I spent several months walking around it and interviewing visitors to the three monuments at its westernmost end, the Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean Veterans Memorials. Finally I moved here. During all this time, I lived in the vicinity of Connecticut Avenue, rode the subway line underneath it, shopped along it, and visited friends nearby.

I wind around Chevy Chase Circle and know therefore that I have left Washington for Maryland, although no sign informs me of this fact. The transition from the city itself to the suburbs at this point is seamless. But I soon reach the clear line of transition, Interstate 495, more often known as “The Beltway.” Although it did not exist until the 1960s, it is now a physical, psychological and proverbial barrier that separates Washington insiders from the rest of the country and the world.

The late morning, traffic moves along quite well and I am soon on Interstate 270, heading northwest towards Hagerstown, a name I hear every day because Hagerstown is one of the locations of WETA, my favorite NPR station in the Washington area. I hear its name every day. There I will link up with I-70, then I-76, then I-80 in a gradual west-northwestern movement that will lead me to South Bend, Indiana.

I listen to WETA’s classical music and news on the hour until I get somewhere north and west of Hagerstown, where the interstate climbs and loops into heavily forested hills and I am clearly not in Washington any more. I have left a place, people, roads and buildings that have become familiar and wander in the unfamiliar again, winding along shaded valley floors, skirting wooded hills and rising over the gaps between. Soon I lose the signal in scratchy and piercing atmospherics. I spin the dial, hit the scan button actually, dials having long since disappeared from radio faces, and find only loud rock and roll, a few other loud and obnoxious musical genres that I cannot quite categorize, even louder advertising jingles, and a smarmy evangelist, so I turn the radio off and give my attention to the transition between the East Coast and whatever part of the country you might call this. I am not on the coast – there obviously is no ocean anywhere near here. Where am I then?

I decide that I am in the Appalachians, the low hills and mountains that mark the end of coastal cities and their related sprawl. These low mountains certainly are a region of their own, stretching the length of the Appalachian Trail from Lookout Mountain, Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. One might say that the East Coast is a region united and bounded by the ocean and the mountains, and still divided by the Potomac, the northern limit of the Confederacy.

After a few hours, I stop for gas and discover a small farmer's market in the parking lot: table upon table covered with apples, pies, cookies, bread and muffins. The white labels on the plastic-wrapped goodies list the ingredients under a horse and buggy logo with the words "Amish Baked Goods." I can't think of a clearer way to mark the transition into central Pennsylvania, a region of which I know little, except that it is farm country and that it is a distinct region of which the locals are proud. I have read that Pennsylvania is the state containing the highest percentage of residents who were born there.

But I have no time to linger. I return to my car and continue west-northwest, enjoying my Amish baked goods as I drive. Soon I leave the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 76 for Interstate 80, a seamless connection. I have left the radio off since eastern Pennsylvania, listening instead to Seamus Heaney read his new translation of Beowulf on tape. It is not long before I lose interest in this tale of ancient warriors and monsters – perhaps I would find it more interesting if I were sitting by the fire of a cold winter evening - and turn it off before it ends, noticing when I do that I have curved north around the Pittsburgh area without thinking of public radio, or even noticing that I was anywhere near Pittsburg.

Somewhere near the Ohio border, the hills and woodlands flatten and thin. The land stretches away to a more distant horizon and I am in much more open country, the vast farmland that stretches from here to somewhere beyond the Mississippi: the Midwest, America's heartland. There is a book of that name – The Heartland - that tells the early history of this region, the stories of the explorers and the explored, Marquette, Joliet, Hennepin, Pontiac, whose names are left behind on the cities, counties and automobiles of the region. I am surprised that it takes only five hours to leave the crooked inlets of the winding roads of the eastern mountains to arrive in the broad, flat farm country of the Midwest.

Soon I come near enough to Cleveland to pick up a pre-game show that airs before the Indians play that evening, but cannot find a public radio station. Another 100 miles pass and I pick up good classical music from a small Christian college station near South Bend. The sunshine and music continue until the sky in front of me turns orange, then red, purple, and deep blue. I pull into South Bend, to have dinner with two of my favorite Notre Dame graduates, about 9 o'clock. It being Monday night, nothing is open in downtown South Bend, so we have to drive out to the periphery, where much, if not most, of South Bend's commerce takes place, Monday or any other night, at a series of undistinguished strip malls. South Bend often looks closed after dark; tonight it just looks, and is, more closed than usual.

I skate around the campus the next day. Inline skates take up little space in the car and provide a great way to get some exercise and more direct experience of a place. Notre Dame is not as complete a complete Gothic playground as Yale, the University of Chicago or Princeton. Most of the buildings are a plainer, yellow brick Gothic, the bricks of local provenance. Yet the buildings arranged in several quadrangles create a sense of intimacy that embodies the nature of the university quite well. There are many statues and objects of art distributed here and there, not to mention the famous grotto, which is a copy of the one at Lourdes. It seems to belong here, even though there isn’t a real cave within hundreds of miles and the stones had to be hauled in from even further. The most famous statue, of course, is the lady on the golden dome, facing south along the central axis of the campus towards the main entrance. If the campus were a cathedral, the Our Lady would be on the high altar looking down the nave.

2. Lake Michigan and Chicago

After a few peaceful days at Notre Dame over the Fourth of July, my next goal is Chicago. The drive is short and easy, under four hours, along highways I know well. I stop halfway at the Indiana Dunes at the southern tip of Lake Michigan for a swim. I have known the beaches and trails here since childhood. I grew up in the Midwest, in the suburbs of Minneapolis and Chicago. Although I have spent most of my adult life in New England, California and now Washington, this region will always be home.

The Midwest, contrary to what many suppose, is not entirely flat. Most of it is broad, rolling hills, even this part along the southern border of the Great Lakes. The land I see along the interstate is a steady succession of fields divided irregularly by trees in shallow valleys. The blessing of the Midwest is the Lakes, which cool the region somewhat in the summer and moderate it in the winter. Like the ocean itself, these fresh water seas mirror the season's moods: dark, gray, turbulent and dangerous in the winter; soft, soothing and cerulean blue in the summer.

I spend a few hours on the beach at the Indiana dunes State Park, wait for the traffic to die down and complete my journey to Park Ridge, a suburb just north and west of Chicago, near the world’s busiest airport. Although I was born in Minnesota, I spent most of my childhood in Park Ridge, now made somewhat famous because Hillary Rodham Clinton grew up there. Her brother Hugh was one of my campaign managers when I ran for student council president at Maine South High School. I have not seen him since, and could not recognize the overweight man in the newspaper photograph after he was accused of influence peddling in the waning days of the Clinton Administration. In high school, he was a handsome, muscular football player full of energy and enthusiasm. My brother lives in the area, in Naperville, some twenty miles west of Chicago. My mother still lives in the small, split-level house I grew up in.

The large prairie houses of my home town look like they have been here forever, certainly since long before the city of Chicago grew out to make Park Ridge a suburb. Walking these streets, Chicago does seem far away, even though it is never more than a couple of miles.
In the Chicago newspapers, aside from national news and the usual local murders, fires and disappearances, the big news this summer happens to concern the lakefront, specifically, what to do about Soldier Field, the enormous stadium just south of the three great museums on South Lake Shore Drive. The lakefront is accessible from the city's southernmost boundary on the Indiana border to the northernmost, where the city of Evanston begins. It is a most impressive long ribbon of public space, allowing you to sail into the great metropolis and find it fringed as far as you can see with a sandy beach and a greensward dotted with trees. Only after several hundred yards of open space do the office and apartment towers rise up. I have never sailed in, but have flown in countless times. The flight path often takes you over the lakefront north of the loop, west along the Kennedy Expressway and slowly down into O'Hare Airport. It is a feast for the eyes, even in winter. How good would Chicago's famous architecture look without the park and lake border?

Many things make Chicago a great city - its size, its cultural institutions, universities. My favorite part of Chicago, however, is Lake Michigan. For most people it is just "The Lake." The ocean remains for me a strange and mysterious place. I am still not accustomed to having so much living matter in the water with me, nor am I accustomed to how powerful the waves are. But I am learning: being picked up by a wave and hurled toward the shore on a small piece of molded plastic, like being on the cow-catcher of a locomotive, is a thrill beyond compare. It is also nice to have company in the water in the form of seals and sea otters even though that means that there might be an occasional shark. Swimming in fresh water - however tame in comparison - is its own delight. Since your body is not as buoyant in the fresh water, you are more a part of it. The lake water takes you in, softly envelopes you, then releases you into the warm, humid air, an only slightly less dense form of itself. Afterward, your skin feels light, almost diaphanous.

I spend my last evening in the Chicago area at Lighthouse Beach in Evanston, just north of Chicago. At dusk while cicadas sing, a surprising wind springs up, driving sand into my face even though I am close to the water. I take refuge in the beach grass on the low dunes. Despite the wind and proximity to the lake, it is still warm and humid. Thanks to an hour of swimming in the lake, I feel comfortably cool for the first time in days. My skin seems to breathe. There are no bugs in the air. The canopy of trees looms above: great elms, maples and locusts. To the west, shades of blue grow darker as the sun sets behind the horizon, behind the trees, the flat prairie, the pavement, strip malls.


3. Across the Prairies and Plains

I have seen it all before and barely notice my surroundings, so familiar are they, as I drive west on Interstate 88. It is not at all clear why there is another interstate west from Chicago to the Quad Cities in addition to I-80, but I am grateful for this road less traveled. There are few trucks and not many cars all the way to Iowa. I listen to Chicago’s great classical music station, WFMT, for about an hour until the signal fades. WFMT is one of the nation’s last great commercial classical music stations, my constant companion when I was growing up. Eventually I pick up public radio from Davenport, then from Iowa City shortly after crossing the Mississippi; several welcome hours of classical music and NPR news. Then I begin to nod off behind the wheel. Not a rest area or interchange in sight. Dumbly fumbling with the dial, hoping to find something with a beat that will wake me up, I thankfully find the pulsing exuberance of a Rolling Stones classic. I crank the volume up, my heart pumps and my spirits soar. When the song ends, I notice that I am going over 85.

I pull off at the next rest area. The weather news this late July in the Midwest continues to be of unrelenting heat and humidity. Highs are in the 90s, with humidity not far behind. I get out of the car and feel certain within minutes that bugs are crawling on my bare arms.

Stopping outside of Omaha for the night, I walk inside the motel and find the air conditioning positively arctic, yet after a few minutes inside I am not at all cold in shorts and a t-shirt. I go for a swim in an enormous indoor pool, have dinner, return to my room, troll the television channels for something to watch and find CNN’s taped coverage of Katherine Graham’s funeral. It is Monday, July 23rd, 2001. I live just up Wisconsin Avenue from the National Cathedral. It fills my living room window on the 8th floor. At night I can see the illuminated white dome of the Capitol beyond it and to the left. For the past two years in Washington, the Cathedral has been my orienting point. I can occasionally see it from elsewhere in the city. It is where I go outside to read, to attend concerts and to run on the track at St. Alban’s School below. It marks my neighborhood, my playground, my home away from home. Watching a funeral in this building I know so well, of the owner of the newspaper I read (The Washington Post) while I am in Omaha, a place I have never stopped before (I have whizzed past it on the interstate a few times), is disorienting, dizzying. I wonder how I have gotten here, where I am going and why.

Fortunately, I sleep well and am ready to go in the morning. The short answer to last night’s questions is simple: Today I am going to Ft. Collins, north of Denver and Boulder, to spend a rest day in the middle of my journey with a friend enrolled in a summer institute at Colorado State University. At breakfast, I notice that the Omaha newspaper refers to the local inhabitants as “midlanders,” a term I have not encountered before. The sports page, in addition to major league baseball, features the minor leagues, a local golf tournament called “The Sioux Classic,” and anticipation of Nebraska football.

Once underway, I easily find Nebraska Public Radio towards the low end of the FM band, KUCV Lincoln, 90.9, where public radio stations tend to be. As I drive by dozens of immense long watering devices, like so many mechanical praying mantises, I hear Victor Herbert’s “Nakomis Suite” for the first time. My Dad occasionally recited parts of Longfellow’s Hiawatha from memory, so I presume that this is “daughter of the moon, Nakomis.” One section contains the sort of tom-tom rhythm we have come to expect from “Indian” music. Next comes “New England Triptych,” by William Schumann, which succeeds just as well. I was hoping to find a radio station that revealed the character of its region. While none of this music was composed in or about Nebraska, its rhyme with the landscape delights me and I gratefully stay tuned to Nebraska Public Radio all the way across the state and well into Colorado, picking up KHNE at 89.1 from Hastings and KLNE at 88.7 from Lexington. I am all the more delighted for I have never heard this music before. Somehow it seems evocative of America and I wonder how this can be. Is it just because the titles of the pieces have given me a hint? How or why is the famous largo of Dvorak’s New World Symphony so evocative of the American landscape?

I drive almost the entire distance from Omaha to the Nebraska panhandle pondering these questions and enjoying the music without noticing anything that tells me unmistakably that I am not in Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, or even Pennsylvania. Only at a rest stop near Maxwell do I finally glimpse the first geographical feature that I could not possibly have seen further east: a distant ridge, a brown, rocky ribbon on the horizon, the first suggestion of mountains and an arid climate. Yet humidity at the rest stop is still intense, the grass soft and green. Only after the turnoff towards Denver (I-76 plays a cameo role here, taking you from I-80 to I-25 and Denver, then bowing out of existence) does the mixture of fields and trees disappear; there is nothing but sagebrush as far as the eye can see, and it can see pretty far over the rolling hills. I am on the open range. I am in the West. What composer’s music would rhyme with what I see – Aaron Copland? Ferde Grofe?

After a few more hours, mountains suddenly appear straight ahead, shimmering like a mirage. If I were in a movie, I would bring up the angelic choir to accompany the appearance of these distant peaks, the first spectacular landscape I have seen in almost 2,000 miles of driving. What a thrill it must have been for people walking slowly beside ox-drawn wagons to glimpse this harbinger of something like the pearly gates.

The mountains fade from sight and reappear periodically for several more hours, as do storm clouds and rain, until about 7:30 I finally roll into Ft. Collins. Low mountains fill the horizon. Rays from the lowering sun light upon the green hills. No sign of a storm save for towering cumulus far to the south.

4. Over the Rockies: Fort Collins to Salt Lake

The Denver newspaper the next morning, in addition to national news, features stories about a Wyoming wildfire, a rich fossil bed being destroyed to make a golf course, a new reservoir south of Denver, a legislative battle shaping up for a wilderness area west of Denver, around James Peak. Land and water; the story of the west. My friend in Ft. Collins tells me there are far too many people in the area for present water resources, yet it remains one of the fastest growing in the country. We spend an afternoon hiking in the hills just west of town. Westward the mountains rise. Eastward the plains and prairies stretch out to the horizon and a thousand miles beyond. The transition from plains to mountains is unmistakably clear.

I head west again about 10 o’clock on a sunny morning, taking a two-lane highway from Ft. Collins north and west up to I-80 at Laramie, Wyoming. The sunshine soon passes, but the overcast sky in no way diminishes the feast for my eyes. The sight of distant mountains of amazing colors makes me pull off the road so many times that I have to promise myself not to do it again or I will never reach Salt Lake City.

Words fail me for the colors and shades of these distant mountains. I am not sure I have ever seen them before. Are they purple, pink, ochre, mauve, magenta, russet, crimson? Even the grass and topsoil in the foreground play color tunes I have never seen: grayish blue, grayish green, and something sort of red. The name of the old warm-up band for the Grateful Dead suddenly pops into mind: New Riders of the Purple Sage. I never got far into a Zane Grey novel, but he sure picked a good title. The color show continues all day, even after I rejoin the interstate. Even there I cannot resist stopping a few more times. I take many photographs in an attempt to capture on film the interplay between sky and mountains, but when I develop them later they do not begin to convey the color and depth of what I see.

I listen to KUNC, Northern Colorado Public Radio as I cross over the Continental Divide twice – I can’t explain how – once at 7000 and again at 6930 feet. It is cloudy much of the day and I leave off the air-conditioner. As I approach Salt Lake City in the late afternoon, the interstate winds down between towering hills amid signs warning truckers to test their brakes. The sky glows yellow and orange, then deep red under layers of even deeper purple. The descent takes a long time. Finally I emerge on the plain of the city to behold black, ragged-edged mountains across the great lake backlit by a blood-red sky.

5. Through the Desert: from the Salt Lake to the Sierra

I read the Salt Lake City newspaper quickly over breakfast, knowing that the longest and hardest day is ahead of me. The front page features stories about the Navajo World War II Code Talkers receiving their medals in Washington, a local psychiatrist plea-bargaining for writing fraudulent prescriptions, sky boxes for basketball games, amnesty for illegal immigrants, and the vandalizing of dinosaur tracks by a local boy scout. Inside, the paper focuses on preparations for the impending winter Olympics, proposals for a nuclear waste site, and a legal battle between a man and the state of Utah over his pet wildcat. I enjoy this sober-minded newspaper and what little I see of Salt Lake City. But I need to drive over 500 miles today and quickly depart, hoping to return someday.

The journey across western Utah and Nevada borders on the hallucinatory. The great dead lake spreads out on both sides of the interstate to jagged gray mountains on the horizon; no sign of life on either. The lake has receded since I last made this journey, in the fall of 94, when I remember the lake lapping at the edge of the roadway, or at least I think I remember. Perhaps no one else can remember either, for the boundary of the lake appears to be in some dispute among mapmakers. No map shows any water south of the Interstate, but there it is, a good deal of it, mile after mile. Some maps show the lake having spilled an immense distance westward through a gap in the mountains into the “Newfoundland Evaporation Basin.” I can see no trace of water in this place, if I am looking in the right place, if one can call this inhospitable expanse of rock a place, as I hurtle along at 75 miles an hour, if not 80, well past where the lake has given out, as far as I can see, as I traverse the 77 exit-less and service-less miles between Rowley Junction and Wendover, the last town in Utah.

Then I see a salt mine – it must be a salt mine, what else could it be? -- a gray factory structure next to six small mountains of white powder. It is not just an expression? There really are salt mines? I guess the stuff has to come from somewhere. What else could it be? I search through my limited knowledge of geology for answers. Zinc? Gypsum powder? Diamond tailings? Uranium dust? Magnesium crystals? I run out of possibilities as the factory recedes to a speck in the rear-view mirror. Whatever.

Aside from the Nevada Badlands Salt Mining and Manufacturing facility, the only structure of note is the railroad track, which becomes my constant companion for the day, running alongside the highway, crossing under it, coming in and going away at odd angles, running for all I can tell, from nowhere to nowhere. Yesterday's subtle colors are nowhere to be found. The sunlight is a harsh, pale yellow under a whitish-blue sky. Pass one row of gray, craggy mountains and another row slides monotonously into view. What sort of music could accompany this landscape, I wonder. Something for electronically enhanced xylophone and synthesizer, perhaps.

The dry air is not exactly cool, but at least not uncomfortably warm and I leave the air-conditioner off until after noon in order to lessen the stress upon my aging automobile. I stop for gas at the town of Wells, which is written in slightly larger print on the map, indicating a town with some amenities, perhaps? I find only two fast food places, something that may be a bar or casino, or both, and a road wandering off north towards God only knows where or why. I tank up quickly, set the cruise control at close to 80, and eat lunch while I drive in order get out of the state as fast as possible

I periodically troll the airwaves for signs of life. Several times the scanner moves across the dial and starts over again, picking up absolutely nothing. For the better part of 250 miles, I find only an occasional country music station or evangelist threatening me with eternal damnation, which I decide must be something like living in Nevada. Finally, in mid-afternoon and well towards the California border, I find a public radio station from Reno. The program is “High Desert Forum,” which features interviews with Nevada authors. The station fades in and out, but I learn something from a Nevada historian about Sarah Winnemucca, after whom the town along the interstate is named, a woman from one of the Indian tribes who learned English and wrote about the region. So there is some history and public-spiritedness in this weird place after all.

After about an hour the signal fades, I hit the scan button and am surprised to pick up “All Things Considered,” on Sacramento Public Radio. How does this signal make it over the mountains? Am I hearing it because of a lucky bounce off the ozone? Hearing this familiar voice is like glimpsing distant mountains. I know that I am within range of my destination. I stop for gas in Reno, buy some groceries – bread, cheese, cherry tomatoes, juice, some fruit and some chocolate -- and I am on my way. In less than an hour, I know that I am entering California as the road divides into lanes that funnel the traffic to stop at what look like toll booths or the sort of border crossing facilities one routinely finds in Europe. California really is a place unto itself, for nowhere else in America does one ever encounter anything like this. One encounters this because the most fertile agricultural environment on earth is vulnerable to invasion from just about every other life form, animal or vegetable, on the planet, and the state of California has to inspect your car and its contents for bugs.

Now I am in the mountains, the Sierra Nevada. The transition from the Nevada flatlands to the mountains has not been dramatic, but now I am unquestionably into the mountains. I turn off the interstate and the air-conditioner, roll down the window, take a deep breath, and know that I am no longer in Nevada, or Nebraska, or Ohio, or Washington. The air is cool, dry, yet redolent of a thousand aromas; light, yet complex as a good white wine. I breathe again more deeply and smell pine, fir, cedar, grass, bay, spruce, sage. In another hour, I have checked in at an old hotel and hot springs, well off the beaten path. After two more hours, I have had something to eat and am soaking in an outdoor pool, gazing up at the stars. The only sound is the occasional sighing of the wind through the fir trees. Did the early travelers know that such delights awaited them in California, a land even more verdant, salubrious and productive than the one of which Moses spoke?

6. The Golden Hills of California

After a few nights at the hot springs, I return to Interstate 80 and drive five uneventful hours to Berkeley. It is a road I know well. One minute I am still in the mountains; the next I behold a wall of haze: the Central Valley. Descend a few miles and I am in Auburn and the uninterrupted march of housing tracts and shopping centers begins. Somewhere in the middle of it is Sacramento. Cross the Carcinas Bridge, go up a long hill, slowly descend on what is now a multi-laned freeway and I am now, unmistakably, in the Bay Area: there it is, San Francisco Bay, on the right; beyond it are the hills of Marin County, land’s end. I have found my NPR station towards the bottom of the FM dial, KQEI 88.3 Sacramento, then a few notches up, KQED 88.5 San Francisco, when I descend into the Bay Area.

Trail’s End for this report is Peet’s Coffee at the corner of Walnut and Vine, in Berkeley, California. This was my favorite urban place in the Bay Area when I lived here for the better part of the 90s. The neighborhood is sometimes called the Gourmet Ghetto. Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, the restaurant devoted to fresh, locally grown food is around the corner on Shattuck Avenue, one of Berkeley’s main thoroughfares. President Clinton, weaning himself from cheeseburgers, dined there early in his presidency. For security reasons he arrived on short notice and commandeered the smaller cafĂ© section upstairs. After dinner the President and his party exited downstairs through the main dining room to squeals of recognition and a standing ovation. The Bread and Cheese Board is across the street, a collective that bakes wonderful bread and sells cheese from local cheese makers and around the world.

Peet’s was the epicenter of the gourmet coffee revolution, starting some time in the late 60s. Mr. Peet himself is still alive and tasting coffee, the man who taught the founders of Starbucks everything they know about quality coffee. Nothing tells me that I am back in Berkeley more clearly than sitting here for an hour or so, savoring the extravagantly strong coffee, watching people, listening to the classical music when it is audible above the hubbub, writing. I sit on the shop’s only seating possibility, a small bench rather like an old-fashioned church pew, which seats two adults, perhaps three if none of them has eaten too many of the offerings from the Bread and Cheese Board. The walls are cream-colored with a lot of dark wood trim, echoing the style of many of the Bay Area’s first architects who favored a lot of wood in their buildings. It not only looks good, but is appropriate for use in an earthquake zone. You get a smaller, stronger cup of coffee here than at Starbuck’s, coffee that is superior in every way. The beans glisten with oil in their bins and smell fresher than anywhere else, except perhaps for Misha’s in Alexandria, Virginia, Flying Goat up in Sonoma County, or other fine local roaster.

I continue my quest for a sense of place in the local newspapers. I begin with the Los Angeles Times, imported from the southern part of the state, “the voice of the west,” which looks sort of the like the New York Times, but is owned by the Chicago Tribune. The story that piques my interest is on the sports page. It concerns the travails of the new football coach at the University of Southern California. He spent his few years as coach of the New York Jets being roasted by the New York sports mavens for his unconventional, attitude-oriented coaching methods. I guess the type of football coach New Yorkers like is a large, explosive personality like Bill Parcells, who, admittedly, was successful; but Bill Walsh was successful, too.

The California dream continues. People dream of a land of even greater opportunity, a place to take some risks away from the set ways and severe winters of the northeast and Midwest, a place to spread your wings, to try something different. From its beginning in the gold rush, it was a place to get rich. It quickly became a place to go for vacation, to visit geographical wonders, to spend time at the ocean, to watch a parade and football game on a sunny New Year’s Day. In the fifties and sixties it finally became a place of cultural and political force, not to mention a major engine of the economy. It continues to beckon Americans, Mexicans, South Americans, Europeans, Asians, Africans, everyone.

And here I am again.

Monday, June 18, 2007

In Search of a Sense of Place. April 25, 2007.

In Search of a Sense of Place
RAH from California’s Central Coast
April 25, 2007

I arrived in California March 1st, on a flight from Washington’s National Airport to Saint Louis, then on to San Francisco. It was an overcast day in Saint Louis, with the weather gradually worsening. Various televisions reported snow to the north and tornadoes to the south, but fortunately nothing serious to the west. Thus I spent two uneventful hours eating lunch while other people glanced worriedly at the monitors. Outside the window, I beheld a little piece of the Midwest just beyond the runways: some bare trees and a patch of brown grass that suggested the vast expanse of prairie beyond.

I have not lived in the Midwest since I left college, but this sere winter flatland is where I derive my sense of place. All other places make sense to me in terms of this, my homeland, in so many ways like the New England of Henry Adams:

“Winter and summer, cold and heat, town and country, force and freedom, marked two modes of life and thought, balanced like lobes of the brain. Town was winter confinement, school, rule, discipline; straight, gloomy streets, piled with six feet of snow in the middle; above all else, winter represented the desire to escape and go free. Town was restraint, law, unity. Country, only seven miles away, was liberty, diversity, outlawry, the endless delight of mere sense impressions given by nature for nothing…”

“The place that I come from they call the Midwest,” sang Bob Dylan on his first album, which he made when he was about 19 in 1960. I first listened to it about 10 years later, when I was 19, but it was not the first album I listened to and “listened to” hardly does justice to the experience, of a hot August night in the Chicago suburbs, sitting around with friends, listening to the Loving Spoonful without paying attention, when someone put on Bob Dylan’s first electric album, “Bringing It All Back Home,” and turned the volume up. The music and the words slammed inside of me without bothering to go through my ears:

Johnny’s in the basement mixin’ up the medicine
I’m on the pavement thinkin’ about the government
Man in a trenchcoat badge out laid off
Says he‘s got a bad cough wants to get it paid off
Look out kid, it’s something you did
God knows when but you’re doing it again . . . .

The demonstrations, the assassinations, the war in Vietnam, the violence and the stridency of the 60s all seemed bound up with that music and that voice, that strange, loony, angry, articulate voice.

Despite this revelation in the heat of the night almost all of my college years memories are of winter, listening to music indoors at night, staying up until the wee hours of the morning because that was the only time it was quiet in the dorm. Mostly it was classical music that I loved, Sibelius, Mahler, Brahms, but Dylan songs became a favorite of these cold midnight hours, especially the one including the lines:

Then take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees . . .

Staring out the window at this still-life in brown and gray brought back these thoughts of Midwestern winter. Finally my flight departed on time and we climbed swiftly out of this darkening world into the last of the day’s sunshine. When I walked out of the terminal in San Francisco, one breath of air told me that I was in a different place. The air smelled good. It always does, even at the airport. I spent the next two nights at Peter and Annie’s old clapboard house in Berkeley. I got to know them at Dartmouth College, where I was a chaplain in the 80s and Annie was one of my many student interns. Their kids jumped on me when I walked in the door.

So I came to this green and pleasant land in the springtime, where the wind carries the aroma of sage and a thousand flowers I cannot name.

I picked up a biography of Allen Ginsberg a few weeks ago at the Pacific Grove Public Library. It happened to be on the shelf of new acquisitions. He grew up in New York and lived there or was based there for most of his life, but he spent a lot of time out here, some of it in a small backyard cottage in Berkeley on Milvia Street. Both house and cottage have been replaced by some small and rather ugly apartment buildings, but have been immortalized in the pages of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums. There is a poetry garden dedicated to Ginsberg and his associates across the street in front of Whittier Elementary School, now known as the Berkeley Arts Magnet School, which Peter and Annie’s kids attend. Thus the man who spent time in a psychiatric ward and whose work was considered obscene has now attained respectability, at least in Berkeley.

I often fancied myself a beatnik during college, reading most of Jack Kerouac’s early books and much of Ginsberg’s early poetry. In the biography I discover that due to Columbia University lending its buildings to the war effort, Ginsberg lived on the 6th floor of Hastings Hall at Union Theological Seminary on 122nd Street and Broadway for his first semester of college in 1943. Kerouac walked over with him at the beginning of second semester to help carry his stuff over to Columbia when a room opened up there. I lived on the 4th floor of Hastings Hall for my first two years at Union three decades later.

Whenever I heard New Yorkers make disparaging remarks about California and Californians, which was fairly often, I thought, “I can’t wait to go there.” I first went in the summer of 1982 for two-week seminar on the Gospels, an experience recommended by one of my seminary teachers. The retreat center was in Lake County, near Middletown. I did not particularly enjoy the seminar, but I loved being in California for a few weeks and went for my first swim in the Pacific Ocean. I went back the following summer, this time to Esalen in Big Sur and fell in love with the place. I have been back at least once a year ever since and have lived in California more than anywhere else.

In Pacific Grove, California, I live in a small cottage about fifty yards from the ocean and about a half-mile from Cannery Row, which is now a neighborhood of stores, restaurants, and the Monterey Aquarium, not the haunt of proto-beatniks rhapsodized by John Steinbeck. His bust graces the bicycle path along the waterfront where the railroad once ran. There is a bust as well of “Doc,” the Renaissance man and scientist from Western Biological Laboratories who was the main character in the book.

Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino discovered the Monterey Peninsula on a warm, still and cloudless day in December of 1602, some eighteen years before the English colonists came ashore in Massachusetts Bay. The warm weather held for several weeks as he and his crew wandered amazed through the sandy forests and rocky outcroppings. They were warmly greeted by the Ohlone, a peaceful people who had never known war. Monterey became the first capital of California. Robert Louis Stevenson lived here, as did Jack London and Robinson Jeffers. Henry Miller lived down the coast in Big Sur. Kerouac spent time in Big Sur in the early 60s and wrote a book about it, a rambling, heart-breaking, stream-of-consciousness articulation of the late stages of alcoholism.

All of these literary worthies were often ignored or hated during their lifetimes, but have become part of local legend. When Grapes of Wrath first appeared it was panned by California newspapers, pilloried by the California agricultural lobby and called a degenerate piece of Communist filth by an Oklahoma Congressman, an earlier incarnation of current Senator James Inhofe, the man who needed to have John McCain explain to him why the United States Army should not practice torture. On the other hand, President Roosevelt read Grapes of Wrath and it sold 400,000 copies in its first year of publication.

New York editors found Robinson Jeffers’ early work too dirty and too long. I actually think that describes much of Henry Miller’s work, but he wrote eloquently of his life in Big Sur, of walking along Partington Ridge and down to the hot springs in the afternoon and the slow walk back at night, guided only by a flashlight and the stars overhead.

On sunny days the ocean here is stunningly beautiful, always in motion; the air is always fresh and the hillsides are green and covered with wildflowers in the winter. It is a magical land, far from the haunted trees.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

In Search of a Sense of Place. February 28, 2007.

Washington


The airwaves brought unexpected classical music and cold to Washington in February. When I turned on the radio one morning to listen to the news on one of Washington’s many all-news stations, classical music came out of the speakers instead. I would not have been more surprised to hear a dinosaur.

The station had switched to an all-news format, amid much fanfare, three or four years ago. After a few minutes of music, the announcer declared the station to be the new all-classical WETA.. I had to read the news story the next day to discover that the board of this non-commercial station had decided to switch back after the city’s last classical station closed down a little while ago. Apparently even Washingtonians can gorge on too much news and the all-news format was not getting the support expected. Faced with the opportunity to be the only classical player in town, the board took it; making the switch literally overnight and without warning.

While this obviously could have been done more delicately, I am grateful for the switch. There is now classical music on the airwaves of the city designed by Pierre L’Enfant at the time of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; music that rhymes with the many pillars, domes and stately avenues of the nation’s capital.

“. . . it is an evil thing to reduce our capital, certainly America’s most beautiful city, to shabby mediocrity. Washington, alone among the nation’s cities, is a national possession.”

So wrote Roger Tory Peterson some fifty years ago. The famous ornithologist was worried about mediocrity in the realm of the natural environment, but mediocrity is tiresome wherever one finds it.

New York without the Metropolitan Opera would be a different city and a much poorer one, even if only a fraction of its citizens ever attend. I often listen to the live broadcasts from the Met and it is always a thrill. Live singers. Discrete microphones hanging from the rafters make the broadcast possible. The voices fill the opera house and they fill my living room. Live, living, breathing, sweating human beings make this wonderful sound, without benefit of notes in front of them, without benefit of the big microphone that pop music performers seem to have permanently attached to their hands and positioned in front of their mouths. Watching live opera is like watching an athletic contest in that one never knows how it is going to turn out. Will this new star be as good as her billing? Will the understudy, now that the great Luigi so-and-so is ill, rise to the occasion? One never knows until it happens.

A city should be a place where one can find the best and find it all over town. The Chicago Symphony played concerts in the city’s parks a few summers ago, parks all over town, not just in wealthy neighborhoods. Maestro Barenboim, born in Argentina, fluent in Spanish, made sure the Orchestra played in Hispanic neighborhoods as well, and introduced the programs himself. How differently did people look upon their neighborhood park the next day? What if professional athletes occasionally played in a public park? Could that possibly lead the voters, or a corporation looking for benevolence, to keep the asphalt and playing fields in better shape? One can imagine people saying, “Hey, keep this place lookin’ good. Kobe’s playin’ here next week and the LA Phil next month.”

Meanwhile, a storm that buried parts of the Northeast brushed the nation’s capital and left a few inches of snow. Rain fell upon the snow, which froze to an icy crust that one could walk or slide upon as ability permitted. As the cold persisted, I walked into my living room one morning to find that I had company: some four and twenty blackbirds warming themselves in the sun on my windowsill. Off they flew; coming back every now and then, only to leave again whenever I moved.

A walk around the neighborhood of the White House on a cold sunny day turned up dozens of squirrels frisking in Lafayette Park, more squirrels than people taking pictures in front of the iron fence of the Executive Mansion. A red-tailed hawk swooped in and sequestered itself in the top of a tree, feathers fluffed up against the cold, apparently uninterested in the squirrels. Didn’t move.

Anti-terrorism measures have closed Pennsylvania Avenue to traffic in front of the White House. The street in back is closed as well, not to mention the streets on either side, which were closed off long ago. The White House grounds thus essentially include the Old Executive Office Building, the Treasury Department and Lafayette Park, along with some adjacent statues and memorials. One can visit all them all without encountering moving automobiles. So I decided to walk the circle, circumambulate what has become the seat of government in this day of the powerful presidency. First I checked on my old friends, the General and the Secretary. Uncle Bill Sherman looked even more imposing upon his horse against the blue sky of a winter afternoon, the common man as cavalier.

I walked along the southern border of the White House and curved up towards the Old Executive Office building that flanks the White House to the east. South of this building, as south of Treasury, stands a monument, to the First Division, erected after World War I. The two monuments, to Sherman and to the First Division, show how much had changed in just sixty years. While the Civil War was fought essentially by state militias organized into armies, soldiers from all over America were mixed into the army for the First World War and all subsequent wars. This practice spreads the risk. It is less likely than a town or a county’s entire contribution can be wiped out in one engagement, which occasionally happened during the Civil War.

Veterans of the Army of the Tennessee erected the statue of their commanding officer. Veterans of the First Division erected a monument to every one of them. Their monument features a golden angel holding a flag atop a slender eighty-foot column of pink granite. An eagle rests atop the angel's flag; a plumed helmet crowns its head. Is it Michael, the Archangel? The guidebooks say she is Victory and the monument is based on Joseph-Louis Duc's July Column in Paris, which commemorates the dead of the 1830 revolution. It is well-sited just south of the Victorian baroque Old Executive Office Building, which has so many pillars under its mansard roofs and dormers that it looks like a French chateau on steroids.

The names of all the men of the First Division who died during the Great War (5,599 of them) appear on brass plaques on top of the base of the monument, listed by unit. To the west, an addition to the monument honors those who fell during World War II, listing all of their names as well; to the east, those who fell in Vietnam and during Operation Desert Storm. There is no mention of Korea because the First Division did not take part in that conflict.

In warm weather, beds of tulips, well-maintained, separate the new wings from the main monument and a flower bed in the shape of a numeral one, the symbol of the division, stretches south of the memorial, always planted with red flowers: The Big Red One. But snow covers all today.

It is too cold to linger long under the blue sky and golden Victory. I complete my circuit at the statue of Andrew Jackson in the middle of Lafayette Park, the first statue to make a permanent home in Washington, dedicated on January 8, 1853. Jackson’s contribution to the debate over national union is characteristically terse and immortalized on the base of his statue. General Jackson, hat raised in salute, rears forever on his steed above the words:

"OUR FEDERAL UNION. IT MUST BE PRESERVED."

While ancient sacred and governmental sites (the two were the same then – are they really different now?) were surrounded and symbolically protected by stone lions and dragons and other mythical figures, the White House is surrounded mostly by representations of real people, historical figures.

If the President could just go out for a walk one day for inspiration, which presidents once did, but essentially can no longer, he would find monuments to two treasury secretaries (Gallatin and Hamilton) who believed in a strong federal government, to a general who made secession impossible, to the first unit organized to fight on the battlefields of France and to a populist Democrat who was ready to go to war to preserve the Union. These monuments are lessons in stone, bronze and gold leaf for anyone interested, especially a president.

Democrats put up the monument to Albert Gallatin in front of the Teasury Building in 1947, some twenty years after the statue to Hamilton, whom they considered a Republican. Gallatin, the longest-serving treasury secretary (1801 – 1814), criticized Hamilton throughout his tenure, then maintained many of his policies for the next thirteen years. He resigned in order to negotiate an end to the War of 1812. Hamilton himself made many decisions and many compromises, including the one that brought the capital to the banks of the Potomac, south of the Mason-Dixon Line, in return for some southern states paying off the war debts of some northern states.

General Sherman ordered one disastrous frontal assault during his march south, at Kennesaw Mountain. He never made that mistake again, capturing Atlanta by repeatedly outflanking his opponents. Every name printed on the monument to the First Division reminds us of the cost of war. President Jackson may have prevented civil war in 1833 by ordering warships to Charleston, South Carolina, which had passed an ordinance of nullification. He said, "The Constitution ...forms a government not a league.... To say that any State may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States is not a nation.”

Threats. War. Compromise. Preserving a nation. Leadership. The stuff of government. How does a president put it all together? A study of history is essential.

All over Washington this month, life goes on an usual, amidst whatever gaiety people can muster during winter; during war. Every morning we hear more news of bombings, IEDs, suicide bombings, Americans killed, Iraqis killed. We try to ignore it and talk about something else.

This month’s best read has been Tournament of Shadows: The Great game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia, by Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac. A most apposite section begins with the appointment of George Eden, the second Baron Auckland, as Governor-General of the British East India Company, making him, in effect , the ruler of India, in 1835. He installed himself at Simla, in the hill country north of Delhi. There he began to receive reports of threats to the empire by distant Russia. After conquering the Caucasus, Russian armies were pushing eastward and Russian operatives were probing the desert grasslands from Oxiana to Chinese Tartary. Russia’s eventual goal was believed to be India, which could be invaded through Afghanistan or Persia. Auckland pondered this threat for a few years, not knowing what do, until a key advisor, Sir John McNaughten, Secretary of the Political and Secret Department - I’m not making this up – convinced him that a dramatic countermove was necessary.

MacNaughten had had small experience in the give and take of diplomacy and politics, having lived too long in a world of agents’ reports and confidential dossiers. Nonetheless, he convinced the Governor-General that an unprovoked invasion of Afghanistan would somehow impart luster to the reign of Britannia’s new Queen and foil the knavish designs of the Russian Tsar.

The authors conclude: “Auckland had at last made a decision, and once dear ‘G’ was set on a course, as his sister put it, it was impossible ‘to get out of his Lordship’s head what had been put into it.’ We are permitted to imagine him at Simla, indulging an after-dinner cigar on the verandah of Auckland House, gazing meditatively at the deodar-decked Himalayas, persuading himself he was walking with Destiny. In reality, he had sentenced tens of thousands to death in a pointless and dishonorable war.”

The British sent enough troops to Afghanistan in 1839 to conquer it, but not control it. They were expelled with staggering losses a few years later. The end result was the same emir controlling the country that they had kicked out. They did not return until forty years later, when they essentially repeated the same mistake, but with slightly better results. Throughout this time, the debate at Simla and in London was between those who favored a forward, proactive strategy and those who reasoned: “If the Russians want Afghanistan, let them have it. If we control the mountain passes, they will never get to India. Besides, Afghanistan is impossibly far from their bases of supply and they will never tame that hostile population.” The proactive school won out. The British did maintain influence over Afghanistan, sort of, but at horrific cost.

Sometimes proaction works and is worth the cost. Most Americans now think that Jackson’s proaction was wise and that Lincoln’s was worth the cost. There would be no United States without them. We do not yet know how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will turn out, or the wider war on terrorism, or if it even makes sense to call it a war. The lessons of history, in books and in monuments dotted all over Washington, command our attention.


Copyright, 2007
Richard Allen Hyde

In Search of a Sense of Place. February 2, 2007.

RAH from Washington


A flash of gray-brown against a gunmetal afternoon sky. Whatever it was beat through bare branches on enormous wings and came to rest in a large tree across 15th Street from the Bureau of Printing and Engraving.

I had just walked out of the Holocaust Museum, where I was attending an academic conference on the great culture war between fascism and communism in Europe between the world wars. A couple of the morning presenters were pretty good, but the literary critics were front and center for the afternoon. After a paper full of words like ‘transgressive,’ ‘essentialist,’ ‘inversions,’ ‘subversive’ and so on, and on, I had had enough. As I headed for the exit, I remembered the comment of someone who dropped out of Yale’s English Ph.D. Program: “It’s become the place where language goes to die.”

I stepped out the west entrance into the damp cold and commented on the weather to the security guard, who said that he didn’t mind it and liked being outside. After several hours in a lecture hall, I felt the same way. I looked up at the horizon and was following the path of a Northwest Airlines jet coming down the Potomac towards National Airport when this other pair of wings caught my eye. They were so big I would not have been much more surprised to see a dinosaur. I ran across 15th Street to the tall tree where the bird landed and stood underneath, studying it for a good long while as it peered into the distance, brown back, downy off-white breast feathers fluffed up against the cold, dark gray-brown head – not an owl – large, curved beak, looking down occasionally, then at the horizon again, perching there majestically, like royalty. It took me a few minutes to compute what I was seeing, huge chocolate brown wings mottled with white during flight, a bird far too big to be a hawk or even an osprey: a Golden Eagle.

As the eagle sat up there, silently, I kept hearing a long, high-pitched note. I circled around the tree and found a gray squirrel motionless and upside down against the dark gray bark, giving out this whistle at regular intervals. I had never heard a squirrel carrying on like this. He was not scolding, as they often, do, tail twitching, head bobbing. He was stock still. Had he seen the eagle? The eagle could not see the squirrel. Was he warning any of his furry friends who might be around?

Finally I told the squirrel not to move and headed north across the Mall to get the subway at Metro Center, walking by one of my favorite Washington statues on the way: General William Tecumseh Sherman. One of my great-grandfathers, Hiram Young, served under Sherman, in the 88th Indiana Infantry. After the war Grandpa moved to Cloud County, Kansas, bought a 160 acre farm and raised a family of seven, four sons and three daughters, including my grandmother Mabel. There he took an active role in local politics and subscribed to several newspapers. This we know because his diary somehow found its way into the Journal of the Kansas State Historical Society to be published in 1946 under the title of “A Hoosier in Kansas.”

General Sherman is hatless in this statue, atop his steed that does not rear up on its hind legs, as so many do, but simply stands with grim determination. Horse and rider both face north atop a massive base that is tall enough to cause even professional basketball players to look up. Northwards stands the south entrance of the Treasury Building, graced by a statue of Alexander Hamilton. They make an odd pair, the aristocratic first Secretary of the Treasury and the dishevelled General from the Midwest. But there they are, two believers in a strong federal government, regarding each other for all eternity.

I sometimes imagine them speaking:


Afternoon, Mr. Secretary.

General.

You know I’m just an old soldier. I hate politics and politicians. Always have. But it seems like this current batch is even worse than usual. Did you imagine that strong chief executive you favored ever getting involved in a war in Mesopotamia?

Frankly, no. But the President must be free to conduct foreign policy and at times must act decisively. Congress is not capable of it.

But what if the President makes a big mistake?

Well, a country stands or falls with its leadership. I envisioned a conservative presidency, conservative in every sense of the term: cautious, preservationist, moderate, conciliatory, not like King George at his worst. Now this situation in Mesopotamia – they call it Iraq now – well, I don’t know what to think.

What would your Commander-in-Chief have done?

I don’t think His Excellency President Washington would have us where we are now, but then again, a man like him might not enter politics now.

These folks in the White House thought it would be like marching through Georgia. They forgot that when I went through Georgia, I did not have to hold the territory. After the war, we did not have the stomach to garrison it. We got sick of fighting a bunch of Goddamned terrorists that the state governments should have taken care of themselves and let them run their states more or less the way they did before the war. It was a shame. We offered generous surrender terms and most of our adversaries – Lee, Johnston, Forrest – accepted them and behaved honorably. General Lee said “Go home, plant a crop and obey the law.” Now that’s about the best speech I’ve ever heard. That devil Forrest was even clearer. Listen to this: “You have been good soldiers, you can be good citizens. Obey the laws, preserve your honor, and the Government to which you have surrendered can afford to be and will be magnanimous.” Not bad, huh?

I didn’t know the devil had it in him. But didn’t he found the Ku Klux Klan?

Actually no. The Klan adopted him as one of their leaders, but he never led. It’s not clear that he ever joined. You know, retired generals are often called upon to say this and that and receive honorary titles, degrees, and other such foolery, often from dubious characters and organizations. Believe me, it gets tiresome.

I can imagine. Speaking of marching through Georgia, or Iraq, it took a different kind of marching to conclude our own Civil War, by that remarkable Dr. King and many others. It was a great speech he gave that summer afternoon, to the first really big crowd we ever saw down here.

We’ve seen greater crowds many times since that summer of 1963, but that was the best speech, Biblical, Shakespearean. President Lincoln would have been proud.

Frankly, I was surprised by the moral force of a populist campaign. It just goes to show that we designed a pretty good government. A strong federal government eventually did what it and only it could do: guarantee the rights of a minority.

I tip my cap to the Founding Fathers, and to the Reverend King. Is there anyone like him over there in Mesopotamia, or Arabia? A Mandela? A de Klerk?

I haven’t the foggiest idea. There must be somebody. The hotheads get all the attention. I cannot understand the appeal of terrorism. Losing in war to a more powerful and magnanimous enemy is no disgrace. Murdering innocents is.

As I’ve said before, war is hell; but at least a war comes to an end. Right now we’ve just kicked a hornet’s nest.

This current wave of terrorism will end, eventually. The Barbary pirates finally quit. Terrorists eventually get tired; they turn on themselves and self-destruct. The blood on their own hands starts to stink. A better future eventually becomes more appealing than carrying the grudges of the past.

I look forward to the day.


I left them to their conversation as the afternoon darkened towards evening.

What makes Washington, or any place, distinct? What do we mean when we say to a friend or to ourselves, “Ah, that place. Yes, I know that place”? Surely it means that we have spent some time there, spoken with people there and have some idea of what makes that place unique. Knowing a place may conjure up memories of what we did there, what we ate, where and with whom; conversations, faces of people, expressions, buildings, the way the air feels, what animals live there, what happened there.

For one day in January, this was Washington: Some lectures, a winter afternoon, a great bird, two statues of famous Washingtonians, an uneventful subway ride to Northwest Washington, a walk up the hill through an old wooded neighborhood to my apartment above the Cathedral. There were countless other stories that day, about the House and the Senate, the President, the candidates for president, the new mayor, various dignitaries coming and going. But I feel like the luckiest guy in town, for on that day I know that a Golden Eagle flew into downtown Washington. For the rest of my life, I will remember Washington as the place where I saw my first Golden Eagle.


Copyright 2007
Richard Allen Hyde

In Search of a Sense of Place. January 4, 2006.

Washington: The Ford Funeral

January 4, 2007

The slow, muffled tolling of the largest bell at the National Cathedral told me that the procession of cars bearing the body of Gerald R. Ford, the 38th President of the United States, was slowly working its way up St. Alban’s hill to the Cathedral steps, the highest point of land in the city of Washington.

Memorial services, it goes without saying, are solemn occasions, opportunities to reflect not only on the life of the dear departed, but on the lives of others departed, perhaps more dear to one personally, and on ones own life. During this funeral I thought back to the services for my parents and, surprisingly forcefully, to the days of mourning for President Kennedy. My parents were alive and vibrant then; I was in junior high school. When the band struck up “Hail to the Chief” before the casket entered the west entrance to the Cathedral, I burst into tears. I almost always do when I hear that jaunty fanfare. Somewhere in my mind, John F. Kennedy is always president; it is always that clear day, much like this one, when his little son John saluted the casket as it went by and the bugler missed a note while playing taps in the cold air.

Since President Ford lived vigorously and happily to the age of 93, today’s proceedings are solemn, but not tinged with tragedy. Much is made by commentators that Gerald Ford was an ordinary, plain-spoken man from the Midwest who made his own coffee and was not much changed by the presidency. His openness made him popular among the press corps, but he was not liked by editorial cartoonists because he was difficult to draw. After President Nixon’s skijump nose and permabeard, Ford was impossibly plain.

Others point out that he was not really ordinary. He was a great football player in his day, a day when top college players went to law school or entered business rather than the NFL. He was one of the top people in his class at Yale Law School. Perhaps his ordinariness is what people remember of him because he succeeded three extraordinary presidents at a time when Americans wanted desperately to return to something like normal.

President Kennedy was extraordinarily eloquent. His assassination was the first event in a series of national traumas. President Johnson was extraordinarily effective at passing legislation and led the country ably during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Then he led the country into a disastrous war. President Nixon was also extraordinarily effective at first, then turned out to be extraordinarily suspicious and reactive, to the point of paranoia; and criminally, fatally vindictive.

After all this, we desperately yearned for the ordinary. It took him a while to find his feet in the position and he had to fight the beginning of the Reagan revolution to win the nomination of his party, but his team finally meshed and he campaigned extremely well in October of 1976. If the election had taken place a week later, or any number of other things had or had not happened, he probably would have won. What sort of president would he have made had he won the office in his own right?

The first eulogy of the day, by the first President Bush, was the most impressive and the most apt. He showed an eloquence and ease with public speaking beyond what I remember. “A Norman Rockwell painting come to life” sums up President Ford quite well. Henry Kissinger was his usual didactic self and Tom Brokaw a personable story-teller, as one would expect. The current President Bush never looked more dignified than when he slowly walked Betty Ford up the aisle. His remarks were sensible and well-delivered. As one who did not vote for him, I must say that today he did very well as head of state and leader of the nation.

What then can the lowly (comparatively) church rector say after four celebrities, including two Presidents of the United States, have had their turn? At least the rector of a church in Palm Desert, a vast retirement community, has the advantage of experience. The Rev. Robert Certain undoubtedly has done a lot of memorial services and his performance showed it. Since the eulogy had already been done, he gave a brief and simple sermon focused on the resurrection. As a pastor he comforted the family with the assurance that the dear departed had led a good life and now enjoys eternal life with all the company of heaven. And he delivered this message with great conviction. While the public men spoke to the nation, the pastor spoke to the family. This division of labor seemed just right. Then there was more music, some sturdy, uplifting hymns, the filing out into the bright sunshine, the departure of the motorcade.

I found it an altogether stirring occasion. Perhaps most stirring was the sight of all three past presidents sitting together. It is after all, civil society that binds us together. None of these men or their wives, or Nancy Reagan, are compelled by law to attend these events. Their voluntary solidarity sets an example for all of us. The dignity of the presidency and the continuity of our nation depend on these acts of civility. Surprising friendships have been struck up by former presidents in recent years: Ford and Carter; more surprisingly Bush and Clinton, vanquished and victor in each case clearly enjoying common projects and each other’s company.

Finally, from Andrews Air Force base, there was the liftoff of Air Force One bearing the casket and family to Grand Rapids. Nothing says goodbye so well as an airplane taking off. Like so many residents of sunny retirement communities, Gerald Ford chose to be buried back home, where he grew up, in the middle of the country, the heartland.


Copyright 2007
Richard Allen Hyde