Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Lost and Abandoned America

In 1988, I drove across country as a last burst of freedom before starting my first full time adult job. My goal for the trip was to find a lost family house that belonged to my great grandparents in Pasadena, California. Lost and abandoned became one of the themes of the trip. Some things lost because decisions were made to destroy them and others simply abandoned.

1. Lost America: From the Mississippi to the Pacific, Constance M. Grieff (1974).  During my cross country drive, I stopped in Albuquerque, NM to look for its train station and the Alvarado Hotel. It was one of the country's greatest railroad stations along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe route from Chicago to Los Angeles.  Built in a "Pueblo" style style, it included landscaped courtyards and shopping arcades. True to the words of Joni Mitchell's song, it was demolished and paved over for a parking lot. I read this much later in Grieff's book. Inherited from my mother.


2. Lost America: From the Atlantic to the Mississippi, Constance Grieff (1971).  The first of the two Lost America books by Grieff.  Maybe the most notorious loss of all losses is the destruction of New York's stately Penn Station; cut up in pieces and unceremoniously dumped in the New Jersey Meadowlands like the unfortunate victim of gangland crime. Inherited from my mother.

3. Abandonings: Photographs of Otter Tail County, Minnesota, Maxwell MacKenzie (1995).  Who wouldn't want to visit a place called "Otter Tail County"? Named for the Chippewa who saw a likeness of an otter tail's shape in the river and lake. Maxwell preserves the images of the county located on the edge of the Great Plains in Minnesota's western half in beautiful color photo taken in summer, fall, winter and spring. Bought used but no longer remember where.

4.  Lost Sandusky, M. Christina Smith (2015). Part of the History Press's "Lost" series of books on cities and places. Smith captures the lost business, hotels, transportation, wineries and breweries through concise descriptions accompanied by black and white photos. Lost Sandusky is on my shelf because its where I have roots. I've heard stories of many of the places included from my mother and grandmother.  Bought new online.

5. The Barn: Vanishing Landmark in North America, Eric Arthur and Dudley Witney (1972).  The sight of a red barn evokes a familiar Midwest feeling of home. But there's much more to the eye. Dutch Barns, English Barns, Pennyslvania Bar, and Circular and Polygonal Barns--all types of barns you'll learn to distinguish but all barns that are disappearing from North America.  Extensive colorful pictures illustrating the styles of barn. Inherited from my mother. 

6. Preserving the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, Elaine Freed (1992).  Historical review of former forts, sod houses, churches, farmhouses, ghost towns as well as preserved structures still in use. Bought new through a mail order book catalogue in the days before the internet.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Born in a Small Town


Gale Stockwell, Parkville, Main Street, 1933, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Historically...small-town America has been an underground reservoir of values for the larger nation, sending out its foods, its ambitious youths, its family values and its fad-free common sense attitude to the larger nation.  The underlying and ominous warning is that the inevitable reservoir of values, like the aquifers beneath many of the cities, is being rapidly fouled and sucked dry by a larger society that may soon find, to its uncomprehending surprise and distaste, nothing of value coming up from the straw.

        ---Ron Powers, 1991

I'm a sucker for books and poems about small town life. I grew up in and around a medium and small town in northern Ohio and the longer I'm away, the more of a tug I feel toward the memories and familiarity of those places. It's ironic having lived in the Washington, DC area longer than Ohio but the earliest formative memories maybe the most powerful. There's a mix of nostalgia, melancholy, and rootedness. Here's my mix of books that profile the importance of America's small towns. 

 1.  Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind, Grace Olmstead (2021).  I saw this reviewed as a new release and went out and bought it in a real live bookstore the day it came out. This is next on my reading stack. The author's story of growing up in Emmett, Idaho and relocating to Washington, DC, had immediate appeal. Olmstead asks where can you find rootedness?


2. Far From Home: Life and Loss in Two American Small Towns, Ron Powers (1991). Powers is Pulitzer Prize winning author who returns to his hometown of Cairo, Illinois in the 1980s and looks at the town's abiility to recover from racial strife in the 1960s. He compares its experience with the affluent Kent, Connecticut that is transforming into a different direction with exurban weekenders dislocating local traditions. I read a NYT book review on this in 1991 and wrote down the quote above but never bought the book. Finally bought from a thrift bookstore online.

 3. As a City Upon a Hill: The Town in American History, Page Smith (1966).   The title inspired by scripture from the Bible used by Jonathan Winthrop speaking to the Massachusetts Bay colonists. Published by MIT Press, the author places the American town as a foundation for community creating a common good for the country.  Bought used at the State Department book store.


 4.  Ohio Town: A Portrait of Xenia, Helen Hooven Santmyer (1962). Santmyer grew up in Xenia and went away to school at Wellesley and Oxford and worked for a time in New York City for a Scribners. Her recollection of Xenia is considered a superb blend of hisotry and memoir of a small town. Bought used online.  (Included in another list about Ohio.)



5.  Lowell, Lisa Barker Plank with the Lowell Area Historical Museum (2010).  I'm exercising some personal bias by adding this one. Lowell, Michigan was my father's hometown. We used to visit during summers on our way up to northern Michigan. it seemed to be a composite of real and fictionalized American small towns: Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Thornton Wilder’s Grover’s Corners and Ray Bradbury’s Green Town. I could imagine boys with sticks rolling hoops down the main street or whitewashing fences in bare feet and girls jumping rope singing, songs in cadence to the smack of the rope. Bought online.


6. Our Town, Thornton Wilder (1938). The Pulitzer Prize winning drama of life in the village of Grover's Corners. It remains one of the most performed American plays. Grover's Corners seems an emblematic representation of a small town and for that reason I made an exception and included a work of fiction. Bought from a thrift store online.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Hard Hat in the Information Age


Originally posted March 2020; reposting as the link seems to have broken.

I’m in my late 50s and in the last four years have lost both my parents. Sorting through their personal artifacts, there are some I keep for the stories they tell.  

One is a hard hat from Vulcan Materials Company that belonged to my father. It’s white with a ridge down the top center like the spine of a reptile or the midsagittal crest of a great ape. It has short brim at the front with a sticker above reading Vulcan Materials Company with the tag line underneath, "Think Safety" underneath.  The sticker is in the company’s colors navy and deep gold with a logo that looks like two chevron-like shapes, one inverted above the other.  At the end of his life, my father kept the hard hat in the trunk of his car, a gray Ford Crown Victoria. He would have last worn it in a work capacity in the mid-1980s before the company sold off its metals division where he worked for as the Business Director. This included logistics and on-site supply chain reviews, entering plants and foundries across the country and the hard hat is what he would have worn.

The hat became of a symbol of post WWII America. He served as a US Navy Corpsman at the end of WWII and when he graduated Wayne State University on the GI Bill, he went to work as a salesman for the company’s predecessor, Aluminum-Magnesium, in my hometown of Sandusky, Ohio. The company smelted aluminum and other light metals selling them to manufacturing companies across the Midwest to be forged into aircraft parts, engine blocks, lawn mowers, and light industrial products. As a salesman, he traveling to mid-sized cities with flinty sounding names like Benton Harbor, Gary, Ft. Wayne, Union City, Milwaukee, Jackson, Toledo, and Muncie.

My freshman year in high school, my father gave me a tour of the Sandusky foundry wearing the hat and hard-plastic safety googles. I had to be outfitted with the same. He seemed to take on more business-like air of authority talking about the temperatures of the metals, operation of the furnace, and equipment needed to protect the men working in such hazardous conditions. He raised his voice to a dull yell to be heard over the din of the furnaces smelting aluminum to over 1,300 degrees. My father introduced me to one of the foreman, Mr. Cooper, an African-American man massively built like a defensive end. Mr. Cooper was overseeing a pour of molten ingot molds.

The summer after my freshman year in college, my father arranged a summer job for me doing unskilled tasks in the plant. I wore my own hard hat, steel-toed shoes. Decades later, my memory still tingles when I recall the heat and grit working in the foundry. The experience has stayed with me giving me a respect for the hard work of the manufacturing things.  

My father had a theory at the end of his life, at beginning of what we call “the Information Age." He believed American companies that manufacture tangible things should be given tax breaks.  He felt the country had lost its ability to manufacture material goods like cars or machinery. It’s understandable that he saw the greatness in the manufacture of tangible things he could see every day. Manufacturing had given him a job and provided for a family.  

In 1986, the company sold off the metals division because it was no longer profitable, competing with cheaper metal in an ever globalized world, and he was forced into early retirement.  My father held onto his hard hat keeping it in the truck of his Crown Victoria. He would have been nearly the same age I am as I write this—his late 50s. That’s a challenging time to get hired again — you’re too old and too expensive.  He moved into seasonal work as a tax preparer, working for the next 25 years for H&R Block. He enjoyed the tax work and never looked back.

In the 1990s the Sandusky plant was sold off, demolished and the land reclaimed to become a city park.

Today, I work as a lawyer as part of the Information Age economy looking at laws and regulations that affect data.  Despite the fact he was grounded in the manufacturing age, he had a strong grasp of what I did and was proud of it.  Still, I have this hard hat.  He told me to keep it. The hat sits in my workshop should I ever need it to make something tangible.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Doggeral House Cleaning

Every few months, I have to sweep up the doggerel from the left side of my notebooks and put it out on the street for pick up. 

Tyrant Times

Stalin’s poetry
makes for a sad science
and sirens in the distance

Excuse me, are these two related?

On the trek
he ran amok

This golden ager
had golden anger

Rated D

Defiant deviant's defacement denuded damsels


Match Making Challenge

Love tyrant
hermit fanatic
oh what a ride

Fall Ride

November sun
reveals ancient ground

On the drive home
shadow bars
picket my path

English Mystery Solved?

Alice in Wonderland listened to the Walrus
John Lennon admitted later, in song,
that it was Paul.

Not that Bard College

I enrolled in Shakespeare’s School of Night

The psychiatrist and the sculptor faced off: 

Mental nudity vs. metal nudity

Baby's First Poetic Rhyme Scheme

What Ed said
Was in Ted’s head
and what Ned read.

Writing Prompt: Father Time and Mother Nature on a blind date

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Bohemians, Beats, Hippies and Punks

(Updated from 2013 Post)

The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground.
     --Frank Zappa

So every generation has got to tear down the old and rebel with the new--creative destruction to borrow a term from the economists.  I'm especially fascinated by the art and music scene of Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Here's a short list of some books on my shelf on the life of the cultural underground with a heavy slant on New York.

1.  Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell (1933).  Before his success as a writer, Orwell lived in near-poverty working as dishwasher and other menial jobs.  This Mostly autobiographical, part novel, Orwell's life among the bottom rung of Bohemians in the early 1930s.  Bought new.




2.  Down and In: Life in the Underground, Ronald Sukenick (1987).   Sukenick tells the history of Greenwich Village and how this small part of Manhattan became the center of artistic life for Hipsters, Beatniks, Hippies and Punks.  Sukenick writes about some of the darker, more sinister aspects of the Village. Maps with landmarks and black and white pictures.  Bought new on a remainder rack.

3.  Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties, Robert Stone (2007).   Before novelist Robert Stone gained success as the author of Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers and later books, he lived the life of a gypsy in the 1960s.  Stone was friends with Ken Kesey and witness to his rise and fall with the merry pranksters.  Good stories and no shortage of drugs.  Bought new.

4.  Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man, Jessica Bruder (2007).  Burning man is an extravaganza of creative, independent revelry set in the middle of Nevada's Black Rock Desert.  Bruder's book is full of color pictures on every page giving an account of how Burning Man started and illustrating what it had become.  Christmas gift from a cousin in lieu of our commitment to leave our families and attend the actual event.  











5. When Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard (1993).  Brooklyn born and raised, Broyard went off to WWII and returned to move into Greenwich Village in 1946 and started university on the GI Bill. His adventures with the post-war avant garde, romance, pycho-analysis, and running a second hand bookstore.  Bought new at Barnes and Noble.  










6. Great Demon Kings: A Memoir of Poetry, Sex, Art, Death, and Enlightenment, John Giorno (2020).  A memoir of living in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Giorno made a name for himself as an artist and was intimately involved with Andy Warhol and other artists of the Abstract Expressionist movement. (As of this entry, I'm waiting for the book to arrive; ordered online from Mac's Back Bookstore in Cleveland). Part of my on-going fascination with New York's art scene in the 1950s and 60s. 


Sunday, December 13, 2020

Old but Not Dead: Vintage Textbooks

Earlier I looked at vintage tour guides. Today, it's vintage textbooks. The small sample I have, I treasure. They're an example of newer isn't always better. Comparing these books of the late 1890s and early 1900s to my textbooks of the 70s and 80s I would take these. They've not only stood the test of time as well-organized, written in concise, plain English, and they even look good on your bookshelves. What stands out is that these books were also sturdy--hard covers and bindings that still hold together and must have been made for durability knowing the treatment they'd be getting from student wear and tear.

Of my four books, two were published by The American Book Company (ABC), an educational book publisher that specialized in elementary school, secondary school, and collegiate-level textbooks. They were best known for publishing the McGuffey Readers, which sold 120 million copies between 1836 and 1960.  The other two books were published by their main competitor, Macmillan Publishing, an offshoot of the Macmillan UK publisher.

1. A History of English Literature by William Allan Neilson and Ashley Horace Thorndike (Macmillan Company 1923). 
With a name like Ashlely Horace Thorndike, your destiny to is write such a history. This book, now nearly 100 years old, was owned by David H. Popper of "Shepherd 12". Some of the pages are filled with Mr. Popper's pen and ink notes. A thoughtful balance of illustrations, chronological tables,  portraits, and excerpts. Purchased for $1 but can't remember where.

2. Myths of Greece and Rome by H.A. Guerber (American Book
Company 1893).
Being Victorians there is some good commentary occasionally mixed in with the history. A favorite example, Erebus (Darkness) first act was to dethrone and supplant Chaos and then, thinking he would be happier with a helpmeet, he married his own mother Nyx. Of course with our present views this marriage was a heinous sin; but the ancients, who it first had no fix laws, did not consider this union unsuitable... .  Excellent illustrations with text supported by quotes from poets and scholars through the ages. Bought for $2, likely from the State Department Bookstore. 


3. Carpenter's Geographical Reader: Asia by Frank G Carpenter (American Book Company 1897)
. Part of a series, I only have this one, this looks like it spent some time on classroom shelves with the battle scars to prove yet still holding together. It looks like it was sold and resold ffor .25 cents, .15 cents, then I bought it somewhere for $1. 

4. The History of Greek Art by F.B. Tarbell (McMillan company
The book follows the style of Macmillan being well organized and illustrated. Solid with navy blue binding. Bought used for $4 somewhere. 

5. A School History of the Great War, McKinley, Coulumb and Gerson  (American Book Company, 1919).
  Greatly enjoy this little book although it’s designated as a school book, I probably learned more from this than some of the giant tombs on World War I. While the book is over 100 years old it presents in concise well organized format in plain English. It’s always interesting to have the perspective of a book written shortly after an event such as this one—the title alone, the "Great War, has no number behind it; they only imagined that this was the war to end all wars. And I may be a bit of a fogey here but I do think we could use these books today as an effective teaching tool. they are well-made nice compact size with maps inserted along the way and a nice chronology of events at the back.  Bought used at State Department bookstore.

Monday, December 7, 2020


If you cart your books around long enough they turn into a library but also a snapshot of your brain. I have carted some of my childhood books around long enough to see those snapshots. When I was in 11 and 12 years old I went through a World War II phase and especially a tank phase. For that couple of years, I asked for books on tanks for my birthday and Christmas. I've carted them around and pulled them out. Here’s my collection from years back plus one recent book.


1. The Tank Story: Purnell‘s History of the World Wars Special Edition (1972).
More of a magazine than a book, this was part of a series printed in the U.K. One of my first purchases during a family trip to England for Christmas when I was 11. It was perfect for me because it had a lot pictures. Price "45p". 

2. Tanks: An Illustrated History of Fighting Vehicles, Armin Halle/Carlo Demand (1971).  It starts with antiquity  including Leonardo DaVinci's designs but spends the bulk of the book on tanks from WWII. Christmas gift from my parents.

3.  German Tanks of World War II: 1926 to 1945, F.M. von Senger Und Etterlin (1969). 
With a name like the author's, you have to be destined to write a book about German tanks. More technical than you want for a 12 year old and more suitable as a reference book for a military historian. Another book I would have pestered my mother for during my "tank phase".  I remember bringing it to school and lending it to a friend who wanted to a report on tanks.

4.  Tanks and Other Armored Fighting Vehicles: 1900 to 1918, B.T. White (1970). 

Part of a series, Macmillian Pocket Encyclopedias in Color. By this time, I was getting more obscure with my "tank phase" and wonder how I picked it out. WWI takes were not as interesting as WWII tanks--they were usually big bulky mountains of metal or lightly armored cars. One of the Russian Armored cars, the Garford is shown with a Skull and Crossbones.

5. Armored Onslought 8 August 1918, Douglas Orgill, 1972.
One dollar paperback books part of Ballantine's illustrated history of the "Violent Century." Buying Ballantine books was like buying an expensive magazine. They kept coming out with them but they were only $1. 

6.  Kursk: The Clash of Armor, Jeffrey Jukes (1968).
Another in the series of Ballantine's illustrated battle books of World War II. Kursk was the largest tank battle in history that occured on the eastern front between Russia and Germany. 

7. Spearhead: The Incredible True Story of World War II's Expendable Heroes, Adam Makos (2019). This is the one recent addition I bought online and read late last year. A great first hand account of the most modern tank introduced by the Americans at the end of World War II and its duel with a German Panther in the city of Cologne Germany. I suppose this brings my 12-year-old interest in tanks full circle over 40 years later.