Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Uncertainty of Everyday Life

“Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain.” (“It is not certain that everything is uncertain”).  Blaise Pascal, “Pascal’s Pensees”
pickets during 1952 steel strike

“The Uncertainty of Everyday Life” was the title of my 1980s Shavings, but the phrase could apply to any time period, just like “Age of Anxiety,” my characterization of Postwar America.  For context to go with my talks to Steve McShane’s classes on the Calumet Region between 1945 and 1954, I’m collecting photos of a mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Redbaiter Joseph McCarthy, a polio victim, steelworkers on strike, the Peekskill (NY) riot, and a scene in “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).  Winner of seven Academy Awards, the film shed light on social problems that were a residue from WW II: alcoholism, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and marital discord, as evidenced by a record divorce rate.
above, scene from "The best years of Our Lives; below, Tony Gwynn

Baseball great Tony Gwynn died at age 54 of salivary gland cancer, brought on by using smokeless “chewing” tobacco during a 20-year career with the San Diego Padres.  The eight-time batting champion was a pure hitter with uncanny hand-eye coordination.

Bill Madden’s “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Baseball Forever,” contains an anecdote about the Brooklyn Dodgers, the only team with more than a token number of African-Americans (fully half were all-white).  In St. Louis white players stayed at the exclusive Chase Hotel while Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Jim Gilliam, Joe Black, and Sandy Amoros were taken across town to a hotel, without air conditioning or dining room.  Irate, Newcombe and Robinson went back to the Chase and demanded to stay there.  The manager relented when they agreed not to go swimming and use room service.  The following year, all the Dodgers stayed at the Chase, and ate in the dining room.
Michigan City butcher Pete Lange’s Old Fashioned Meat Market has a sign out front reading, “Our wurst is the best.”  The place reminded Manes of a small-town barbershop.  Post-Trib columnist Jeff Manes wrote: “Friends stop by to sit and chat.  He keeps a keg of beer behind his counter and serves frosty steins filled with the amber brew – gratis.”

The Spring 2014 issue of Traces deals entirely with New Harmony, whose bicentennial is in August.  German-born founder George Rapp came to America in 1804 and first established a communal settlement in Pennsylvania.  A Pietist who believed in the imminent Second Coming, Rapp urged his followers to be celibate.  In 1824 Rapp sold New Harmony to Welsh-born utopian industrialist Robert Owen and moved to western Pennsylvania.  Under Owen’s leadership New Harmony had a rich cultural vitality, but the socialist experiment proved to be an economic failure and Owen returned to Great Britain after just two years.  Son Robert Dale Owen returned to New Harmony in 1833, however, and became a distinguished social reformer, abolitionist, and political figure.  I was all set one year to visit New Harmony for an Indiana Association of Historians conference when a snowstorm foiled the plans.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has sponsored a bill authorizing post offices to provide such financial services as check cashing and bill paying.  In the first half of the twentieth century American post offices provided these services.  According to Brianna Tong, “Predatory check cashing and payday lending companies have been exploiting working class Americans for decades, by charging outrageous fees and triple digit interest rates.”

Lillian Faderman, author of “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America,” came out as a working-class lesbian in the 1950s, when the sight of police cars signaled trouble.  In Omaha, Nebraska, 30 years later, she discovered that the most popular LGBT bar was across from the police station.  Her 26 year-old escort told her, “We’re happy they’re there.  There’s a strip club not too far away, and those guys sometimes try to start trouble.  The police come to help us.  It’s a real comfort to have them so close.”  Similarly, Encompass Nightclub and Lounge, now closed, was near the Lake Station police station. Its website advertised a “get to know each other type of club” with dancing, drag contests, and a DJ Thursday through Sunday.  Anne Balay found LGBT steelworker contacts there.

James Watson’s “As I Knew Them” recalled an exchange on the House floor between New York Congressman Samuel Sullivan “Sunset” Cox and Joseph G. Cannon, who, wrote Watson, “could not make a speech without a gymnastic performance rarely equaled.”  When Cannon requested the privilege of interrupting his remarks, Cox replied: “I will yield to the gentleman from Illinois just so long as he will speak and keep his hands in his pockets.” Watson wrote: “Uncle Joe agreed and started in, but he had not uttered two dozen sentences when out came that inevitable left hand and shot in the air.  ‘Time’s up!’ shouted Mr. Cox, to the great delight of the House.”

Ray Smock reported that distinguished historian Gabriel Kolko passed away.  In my and Paul Kern’s history of IUN is this oral testimony from student David Malham: “My first day in Dr. Lane's class, I tried to impress him after class by mentioning a recent piece I had read by Gabriel Kolko.  Rather than show off his intellectual prowess, he answered my pretentious question by saying, 'Jeez, I don't know.  I didn't read that.'  It deflated me but in a way was perfect.  He absolutely didn't feel a need to show off his erudition, and I loved that about him.”  Some might ask, what erudition?

Hollis Donald gave Chancellor William Lowe a Father’s Day card signed by about 200 staff members and others.  Addressing the campus community, Lowe thanked all the colleagues who contributed to this extraordinarily thoughtful gift, with a special acknowledgement to Hollis, for his characteristic generosity of spirit.  A gesture like this reminds me of why I want to be at IU Northwest, and I will continue to do my very best to build a solid future for our students and all of the members of our campus community.”  Disappointed I didn’t have a chance to add my name, I emailed Lowe: “Hollis is definitely a keeper.  What a nice thing for him to have done.”  Lowe replied: “Hollis is, indeed, one of a kind.”  Erudite and slightly self-effacing, Lowe reminds me somewhat of former History colleague Jim Newman, a real gentleman who it was impossible not to like.  They were both tall and thin, genteel but not effete, and had similar mannerisms. Unlike IUN’s previous chancellor, Lowe appears not to hold grudges nor retaliate against critics.

In afternoon gaming I went zero for four, something son Dave needled me about. After pork chops, potatoes and onion, I watched the “Fargo” finale.  Was it bloody?  You betcha.  It finally hit me: the last name of Molly, the shrewd police officer, is Solverson.

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