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.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Collateral Damage

Karen Edelman Williams had never been here before, never seen unending fields of corn and soybeans amid the tawny prairie grass, never seen anything like the yawning openness all around. So when, sometime later, she wrote a letter to those people she’d met on a visit out here, she told them she’d never forget the place. “I will never forget the kindness of the people we met there,” she told them, “or the beauty of your Nebraska skies.”

In a roundabout way, what brought her here was those Nebraska skies. She was only six months old when her father became a casualty of World War II way out in the middle of America, thousands of miles from Normandy or the Philippines. Out here, her father trained for the bombing runs that would end wars in both theaters. Her father, and sixteen others with him, fell to their deaths from those same Nebraska skies.

So the only way Karen Edelman Williams knew her father was by way of her mother, who, she says, never really got past her husband’s shocking death. There wasn’t much to say because she and her husband had been together for such short a time that when, years later, Mrs. Williams thought about it, she told her daughter their relationship seemed almost like a long date.

When skies clear over the plains, barely a day goes by without a jet trail painting a cloudy swath through bright azure; but if you stand out there for a week you’ll not see what people saw day after day during World War II, skies full of B-24s, then B-29s, in perfect formation, as if Berlin was just beyond the Missouri River.

The state of Nebraska hosted eleven Army air fields during the war, requiring industry that’s almost impossible to imagine in farm country today. Thousands of workers poured concrete and built barracks and command posts, as well as a hospital of some 300 beds. Today, very little of that remains. Today, the only engines grunting on the land power tandem-wheel tractors pulling 18-bottom plows.

In 2003, Karen Edelman Williams took her mother along when she went out west on the 60th anniversary of her father’s death. Local men and women helped the family through what had always seemed mystery, the government's unwillingness to say much about what had happened. Eventually, those B-29s out of rural Nebraska became part of the squadron that delivered the atom bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But locals knew what happened, because when planes crashed into farmland, the crews died on ground those farmers worked. You can’t hide a plane crash in all that open sky and land. Descendants of those farmers showed Lt. Williams’ family where the planes had crashed, even, mercifully, described the seeming peace of the dead crew.

Four B-24s were flying in tight formation on October 23, 1943, late afternoon, when one of them moved out and another, as required, filled in. Something happened, mid-air—two of them touched, collided. They were 20,000 feet up.

Lt. James Williams was four years older than his wife. He’d been in night school, wanting to be a lawyer. When he died in these open fields, Karen’s mother was just 19—a new wife, a young mom, and an instant widow.

She says her mother always blamed herself for her husband’s death. The doctors told her taking a train all the way out to Nebraska was not good for a young mom—she’d have to wait six weeks. Her husband had begged her to come earlier, but she’d waited, listened to the doctor.

He was killed when she was on the train to Nebraska.

Sixty million people died in World War II, including 419 thousand Americans, 26 of whom died, almost secretly, on open land beneath beautiful Great Plains skies.

They’ve not been forgotten. There’s a road marker out there in Fillmore County, three of them, one for each crash.

And the families remember. Karen Edelman Williams, who grew up without a father, says, “My mother never really recovered. Train whistles made her cry.”

They’re all heroes, every one of them.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--Hallelujah!

“Praise the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD.”
Psalm 104:35

The truth is, I’d love to play slo-pitch.  A good friend, even older than I am, decided the college faculty should have an intramural softball team, "the Geezers."  He organized it and now has them out on the field. Problem is, they got thumped in their first game, so he sent out an e-mail lookin’ for beefier hitters. Singles just don’t make it in slo-pitch.

Once upon a time, I slammed homers methodically, routinely—every other at bat almost.  Not a lie either.  So the siren call of playing slo-pitch got even sweeter when the Geezers took it on the chin from a bunch of squirt students who pounded home runs like pop flies. 

Two reasons make my playing ball impossible. The first is, I can’t because I’m scheduled—a book club. The second is vastly more salient: I’m old. I don’t like to think about what might happen to this body of mine should I throw hard, swing hard, or even run—or try to--for that matter. This mortal coil has done nothing close to any of the above for more than a decade. Who knows what horrors I would suffer? 

No matter—if I wouldn’t be at the book club, I’d be at the ball diamond.  I would.  I swear. At least, I think I would.

A friend of mine remembers the day his father, 70+, looked at him sardonically when this friend complained of some minor muscle ache. “Get used to it,” he said, with far more authority than sympathy.

Most mornings when I wake, I walk downstairs slowly, the railing in my left hand, my right braced up against the wall, my back crooked, knees bent. My silhouette against the dim kitchen lights must resemble Notre Dame’s most famous hunchback. And it ain’t getting better. 

I wash small loads of wash lately because once a week at least a perfectly good shirt, a perfectly clean shirt, jumps off my chest to catch milk from the cereal bowl or syrup from pancakes. I get so angry, I wash them right away to destroy evidence.

But this friend of mine—the man who was warned by his father to get used to his aches and pains—right now is dying of lung cancer. He says in a note that his aches are different because now, he says, “I will never again be able to draw a full two-lungs'-worth of breath. I will ever puff at a flight of stairs. This body will nevermore be what it has been, nor can I frame my knowing it according to its ability to repair itself.”

And, he says, he’ll never get better. He’s busy “devising methods for living
the diminishing life.”  And he still says, “Praise the Lord.”  He still says, “Hallelujah.”  Just doesn’t have as much lung to profer that praise.

I like to think I could hit a ball out of the park, but I’m a whole lot safer at a book club—I know that. 

I just hope that, like my friend with diminishing lungs, when my time comes I can call upon an ever youthful faith, and say with the psalmist, at the very end of this museum-piece psalm, Psalm 104, “Hallelujah, Praise the Lord.”

Friday, May 26, 2017

That little button

The Schaap house

"Show, don't tell."

It's a little writing class homily that I preached for more years than I care to admit. Some ex-students remember nothing else I ever said. But then, honestly, I could have done worse. "Show, don't tell" is as sound a sermon as I could have delivered, and it's only three words long.

But it's not simple, nor is it easy to live by because it's much easier to tell than it is to show.  For years, I couldn't help but be proud of what people call a "work ethic" among people whose origins I share. Want to see curb and gutter in a small town on the northern plains?--look for population with a Dutch background.

Still, I didn't know what a "work ethic" was until we built this house and squads of master craftsmen swarmed in--carpenters, roofers, electricians, dry-wallers, carpet layers, tilers--and put the whole thing together. Okay, I'll confess up--a man who spent a lifetime in classrooms had never seen before, close up, how hard some men work.. Made me sweat just to watch. And all of them weren't Dutch either; some were Hispanic.  

I could always talk about "work ethic," but the guys who built this house--and they were exclusively male--showed me what a "work ethic" was.

It's the source of great pride and joy here, as it is wherever that description is lavished, in part because really industrious people don't have to talk about working hard, don't have to brag. They can just nod toward what they do. They can "show, not tell." When this house was built, those squads of craftsmen did.

But when it's brandished, when it's preached unmercifully, it grows heartless. "I work hard every day, but that idiot down the street uses his food stamps to buy smokes. If he'd get off his ass and do something. . ." You know. You don't have to be Jewish and born B.C., to be a Pharisee. 

I'm wondering lately if there isn't more.

When he moved into comprehensive care, Dad was given an extra button. When he and mom were in independent living, there was always one beside the toilet, and another one beside the bed when we moved him over to assisted. Now, in a skilled nursing facility, he's got an extra one right beside him on his chair, a button the people who moved him in made darlingly clear he could use anytime he liked, 24/7. "You want a beer?" the manager told him, her volume up high, "just push the button, tell the nurse, and she'll get you one." Beer on demand is no small thing in Orange City, Iowa. After two months there, I don't think he still believes it. 

The problem is, he can't use the darn button. There it sits, forlorn, slumped over the arm of his chair. We can't get him to use it. Could well be his memory isn't the greatest--there's that too. But I think he simply can't get himself to believe that all he has to do is press a button and someone will bring him water or beer or a chocolate malt--anything, anything his heart desires. He can't.

He was a farmer who worked hard all his life long. When the sows were farrowing, he used the same lumber to put up pens that got shore up with the same bent-up ten-penny nails. Never had a son to help him, only rarely a hired man. He made a living for his family by good strong hard work, his. Lots of it. Seems that farrowing always happened mid-January, middle of a blizzard too. No complaints. He may well have hated the cold but he loved his work.

So much that today he really can't begin to imagine getting served anything his heart desires by someone who will come around and do his bidding if he merely pushes a button. We can't get him to use it. It's plainly beyond him. 

I wonder if  he doesn't find getting served to be harder work than he's ever done. And I'm wondering too lately whether the kind of really robust work ethic people here love to tout might just create hearts that find it hard to be loved.

I not trying to tell anyone anything, just showing you one valuable unused button in Dad's room. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The fossil at Cherokee

It is Siouxland's biggest fossil, a sprawling, endless petrifaction. Walk out the door of the lobby, keep the walls on your left, then circle the entire building--it'll take you the better part of a half hour because the place is gargantuan; but its days have come and gone.

More than a century ago, it had to have been perfectly colossal because 115 years later it still is. If you've never seen it, take in a half-dozen deep breaths when you ascend the hill because, I swear, the place will take your breath away.

Once upon a time masons pieced together a smokestack, 25-feet in circumference, from the inside, stone on stone on stone to--get this!--a 192 feet. That towering inferno is long gone, but to get a sense of the immensity of the place, you'd have to be way on top and still use a wide-angle lens.

Sheldon wanted it badly. So did LeMars. So did Ft. Dodge and Storm Lake. Back in the 1890s they all wanted the place because it was going to be huge. When the legislature decided that Iowa's new hospital for the insane would be planted far northwest, frontier towns knew that bringing the castle home would put the town on the map.

Politics? Sure. Politics drove things along a century ago just as they do today. In Des Moines the battle raged. Storm Lake's candidacy got bumped when some pseudo-scientist claimed water was far too inviting "as a means whereby lunatics commit suicide." [Their language not mine.] 

When Ft. Dodge fell, LeMars became the favorite. But some now largely-unremembered bill about liquor angered LeMars-leaning democrats, whose favor then swung Sheldon's way. Who knows exactly whose ear got bent how, when the smoke cleared Cherokee won the Hospital for the Insane.

The dimensions of the that decision are as stunning as the edifice. It was built big enough to hold a thousand patients on 840 acres of farmland a mile west of town. It's hung with 1810 windows and a thousand doors for 550 rooms, 23 dining rooms, 30 baths, and 18 mop closets. Twelve acres of floor surface, 93,000 yards of plastering, 2300 lights. It's foundation of Sioux Falls granite is 1 1/4 miles around. 

The theories of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride created the design. He preached an enlightened gospel, to wit, that the treatment of mental illness required environs that looked like more like home not prison. Yet today, the Cherokee Mental Institute looks like a dozen Downton Abbeys. Kirkbride's "Moral Treatment" theories dictated marble fireplaces, spacious hallways, elaborate lighting. 

The grounds are well kept, trees so tall and strong that one can only imagine this behemoth standing atop a high bare plain, nary a tree in sight. It looked, as people said, like a city on a hill. It was.

Still, there's something undeniably House of Usher-ish about the place, something right out of Edgar Allen Poe. You expect bolts of lightning, men with vacant eyes and unreasonable smiles in straight-jackets or chains, hideous laughter soaring into screams. It looks somehow like horror, and for many, I'm sure, it was a place you were blessed to leave.

But a woman who grew up just down the hill told me she got used to seeing men and woman in white walking through their garden. She never minded it really, never felt particularly afraid because they weren't vicious or violent. Most of the time, they were on their way back to the hospital. The laboratories looked nothing like Dr. Frankenstein's. It's a foreboding place maybe, but don't think monstrous.

But it is a fossil because it holds organic remains of a time in the history of our treatment of the mentally ill that has almost nothing at all to do with our treatment today. Once upon a time, almost 2000 people lived on the city on the hill. Today, you'll see, not so. Part of the place is ghost town.

For decades, the Cherokee Hospital for the Insane was a palace people used as kind of dumping ground. They brought their grotesques here and more often than not left them here because once upon a time we hid away people we considered embarrassments. The cemetery holds the graves of 800+ patients who died here, but none has a name because even in death, they were unwanted. 

Asylum, people called it--and worse, "nut house," "funny farm," words that are themselves fossils. Insane is gone. Imagine the place actually spoken of as the "Cherokee Insane Asylum." Today, that language is obscene. 

If the moral character of a society can be assessed by its treatment of its most vulnerable, then the story of the Cherokee Institute, this huge city on the hill, like a fossil, is full of and even haunted by stories of what we've been and who we are. 

The stories are endless. You can arrange a tour, and there's even a basement museum you won't ever forget. 

Drive up sometime and see for yourself. It will take your breath away. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Image result for wing biddlebaum grotesque

"The story of Wing Biddlebaum is the story of hands," so saith Sherwood Anderson in the first story of his famous small-town tales, Winesburg, Ohio. From the very first time I read that story, long, long ago, I was taken by Biddlebaum's fragile existence and the very thin line that separates good and evil, love and sin.

As if he were leprous, Old Wing lives just outside of town. He was once a schoolteacher, a man who loved children too much maybe, so much he couldn't keep his hands off of them. He'd always had active hands, fingers that moved with an agility that was, even to those who disliked him, almost mythical. Already as a child, he'd picked berries with precision and speed that exceeded everyone else in the berry patch.

For reasons known only to Sherwood Anderson, strange Wing Biddlebaum opens up about life and living only to George Willard, the boy who becomes a man in Winesburg, Ohio, the kid who is fascinated by the community's eccentrics. George Willard somehow trusts the old teacher, so the two of them walk together out into the countryside, and when they do, Wing, once a teacher, finds himself back in a kind of classroom. Once again, as they had years ago, his hands begin to move.

For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard's shoulders. Something new and bold came into the voice that talked. "You must try to forget all you have learned," said the old man. "You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices."
Pausing in his speech, Wing Biddlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face.
That look of horror is rooted in his own dark experience as a teacher, when he was accused of using his hands improperly, of doing things with them--and with his students--that were untoward. Accusations were made, and the sentence he was handed was banishment from the classroom. Years later, on summer nights he sits alone on his porch outside of town, restraining his hands, a forlorn but not forgotten "grotesque," as Anderson calls the him and the other misshapen characters in Winesburg.

Was Wing what today we could call as abuser, a sex offender? That question is never answered fully in the story. All we know is that once upon a time those too active hands prompted an accusation that got him removed forever from the classroom, and that kills him.

Sounds awful, but I thought of Wing yesterday again because a couple dozen third and fourth graders came by the museum and wanted to know about Indians. I walked them through the gallery of beaded moccasins and ceremonial shirts, past buffalo skins decorated with stories of fights and battles, past tools crafted from bone and stone, and wherever we stopped they stuck their hands in my face, full of questions, full of life, full of joy at learning, the kind of patrons museum docents adore.

Their enthusiasm was so high that more than once in the bedlam, when I'd call on one one of them, they'd momentarily forgotten what they were going to ask. A straggler or two didn't much care about keeping up with the rest of the group, but mostly they were something of a team, maybe even a mob in their enthusiasm. They wanted to know everything. If there were more kids coming today, I'd go back and walk them through in a heartbeat.

The truth? This old grandpa wanted to touch them. I did. When they'd stick their hands up in my face, full of questions, I wanted to grab those hands and squeeze. One little girl with braids and huge brown eyes told me, "My grandma is an Indian." I could have hugged 'em, every one of them. I could have touched them, would have loved to. They were excited to learn, and I couldn't keep up with their questions. It was a joy I wanted to touch.

But I couldn't, could I? 

All I know is the kids were darling, and I wanted to touch them. That's what made me think of old Wing Biddlebaum, a sad story really, as many of them are in Winesburg, Ohio.  That grandpa impulse in me made me wonder again about the fragility of our lives, of the terrible tension created between hands that love and hands that don't.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The story it's meant to tell

That the hide is mislabeled is no one's fault, really. Somewhere along the line, the painting was given a title that was, in all likelihood, a slip of the tongue. That slip got typed up and inserted in the display box to identify the story--the Battle, the note says, of Twin Buttes.

There should be a "The Battle of Twin Buttes." You can almost see Big John Wayne scan the horizon from his saddle, a hundred Lakota braves, bedecked for war, awaiting a chilling scream from Crazy Horse to reign down terror. If there isn't a movie titled "The Battle of Twin Buttes," there should be.

But there never was a Battle of Twin Buttes, not in the American west or tucked away on some shelf in a Hollywood film library. There's only one Battle of Twin Buttes, and that's on the wall at the Sioux County Museum, Orange City, Iowa.

But the story that hide tells is distinctive, not generic. After all, up there in the right hand corner four cavalry are positioned behind some kind of structure pouring led down on a village. The Sioux or Lakota would never have chosen to fight inside their village, where their women and children could be hurt. All signs point to a U. S. Calvary attack on a village, something that happened during the Great Sioux Wars more than once, but not all that often.

What the historian was drawing is the story of an attack on a village, probably--given the position of the sharpshooters--a surprise attack. And there were, he or she notes, women and children among the victims. That line of cavalry with rifles is taking aim at a brave in a flowing headdress who appears to stand in front of woman, who appears already dead, and a child. The warrior is notably unarmed.

In the fights going on all over the painting, the Lakota appear to be getting the upper hand, even though only one of the warriors (the one bottom center) has a rifle. All the others are armed with bows or tomahawks or long knives. Still, the artist unmistakably presents the warriors as taking the upper hand.

Here's my guess. This incredible piece of Native American history tells the story of the Battle of Slim Buttes, a fight--a surprise attack on a camp that was not at war--which took place in the far corner of South Dakota, the very first bloody engagement between U.S. Cavalry and "hostiles," as they were called, bands of Sioux people who wanted no part of reservation life, wanted only the freedom of the old ways--old ways that put them in the way of what the white man called "progress."

Under the command of General Crooke and an army that had just lost the most significant battle against Native people ever, at Little Big Horn, a Captain Anson Mills, along with 150 troopers, by pure happenstance, ran into the village pictured on the hide, and, contrary to Crook's orders, decided to attack.

Mills and his men were thirty miles from the General's half-wasted army, a haggard bunch of survivors who'd been slogging through the mud for more than a hundred miles with nothing to eat but their horses. Crook had advised no fighting because he knew his men were in no shape. In truth, he was next thing to fighting mutiny.

But Mills determined to assault 48 lodges of two Miniconjou leaders, American Horse and Red Horse. It was--and this can't be said enough--a peaceable village. But after Custer's massacre, no white man in uniform was in the mood for peace. Soon enough the people were cleared out of the village, some of them up in the adjoining hills, some in a gully, where American Horse determined to hold his ground.

Once the firing ceased, famished troops filled their larder and themselves with five thousand pounds of dried meat, the first time some of them had eaten anything in days. When Crook's own troops arrived, he lost control of them--all 2000--very quickly.

Twenty troopers volunteered to go down into the gully and get American Horse. They did, "cursing and yelling" through the shrieks of terrified women.

What followed was a grueling and horrifying several hours of unending volleys into the gully, the cave where American Horse and a dozen of his people--women and children-- remained. " “The yelling of Indians, discharge of guns, cursing of soldiers, crying of children, barking of dogs, the dead crowded in the bottom of the gory, slimy ditch, and the shrieks of the wounded," one who was there remembered, "presented the most agonizing scene that clings in my memory of Sioux warfare.” American Horse came out of that gully holding his intestines in his hands. He died soon after.

That afternoon, after the fighting, Crazy Horse and 400 Sioux came up on the bluffs, but after some exchange of gunfire the fighting ceased.

All that buffalo meat was there from a buffalo hunt--a summer hunt. That's why American Horse and his people were there. Because they were "off reservation," they were considered "hostile," even though the whole band was on their way back to their home.

The cavalry got themselves fed and took 300 fresh ponies to replace the mounts they'd eaten.

Three cavalry were killed, 27 wounded. Exactly how many Native people lost their lives isn't known. The Sioux themselves indicated there were ten dead.

That's the story of the hide up on the wall of the Sioux County Museum, the story it pictures, the story its was created to tell, the story of the Battle of Slim Buttes.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Morning Thanks--what Luther discovered

I don't know that anyone cares, really, about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Sure, there are committees (I'm on one) tasked with caring, but that doesn't mean that in the pew on Sunday morning anyone is thinking about what might be happen when the big birthday arrives (generally assumed to be the day Luther nailed-up his theses on the Wittenburg church door). Could well be that churches will simply put a note in their church bulletins: "Hey, this morning just a shout out to Luther. . ."

But we're there, almost. Will be, at least, in a few months.

A review in the Weekly Standard last week got me to thinking, after a note on-line made a claim that seemed totally outrageous, to wit, that after book shelves full of material already written about Martin Luther, after the tonnage he himself produced in a lifetime of writing, it's almost impossible to imagine any one might have anything new to say about the founder of a movement that, quite literally, changed the world.

Someone actually writes something new about Luther? Seriously?

James R. Payton, who taught history at Redeemer University College in Ontario, claims that Lyndel Roper's Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet does just that. He says Professor Roper, who teaches at Oxford, judges Luther, "raw edges and all," as a man of his time and place, putting him and his sometimes blushingly shameful utterances, "raw edges and all," squarely into the world in which he lived: "Roper looks at "the Saxon reformer in terms of his sociocultural milieu," Payton says, with a special regard for "the development of his views in terms of his relationship to father-figures—and his own sense of paternal authority for the movement he had unleashed."

But then Payton makes a claim about Renegade and Prophet I thought interesting and itself new, at least to me--someone sure as anything a child of the Reformation. "She does not acknowledge, or wrestle with, the driving impulse that both dominated and enervated the young monk." That's quite an indictment, but Payton pursues his criticism with dedication: "By entering monastic life, Luther sought to place himself in a situation where he could best prepare to meet his Maker; but his efforts, while exceeding even the strictest, most demanding, counsels, did not result in the slightest confidence that he might find peace with God."

The story many children of the Reformation know is Luther dragging himself up the holy stairs to the Cathedral in 1510, bloodying his knees in the process, creating all that anguish to purify himself in his quest for atonement. That extreme religious discipline, Payton says, brought Luther "no relief in his search—until his labors brought him to wrestle with the words of St. Paul in Romans 1:16-17": 
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.
"There," Payton says, the apostle Paul "rejoiced in what terrified Luther ('the righteousness of God,' revealed in the gospel)" until Luther discerned the emphasis that "the righteous one will live by faith," the very heart of the theology of the Reformation. 

What Luther discovered, as a monk, Payton says, was that all his diligence and dedication to that spiritual task would not bring him where he wanted so badly to be, a man beloved. "Luther had stumbled upon the teaching from then on associated with him: Justification sola fide, being accounted righteous before God by faith alone," Payton says [emphasis his].

What Luther discovered was that salvation wasn't something he could do. That truth left Luther free to be Luther, for better or for worse--and God to be God. Salvation comes by faith alone. 

Okay, maybe it's not totally new, but I for once will certainly admit that it's been so long since I've thought through that idea that Payton's whole take felt fresh as the morning. 

This morning I'm thankful for a few old words, freshly served up, from the Weekly Standard.