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.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Remembering Frederick Manfred--1912-1994 (vii)

Twenty years ago, this rich Iowa soil claimed the remnants of a giant, just as, a month or so before, it had claimed the mortal shell of another. The family of the Reverend B. J. Haan, founder and first president of Dordt College, stood in a foot or so of snow on a day that proved to be just as December-frigid as the ones we don’t forget. They huddled beneath a canvas canopy, less a shelter than a wreath around an open grave that was ready to take what was still there of the old preacher's earthly frame.

That winter, out here at the edge of the Great Plains, we put two legends down, the other was Fred Manfred, the most prolific novelist ever to graduate from local schools, a man so given to his own people that he used them unsparingly to probe and examine the human condition from his unique perspective. Frederic Manfred, born Feike Feikema in a farm house just outside of Doon, Iowa, died earlier, fall of 1994, from complications resulting from brain cancer.

The Rev. B. J. Haan died of heart failure, the man who almost single-handedly raised a college on a few acres of land a whole lot of people still think is better suited for corn and pigs. B.J. never left the territory of his beloved Christian Reformed Church; he was the quintessential insider, as talented a politician among his people as you'll find anywhere.

Manfred left that same church within months of his college graduation and never returned, his literary forays, often as not, raising cane among those who found themselves and their kin far too graphically rendered on the pages of his novels. Manfred was a physical giant—6’9” tall, with a deep shock of straw-like hair and hands whose fingers seemed baling hooks. Haan looked more bookish; he was ruddy-faced, a foot shorter, but never really diminutive.

Some might claim that the only characteristics the two of them shared, in addition to growing up in the Christian Reformed Church, was the love of a region and a diploma from Calvin College. Even here--especially here--some locals likely imagine the preacher seated right now in the heavenly choir, while the tall novelist wanders painfully in the lurid, glowing darkness.

But neither of them ever forgot God, and both of them loved the precious gift of life itself. Both of them loved living. Manfred brought to his work a sense of calling as breathtaking as a stormy prairie sky, a sense of task that grew from a worldview which found joy in the smell of new-cut hay or the damp touch of just-turned soil. 

 Almost from the moment he arrived in Sioux County, Iowa, Haan's very vocation was the cause of a distinctive education for his people, Christian education, not as a reaction against public school, but as a mandate from a perspective that insisted that everything on this wide earth was subject to God's rule. Both were, for better or for worse, driven by a sense of purpose they knew to be far larger than they were.

Both giants accomplished remarkable things, but both loved to laugh. On his deathbed, Manfred was still telling the stories that delighted him. Throughout his life, Haan was always one of few human beings big enough to do self-parody, a man who could pull laughs from the dourest of the dour by little more than mimicking himself. He once told me that if he could change anything about the way he'd always done things, he'd have long ago brought more humor to the pulpit because people need to laugh much more than they do.

The use of a phrase linked them too—“our people." They both said it. I don't know that anybody uses those words anymore, in the church especially, where good Christians suppose there’s some kind of virtue in being all things to all people, even when you’re not and they’re not. The Manfred/Haan era began, really, at the end of World War I, and ended, in substance, with Vietnam. In their later years, I suppose, they were both dinosaurs in a time when deconstruction makes us distrustful of the hidden agendas of their individual passions, and multi-culturalism has become such a halo that their proud tribalism is a blushing embarrassment.

But I learned from B. J., that being as strong and profound a believer as he was didn't mean for a minute you had to shun the world; in fact, it meant the opposite. And I learned from Fred that the people both of them loved, for all their eccentricities, were worthy subjects for lifelong exploration.

Years ago, when I first asked Fred to visit the Dordt campus, he said he wanted to see B.J., so between classroom lectures we headed to Haan's office. I was shaking a little, not knowing what Fred was going to say to the man who had not that long ago pulled the work of the renegade novelist from the college's library shelves in answer to protests from one or another zealous group; nor could I guess how Haan would react to Manfred. The fact is, I don't even remember what they talked about once Fred got there. What I'll never forget, however, is the way they hugged like old friends, two powerful human beings who knew and respected each other's stature and each other.

If you take the blacktop that runs west out of town toward the state line, you'll pass an old cottonwood that leans so far over the road that even in winter its branches seem a canopy. It grows dangerously close to the highway because the farmer who lived there when the county paved the road stood in front of that cottonwood with his shotgun in his arms, defiant. He wouldn't let them fell that tree.

Out here at least, trees aren't a dime a dozen. This was a world of grasses when the first white settlers came; every last tree is an immigrant. And don't get me wrong--the open sky is a blessing, a weatherman better than any on TV. But people around here love their trees for standing as they do between earth and sky; and when they go down, we hurt because we miss them.

Still, to some of us, twenty years after the death of those two giants, the grand openness of the prairie landscape seems just a bit more barren, a bit closer to the "Great American Desert" Zebulon Pike once called the region when he marched through on his way to the Rockies. This good earth, this good Iowa ground has swallowed two of our giants.
We miss them both a great deal.
This eulogy initially appeared in the Des Moines Register.


Ayn Rand said...

.................Joe McCarthy was RIGHT!.........

Joe Garcia (Dem. Fl.) said...

I'll 2nd that.

Anonymous said...

You meant "raising Cain" not "raising cane".