Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Morning Meds--The Man of Peace


Consider the blameless, observe the upright; 
there is a future for the man of peace. Psalm 37

Once, years ago, in Rio, I was motoring down a freeway when my hosts pointed, to an effigy policeman sitting in a makeshift booth high above the highway. The cop was a manikin. He was there to throw fear into speeders, they said, giggling. But at that moment it was impossible for me not to think, oddly enough, of South Africa, where a few years before, something happened which I never forgot.

We were on our way to Sin City because our South African hosts wanted to show us the place, a Las Vegas in the middle of one of the impoverished “homelands” created by apartheid. I was driving, following our hostess, who was also driving a vehicle.

Out in the middle of nowhere, I was pulled over by a policeman, and I knew—I had no doubt—that I had been speeding, as had our hostess, I knew, since it had taken all the courage I could mount simply to keep up with her, driving as I was from the wrong side of the car. When I pulled over, I never opened my door, but she barreled out and went directly back to the black policeman, chewed him out but good, gesticulating angrily. I didn’t get a ticket; neither did she.

I’ll never forget that because what happened on that lonely stretch of highway through the veld would not have happened here, in the U.S. I don’t know that our hostess, a woman I admire greatly, a fine Christian, a loving mother, ever understood how I read that event; but the truth, to me, was clear: a white woman exercised total control of a black policeman. By my translation of those events, she was sure that she was above his law.

Those two experiences taught me something about the society I live in, something I’ve never quite forgotten: in America, unlike many other countries, one does not laugh at the law—and because that’s true, because I am blessed to live more safely, period.

Injustice abounds in this society; we’re no utopia. I’m not about to break into “America, the Beautiful.” But reading a verse like this one makes me think that somewhere along the line, in my Christian upbringing, I was taught too well that the word “redeemed” applies to only a few; the blameless, the upright, the righteous—that’s not a lot of folks.

I think I still define the narrow way as a needle’s eye, when in fact I’ve learned in almost sixty years that it’s far more expansive than I’ve ever believed. After all, here, as elsewhere, there are many who are upright, men and women of peace. I live in a land which believes of itself—correctly, for the most part—that we all live under “the rule of law.”

Blameless?—on that one I’ll take a pass. Nobody’s really blameless, except one—that one was born in a manger.

It seems to me there’s an argument in this verse that doesn’t require revelation: you want trouble?—just make it. You want peace?—build it.

There are likely far more visible saints than my mind, steeped in Calvinist theology, likes to admit. Thank goodness, God almighty admits far more.

But here again, David likely scribbled better than he knew because the promise is the trump card: “there is a future for the man of peace,” he says.

There is eternity, no manikin cops, no highway patrol, not even a speed bump.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Land of Goshen IV



And now, finally, the funeral. It's taken a while. Writing in the first person, as I did here, generally risks being way too talkative, at least it does with me. I'm sort of embarrassed to say that we're finally getting to the precipitating incident of this whole, long story--the sermon. But we are.  

As former colleague whose father was a pastor told me, long ago, that his favorite services were funerals because a parson almost always had full attention, or at least as much attention as he (back then only he) would ever get. "I just read the word," he told his daughter, my friend. "That's all you need to do."  

His favorite, he said, was Psalm 90, one of the greatest poems in the English language, methinks. That's why it appears here.


II

Jeff Heerema, is a youthful thirty-five; he's a late-sixties type who spent half his life being altruistic-first the Peace Corps, then several years in a hospital for kids with emotional problems-before taking on the ministry. He grew up in a manse himself, but he claims he fought the call to the ministry with a raised fist for a nearly a decade. He says he finally left the hospital and went to the seminary because he grew so tired of trying to work on symptoms that eventually he became confi­dent that God was telling him to retool and go for the disease itself. I've been around the Calvinists long enough to know the language-disease means sin. What he meant is that the best way of handling the emotional problems wrought by broken homes is by wrestling pride itself to the canvas.

Goshen was his first charge, even though there are no broken homes around. It's a record people are proud of. I've been a member of the church council long enough to know that there have been more than a few indiscretions, but divorce is unheard of, for the most part, because the price one pays is simply too high. Where such heavy pressure to stay together exists, the real problems, quite literally, go away-that is, families in significant crises simply pick up stakes and move to Sioux Falls or Denver or Phoenix, where the divorce occurs, out of sight, at least, if not out of mind. Thus, Goshen stays clean.

Heerema began his ministry in Goshen with the objective of minister­ing straight for the sinful heart; what my wife's family felt at the funeral was an outsider with an education going for the jugular. Heerema grew up in Michigan, in a time when a preacher was still looked upon like Moses the law-giver, just descended from the mountain with an arm­ful of God-ordained truths; and he came to the Plains full of righteous passion, and found Aaron and the Israelites dancing around a golden calf-which is the perfect image for Goshen's kind of idolatry. But understanding Heerema is easier than that; simply, Heerema still has a rookie's zeal. I remember teaching with the same kind of emotion.

What he never understood was that in a little church like Goshen, the power battles have been fought long ago and will never be forgot­ten. Today Goshen doesn't want a Jeremiah; all they want is someone to perform their religious rites, a witch doctor maybe, a voodoo man—someone to baptize their children and dole out the bread and the wine, someone who can deliver sermons that harmonize with their own sense of truth.

Heerema operated under the mistaken notion that he could change things in Goshen, when the natives needed him only to perform their tribal rituals. I don't want to misstate all of this. Maybe I'm getting too sarcastic. I've been "in-but-not-of" the land of Goshen for so long that sometimes its strengths and weaknesses become indistinguishable. My own wife is so thoroughly "Goshen," that she hasn't a clue what I mean when I tell her she is.

And perhaps I'm overstating the case. What I'm trying to explain is why Heerema said what he did at Julia's father's funeral. If you under­stand the man himself, what he said was consistent with his own ap­proach to the problems of life itself. And if you can see that, you'll ac­cept his explanation. His sermon was in no sense at all vindictive.

The church was packed, of course, full of family, friends, and enemies. Even if some folks hated the very ground Beagle worked, they would show up to see him off. It was a matter of common courtesy.

At the family meditation downstairs before the service, Heerema was soft and loving, empathetic and gracious, meek in a New Testament way. Herm, Julia's oldest brother, sat next to his mother, who had balled-up handkerchiefs in either hand but wasn't crying. She spent most of her life in silence. It took me ten years to understand that she wasn't a vic­tim, some caricature farm wife with no power outside of the kitchen. Silence was her power and her witness, her means of illustrating to her children that her husband's way, all shoulders and elbows, demanded a counterpoint. At our fifth anniversary, she took both my hands when we were alone for a minute in the kitchen. "I'm so happy that Julia got you," she said. That's all. I've always thought that there are only X-number of words in her, which means that everything she says is carefully measured.

The rest of the boys—John, Adrian, and Randall—followed down the row with their wives and the little kids. Behind the kids sat the older grandchildren, and the aunts and uncles and cousins, anyone who counted themselves among the Branderhorst clan, even those who had fallen from grace. Uncle Pete was there from South Dakota. Thirty years ago he had left Goshen because he couldn't compete with his brother Earl. Beagle never hated his brother really, he just wrote him off for the lack of bite in his blood. They never talked again that I know of. Of course, Pete had a bad back. "You can't trust nobody with a bad back," Beagle used to say.

But downstairs in the church, Pastor Heerema didn't say anything the family didn't expect, so everything went smoothly. "We have confidence in the Lord's promises," he said. What he did was leave the door wide open for Beagle's salvation. He didn't try to judge that way, because he knows what he can't know. What the family doesn't remember was that Heerema never once said that Earl Branderhorst wasn't saved, not even when he got upstairs for the funeral sermon.

Downstairs his words had the traditional ring of a Calvinist eulogy, and the boys sat there approving, as if what he said were the patter of soft rain in mid-July, the time the corn gets thirsty enough to whisper in the wind. Upstairs, the public filed in solemnly, Earl's own favorite organist playing through familiar hymns that came through the floor as if the whole church was a wood-framed speaker.

But everything changed upstairs. My point is that he spoke the truth, no matter what anybody says. The Beagle was my father-in-law, and I think it's fair of me to say that no one knows his strengths and weaknesses as well as I do, not even his own flesh-and-blood-perhaps least of all his children. He was a loving father, a handsome provider, a grandfather my own children will forever remember fondly. But he was a bigot and a chiseler, a man who knew the law so well he could turn it with a flourish to his own advantage. He despised weakness, scorned the powerless, and never forgot-or forgave-those who trespassed against him. He was a giant of compassion to those he loved; a despot and a crook to those for whom he had no regard. Everything Heerema said that day was true.

"Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God."

He took his text from Psalm 90. Traditionally, funeral sermons stick tenaciously to the text. Comfort is the antidote to grief, and to Goshen people nothing brings comfort like the Word itself.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Land of Goshen III


In-law relationships are almost always fraught with tensions. This one sure was, at least in the eyes of the narrator, who believes, I think, that his wife's admiration of her father is becoming, with his death, deification. Their divergent points of view are central here. There's a love triangle--father, daughter, and daughter's husband; and both daughter and daughter's husband sort of know it. Father's death has only made it worse. Dead, he's capable of being something he never was when he was alive: human.

What interested me here, I'm sure, is tangled love. It's perfectly impossible for people who know writers not to assume that they (writer's friends)really get it--they understand where all of these confused emotions are coming from in the life of the writer.

You're wrong. All the spit and vinegar in this scene arises from my imagination, not my experience. 
____________________________

In January, darkness spreads over the plains long before supper, so it had been dark for hours before the family left the home place that night, the moon already up in silver over the glowing ribbons of snow between the empty fields' stubbled rows. Kevin and Shelley sat in the back seat in silence, old enough to know that the world had grown smaller with the death of their grandfather, and larger, more complicated, more dangerous than it had seemed just that morning when the holiday began.

"Grandpa's with Jesus, isn't he?" Buddy kept saying. He sat up be­tween Julia and me with his hands stuck between his mother's arms. "Grandpa died and went to be in heaven."

His mother unloosened his arms and took her son up on her lap, even though she held Rudy, the youngest, already sound asleep, in her right arm.

"Everybody sings in heaven," Buddy said. "It's just like Sunday School.”

The clock on the dash said it was just before ten.

"Grandpa went to heaven in a chariot,” Buddy said. For the first time that day I thought about what Buddy had imagined when the EMT's wheeled the body out of the house. I remembered the whirring red lights dancing off the sides of the machine shed out back.

*

I poured us both some brandy before we went to bed, so we sat at our kitchen table with most of the lights out in the house, listening to the constant whirr of the furnace fighting the press of cold against the outside walls.

"I wish I had known somehow that I was going to be the one to find him dead," Julia said. "I mean, I never thought of anything like that happening to me. I just wish I had known somehow."

The smears around her eyes that were there in the afternoon were long gone by that time. If anything, she looked somehow younger than she had, her eyes sharp and jumpy, as if she were walking slowly through a field of alfalfa, looking for something small but important she had lost.

I stood with Julia at the births of all our four children. She wanted it that way. But after the first, I had little desire to be there again, because I hated the uselessness of my own presence. Who knows what some analyst would say, but I stood there and hated myself because it seemed to me that what she was fighting was so much of an individual battle, her body writhing to release this new child, while all of her sense fought the searing pain that simply had to be. All I could do was stand there and hold her hand.

What I hated then was exactly what I felt that night, the horror of hav­ing an immense, solid oak door locked up tight between you and someone you love, and the frustration of having no means-no possible way-of opening it. Julia's grief, like her pain, was ultimately a private matter, and every word I could offer seemed nothing better than what any do-gooder had ever said in scenes like this—bland and chilled. My greatest gift, perhaps, was the brandy.

"If I'd have only known this was going to happen," she said again.

Every one of a dozen responses sounded frivolous when I rehearsed them in my mind.

"What do you do with a dead father anyway?" she said. "I mean, what's there to do now?"

"Probably you just remember," I told her.

"It doesn't seem like it's enough," she said. She turned the glass in her hand so the brandy rode the sides of the glass and left a tinge of bronze. Some tight Branderhorst emotion stretched itself thin at her lips and cheeks.

"You never really loved him, did you?" she said.

There was a lawyer's dispassionate ring to the question, as if she were only searching for a fact, not a criminal indictment.

"He gave me his daughter," I said. I thought it was as good as I could do.

"But you never really loved him, Howard. Admit it. You never really understood him at all."

It was no accusation, merely a statement of fact.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Land of Goshen II


In yesterday's opening segment, you may have noticed the time I spent with an old house in the country. For those of you acquainted with Siouxland, I was using the old Remko Kooi house, just west of the little town of Lebanon. Basically, the town I'm describing in the story resembles, in my mind, Lebanon, Iowa, not because of any story I know whose origins are that little burg, but because visually and sociologically, I guess, that town was the kind of place I was looking for as a setting. 

Today, the narrator introduces himself as someone who is interested in the way traces of the past come up along the gravel roads all around him. That the story is thirty years old is clearly evident--the boys are Vietnam vets, and the old man is older than NFL football.

And trust me, I mean no disrespect to the Branderhorsts among us. To me, the name Branderhorst, solidly Dutch, just sounds male--and that's what I wanted.

It's a dark story. Don't know why I was so attracted to stories like that, but I was and probably still am.

Lord, have mercy.
________________________________

I know all of this because I'm an outsider, one of the last teachers to come into Goshen before the school shut down. What's more, I mar­ried the Beagle's daughter, Julia, who was, and still is, a startlingly beautiful woman with her father's thick head of hair and her mother's charm and grace and slight build. Goshen was my first teaching job, just out of teacher's college. I was single then, and I went at teaching with all the zeal of a true believer setting a course to change the world and starting right here on the plains. Back then I loved Goshen because I loved its children. And Goshen loved me; in fact, it offered me one of its own favored women to marry. When I think back on it now, I sometimes see it was one of those prearranged feudal marriages. When the Beagle decided I was good enough stock to stay in Goshen, he offered me his daughter as a surety, even though I wasn't about to farm. It wasn't done that blatantly as I remember, but I understand now that nothing got done in town without Earl's approval back then in the early sixties.

So we were married. Then the school closed up, and I took a job at Winoka. Even though we lived in Goshen, Goshen forgot about me, and once more, I became an outsider. "The land of Goshen," my friends in Winoka call it. It's a dead town on the prairie now. Last month Herm Beernink died, and his place was sold-a decent house, two barns, one good shed on a five- acre plot at the edge of town-for four thousand dollars. They were lucky to find a buyer.

I'm a Midwesterner at heart, but I grew up far north of here, where dozens of inland lakes mirror the woods and patches of farmland that sit on their shores. I grew up in a church, but somehow we didn't take faith as seriously as the Goshen people do. Maybe I say that because I lived back there only as a child, but I don't think so. I married into this place, for better or for worse, as they say; and their faith has eaten into me too now, although it's not easy for me to admit it.

But I've never regretted marrying Julia. She's a Branderhorst in ways that I'm not always proud of, but she's got roots like an elm or an ash, ­like her whole family. The old Calvinism buried itself in her soul, and she sees her calling clearly. She invests her devotion in our family the same way her brothers invest their sweat in the land. I like that. Maybe I'm old-fashioned. Maybe Goshen's got into me. I loved her when I mar­ried her, and nothing's happened since to make me stop. You've got to believe that. I really do love her. History tells us that those feudal marriages didn't always work, but this one has. I swear it.

It's early March now, the time of year when everyone thinks it's sup­posed to be spring. One day the temperature can creep up to forty degrees and make the farmers restless. "You can start to hear the seed rustling around in the bag,” some farmers say, but what they hear is the echo of their own anticipation. It's still too cold for a farming operation to come out of its long winter's nap, but there's this feeling all around. Everyone's out in the machine shed with grease guns.

Beagle died on New Year's Day, in the afternoon, with his boys just outside his bedroom watching bowl games and his wife and daughters drinking coffee, their laps full of kids, around the cleared kitchen table in the slowly dying heat of the stove that had just cooked up a holiday ham. He couldn't have designed a better way of dying if he'd sat down one day and decided how he wanted to go.

The Beagle was reared in a day without television football, and he never really understood the game at all, so it was no surprise when he picked up and left the den, explaining that he felt like lying down for awhile after dinner. Julia herself found him when her mother claimed it was unlike him to take such a long nap and maybe someone should check to see if he was feeling okay. He was lying there on his back, stone dead, one leg up over the other, as if he'd just decided to die like some gentleman he never was.

"Dad's not breathing," Julia told us, almost whispering, when she came into the den. Her eyes were glassy, but something in her, instinct maybe, warned her not to tell her mother right away. So she came to the den. "I took his arm and everything--" she said.

I don't know how to explain what happened next. We all left for the bedroom, of course, and Julia kept her mother outside while the men hovered over his body. Randall grabbed for his wrist to feel for his pulse. Then he jumped up on the bed and held open the old man's mouth and breathed his own breath into him-in even, almost machine-like breaths. He jerked open Earl's collar and popped the buttons down the front of his shirt. The old man's left arm fell like dead weight off the side of the bed, the back of his hand landing limply on the rug, its fingers un­curled just enough to reveal a pallid, bloodless palm.

"Call an ambulance," Randall said right away, so I did, right there from the phone on the nightstand. You feel so helpless when something like that happens, and you remember the thousands of times when you tell yourself it—would be useful to take some classes or something, learn how to deal with that kind of crisis. Right then and there, I swore to myself that I'd take the time to learn how to deal with emergencies. It's something I've forgotten now, two months later.

Methodically, Randall kept forcing breath down into his father's lungs, one hand pinched over the old man's face. But it was clear that there was no response, so he straddled the body and fiercely ripped open the shirt as if somehow the fabric itself were locking up his lungs. "Come on, come on," he said, one hand down on the old man's chest, pushing and pumping, as if what was inside was nothing more than an engine too tired to ignite.

By then mother had made it into the bedroom. She stood there with­ her hands up to her face, Julia and Mary Nell holding her arms as if she might bolt.

Your mind spins so far out of control in a time like that. Images roll like leaves tossed in a whirlwind. I remembered the time a cow had calved on a Sunday afternoon, and Randall had stood over her and hammered her to her feet once she had delivered, Julia sitting there explaining it all to our Kevin. That's almost the way it was that New Year's Day, Randall banging away on his father's chest.

Randall spent a year in Vietnam growing callous to death, the way he explains it. Maybe it was that year that made him swear the way he did. "Come on, come on you son of a bitch!" he said, not loud but em­phatically, as if his words could shock that heart into pumping. "Come on, come on," he kept repeating, his hair falling down from around his temples over his ears.

But you didn't need any experience with death to see that Earl was already gone. His mouth gaped and his head fell slightly toward the arm that had fallen from the side of the bed. Randall kept working anyway, kept pushing and pounding at his chest, his anger growing so high in frustration and grief that his own sweat fell over his outstretched fingers and wet his father's chest. But Earl was gone.

There were no dying words from him, no final injunctions, no assurance of faith. I'm sure he would have planned it without any dramatics himself, if he could have. It would be like me to try to tack some moral on the span of my life; it's the teacher in me, I suppose. But Earl Branderhorst would have thought a last word or two redun­dant, I think, nothing more than useless talk. For all his sins-his pent-­up anger, the roll call of grudges he carried and those that were carried against him, for the years of petty deceit, the livestock miscounted, cut­throat deals spun out at another's expense—for all of that there was no Calvinist's last rites and no forgiveness-begging. Earl Branderhorst slip­ped out of life with what I expect was a conscience pumped full of ra­tionalization and his own brash self-assurance that sometimes crossed over the thread-thin line that separates well-muscled will from plain, sin­ful pride.

I'm sure that when he stood up before his Maker that day, he expected nothing less than an extended right arm showing him the way to glory. A lifelong Calvinist, Earl, comfortable in his election, knew little of con­fession. If someone had told him that he'd spent his entire lifetime selfishly building his own kingdom, he would have thought the notion nonsense. What he was building, he thought, was a family. But he wouldn't have said that either. It wouldn't have been right for a real man.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Land of Goshen I


A couple of trips in the next couple of weeks will make it impossible to churn out blog posts, so I'm resorting to a strategy I've employed before, publishing something old, this time, fiction. "The Land of Goshen" got me into Indiana University Writer's Program in 1985, which means, I think, that it is, this year, 30 years old. I have to say that again to believe it myself:  "The Land of Goshen" is at least 30 years and largely unpublished because even back then, when magazines took longer stories, few would even look at something this long.

Warning--this story is going to run for three weeks.  I hate to lose readers, but I'm telling you that it's 15 installments long, a long story.

To me, "The Land of Goshen" is interesting because 30 years ago I was 35, not 66 years old. It features the kind of darkness that I thought great stories featured; it's raw realism (a literary tradition largely left behind in the last two decades). For that I don't apologize--I'm as much a creature of my time as anyone else. 

The inspiration came from a story told to me by a friend, a colleague, who told me how a young preacher got himself in a terrible mess in a small country church when he used the occasion of the funeral of a tyrant father to lower the boom on the man's less-than-upright children, telling them that the death of the old man should teach them to live in a wholly (and I suppose, holy) different way. 

That Jeremiad didn't go over well.  

I was likely a young elder at the time, opening up old problems whose origins were rooted in generations past.  

But prototypes are just that--they're only inspirations, not road maps.  Still, if you stick with the story, you'll see the outline of that true story giving life to what I wrote way back when--30 years ago. Who knows what else we might discover along the way?
______________________

Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like for old man Emil to stand out here on the prairie and see nothing at all but grass and sky, because when the Branderhorsts came here there were no trees. Ten miles west, the scrub oak have always grown like weeds over the hills that shoulder the river valley, but here there was nothing. They're here now, elm and cottonwoods and ash like shadows around the houses and the church, the elevator and the store. There are few poplars around, because in Goshen nobody's ever been short-sighted. If you plant at all, you plant long term-maples and elm-and shore up the saplings until they get twelve feet or so.

But if it weren't for the trees, there'd be little to distinguish Goshen from what it might have looked like seventy-five years ago, a little set­tlement of frame houses surrounding a country store, a church, and a school on the town's only paved street. Of course, the school is shut down now. Years ago already Goshen's kids were vacuumed up by the Winoka district when the state put on pressure to consolidate the smallest districts. So the kids are gone. The trees are grown up and the kids are-­gone. Otherwise, Goshen's just about the same.

Once your tires crack the gravel at the end of the town's blacktop, if you stay with the road, if you follow its sweeping curve through the fields and over the culverts, you'll find that same big house that's been here for years—Emil’s own American dream. It's always been painted white, and it stands out front of the barn and sheds, facing east so that it catches the face of the dawn, a glossy mirage against the long tawny grain fields stretching west to the river. The home place is the only house in the county with four two-story pillars out front, the kind of pillars that bring to mind a Southern plantation set down here on the bleak nor­thern plains by some freakish, drunken whirlwind.

Emil Branderhorst had money when he came from the old country at the turn of the century, money and kids; and he built the home place first thing to stand up on the knoll like a castle just west of town.

Those days, of course, there was promise in the land. Goshen had a couple hundred people, and the sweep of prairie, west and east, sprout farms where hundreds of immigrant families cut through prairie turf if, with proper cultivation, they could grow their own fortunes. Last week Emil's great-grandson sold three hundred cattle at a hundred-dollar a ­head loss, and in ten minutes of sluggish bidding lost himself $30,000. Emil's castle cost half that much to build.

In the thirties already the land shook off excess settlers as if God himself, like a farm wife, picked up the topsoil like a dirty carpet and shook it in the wind. Some of the immigrants left the land of Goshen­; those who took up farming in America because they thought it was the only new country occupation; those who were simply not predestined to take the rigors of milking; those whose vision of the promised land hadn't included the burning heat of a prairie summer or searing winter winds spun from a continent of snow to the north; and those whose ambition climbed beyond a barbed-wire fence strung around eighty acres of black soil, no matter how rich and sweet it smelled come May's annual re-awakening. The land itself evicted its unsuited squatters, and those who were left dug in like survivors, planting elm and ash and maple south of the house for balm from the sun, north and west as a shield from the wind.

By the forties Goshen never saw new faces, save a new schoolteacher or a preacher, transients for the most part, in a community of not more than a half-dozen extended families who met on Sunday, as was Emil's custom, in the frame church in town to drink their own brand of old­ country Calvinism. Good sermons, folks thought, were something like cod liver oil, a potion one needed to stay healthy, not necessarily good­ tasting but morally, spiritually healthful. For years Goshen thought a good sermon was one that laid a scar across your back, one that kept you smarting through a week of fieldwork. .

What Reverend Heerema did the day of Earl Branderhorst's funeral was nothing out of the ordinary for the place. There's never been a fire n the Goshen church, but its walls are thoroughly scorched. What Heerema said that day is well within the traditions of Great-grandpa Emil's own Calvinism, but it laid proud welts across his descendants' backs, opened up some thick skin that had long ago lost sensitivity to the scourge of a stringent sermon. What I'm saying is that in some ways little has changed in Goshen, and yet there is a difference. Emil Branderhorst's great-grandchildren still take some pleasure in an old-fashioned whip­ping from the pulpit, but only for the searing sound of the whip in the air and not for the open flesh across the back. It's the sound alone that rings true to a deep sense of tradition—“give me that old-time religion.” They like the pitch of a blistering sermon, but the fierce gospel itself doesn't tune their lives anymore. That's what I mean. Heerema gave them what they wanted, but the amplification smashed right through their precious stained glass.

The Lord only knows why folks called Earl, Emil's wealthiest grand­son, "the Beagle," but they did for as long as anyone could remember. In Goshen men have a way of nicknaming each other as boys already, assigning each other tags and poking them in a kid's ear the same way they tag cattle. Earl was one of a couple dozen of Emil's grandchildren, but he wore the Branderhorst features as if he were cut out of the exact pattern-wide shoulders above a long and stocky trunk, with squat legs and no rear end whatsoever, so the back pockets of his jeans hung down from his waist like a pair of empty bags. Like most Branderhorsts, Earl's face had the puffy red glow of an alcoholic's, a thick nose and a broad forehead, his cheeks shot full of tiny red veins, his full head of hair still dark and wavy when he was nearing seventy, refusing to gray with a Branderhorst's perfectly stubborn determination.

Earl lived on the home place for one reason: unlike many of his cousins, he never went to war. If he had had his choice, he likely might have; but his father kept him back, even though, like all the rest, Earl had this fervor to go to Europe or the Pacific and do what he could, at least that's the story as he tells it. Reluctantly, he got an agricultural defer­ment when so many other boys were already gone, and the war, for the most part, treated him well. By the time his cousins returned to Goshen from Guadalcanal and Anzio, the Beagle had, as they say, a leg up on the field, his operation expanding throughout the war years whenever land came available in the area. He learned how to deal on the black market, picking up implements when the government claimed they were unavailable, buying tires when the Co-op said there were none to be found. He had no trouble rationalizing his wheeling and dealing, because his operation turned out more milk and beef and grain, with more effi­ciency and in greater supply than anything seen in the county. He was doing his part at home, he thought-and said. That's what his father told him, and that's how he dealt with his guilt over not carrying a gun into Germany. But he made enemies, lots of them. Somehow there's room for enemies in Goshen, even though the town itself is no more than six blocks long.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Morning Thanks--Ken Burns



Ken Burns claims these three--T.R., Franklin, and Eleanor--were extraordinary individuals. He says that they were children of immense privilege who somehow took it upon themselves to care immensely for those who weren't. He says they came from different political parties, but each of them believed in the promise of the American spirit and tried to nurture justice in their judgments and ideology. He says they walked across life's stage as leading men and women, made so not only by their unique individual characters, but also by the push and pull of the times in which they were tried. 

And he says none of them were perfect.  All of them had outrageous faults and stumbled horrendously through their own finest years.  They were as human as any of us; yet found something within themselves that made them towers in their own time.

I'm not sure what it is about Ken Burns, but he has the ability and obviously feels it a calling to tell our most important national stories--Baseball, Jazz, The Corps of Discovery, The National Parks, the list goes on--even The Civil War. Some pooh-pooh his technique--I'm no expert. There is, after all, what tons of people call "the Ken Burns effect," a slow pan over some sepia tone photograph.  

I'm sure he has his spins--we all do.  Some must wonder why these three Roosevelts are today's heroes and not, say, Ronald Reagan. 

Once upon a time a new cable channel promised to tell the great human stories--the History Channel. Today, a couple of decades later, its schedule of feature programming includes such epic tales as Ice Men, Swamp People, and Pawnography. It became clear to network execs, in a good old American way, that good money couldn't be made on actual history. People didn't watch. People didn't care. Hence, how about we throw up some reality like Ice Road Truckers.  

Somehow Ken Burns, despite his Ringo hair-cut, succeeds. Maybe it's because his films come out on PBS or because he was, for a good deal of his career, largely penniless. Today, he takes a salary of $125,000, a chunk he makes, mainly from speaking gigs, while he largely invests whatever his documentaries make into the next production. Maybe his success is built on his own personal economy.

Whatever the reason, this is a better world for what he does, and we're a better nation. I've not seen either segment of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History so far; I've been busy both nights. But I'll see them eventually, I'm sure.

What he's learned and what he's telling us is that some of the finest stories in life itself are those that are true and lie somewhere in the mist behind us, stories sometimes in danger of being lost. Those stories not important because they're history, but because they are our stories.

President Harry Truman once said, "The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know." 

Even though I haven't seen five minutes of the show, this morning I'm thankful for Ken Burns and what he does in our nation and culture. He has become himself an American institution, a good one. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Morning Thanks--Something broadly American


Just in case you missed it, yesterday, September 13, was the 200th anniversary of the National Anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's something of a miracle that the actual flag Francis Scott Key was waiting desperately to see in "the dawn's early light" is displayed today in the Smithsonian Museum, but it is. It's not in good shape--as you can see--but it's lovingly protected, I'm sure.

One star is missing because the descendants of the family of Major George Armistead, the Commander at Ft. McHenry, the place Key was watching so closely all night long, owned it for 120 years.  Things fall apart.  During that time, one of the relatives cut out one of the stars and sold it. Other parts were snipped off for whatever reason. This is what remains (see above).

But of course, we have the anthem, sung thousands of times every day and night.

When I hear the name Francis Scott Key, I don't think about the anthem, I think instead of Mrs. Key, a squat woman who wore her long black hair, as I remember, pulled back tight and stiff. She had a round face and almost unkind eyes. In truth, I was afraid of her. She was a school teacher in town, the quintessential schoolmarm. 

It may have been a lean time in my parents' life, the money simply not there. After the war, my father had built our house with his own hands, drawn it up, oddly enough, with what appeared to be two front doors. I don't doubt--although I don't know it's true--that the intent was to build a one-room apartment for my grandfather, who was retired-and-getting- old (a phrase I use far more meaningfully than I used to, btw).

Grandpa Schaap lived in that room for a time, then died, in 1954, when I was starting kindergarten. When he was no longer with us, my parents found renters, this stark, heavy-set schoolmarm and her white-haired son, Christopher, who was younger than I was and somewhat precocious. 

The images of both of them are as ragged the Ft. McHenry flag. I can't say I see either mom or son clearly, although the images survive--a woman who did almost everything militarily and her little boy, precocious and, well, unmanly. Funny how we judge, even at an early age.

How it was she'd become a single mom, I don't know. I was far too young and sinless to wonder about such things.  

I don't know if the two of them would even have a place in the museum of my memory if it weren't for one incident, an incident related by needle-and-thread, oddly enough, to the star-spangled banner that became "The Star-Spangled Banner."

'Twas a beautiful Sunday morning, and I had a brand new sport coat to wear for church for the very first time. It hung in the living room closet, I remember, and I was thrilled to get myself bedecked for church. No one else was up, so I took that new jacket from its hanger, grabbed a scissors from the top drawer of the built-in dining room buffet, and proceeded, on my own and without parental consent, to cut off the tags. 

I couldn't wait. I was anxious for church. I told you, I was too young for iniquity.

One of the tags was sewn into the material. No matter. I scissored it anyway, and when I did I took out a patch of material at the bottom of the back of the sport coat.  I was eight years old maybe--that's all. You could hardly call it a sin. 

I got scolded, but not hard. That too I remember.

Hard as it is to believe, while Christopher and Mrs. Key prepared their meals, mostly, on a hot plate in Grandpa's old room, they shared a bathroom with us and thus became aware (you might say) of family foibles my two older sisters may have created. I honestly don't know if my mother knew Mrs. Key was a seamstress, or whether our "boarder" simply came out of the room at the commotion created by my eager scissors, but I do remember she volunteered to mend the sport coat, saying something akin to "You just get ready and let me handle this."

So we did and she did. And I walked off to church just as proud of my new Sunday togs and maybe a bit humbled.

Mrs. Key, who was a descendant of Francis Scott, saved the day and the Schaap Sabbath.

Mrs. Key and Christopher, who lived just off the kitchen of our little house, didn't go to church that morning, nor any morning. That too I remember.

I was, at best eight or nine years old so my attitude toward "spiritual things," as my mother might have said, was definitively elementary. What I remember about that morning--what comes back to me, even today--is an irony I must have felt even though I wasn't old enough to handle a scissors: how strange it was, after all, that a woman who never went to church had come to our aid in our hour of need and somehow miraculously mended this brand new sport coat, patched it up perfectly, so that we could go to Sunday worship. She was a kind of savior, even though she was something of a heathen, a woman who lived right in our house.

All of that was fascinating to me, but please take the whole story with heavy dose of skepticism because all of it comes back to me through a haze that's not far afield from "the twilight's last gleaming."

I don't know whether Christopher and Mrs. Key ever went to church that year they lived in our house, but my memory is that they didn't, which meant, in my mind, that they weren't real Christians. But then, somehow she had saved the day, the Sabbath. To me, something about that made no sense.

You may disagree, but I think there's something broadly American about that story, a sweet mix of cultures, people having to adjust to neighbors who weren't like themselves, something broadly American and, good Samaritan that she was, something Christian too, I something loving, something remarkably good.

And that's what I'll always remember whenever I hear the name of Francis Scott Key.