October 24, 2017

The dance for all seasons

Dancing in the snow

The Frankenmuth colony didn’t get off to a good start in the 1840s. The ship carrying the German missionaries ran aground. Storms and strong winds sent their ship into icebergs and the ship crashed a second time, into an English trawler on the Atlantic. The steamboat taking them from New York to Michigan somehow collided with a coal train. They finally arrived, sick with smallpox and malaria. Their spirits didn’t improve when they saw the 650 acres along the Cass River purchased for less than two thousand dollars. Their new home was cold, desolate, barren of the human comforts they had been accustomed to in Bavaria. They would require courage to survive and named their new colony Frankenmuth for “Courage of the Franconians.”

This “Christmas capital of the world” is also home to Michigan’s Military and Space Museum.  The flashy exhibits are elsewhere. These stories are about the African-American prisoner of war in Korea, longest serving prisoners of war in Vietnam, soldiers fighting in two wars (Korea, Vietnam), and the female local soldier killed in a roadside bomb. Owen Hammerberg  was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1941. He was the last to receive the Medal of Honor for non-combat service before Congress changed the rules. He was a Navy diver who went down to rescue his mates trapped under sixty feet of water and mud. The sunken ship caved in on him, pinning him as he worked to rescue the two divers. He died shielding his mates. The historical society for this Christmas capital doesn’t have an exhibit about the history of Santa and Saint Nicholas. Those are at Bronner’s, the largest Christmas store in the world. You must go past the Christmas decorations and tourists flocking the Main Street to discover  an exhibit on “The Hmong Among Us,” the Vietnam War, the CIA’s secret war in Laos, and the refugee camps. One of the local war heroes was the most decorated airman in the Air Force. Duane Hackney was a pararescue jumper and veteran of 200 missions in the Vietnam War. A YouTube video about him includes a comment from a Hmong who had fought in Laos with the CIA’s legendary case officer Jerry “Hog” Daniels. It’s an odd juxtaposition, like the large Nativity Scene here and a beer museum next to it. On one side the sunny disposition of decorations and ornaments and feelings of warmth, a temporary sense of escape from the real world. Farther down are the secret battles, prisoners, and rescuers. The authentic self must learn to dance in all kinds of weather. That’s the meaning of this fountain in Frankenmuth celebrating the courage of the original settlers.

I was caught in a white out near midnight in northern Michigan. I followed the tail lights of the truck in front of me until his tail lights suddenly swerved across the two lane road and went into a ditch. He couldn’t find the way back and drove almost into the trees. I watched him, amazed. I wasn’t sure if I was still on the road but I sure knew he got off on the wrong exit. Suddenly he panicked, swerving back across the road and into another the ditch. The truck lurched back and forth as the driver tried to find his way onto the road. One moment, he’s riding high in his $40,000 truck, secure about his place in the world. Then he’s in a ditch and the snow is coming down hard on him, distorting his vision. Maybe he had on some Christmas songs and Christmas gifts in the back.Or else he was coming home drunk from a Christmas party. The German missionaries began their trip across the Atlantic with a drunk pilot.

There’s a new biography of one of my favorites, Jack London. One of London’s best stories is White Fang, about the Wild trying to conquer life and man: “…Life is an offense to it, for life is movement, and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea…” The land of Jack London is “vast, silent, desolate… so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even sadness…with laughter cold as frost…wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and effort of life…It was the Wild, the savage, frozen hearted Northland Wild.” London’s “wolfish dogs” are defiant of the elements, the cold harsh terrain.

There’s defiance in the Frankenmuth fountain, a refusal to allow the hardship to break the early settlers. It’s also hung on the walls of the Military and Space Museum.  It keeps you warm when going out in the cold, and into the ditch.

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