Saturday, September 27, 2014


“Far and wide as the eye can wander,
Heath and bog are everywhere,
Not a bird sings out to cheer us,
Oaks are standing, gaunt and bare.”
    “Peat Bog Soldiers,” Johann Esser and Wolfgang Langhoff
 Lane and Cohen

Thanks to a chapter by Ron Cohen from a forthcoming book on folk music during the 1930s, I became familiar with the antiwar anthem “Peat Bog Soldiers.”  Written in 1933 by prisoners in Börgenmoor, a Nazi camp holding a thousand Socialist and Communist internees, the song became popular during the Spanish Civil War.  Cohen also wrote about Aunt Molly Jackson, a Harlan County, Kentucky, midwife who sang about the desperate living conditions of coal mining families and later in “My Disgusted Blues” about poverty in New York City.  Then there was blind Emma Dusenbury, recorded by John Lomax, who lived in a log cabin in Arkansas and knew by heart hundreds of old Anglo-American ballads.  One called “Abraham’s Proclamation” ridiculed Lincoln’s freeing of slaves during the Civil War.
above, Aunt Molly Jackson; below, Emma Dusenbury, right

Ron Cohen gave himself the nickname “Sparky” when he hosted a folk music show at the Gary Career Center’s radio station.  Although he sometimes drives me crazy (Steve McShane looks upon us as like an old married couple), he’s been a faithful friend for 44 years since we started as young History professors at IUN on the very same day. An inveterate gossip, he’ll throw out an obscure name, pause, and ask, “You know who I’m talking about?”  However I answer, I’m in for a long story.  He also keeps me informed about mutual friends and acquaintances, such as folklore legend Izzy Young, historians Ray Mohl and Roberta Wollons, and former IUN athletic director Linda Anderson, as well as leftwing activists Jack Weinberg and Ruth Needleman.  Ron still attends scholarly conferences and chats with my fellow Marylanders David Goldfield and Donald Ritchie.
above, Izzy Young; below, Steve McShane

Ron and I both began researching Gary’s history soon after we arrived at IUN, in his case the school system under progressive educator William A. Wirt.  We did a pictorial history of Gary together, and he came up with the idea for the two accomplishments I’m most proud of academically, the Calumet Regional Archives and Steel Shavings magazine.  He is an enthusiastic reader and occasional fact checker of my blog.  With the exception of Stever, he is the one colleague who was 100 percent behind me in my support of Anne Balay’s case for tenure and promotion.  Ron continues to light fires under me, prodding me in my research and passing on reading material he’s done with, including Rick Perlstein’s “The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.”

“The Invisible Bridge” opens in January 1973, with POWs from North Vietnam’s “Hanoi Hilton” returning in what president Nixon hoped would be a moment of national unity if orchestrated properly.  On the other hand, treating the POWS, most of whom were pilots, as national heroes didn’t sit well with common soldiers often shunned upon their return from war or the families of the 55,000 casualties whose remains came back in body bags, sometimes containing drugs others were smuggling into the U.S.

Great efforts went into covering up the friction among the prisoners or between reunited husbands and wives, many who had gotten on with their lives in the many years since losing their husbands.  At Balboa Naval Hospital, one wife later recalled, “it was like the Spanish Inquisition.  Everyone asked how the wives had behaved.  I could hear beatings in some rooms.  A lot of women had been swinging.”  Alice Cronin explained that the social landscape had undergone a sea change between 1968 and 1973: “Mike married a very traditional wife.  Now my ideas and values have changed.  Cronin expressed the hope that Mike could accept the “shifting sexual mores, the whole thing about relationships not necessarily being wrong outside of marriage.  I know myself really well sexually, and he’s missed out on a good deal of that.”

Some POWs went with the flow of the times.  After his feminist wife divorced him, Galand Kramer invited his new girlfriend, Playboy centerfold Miki Garcia to a White House dinner party.  He first saw the body of Miss January 1973 among the stacks of magazine medical officers from Clark Air Base in the Philippines had left on the plane back to the United States.  Perlstein described the photo that caught Kramer’s attention, displaying “a diaphanously backlit halo of hair, glistening lips, extravagant eyelashes, and green glass beads playing peekaboo with [Garcia’s] ample left breast – and also a patch of pubic hair, an innovation Playboy had introduced one year earlier to compete with raunchier upstart Penthouse, to the delight of the surprised POWs.”

Arriving at Sparky’s house in Miller despite construction along County Line Road and Oak Avenue, we gossiped about the reaction to Mark Hoyer’s clever Faculty Org introduction of new Arts and Sciences faculty and the airing of Frederic Cousseau and Blandine Huk’s “My Name Is Gary” excerpt.   I admired the side yard that is Nancy’s pride and joy and picked up the liberal publications New York Review of Books and The Nation, as well as a copy of Rock Music Studies.  Ron is on the journal’s editorial board (listed next to the musician Marshall Crenshaw).  After writing two books on Gary schools, Ron gravitated into studying postwar leftwing politics and the history of American folk music, leading to books on Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and other members of the Almanac Singers.

In the October 2014 issue of Rock Music Studies are articles on the Beatles, album covers, Joy Division, Pussy Riot, and Southern Rock, but I preferred the book reviews.  One publication examining the lyrics of Don McLean’s “American Pie” asserts that “The Levee” was the nickname for a popular bar in McLean’s hometown of New Rochelle, New York.  The neighboring town was Rye; hence the line, “them old boys were drinking whiskey in Rye,” which many mistake for, “them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye.”  Speculation continues about who were the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” who “caught the last train for the coast, the day the music died.”  While I continue to think the reference is to Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, Ray Shuck, believing “American Pie” is a tribute to folk music, speculates that the trio were Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie - quite a stretch, to say the least.
above, Nancy Mangini; below, Pat Bankston

I chatted in IUN’s Little Redhawk Café with Pat Bankston about death and old age.  He was mourning the passing of Anatomy and Cell Biology professor Nancy Mangini; I described Happy Hour at Mirage Inn, my mother’s assisted living residence, and that a 101 year-old lady goes unassisted (except for a walker) to an Indiana casino every Friday.   Chuck Gallmeier and Tanice Foltz dropped by.  Tanice gave me a big hug, and I expressed delight at a chance to hug a good friend before turning and embracing Chuck.  Tanice is a good sport and laughed.

Fred McColly, checking out the IUN community garden, gave me two bell peppers and a half-dozen green beans.  Referring to a recent blog reference of mine, Fred informed me that President U,S. Grant nominated New York Senator Roscoe Conkling to be on the Supreme Court as a way to get the Stalwart leader out of his hair, but Conkling refused to accept the position and remained in the Senate.

I considered seeing “The Equalizer” because it stars Denzel Washington (with a shaved head) but heard it was very bloody.  I settled for “This Is Where I Leave You,” which deserved its bad reviews (given the lame poop and boob and boner jokes). I enjoyed Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, and especially Adam Driver from “Girls” as the wild kid brother. “Hanoi Jane” Fonda plays a narcissistic Jewish mother as broad comedy; Meryl Streep would have been a much better choice to personify a character type that deserves a certain respect.  The only two sympathetic characters, brain damaged old flames who never left home, had minor, undeveloped roles.  The best scene was a smoke-out with the three brothers after Jason finds two joints in his dead father’s coat.  The old man had intimacy problems; rather than hug or kiss his sons, the closest he’d come was touching foreheads.  At the end Jason touches foreheads with Adam, causing the younger brother to ask whether he was being ironic or sincere.

At Camelot Lanes to watch James bowl, Wednesday night rival Anthony Forbes asked if I’d be a sub in a Friday league.  I demurred, saying it took my hamstrings and knee at least a week to recover from a three-game series.  Dave left early to play a round of golf with Phil, down from Michigan.  That evening Dave’s family dropped in for games.  James won the dice game Perudo the first time he ever played.  Checking in on Sparky Cohen, I called while he was visiting with John Laue, a former Edgewater neighbor back for the weekend from California because of his fiftieth (Portage) high school reunion.  I suggested he write about it and send me a full report.

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