Tuesday, August 2, 2016


“Every writer creates his own precursors.  His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”  Jorge Luis Borges

Blind during the final three decades of his life, Argentinian writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) employed an existentialist perspective in tales that take flight into the realm of fantasy.  Struck by the absurdity of the Falklands War  between his country and Great Britain, in 1985 he wrote, “The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb.”
Peter MacLeod’s “Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham” examines the decisive Seven Years War battle for Quebec, which ended French rule in Canada and was a necessary precursor to the American Revolution, removing, as it did, the need for protection from the Mother Country and resulting in onerous taxes against which colonists rebelled.  MacLeod employs diaries and memoirs of numerous participants, including midshipman Ashley Bowen, who on July 15, 1759, aboard the HMS Pembroke told General James Wolfe, “I come from New England with a company of volunteers to serve His Majesty in the reduction of Canada.”  Born in 1728 in Marblehead, Massachusetts, 15 miles northeast of Boston, Bowen lost his mother when eleven.  His father, after marrying a rich widow who didn’t want him around, apprenticed young Ashley to a brutal sea captain who beat him several times daily with a cat o’ nine tails (a multi-tailed whip).  Over the years seaman Bowen traveled to England, South America and all over the North Atlantic.
 "Enema of the State" artwork

At Chesterton library I picked up Blink-182’s “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket” (2001) after reading a New Yorker article about the punk band.  Blink-182’s hit single “All the Small Things” on the 1999 album “Enema of the State” is one of the best songs of all time.  Reviewer Kelefa Sanneh called the follow-up CD “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket” “by turns peppy, sulky, and stupid – Blink-182 at its finest.”  The titles read like an ode to a bad relationship – “Happy Holidays, You Bastard,” “Story of a Lonely Guy,” “Give Me One Good Reason,” “Shut Up,” and “Please Take Me Home (Too Late It’s Gone).”  In “Stay Together for the Kids” is this wistful line: “What stupid poem could fix this home, I’d read it every day.”  While Green Day was the first enduring mainstream pop-punk band, something eluding the Ramones, 20 years ahead of their time, Sanneh claims that Blink-182 spawned more imitators than any band since Nirvana.  The reconstituted group’s new CD, “California,” is a hit, as is its single “Bored to Death.”

Ten years ago, SALT columnist Jeff Manes interviewed 93 year-old Lowell historian Richard Schmal, who described the town in his youth and the family’s Schmal Hotel:
  Lowellians had more public transportation in the 1920s than we have today.  Twice a day, you could take a Model T bus to Crown Point and hop on the streetcar to Gary, which was quite a shopping mecca.
  Chicagoans would ride the 10 o’clock train from the city to the Schmal Hotel for our chicken dinner on Sundays.  Huge platters of chicken and mashed potatoes piled high in big bowls were served family style.  We charged $1.  The hotel had a huge dining room.  Everybody sat at long tables.  After they’d eaten patrons would relax in the parlor or music room, then go back on the 4 o’clock train.  The city folk would take jugs of our sulphur water back with them.  They claimed Lowell had the same water they were accustomed to paying big money for when they took the Monon (Railroad) down to French Lick.
  The old-timers would congregate out in the sunshine where Nellie Jayne’s Café is located. They’d spin interesting yarns.  Some of them were Civil war veterans.

I like the designation Lowelians – kind of like “Orwellians.”  Schmal’s precursor, like mine, was Timothy H. Ball, a circuit-riding preacher and teacher who was Lake County’s first historian.  During the interview Schmal’s daughter Mary, decorating a Christmas tree, came across a small box with this note: “Ornaments from 1905.  First used in the Schmal Hotel.”  

In Renata Adler’s “Speedboat” Jen meets a middle-class African American whose son won a scholarship to Yale but dropped out in order to pursue a musical career.  In the mid-Sixties I gave up a full scholarship to Virginia Law School in order to pursue my dream of becoming a teacher.  My father’s pained reaction was compounded when my brother a month later quit Carnegie Tech and hitchhiked to California before drafted into the army. Vic later became reconciled to our decisions but died before I obtained my History PhD or my brother a law degree.

The Cubs won a three-game series against Seattle over the weekend. After a Cubs rout, game two featured three close plays at home plate in the late innings.  In the rubber match the Cubs rallied for three runs in the ninth to tie the score and won it in the twelfth when pitcher Jon Leister executed a perfect safety squeeze with two strikes to score Jason Haywood from third on yet another close play at the plate.  Five different Cubs played leftfield, including Travis Wood (between two stints on the mound), who made a spectacular catch against the wall.

Phil made a surprise visit as Dave, Tom and I were playing board games.  I finished tied with Tom in both Amun Re and St Petersburg only to lose both by the tiebreaker. While we battled in Acquire over supremacy in Festival and American stock, Phil and Dave wisely opted for the expensive companies, Imperial and Continental, and both finished ahead of us, with Phil prevailing.

Doug Ross of the NWI Times wrote about the 1916 election when two Hoosiers, Democrat Thomas R. Marshall and Republican Charles W. Fairbanks, were vice-presidential candidates.  In one of the closest contests in American history Woodrow Wilson won a second term by narrowly carrying California.  Marshall, Wilson’s running mate, became famous for saying, “What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar.”  When presiding over the Senate, the story goes, he sat impatiently while blowhard Kansas Senator Joseph Bristow began sentence after sentence with the phrase, “What this country needs . . .”  Ross wrote:
  After about 10 or 11 times of hearing that phrase, Marshall leaned over to Harry Rose, assistant secretary of the Senate, and said, “Bristow hasn’t hit it yet. What this country really needs is a good 5-cent cigar.”
After that incident gained him notoriety, Marshall told an Indianapolis newspaperman, “I have traveled lots of miles and probably had a million cigars sent to me since my remark about what this country needed. But it is still elusive.”

After reading my commentary on the Doug Ross column Ray Smock wrote:
  What this country needs is Cuban cigars, and it looks like we will finally get them!  My favorite Hoosier politician remains Eugene V. Debs. He got 3% of the presidential vote in 1920 while in jail. And nobody called him Crooked Gene.  Trump is so crazy that he is imploding before our very eyes. Why more Republicans are not abandoning him is an equally disturbing sign of insanity.

Pulitzer-Prize winning author David McCullough and distinguished documentarian Ken Burns have set up a Facebook page for historians to enumerate the dangers of Donald Trump becoming president.  McCullough has written: “So much that Donald Trump spouts is so vulgar and so far from the truth and mean-spirited. It is on that question of character especially that he does not measure up. He is unwise. He is plainly unprepared, unqualified and, it often seems, unhinged. How can we possibly put our future in the hands of such a man?”
 Jerry Davich (left) selfie with Jimbo, Anne Balay and Marilu Fanning

I met Post-Trib columnist Jerry Davich, “Steel Closet” author Anne Balay, and former truck driver Marilu Fanning for lunch at Flamingo’s.  Anne has interviewed more than 40 gay and transgender long-distance truckers, many at truck stops during required 34-hour layovers.  Questioning Anne about her findings, Davich frequently uttered “Gotcha” in response to her statements.  Earlier that day Davich had written about a 74 year-old woman who met her octogenarian third husband playing bingo at an assisted living facility.  I told him it was sobering to realize she had been my age.  Both Jerry and Anne expressed surprise that I was 74.  As others revealed their ages, we were all surprised that Marilu was 64. 
 Marilu Fanning when still Michael

Marilu seamlessly added anecdotes to Anne’s description of challenges facing transgender truckers.  Even though she transitioned a little more than ten years ago, she had been cross-dressing, albeit not openly, even while married with children and showed us a 1987 photo of her in a skirt flashing a sexy leg.  When Jerry took a selfie of us, she said she hoped her large arm was out of the photo.  She expressed envy of another m to f “tranny” who has a naturally feminine voice (not so for Marilu).  Unlike some LGBTQ’s she admired Kaitlyn Jenner despite her conservative politics. I recalled that when Diane Sawyer interviewed Jenner, some critics thought she dwelled too much on “plumbing” questions and sexual preferences. I asked Anne if lesbians are accepting of the growing number of those formerly in their ranks who are transitioning to men.  Anne put it this way: many of us who loved being with butch lesbians have no desire to be with a man.  Evodently at gay bars one is beginning to notice a disproportionate number of femme lesbians.

Before leaving Miller, I picked up flyers from Michael Chirich to distribute at IUN about the mid-September Lake Street Fest that will feature Wirt-Emerson’s 20-piece jazz ensemble, Asia’s Dance Factory performers and a host of other entertainers.   Ron Cohen loaned me Tom Piazza’s “My Cold War” (2003), about a historian’s attempt to come to grips with his family’s past.  Ron told me that IUN Fine Arts professor David Klamen has quit to take a position at UMass.  I told him that John Hmurovic donated numerous old East Chicago yearbooks to the Calumet Regional Archives and that fellow volunteer Maurice Yancy found a photo of his older brother Raleigh with the Paul Robeson Glee Club in a 1941 East Chicago Washington yearbook.
Raleigh Yancy, 2nd row, 3rd from left, with Paul Robeson Glee Club; below, Alissa and Josh apply for marriage license

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