Friday, August 28, 2015

Heroes and Villains


“There’s a lot of things wrong with this country, but one of the few things still right with it is that a man can steer clear of the organized bullshit if he really wants to. It’s a goddamned luxury, and if I were you, I’d take advantage of it while you can.”  Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976”

Jonathyne Briggs invited me to attend his seminar on “1968: Chicago and the World.”  After the Democratic National Convention some referred to that city as Czechago as a way of comparing police brutality towards protestors to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that ousted reformer Alexander Dubcek.  Jonathyne asked students whether they’ve been to Europe, and evidently none have; then he asked if I had gone overseas in the 1960s; the answer was no, except for Hawaii.  I very much admired the Peace Corps but stayed in school throughout the decade, working summers, in part to avoid the draft.  While those years for me were like an extended period of adolescence, most IUN students need to work while attending college and will still end up much more in debt than was the case with me.
 Fred Hampton
After Jon explained why college campuses were fertile nurseries of protest against various forms of authority, I used Tom Wolfe’s phrase “Probation Generation” to describe the police tactic of busting young people at demonstrations or caught smoking pot and then holding arrest records over their heads, saying that a second offense could result in lengthy jail time.  Briggs added that governmental Red Squads began infiltrating antiwar and Black Power organizations in order to sow dissension, assemble evidence to prosecute their leaders in court, and in some cases, especially in Chicago, assassinate them, as happened to 21 year-old Fred Hampton while asleep in his apartment.  At his funeral, attended by 5,000 people, Jesse Jackson said: “When Fred was shot in Chicago, black people in particular, and decent people in general, bled everywhere.”
Amelia Boyton Robinson as young woman and in 2015 holding Obama's hand
Amelia Boynton Robinson passed away at age 104.  A leader in the Dallas County Voters League, she was gassed and beaten at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965.  Praising her dedication, courage and indomitable spirit, President Obama said: To honor the legacy of an American hero like Amelia Boynton requires only that we follow her example – that all of us fight to protect everyone’s right to vote.”

Next Wednesday in Nicole Anslover’s class I’ll talk about the 1945 Froebel School Strike.  During the World War II Gary’s black population rapidly increased, but the city remained thoroughly segregated in terms of housing patterns and public places.  The only school not segregated was Froebel, the so-called “immigrant school,” but even there African Americans were treated as second-class citizens.  After the 1943 Detroit Race Riot Gary civic leaders feared the same thing could happen in their city unless race-relations.  Froebel principal Richard Nuzum made attempts to end some of the humiliating practices, which produced a white backlash.  On September 15 a fight erupted at a football game between Horace Mann and Froebel, during which some of Froebel’s white students were called “nigger lovers.”  Angry that their school was treated differently than all-white Horace Mann, the following week several hundred white Froebel students boycotted classes, demanding that African Americans be transferred elsewhere and that Principal Nuzum be fired.  When they failed to get their way, a strike ensued. 
In the midst of this crisis, members of a liberal group called the Anselm Forum invited crooner Frank Sinatra to participate in a Tolerance Concert at Memorial Auditorium.  Cancelling a $10,000 gig, Sinatra came and from the stage declared that the strike was “the most shameful incident in the history of American education.”  He blamed prejudiced parents for fomenting the trouble and sang “The House I Live In,” which included the line, “All races and religions - that’s America to me.”  Ten days later the boycott officially ended.  The following January, when a second strike threatened, Urban League director Joseph Chapman got black and white student leaders together, and they agreed that all Gary schools should be treated the same.  Subsequently the school board passed a neighborhood school policy that ended official segregation at other schools although its effect was negligible because of segregated housing patterns.

I’ll intersperse my talk with quotes from Froebel grad Garrett Cope, strike leader Leonard Levenda, Tolerance Concert attendee Lois Mollick, and Urban league director Joseph Chapman.  Then after students read reminiscences from people interviewed for my Postwar Steel Shavings, if time permits I’ll tell the class about two Gary Roosevelt grads, IU football star George Taliaferro and Vee-Jay records founder Vivian Carter.

With the steel industry contract expiring on September 1, Chesterton Tribune reporter Kevin Nevers outlined the four possible immediate consequences if labor and management cannot come to terms: the union and company could agree to extend the contract while bargaining continues; the union could strike; it could work without a contract; or the company could implement a lockout.”  If negotiations fail, the union is planning a “massive solidarity event” on September 1 at Local 6787 headquarters.  In a press release the United Steelworkers declared:
  This is a challenging time for us and our families.  The uncertainty of the bargaining process, especially in the face of concessionary proposals from ArcelorMittal, can be incredibly stressful. But our union has faced serious fights throughout our history and we’ve always fought back. We have won by standing together, supporting each other, and remaining disciplined.
Anne Balay shared Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” about someone finding solace by walking among nature at night.  The poem concludes:
         I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.  For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Berry is author of “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture” (1996), a critique of agribusiness replacing family farming and the subsequent destruction of nature by forces interested first and foremost in profits rather than the good health of the land.  As Berry poetically put it: The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
above, Jerry Davich and Karen Barluga Walker selfie; below, Eve Bottando
Plugging his “Casual Fridays show with guest Eve Bottando, who is teaching about selfies in an IUN “Mass Communication and Culture” class Jerry Davich asked: Why do we take silly or embarrassing selfies such as this one? What does our pose or backdrop or props say about our personality? And what does this phenomenon say about our society's pop culture these days?”  On the show Eve revealed she grew up in Gary’s Glen Ryan subdivision and compared selfies to artists’ portraiture.  On the first day of class she had students identify themselves using selfies.  Young are more inclined to take selfies in groups with friends, she said, than alone as a way of self-identification.  She is not the first professor to offer such a course, and it gives her a way to discuss legal and ethical issues of mass communication in a way interesting and relevant to students.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Blasts from the Past


“Be as a tower firmly set; shakes not its top for any blast the blows.” Dante Alighieri
1955 Standard Oil Refinery Explosion

Recent explosions in the Chinese port city of Tianjin and on a U.S. base in Sagamihara, Japan, conjure up memories of the Standard Oil refinery explosion that occurred in Whiting 60 years ago in the early morning of August 27, 1955.  One resident described it as “the end of the world.”  Some thought a nuclear bomb had caused the blast.  A black mushroom cloud 8,000 feet in the air obscured the sun and was visible for 30 miles.  A 252-foot hydroformer blew up, resulting in a fiery inferno that, according to the Chicago Tribune, caused steel oil storage tanks to melt “like ice cream cones as flames licked at their rivets and plates.”  Some 67 storage tanks were destroyed, train tracks curled like limp spaghetti noodles, and fires raged for more than a week. Pieces of flying steel and concrete leveled nearby structures and forced residents to evacuate the area.  A chunk of steel weighing 180 tons flattened a house and grocery two blocks away.  Amazingly, only two people died, a refinery foreman heart attack victim and a three year-old hit by a 10-footsteel pipe that came through the roof where he lived.  The boy’s older brother had a leg severed and his father suffered serious injury.  Archives volunteer John Hmurovic (below) has produced a 30-minute film about the traumatic event entitled, “One Minute After Sunrise.”
NWI Times photo by John J. Watkins
Though Standard Oil’s use of the name Amoco began in the mid-1920s, it was not until after the 1955 explosion that the Whiting facility became known as the Amoco refinery.  In 1998 Amoco merged with British Petroleum, and within three years all service stations used the name BP. 

William Buckley referenced the Amoco refinery in “Lake Michigan”:

I keep running to this lake,
to walk the long shore,
to listen to ships,
and I can’t help thinking of beams,

riveted with words,
verbs for a frame
of certitude.

Chicago sways in steel
the way the brain rocks in dreams,
and in all those Gothic rooms

where prayers are said,
the dark bells still announce
the deliveries, the payments,
the profits.

I work in this lake-light,
riveting words
before they are spoken.

Today,
I look out over the cobalt blue waters
and write
under the lights of the Amoco refinery,

and I ask if I am entitled to love
in these winds, that shake steel.


Lake Michigan, a profound force of nature, has made a major impact on the people of Northwest Indiana.  It was an essential ingredient in the coming of heavy industry to the Calumet Region.  How different the lakefront might look had not these industrial giants located on its southern shores.  Still, if the mills shut down, due more to foreign dumping that excessive labor costs, the economic impact would be enormous.
 BP Plant: NWI Times photo by Jon L. Hendricks

Until restarted on August 24, BP’s crude distillation unit had been off-line for weeks, triggering a steep hike in gas prices at the pumps despite the overall drop in oil prices.  Illinois and Michigan public officials have called for an investigation into whether BP was involved in a price-gouging scheme.  No word yet from pro-business Republican officials in Indiana – and none expected.
 Terry Rosendaul and daughter Alexia at Gary rally; NWI Times photo by John J. Watkins

Attending a rally near Gary City Hall, Chesterton Tribune ace correspondent Kevin Nevers interviewed Rob Popplewell. For each steelworker job lost, the Local 1066 Grievance Committee Chairman stated, a half dozen others will be imperiled, not to mention area merchants whose customers include steelworkers.  Signs reading, “Treat Us Fair, Mario,” referenced U.S. Steel CEO Mario Longhi, who had his yearly compensation doubled to over 13 million dollars while the corporation was demanding work force concessions.  Nevers contrasted the dire present situation with 1959 when after a 116-day strike steelworkers received cost-of-living increases plus improved health and pension benefits.  Nevers included an excerpt from Dave Alvin song “Gary, Indiana 1959.”  Here is the full version:
I'm old, weak and grey and I'm running out of time

Yeah, but you should have seen me, brother,
when I was young and in my prime
Back in Gary, Indiana in 1959

I was a steel working man with 2 kids and loving wife
And the Union was strong, smokestacks burning day and night
Back in Gary, Indiana in 1959

But then the accountants and lawyers and bosses at U.S. Steel
Sent down the word that we had to take their rotten deal
But from Birmingham to Pueblo, Oakland to Allentown
The workers got together and we shut the Big Boys down,
The President and Supreme Court tried to force us off the line
Back in Gary, Indiana in 1959

Now the years have disappeared in the blink of an eye
And I feel like a stranger in a world that isn't mine
My dear wife died, my kids all moved away
'Cause there's nothing round here to make them want to stay
'Cause the factories are in ruins, decent jobs are hard to find
And you can't get ahead no matter how hard you try
'Cause the Big Boys make the rules, tough luck for everyone else
And out on the streets, brother, it's every man for himself
But I still remember when we marched side by side
Back in Gary, Indiana in 1959

Don't bury my body, brother, when it's my time to die
Just throw me in that smelter and let my ashes fly
Back home to Gary, Indiana in 1959

Jeopardy contestants were asked to name the first asteroid belt dwarf planet observed by spacecraft.  One guy wrongly said Pluto, and an opponent exclaimed, “I was going to say that.”  The correct answer: Ceres.

In the mid-1950s the word “blast” was similar to today’s ubiquitous “awesome” and reflected an awareness of nuclear blasts producing noxious mushroom clouds similar to what Whiting residents gaped experienced at dawn on August 27, 1955.  Timeless musical blasts from the mid-50s past include Maybelline” (Chuck Berry), “Ain’t That a Shame” (Fats Domino), “Tutti-Fruttie” (Little Richard), and most tellingly, “Sh-Boom” by the Chords.  In an essay on Cold War pop music, Russell Reising explained:
Most lines in “Sh-Boom” conclude with the singing of the explosion sound of “sh-boom,” suggesting that this love song gets sung in the midst of a hard nuclear rain falling on humanity. Given this scenario and in “Sh-Boom’s” hopeful “hopin' we'll meet again” line, the song actually, and very strangely, anticipates the horrifyingly ironic conclusion to Dr. Strangelove. In that film's final orgy of destruction, we witness scores of hydrogen bombs exploding, signaling the complete destruction of the world to the soundtrack tune of “We'll Meet Again Some Sunny Day.” These utopian impulses, of course, get vaporized with every man, woman, child, tree, animal, and building in the world.
Aetna Powder Co. boarding house, circa 1890s

For 4 decades beginning in 1881 Aetna Powder Company experienced periodic explosions that endangered employees and neighboring communities.  One blast involving 3,000 pounds of nitroglycerin could be heard 120 miles away in Fort Wayne.  Another in 1912 killed eight, and a 1914 blast shattered windows in downtown Gary.  With the Steel City’s population rapidly growing, the plant was deemed a menace and demand for its product decreased.  Shortly after he end of World War I, owners gave way to suburban developers.
Nicole Anslover talked about President Harry Truman being relatively unknown at the time of FDR’s death even though in 1943 when Senator he had made the cover of Time.  I noted that Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, ranking Democrat on the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, recently declared to Bill Maher that her predecessor saved the country billions of dollars preventing waste and war profiteering by the military-industrial complex during World War II.  That’s why “Investigator Truman” was on Time’s cover, Nicole responded.

At Cressmoor Lanes I cleaned out my locker and turned in the key.  Owner Jim Fowble asked if I wanted to substitute Wednesday evenings, and I suggested former Engineers teammate Melvin Nelson, who didn’t want to switch to an afternoon league.