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 31, 2017

"Strawberry Fields"--forever

In the cold of January, fifty-plus years ago, I sat in a car full of guys, my cased 16-gauge double-barrel in my hands, heading out to some woodland to hunt. Rabbits? fox?--I don't remember.

I have no idea who else was in the car, but we were somewhere north and west of town—that I know. It was mid-winter, and the DJ on WOKY, Milwaukee, 920 on your am dial, was doling out fair warning that a new 45 the station was about to spin--"in just a little while," "coming up soon," "don't touch that dial"--was turning the world stark, raving mad, a tune cut by a red hot foursome called, oddly enough, “The Beatles.”

In the backseat of some guy’s car, holding a shotgun is where I heard the Beatles, a tune titled "I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It’s a memory forever alive with any replay of that old headliner, or its flip side, “She Loves Me”--yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s amazing how music carries us places, isn’t it?

I missed the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night because we always went to church. But I was 16 in 1964, and I sure didn't miss group Brits called "the Bay-tils."

Today, fifty years ago, the Beatles released their epoch-making Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. That birthday puts me back in some kid’s car, listening to a tune the DJ claimed was going to change the world. His promo wasn’t miles off mark. Liverpool’s pride-and-joy created a sensation I bought into, even though my collection of Beatles albums is now (let me grab a Kleenex) long gone.

Just a year later I went with my parents to a rental cabin somewhere around Shawno, Wisconsin, the last time I’d ever go along. Not that far from that cabin, some girl—I know it was a girl because my imagination created her—cranked up the volume on her hi-fi and played, “I’ll Be Back Again,” often and loud enough to make a boy in a rental place just up the beach—me! —want to be a man. While my parents and their friends poked marshmallows at a campfire and sang “Trust and Obey,” I sat in the dark on the lakeshore, listening to that lilting Lennon melody and falling in love with a girl I never saw.

Just about exactly fifty years ago, while finishing my freshman year at Dordt College, I went to Palos Heights, Illinois, on a weekend, to visit a high school girlfriend who’d gone to Trinity Christian College when I went west to Iowa. On Saturday, I walked through an art show, where some Trinity kid used “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a backdrop for her work. Amid the paintings and drawings and sculptures, that sweet, tripping tune played over and over, most of the afternoon.

I was somewhat shocked to hear it, though I wouldn’t have told anyone, certainly not my girlfriend. Something was brewing on that campus unlike anything happening on ours, some force I thought took some delight in watching the consecrated piety of my youth disappear in a rear-view mirror. That some kid at Trinity could air tunes from an album smoking with references to dope seemed amazing. After all, that kind of worldliness couldn’t have happened at Dordt in 1967, wouldn’t have, not simply because the administration would have kept a lid on it, but because most kids of parents like mine considered the whole Sgt. Pepper album some kind of sinful hippie hymnal.

I don’t remember anyone’s drawings from that Trinity art fest, but when “Strawberry Fields” plays in my memory today—or “Penny Lane” “in my ears and my eyes”—I’m brought back to an art show for reasons I’d never unpacked Sergeant Pepper's birthday.

Sometime in the 90s, the denomination of which I am a part, asked me, neither a theologian nor a historian but a writer, to tell the story of the Christian Reformed Church. When I tried, I found it helpful to talk about separate wings of the denomination, pietists and Kuyperians, species of believers who lugged distinct perspectives (a useful old word) into the world God loves, at least if you pay heed to John 3:16.

Affix other names to those two lines of thinking if you’d like; after all, we’re talking about a task at which all of us work every day. Some who love a fortress mount an impenetrable defense; others come out the huddle and go long, even when they’re playing on Strawberry Fields.

That Trinity art fest comes back today, a half-century later because Sergeant Pepper created a forever image when we negotiate the dilemma of being “in, but not of.” What blew me away that day was not a girlfriend (the relationship died not long after), but my own first sense—I was 19--of significant differences about how believers approach life in the world.

For me at least, a child of the Sixties, memories haunt replays of the Beatles all-time greats. But until last week I’d never thought about why that Trinity moment plays so magically in my memory, why that particular spring afternoon appears when those tunes arise from that goofy, flowery cover.

By the way, did you know “Strawberry Fields” was Lennon’s all-time favorite? It was. I’m sure he had his reasons.

And I know mine. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Perilous Toilet-lessness

Okay, I joked about it. I'll admit it. When we moved out into the country, I used to tell people--only close friends--that moving out of town meant freedom because, if I so desired, I could take a leak in my own backyard. I could say that with a load of bravado an old man doesn't get to show, some downright Trumpian machismo. But it was a joke.

Sort of. Fact is, the old farm place we moved to five years ago had a small village's-worth of buildings with a hundred dark corners, not to mention massive cottonwoods any buffalo would have loved and the steep banks of an actual river. Seclusion abounded. Besides, the house stood a long driveway away from the gravel road out front, and a football field from the highway south. I mean, you could, if you needed to, take a leak in your backyard and not be seen. Believe me. 

Okay, I'll admit it. It happened, too. But then, getting old does nothing good to a person's plumbing. When you gotta go, you gotta gotta--you know? You'll be happy to know at least I was covert about it.

In Africa, not so. More than once while traveling down highways that I have to lie to call "difficult," the entire car emptied right there at the side of the road. It happened, me included. There we stood, a chorus line of tool men. And--trust me--we weren't alone. On any stretch of African highway, we passed men who weren't waiting around for the next Casey's General. There weren't any. If you gotta, you gotta. 

No country is as toilet-less as India, or so say people who count such things. In India whole populations regularly empty themselves wherever, whenever they feel the need. In response, women have taken to the streets, so to speak. Determined to make even more public what already was, they're beating drums and clanging cymbals when men gather at the side of the road to relieve themselves.  

It's just another form of discipline, something which stricken from enlightened societies, a form of discipline called "shaming." I mean, it's one thing to empty a bladder, another to be accompanied in the process by John Phillip Sousa.

The real purpose isn't to expose anyone--can I say it that way? The real purpose is to make clear that Indians have far too few toilets, period. In fact, India leads the world in toilet-less humans--500 million of them.

What Indian women want to make clear is that having few toilets just isn't healthy--especially for women and children. It's unhealthy not to pee often enough, after all. If the facilities aren't there or are only massively public, some simply hold it, a practice which, too often, imperils the plumbing, especially among women who are, for good reason, less inclined to go public. 

Anyway, a sudden attack on peeing men by women with cymbals sounds like a great gag--hilarious. But it's no joke. Women call it "Bathroom Justice," upper-case. 

In case you're wondering about me, That furtive, farm peeing is behind me. We're still out in the country, but we've got no trees. Anywhere on our acre, I'm shamefully public. So don't come around with makeshift drums and yelling untoward comments. I'm innocent.


After all, I'm now five years older.

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 painting is mislabeled is no one's fault, really. Somewhere along the line of ownership it was a slip of the tongue. That tongue-slip got typed up and inserted in the display--"the Battle," the note says, of "Twin Buttes."

There should be a "The Battle of Twin Buttes." It's a great title. You can almost see 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.

But there never was such a film or such a battle, not in the American west or in a Hollywood film can. There's only one "Battle of Twin Buttes," and that's a hide painting on the wall at the Sioux County Museum, Orange City, Iowa.

But the story that painting tells is not generic. After all, up in the right hand corner four cavalry are pouring lead down on a village. The Lakota would not have chosen to fight anywhere close to their women and children, so the drawing details a U. S. Calvary attack on a village.

Probably a surprise attack too, given that picket line--and regrettably, the women and children drawn in among the victims. Those rifles appear to be taking aim at an unarmed brave in a flowing headdress who stands in front of a woman and a child.

Here's my guess. This wonderful piece of Native American folk art tells the story of the Battle of Slim Buttes, a surprise attack on a camp that was not at war, a fight that took place way out in the northwest corner of South Dakota, a bloody engagement between the U.S. Cavalry and bands of Lakota the army called "hostiles," most of whom wanted 
only to go on living the way they always had.

Under the command of General George C. Crooke and an army just a few months before defeated at Little Big Horn, Captain Anson Mills, along with 150 troopers, ran into the village pictured on the hide, and, contrary to Crook's express orders, decided to attack.

Mills and his men were thirty miles from the General's half-wasted army, a haggard bunch 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 was close to fighting mutiny himself.

But Mills determined to bring down 40-some lodges of two Miniconjou leaders, American Horse and Red Horse. After Custer, no white man was in the mood for peace. 

Some who escaped the attack took to adjoining hills and found refuge in a gully. Twenty troopers volunteered to go down and get American Horse. And they did, "cursing and yelling," or so the story goes.

“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.” 

Eventually, American Horse surrendered, stood straight and tall, and walked out of that gully holding his intestines in his hands. He died soon after.

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

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

That's the story told by the hide on the wall of the Sioux County Museum. It's the Battle of Slim Buttes.

Honestly, the place is gorgeous today, just as it must have been in September of 1876. Alabaster buttes rise like winged ships from the horizon, above a prairie where "the deer and the antelope play"--and the pronghorn. Wildflowers down below carpet the grasses, and white pine stand tall as a tribute high atop the buttes. 

But the Slim Buttes are way, way off the beaten path. Just let me warn you. No one just stops by. Foot traffic is unheard of. You got to want to go. What happened there in 1876 is hardly a footnote. Besides, if you don't know the story, that old hide painting treasure will send you on a wild goose chase. You'll never get there. 

Maybe that's a shame. Then again, maybe not. After all, if you know the story, you can sit and watch and listen all by your lonesome. Who knows what you might still hear if you sit at the foot of those magnificent buttes? Who knows what they might just remember?

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.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sunday Morning Meds--A shocking end

But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.” 
Psalm 104:35

Whoever it was that wrote Psalm 104 didn’t have an MFA, didn’t study at a prestigious writing program with celebrated writers for teachers. How was he to know that introducing a whole new subject at the very end of the poem here is just simply not done?

He needed an editor badly. Someone should have told him what’s perfectly obvious—that taking a cheap shot at the wicked—(whoever that is)—at the end of this breathtaking survey of all creation is not only sophomoric but gauche. After all, “the wicked” are not at the heart of this poem, for pity’s sake; God’s providential hand in his beautiful, natural world is. That's what the poem is all about. 

In 35 verses of one of the most beautiful and comforting poems in the whole library of human literary achievement, there’s not one mention of “the wicked.” Not one. And then, here, in the last verse, with the poet's final breath, as if out of nowhere, the wicked come into the picture only to get thumped. If he wanted to explore “the wicked,” he should have pulled out another sheet of whatever it was he was writing on and started in on another song, don't you think? 

I’m a writing teacher. I know better. I edit papers, have for years. I know what works and what doesn’t. Listen. Isn’t this preferable?-- “But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more. Praise the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD.”

Cut the ending, sir. It comes out of nowhere, a sucker punch.

Scholars like Phillip Jenkins say uppity Christians like me--educated, acculturated, tasteful believers--will face some difficult adjustments someday when Christians from what we’ve traditionally called “third world” countries will outnumber us (they already do). One of those adjustments will arise from their wholly different life experiences, lives like that of Pastor Jwala in Madhya Pradesh state, India. 

Hindu extremists on Sunday beat four Christians, including a pastor, who were later arrested on charges of “forced conversion” in Madhya Pradesh state.
            A group of about 15 extremists punched and hit the Christians with hockey sticks soon after worship ended at about 10:30 a.m. After the initial attack, the extremists dragged the Christians to the Sheopur police station about 500 meters away, beating them en route. The police promptly arrested the Christians, as a complaint against them had already been filed.
            The officer in charge of the police station, Hukum Singh Yadav, also allegedly beat up Pastor Jwala at the facility. Yadav was not available for comment. 

Jenkins says that when those we’ve “missionaried” will come to the secular west to missionary us, we’ll have to recognize that the Pastor Jwalas among them have suffered at the hands of “the wicked.” The plain truth is, that which I can only imagine is as real as water to many believers around the world.

I need to understand that I want to cut the second-to-last line of Psalm 104 because—it’s true—I don’t know “the wicked” all that well, nor have I experienced their wickedness. My disregard makes the psalmist’s comment extraneous. Thus, I want to strike it.

But it’s likely that Pastor Jwala can’t imagine the blessed world of Psalm 104 unless that world is scoured of the God-haters who persecute him.

My prejudice is showing, as well as my naïvete. I am, after all, an American.

God’s word is so much bigger than I am, so wide and encompassing, so much broader, so much deeper, so much richer than the parameters of my small world. That's the truth.

Thank goodness it’s his Word, not mine.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What's there is telling

We visited Stratford-upon-Avon, of course, toured Shakespeare's house and watched the Royal Shakespeare Company perform Julius Caesar in the Royal Shakespearean Theater. I vaguely remember the grave of Jane Austin, but Piccadilly Circus is gone completely. We happened to visit Westminster Cathedral just at the moment the Latin mass was celebrated.

But for reasons I can't explain, nothing in jolly old England left as hearty an impression with me as the bombed-out hulk of Coventry Cathedral. For a moment, the Battle of Britain was more than a history lesson on grainy newsreel, more than an whole album of old black-and-whites.

There the cathedral stands, open air, a ruin that despite its shambles outperforms a dozen museums at telling unforgettable stories. At Coventry, I don't know that I ever felt closer to World War II.

But it's not just the war that halts speech. If you're born and reared in a church, a ruin seems especial sacrilege because you stand at the confluence of dreams on one hand--beside aspiring cathedral walls--and a nightmare on the other--the mess of brokenness all around.

Any church in ruin is a sepulchre. Even if no human being is buried beneath, when you stand inside broken walls, nothing but sky above, it's impossible not to say that something alive has gone. 

Some might consider it pretentious, maybe, for a tiny Kansas burg to let their old cathedral ruin stand, utterly disrobed, as if Greenbush, Kansas, were Coventry, England. It isn't.

Greenbush is less of a town than an an momentary interruption aboard endless Kansas prairie. Winston Churchill never visited St. Aloysius Church; no buzz bombs fell in the neighborhood, no Luftwaffe laid waste the limestone blocks church members had quarried from nearby Hickory Creek to build the place. It was lightning, a prairie storm, what insurance companies used to call "an act of God," that brought down St. Aloysius church, but there it stands, in ruin, yet not so, its silence still speaking.

And St. Aloysius has its own history. Legend has it that right there where those walls stand a Jesuit priest on his way to the Osage Mission just down the road hid under his saddle during an 1869 thunderstorm. The weather was so wild--in a pure Great Plains way--that Father Phillip Coalleton made a deal with God, lest he get struck himself by some errant bolt of fire. It was as if he were in foxhole, as, I suppose, he was. "Lord," he must have muttered, scared to death, "save me and I promise I'll build a church right here at this very spot."

So he did. The church was wood, and was silly really, there being no one within a day's walk, the whole neighborhood having been placed off limits to white settlement. But a promise is a promise, or so Father Phillip Colleton, S. J., determined, so he held up his end of the bargain. He built a place of worship. Nothing gaudy.  There were no frills in the foxhole contract. 

Ten years later, when the "Neutral Strip" set up as a barrier between white folks and the Osage tribe disappeared, European immigrants homesteaded the region and found, to their delight, a little church already there, the place Colleton owed God.

Even though Great Plains history includes nothing like the Battle of Britain, life in rural Kansas can be downright dangerous because in 1871 yet another storm brought down Colleton's little frame church. 

When the good folks of Greenbush looked at those ruins, they determined, in typical small-town fashion, that their next church would be bigger than any other in the county. So church members began mining limestone for a second church. A French stonemason did the exacting detail work, the rest of the community the heavy lifting. That church, the second, was dedicated in 1881. 

Stay with me here. That church is the one you can't help but note when you're on old Mission Road; that's the church in ruin, itself destroyed by yet another lightning storm, this one a century later in 1988.

That's the church that begs comparison with the cathedral at Coventry, England; and those are the ruins that sit ominously along Mission Road, ruins that somehow still inspire. Sometimes silence speaks, just as walls do. Sometimes what's not there is all you can see. Sometimes nothing is really something.

Take a walk in the ruins some time. They're not that big. There they stand, in the sun and amid the storms, on a lonely old Kansas highway to nowhere, where they will be sturdy and strong, for a long time.

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Image may contain: cloud, sky, outdoor and nature

"One killed in Parkersburg," the Des Moines Register says this morning, above the fold. 

For most of Iowa, the town of Parkersburg will, for a lifetime, be associated with tornadoes after a monster ripped out half the village in 2008, killing five while destroying almost 300 homes and 22 businesses with unimaginable winds of 230 miles per hour.

A decade later in Parkersburg, people mind storm warnings, I'm sure.

Yesterday, I didn't.

It was raining. It was cold. Wasn't particularly windy, wasn't tornado weather. Tornadoes rise from swamps, from massive afternoon heat and humidity so dank you can feel 'em before skies even threaten. Yesterday felt like jolly old England, Seattle on a good day. Tornadoes?--bah, humbug.

Which is why I didn't mind the warning, didn't turn around when my phone went perfectly berserk and told me TO SEEK SHELTER. I was in the car, my father-in-law beside me, a man whose hearing is so bad he never heard the phone's insane braying, didn't know a thing about tornadoes threatening, was thrilled to get out of the home for a ride in the country. 

We'd just left the home. Turning around would have been prudent, but bringing him back into a place just then going into tornado mode seemed even more disturbing--who knew what they'd do with all those old folks? He still doesn't feel at home there and was thrilled to get out for a ride. After all, the corn is up. There's things to see.

Besides, the skies looked brighter out west, so we left. Go ahead--tell me I'm irresponsible. Instinct told me it was the right thing to do. I know--Trump listens to instinct and look where it gets him.

When we got to Sioux Center, the road was almost dry--that's the truth. We stopped off at a friend's house to pick up some plants and found her out back, where she told me how great it was to garden in light rain. No problem.

Got back in the car, and the phone went blindly insane again. The skies had darkened by this time, and I was less sure of myself. My daughter called from some basement shelter on campus where, by directive, all employees were sitting out the warning. She let me have it--after all, I had grandpa along too yet. Go home, she told me. I was just a few blocks from her house. 

So we did. Grandpa and I sat out what remained of the tornado warning, watching the whole weather mess on a giant screen with my son-in-law and grandson. And the dog, Gus, who jumped up in Grandpa's lap and was thereafter greatly loved. Once the warnings died, we went home.

I don't know how much of all of that my father-in-law understood. He didn't hear my phone or my daughter. We tried to show him what the TV was showing, but I'm not sure he understands that close-up weather radar any more. 

But my word, he was proud as anything when the two of us marched back into the home.  "Out chasing tornadoes, eh, Randall?" one of the nurses said, and as big a smile as I've seen on his face spread cheek-to-cheek. For a moment there, I think he felt himself a man.

You're an idiot, my daughter would say, and she's probably right. My friends in Parkersburg would certainly call me a fool, and they wouldn't be wrong. So I'll repent. I should have turned around and brought my dad back into the home when my phone went bonkers. I know I should have.

Just the same, the truth is, we had fun. Just ask him. 

Did I mention? The corn is up.
Photo from Siouxland Severe Weather Network.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump fatigue

I suppose it's possible to think that the ship of state would right itself if we'd just let him be. If no one would say a thing about his blasting "sick" Obama for wiretapping him, about crowd size at his inauguration, about three or four million unregistered Clinton voters--if we simply shrugged our shoulders and said, "Well, that's our man," and went on with our lives. Maybe that's so. Maybe we just ought not watch or listen or read.

We could just give him a pass when he fires the head of the FBI, the man charged with looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election. We could just let that go and breath more easily.

But the irony is so rich: Gen. Michael Flynn, in serious trouble with the law, screaming "Lock her up!!" at the Republican convention; or Trump himself insisting, day after day, that Hillary willingly gave away national security secrets. I guess we could not care.

We're 120 days, give or take a few, into a Presidency that has just about killed off the rest of us, the spectators. The high drama is unending. For just about all of that time, surf's up on breaking news. We used to say that among the Republican candidates, Trump daily takes all the oxygen out of the room. Today, it's different. Today, he takes it out of the whole nation, the culture. I'm tired. We all are.

"At certain times Donald Trump has seemed like a budding authoritarian, a corrupt Nixon, a rabble-rousing populist or a big business corporatist," or so wrote David Brooks in yesterday's NY Times ("When the world is led by a child"). But Brooks rejects all those descriptions and calls up his own: "At base, Trump is an infantalist," he says, a little boy. "Immaturity is becoming the dominant note of his presidency, lack of self-control his leitmotif."

David Brooks, a conservative, is right about a ton of things, and once again he's on the money here. He's been reading the latest Presidential interviews, and what he finds is that, like a child, Trump can't hold on to a thought. Because he can't, he has great trouble getting hold of the complexity of the problems we face ("No one knew that health care was as complex as it is"--oh, really?).

Like a child, Brooks says, Trump creates a life from his famous falsehoods in order to live in a world he's fashioned for himself. He lies about just about everything. "I'm a very smart man," he says, perhaps to convince his audience, but just as definitively to remind himself of his being a very smart man.

He appears to have no idea how he's being read and lacks the ability to see himself as others see him. He simply assumed that Democrats would love his firing of FBI Director Comey, Brooks says, because of what Comey did to Hillary right before the election. That Democrats felt cheated in Octber is not at issue; that Dems would tolerate a President who cans his FBI chief under the circumstances the President finds himself in requires a level of smarts Brooks says is beyond boy Trump.

President Trump didn't give away national security secrets to the Russians because he is an agent of the Russian government. He did what he did because he was bragging. He lacks the self-control to restrain himself from his own worst tendencies. "There is perpetually less to Trump than it appears," Brooks says.

A friend of mine, a retired woodworker, told me he meets with a round table of other old bucks every Tuesday at a greasy spoon in some town near his home in central California. They get together to hammer out world issues over a cup of coffee. He says there are lefties and righties in the bunch, so for the last year their conversations haven't lacked ardor. Passions soar.

But lately, he says, the Trumpians aren't saying much. They're not dissing their man yet; they're not turning on him, but neither do they beat up any more on those who do. Their silence, he says, is telling.

For President, we have a man who is a child, David Brooks says. That's why no one knows what'll happen today. No one. Not even the President. And it's why the rest of us--supporters and not--are getting tired. It may not be a high paying job, but child care
 is dang hard work.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Of biblical proportions

This story begins in a South Dakota graveyard just outside a town that has, these days, far more ghosts than spirit. I was looking for a man's grave and surprised when I found it. The truth? --there are far more dead in that cemetery than alive in town.

But I need to say something about grasshoppers. During the summer of 1873, gadzillions swarmed up in a four-state swath. Alton, Iowa's first medical doctor, Dr. Gleysteen, thought to catch some winks in his garden one afternoon. When called for supper, he found himself amid a nightmare: "The grasshoppers had settled on my body three or four layers thick," he wrote. The garden was laid waste, he said: "After dinner, there was not a vestige of green left."

The Sioux City Journal told a Niobrara farmer’s story: "He heard a strange noise behind him, which sounded like an approaching hail storm, and upon looking around he was horrified in seeing a dense cloud of grasshoppers within a few rods of him." Just chilled him, the Journal says. "Even his old desire to be cremated after death forsook him completely, for he was sure he would be buried a mile deep under the swarm of flying locusts."

It's not every day you get to use the word denude, but today I can. Consider the numbers-- 12.5 trillion Rocky Mountain locusts—and it's not difficult to imagine the devastation. They loved onions so ferociously that by their bad breath, you could smell hoardes a'comin' before they settled in. Asparagas to zinnias, corn to tobacco, they ate it all, then feasted on fruit for desert. Right here in Siouxland, hoppers denuded the earth. That’s the truth.

They sucked the salt from sweaty pitchforks and hammer handles, gorged on saddle horns, devoured wash hung out to dry, then burped once or twice and went after what little was still there on people's backsides.

All that munching sounded like prairie fire. Grasshopper gangs stopped trains on their tracks. Seriously.

Farm families tried to drown 'em, burn 'em, and smoke 'em away. Nothing worked. In 1874, ag historians claim hoppers munched 50 million in crops, 75 percent "of that year's total farm product value."

When chickens feasted on 'em, they became inedible. Turkeys likewise. They came like manna. A little honey could have turned all those pioneers into John the Baptists.

The destruction they wreaked was biblical in proportions. Some thought the swarming cloud of locusts another round of Ten Plagues. Others thought it the end of the world.

Thousands of families went back east, many of whom had just arrived.

Now we can return to a country cemetery out west in South Dakota, the grave of a one-time pastor of an Orange City church, a man named Dominie Stadt, whose grave sin was simply writing home. The good pastor, who was reportedly not dynamite from the pulpit, described those denuding hoppers to folks back in Michigan, described them in all their horrors, described it so well that those letters made it back to the Netherlands.

Here's the rub. Henry Hospers, the godfather of the Dutch colony in Orange City, caught wind of the Reverend's wagging tongue. In 1873, Hospers was into real estate and banking--into building community, and not losing it. Mr. Henry Hospers didn't just wield clout among Orange City Hollanders: he was clout. Poor Pastor Stadt was a better writer than preacher. The man had let out news Hospers wanted secret.

Once Hospers warned him to stop leaking horrors, it didn't take long for Pastor Stadt to recognize greater opportunities in Dakota Territory. He took the next wagon train west. And that's why the Reverend John Stadt is buried a couple of hours from here in the open fields of Douglas County, South Dakota.

And why, this week, at Tulip Time, if you drive up Albany Avenue, Orange City, on your right, just east of downtown, you'll see a sign announcing this fine old house, right there in the center of things, a house that once belonged to the honorable Henry Hospers.

If you drive by, just remember that denuding plague of hungry hoppers.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Takin' time off

It's time for the two of us to take a little vacation, a visit with kids and a little confab of old writer friends. Be back in a week or so.

Monday, May 08, 2017

A view from the top

Min Bahadur Sherchan was 85 when he died on Saturday afternoon--heart attack, or so people guess, nary a medical facility anywhere close. But he died where he certainly wanted to be, or at least halfway there, at the base camp on his final climb up Everest.

Mr. Sherchan had mountain-climbing in his blood and, without a doubt, in his heart. He was challenging a record he'd lost not long ago when, at the age of 80, a Japanese octogenarian named Yuichiro Miura fought his way 30,000 feet up to the top of the mountain. Sherchan, who'd held the previous record at 76, wanted to own the record book once again. He won't.

The man was in fine shape, walking 16 to 18 kilometers daily, but the body--the human body--has finite resources, like it or not. The head of the local Sherpa climbing club admitted, ruefully, that Mr. Sherchan "was physically well, but was challenged by age."

Sweet understatement, I'm sure.

I don't know what to think Sherchan's death. It seems altogether too obvious that Sherchan was crazy, assuming he could assault Everest at an age when his friends were already buried in Nepalese ground--and just a week after "the Swiss Machine," a world-class, master climber named Ueli Steck, fell a couple of thousand feet to his death.

But maybe Min Bahadur Sherchan was a hero. After all, his GoFundMe page claimed he was climbing one more time to “spread world peace and preserve mankind." I don't know that his death will prompt ISIS to strike out boldly for peace, but his motives were dandy.

Once upon a time, a local octogenarian went down with a heart attack and died in a farm pond where he was fishing, alone. People found his body sometime later in the water.

My 97-year-old father-in-law, probably 85 himself back then, hurrmphed at the story, a bit of a giggle, or something close. No disrespect--that wasn't it. Clearly, it was too bad the man had departed.

But, Dad couldn't help saying that the old guy could have done worse, all by himself out there on a warm and sunny afternoon, hoping for a couple of chubby pan fish.

I won't speak for Mr. Sherchan's next of kin, who, amid their sorrow, are, at his moment, making plans for a funeral. I'm sure he will be missed.

But I can't help wonder if Min Bahadur Sherchan himself, going the way he did, half way up to the top of the world, Everest before him, isn't cracking a smile right now, so greatly blessed.