January 28, 2023

Wounded trees and wounded men

Tree Port Hope

This poor little tree needs imagination to make something of it. You have to really think of the gale winds, worst snow and ice storms in a century, heavy rains, the birds and deer scattering for protection, freighters for the steel mills backing off. All that’s left is the lighthouse next to the tree, more than one hundred years of storms in its history. This tree, along with the one hundred year anniversary of the start of World War One, brings to mind the quote “wounded trees and wounded men.” In The Great War and Modern Memory,  Paul Fussell writes of British soldier and front line survivor, David Jones, and his World War One epic poem In Parenthesis. “The awful vulnerability of both man and nature- and their paradoxical privilege of glory- is what Jones learned at the front.’ Wounded trees and wounded men,’ he says, ‘are very much an abiding image in my mind as a hang-over from the war.'” The battered landscape speaks “with a grimly voice.” The warning in its scars: “We are on a hazardous advance toward’s No Man’s Land and the unknown world beyond it.”

The vulnerability of man and nature says it well. The decline of the farm and rural life is shocking out here. The rural “ruin porn” doesn’t get nearly the attention of a Detroit. But Detroit always shocks me more, a concrete battlefield marking the collapse of an era that began with World War One and mass production. Detroit bulldozed many of its trees and poured concrete to become the arsenal of democracy. Its scars are in the concrete and decay of abandoned buildings. Homeless women,sitting on broken concrete, their sunburned faces dusty orange and craggy, hold up signs for help that the motorists ignore. The United Nations criticizes plans to shut off water to thousands of Detroiters who can’t pay the water bill. Lake Huron, Detroit’s indifferent neighbor, might as well be on the other side of the world. Crime has made many areas of Detroit a No Man’s Land, its fate left to nature to heal. The big dreams of urban planners have died many times in the concrete landscape. Even the trees are now fighting off invasive species.

Detroit is still hockey town, and that means there will always be admiration for the Russians, regardless of who occupies the Kremlin. There are other similarities to Russia in the Upper Midwest, beginning with the winters. The Russian writers are my favorites. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate has none of the romance that made World War One a “literary war.” Grossman’s World War Two classic also includes the trees: “Once, when I lived in the Northern forests, I thought that good was to be found neither in man, nor in the predatory world of animals and insects, but in the silent kingdom of the trees. Far from it! I saw the forest’s slow movement, the treacherous way it battled against the grass and bushes for each inch of soil…in time the deciduous trees become decrepit; then the heavyweight spruces burst through the  light beneath their canopy, executing the alders and the beeches. This is the life of the forest- a constant struggle of everything against everything. Only the blind conceive of the kingdom of trees and grass as the world of good..is it that life itself is evil?” Hitler and Stalin will make you ask those kind of questions. The wounded trees and wounded men want to know.

But it’s this constant struggle in the forest that builds resilience. The forest, unlike the concrete, contains life with all its pain and glory. The forest fights back against the invasive species. Kids wander the streets of Detroit, their world almost entombed in the lifeless concrete. The suburbs fare a little better. The water bills are paid. But there is submission to the cement boundaries. Of all the sights witnessed on these roads, two made the biggest impression, and contrast. In the cement jungle of the suburbs, a boy stands meekly with his father while waiting for the school bus. The weather is perfect. The school is less than a quarter mile from where the boy waits with his parent. But he chooses not to walk the short distance alone to school. The bus must take him. While in northern Michigan, a girl comes out of the forest, jogging at a fast clip. The weather is terrible. It’s forty degrees and raining hard. I will never forget the expression on her face. She smiled when she saw me watching her. She looked free, unlike the boy in the suburbs.

Everything gives rise to obedience- both hope and hopelessness, writes Grossman in Life and Fate. Rebellion begins with the trees.


Sleepwalking through history

WWI poster

Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is a brutal book about what Hitler and Stalin did to Eastern Europe. One statistic explains the murderous machine of Hitler and Stalin- children born in Soviet Ukraine in 1933 had a life expectancy of merely seven years. Hitler couldn’t match the early brutality of Stalin. The constraints of World War One forced Hitler to catch up with Stalin which he did with the words of an SS officer: “The more of these bastards go down, the fewer of them we’ll have to feed.” A child in Ukraine, after losing his entire family to Stalin’s genocide, said weakly before succumbing, “Everything dies.” Everyone lied as millions perished. An honest person suffered the most and died first. Walter Duranty of the New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for writing lies to cover for Stalin’s genocide. Malcolm Muggeridge was one of the courageous few, writing Stalin’s genocide was “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe that it happened.” George Orwell witnessed the monstrous lies in the Bloodlands where twenty million perished through the actions of Hitler and Stalin to eradicate the right to be human.

No book about World War One can match Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers and combined with Bloodlands, makes events in Russia and Ukraine seem like reliving a terrible history. In the buildup to World War One, diplomats complained, “Russian diplomacy was one long and manifold lie.” The British empire was fading and economic trade had also the seductive effect of making bribery a convenient tool for the enemies of capitalism. The “security dilemma” meant as one government improved its defense to ensure security, other countries felt more insecure and built their defenses until the network of odd alliances only needed a trigger to begin the killing fields of World War. That trigger was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on June 28, 1914. A team of young assassins plotted to kill Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. The first assassin threw his bomb and missed, took weak cyanide that failed to kill him, jumped off a bridge into a river too shallow to drown him, and delegated the act of war to his teammate assassin who succeeded in killing the archduke and his wife. But not before the archduke, after escaping the first bomb, was forced to listen to the mayor of Sarajevo make prepared remarks, exclaiming in shock, “All the citizens of Sarajevo find that their souls are filled with happiness and most enthusiastically greet your highness..” The mayor was too stunned to change his speech. The archduke shouted back at him, “I come here as your guest and you greet me with bombs!” Then the second assassin’s bullets struck.

Michigan’s military museum in Frankenmuth is filled with stories and memorabilia of Michigan soldiers from World War One to the War on Terror. The Polar Bear Unit, nearly all from Michigan, was sent to northern Russia at the end of World War One to help fight the new communist government. More than 200 in the Polar Bear Unit were killed and hundreds wounded in fighting near the Arctic Circle. World War Two and Vietnam cover more walls. Duane Hackney, of Flint, enlisted in the Air Force. Hackney had more than 200 pararescue missions in the Vietnam War, earning Airman of the Year, the Cheney Award, Air Force Cross, Silver Star, 4 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 18 Air Medals, and dozens more medals. Another wall and more stories in the glass cases of the local Green Berets and Special Forces soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then you get to the story of James  Thompson, an African-American from Detroit. Thompson had fought in World War Two and was an officer in the all black 24th infantry during the Korean War. He was taken prisoner, surviving 1004 days in a North Korean prison camp. His 24th infantry was accused of “running like rabbits” and “bugging out.” His prison camp didn’t have a roof or blankets. Many prisoners died in the below zero temperatures. The Korean War prisoners were criticized after the war for failing to escape. The Chinese took control of Camp 5 and put the white and black prisoners through indoctrination sessions. The Chinese failed to convert and turn the black soldiers but that didn’t stop the critics at home from accusing the black POWs of Camp 5 from collaborating to receive preferential treatment. James Thompson wanted the truth told, that he and the POWs of Camp 5 served with honor and sacrifice.

As the sleepwalkers awoke to the horrors of World War One, California Senator Hiram Johnson said, “The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.”


To build a fire

river snowstorm

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains the reasons for tiny Norway’s historical excellence in the Winter Olympics. The country of five million, with a culture of egalitarianism,  has won more than three hundred medals in the Winter Olympics. Kids younger than age 11 must be awarded the same prize. I heard a radio interview last week, while enduring yet another snowstorm, in which the commentator complained the problem with American kids today is that everyone is given a prize, regardless of their performance. His lament was Norway’s most important trait, except for one important difference. Although Norwegian kids were all given the same prize, their training and competitions were never cancelled due to bad weather. These egalitarian kids showed up in the coldest temps, the worst weather, to learn their sport. The Norwegians embrace the beauty and hardship of the outdoors. The pain and cold of the wild trains the body and mind to become resilient. Cross country skiing, especially, demands endurance, years of practice, and high tolerance to pain. Cross country skiing is Norway’s most dominant sport.

This winter began with a major ice storm, knocking out power for a week during Christmas, and about the same time that I had just finished reading Jack London’s short story To Build a Fire. Then the snow came and hasn’t stopped, breaking records across the state. While the New York Times runs stories about global warming and the disappearance of snow, poor Detroit gets buried in the white stuff. Another cold shoulder for the city once known for its mass egalitarianism.

Salon has an interesting article on “the hunt for the Great American Novel.” The schlock of middlebrow culture, meaning the stuff that I like, throws snowballs at the elite writers creating art fiction in the post post-modern world. Realism and traditional narration are not admired in the pink Christmas tree society of the super novelists. The great writers of the past are viewed as boring cross country skiing compared to the daredevils on a snowboard. In defense of Jack London, he didn’t take a class on frostbite, snow blindness, and malnutrition to research his stories. He lived it. Melville and Hemingway didn’t google how to hunt whales and sharks.The Great American Novel is winning the gold medal in cross country skiing.

In Jack London’s To Build a Fire, the protagonist possesses alertness to the “things of life” but fails to understand the significance. London suffered frostbite and scurvy while in the Klondike, writing to a friend that the Artic cold was a “vast white silence, as if all the earth lay still and stark dead in her white shroud waiting judgment day.” Refusing to quit, London writes, “From the hunger of my childhood, cold eyes have looked upon me, or questioned, or snickered and sneered. What above all was that they were some of my friends- not professed but real friends. I have calloused my exterior and receive the strokes as though they were not; as to how they hurt, no one knows but my own soul and me. So be it. The end is not yet. If I die I shall die hard, fighting to the last, and hell shall receive no fitter inmate than myself. But for good or ill, it shall be as it has been- alone.” While the flashy wordplay of the super novelist melts with the spring thaw, the significance of a great writer’s words endures through all seasons.

The super technologist can also be like the protagonist in London’s To Build a Fire, always connected, continually alert, but failing to comprehend significance. Take your hands off the steering wheel, allow the engineers in the gated communities of Silicon Valley do the driving, and the thinking, for you. Until the frightened deer runs in front of your car on a snowy night and you must make a decision that the engineers can’t compute. The algorithms of Facebook, with much help from the Like and Click farms, create their own animal farms. The page views of the most popular sites resemble a flock of birds. I listened to another radio interview awhile ago in which an historian, I can’t remember who, discussed his book about Britain between World War One and World War Two, and the false hopes the British had in technology solving their problems. Their optimism in technology turned to disillusionment with the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler. The Cold War doesn’t appear to be over anytime soon. One of the best novels that I’ve read recently is Russian writer Mikhail Shisken’s The Light and the Dark. The great ones can work in bad weather.


There’s a bear in my box

Soo Locks

Marc Levinson’s The Box was published seven years ago. The book’s a classic about how the shipping container changed the world. The container revolution began in the 1950s during the Eisenhower era. Marc Levinson, an economist, puts a precise date on the first shot in this revolution. On April 26, 1956, a crane in New Jersey lifted 58 container boxers onto a ship to Houston and container traffic surged with new orders. The post World War Two era fitted perfectly, and more importantly, economically, into a container box. The Defense Department, led by business whiz and the very brightest of The Best and Brightest Robert McNamara,  used containerization as a revolutionary logistical tactic to beat back the Communists in Vietnam. That was the plan. McNamara’s logistical engineers created new supply lines to the other side of the world with containers, allowing the Vietnam War to continue for several more years, which wasn’t part of the plan. Not everything fits in a box. Read Seth Godin’s Poke the Box.

The Soo Locks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is in the running for an 8th Wonder of the World contest sponsored by Virtual Tourist. Sleeping Bear Dunes is the other Michigan entry. The 11,000 ships that pass through the Soo Locks must navigate the 21 foot drop between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The ship in the picture is 1,000 feet and transports mostly iron. The Locks are a remarkable engineering accomplishment but Sleeping Bear Dunes gets my vote for what the glaciers did in shaping this part of the Lake Michigan shoreline. Shaped by nature is preferred to containment.

Seth Godin writes a lot about the death of the Industrial Age. Michigan’s industrial decay is in such contrast with its natural beauty. The auto industry relies on the container box like McNamara’s logistical engineers. On the way to the Soo, I went into a grocery store near an abandoned auto plant. An elderly man approached me and asked if I could help him. His wife had died recently and he didn’t know how to do laundry. He wanted to know what laundry detergent to buy and how to measure it. He said he had worked at General Motors. Everything about his old way of life was gone. He had to start over, and do it alone.

The post Industrial Age has left Michigan with a lot of prisons and casinos. The highway signs seem to either promote a casino or warn of a prison nearby. I saw the signs for Sleeping Bear Dunes on the way home and though it was getting late, decided to make a climb up the dunes. I noticed the wind always likes to be in your face on the way up the hills you must climb, and seduce you to turn around and go down with the wind at your back. The rain was a bonus. The signs warned to stay on the trails. What trails? I was alone at the late hour, and in a hurry to get back home. I didn’t see any trails and didn’t have much time to look for one. I looked straight up the dunes and thought what the hell, if you want to go up, you have to go up. The dunes changed from hills to mountains halfway up and into a canyon at the first hill when I realized that I had gone the wrong way and the spot where I should have gone was way the hell over there. I didn’t have quite the reaction of Lewis and Clark when they stumbled on the Grand Canyon blocking their path, but I wondered if I should quit and turn back or just die on the side of a dune and let the sand bury me as in the Legend of Sleeping Bear. I had climbed too far to quit, but was too tired to go much farther, and unsure how far to go. It was also getting dark and rain clouds were gathering off Lake Michigan to torment this idiot climbing up Sleeping Bear Dunes alone.

The story of Sleeping Bear Dunes is that a mother bear and her cubs were forced into Lake Michigan to avoid a terrible forest fire. They swam for hours and mother bear finally made it to shore. Her cubs were too exhausted and drowned as she watched from shore.  The Great Spirit Manitou shaped the dunes and the two islands in a symbol of faithfulness. Determined to climb to the top, I continued in the wind and rain. Finally making it to the top, I wanted to do a Rocky celebratory dance. Then I heard noise coming from over the dune. A father was playing with his little boy. A guy was taking pictures of his girlfriend. Two girls were giggling and walking down the trail. I stared and realized I was alone only because I had taken the idiotic way up.

Whatever it takes.


When Smart Money Hits the Canvas

Tall Ships Ceremony

At the Tall Ships Celebration in Bay City, some parents were talking about their son, the cage fighter. I was wondering if he was the smart money or dumb money but was too polite to ask. I don’t believe there’s a great deal of smart money fighting inside cages. The cannon boom from the ship ended the conversation about cage fighting, and among other topics (I have snoopy ears), the promise of stress free living for some condo associations. I thought stress free meant you were dead.

After reading an article on the Great American Novels (Moby-Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Godfather, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man), the thought struck me, almost like a cannon ball, that the difference between nonfiction and fiction is that the great works of fiction focus on the story of when the smart money hits the canvas.  “When smart money hits the canvas” comes from Ellison’s Invisible Man. An Eudora Welty quote explains it in the New Yorker: “The novelist works neither to correct nor to condone, not at all to comfort, but to make what’s told alive…great fiction shows us not how to conduct our behavior but how to feel. Eventually, it may show us how to face our feelings and face our actions and to have new inklings about what they mean.”

I refused to watch anything on television that had to do with the Trayvon Martin- George Zimmerman case and ignored most of the commentary elsewhere. The media is selling the dead kid like he’s shampoo on an endcap at Walmart. When they’re done with him and ratings dip, they’ll put him on the clearance rack and find some other sad story to sell like soap. The polemicists on all sides consider themselves the smart money. For what it’s worth, and it’s not worth a bottle of shampoo, probably ninety percent of the people who think they need a gun for protection are too paranoid to have a gun for protection. Unless you’re working at a liquor store in Detroit, with cops that take an hour to respond, and solve less than ten percent of the criminal cases, you have many options to defend yourself before pulling the trigger. I don’t mean the martial arts nonsense, which is dumb money. But was Zimmerman’s fear more excessive than the response to the Boston Marathon bombing?  Shutting down a major city, SWAT teams with body armor, three hundred shots fired, and so on. The Wall Street Journal has a story about the “Rise of the Warrior Cop.” There weren’t any SWAT teams until the late 1960s. Now there are thousands of SWAT teams conducting thousands of raids, all dressed up in body armor and locked and loaded for combat. So who is afraid of who? 

The city of Detroit used to be the smart money and now Detroit is officially bankrupt, like Tommy Hearns, the great fighter from Kronk, and also Billy Durant, the founder of General Motors. So much for all those union contracts promising a stress free life in retirement at a condo in Florida, protected with armed neighborhood patrols on watch for the black man loose in the neighborhood. I have too much of the Detroit Rules in me, meaning that there are no rules in a street fight, to defend Martin’s right to attack someone who offended him. The prisons and cemeteries are full of young people who went into a street fight believing they were the smart money. When I was young,  I used to run through a very nice neighborhood in Flint, one that Michael Moore actually confused in “Roger & Me” with GM CEO Roger Smith’s neighborhood in a posh Detroit suburb. In those days, Flint and Detroit had some posh neighborhoods. The neighborhood watch patrols would follow me around as I ran late at night. It was kind of irritating, and would have been extremely unacceptable if they also had weapons. But I wouldn’t think of attacking them. It’s unhealthy and unwise to lead with your chin. One day, like the Boston Marathon bomber, you might get hit in the face with an SUV, or shot by a fat guy fearful for his life. The smaller guy you think is easy meat pulls out the gun, or knife, or has a group of buddies coming behind you. Detroit reporter Charlie LeDuff just tweeted his favorite story of a robbery in Detroit where the smart money in this case, the young robber, failed to notice his victim’s cousin coming at him full speed in a car. Those Detroit Rules…Or What They Don’t Teach in Martial Arts Class.

Ralph Ellison writes, “Once I saw a prize fighter boxing a yokel. The fighter was swift and amazingly scientific…He hit the yokel a hundred times while the yokel held up his arms in stunned surprise. But suddenly the yokel, rolling about in the gale of boxing gloves, struck one blow and shocked science, speed, and footwork as cold as a well digger’s posterior. The smart money hit the canvas.”

I would include An American Tragedy, Lonesome Dove, and The Call of the Wild on my list of five Great American Novels, along with Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn. The Great Gatsby just misses, coming in sixth.  In The Call of the Wild, Buck thought he was the smart money, living the spoiled stress free life with his wealthy master, until the man with the club kidnaps Buck:

“He was beaten (he knew that); but he was not broken. He saw, once for all, that he stood no chance against a man with a club. He had learned the lesson, and in all his after life he never forgot it. That club was a revelation. It was his introduction to the reign of primitive law, and he met the introduction halfway. The facts of life took on a fiercer aspect and, while he faced that aspect uncowed, he faced it with all the latent cunning of his nature aroused.”

Buck got up from the canvas. He got the hell out of the cage.

When going through the factory towns, the abandoned buildings and litter on the streets numb the soul. A century of scientific management, the smart money, led to this. While in China, they can’t tolerate the pollution.  The other night, I was running in farmland and a dog came out of the fields and ran alongside me for five miles in the heat while I tried to chase it back home, if it had one. The dog didn’t have a license or identification. The dog wouldn’t quit following me, and I began to think of it as Buck out in the wild. As we got near the suburbs, I turned and chased it one more time back into the farmland. I watched him disappear in the dark. His true master was in nature, not the suburbs.


Fire inside the gates

House fire

New Yorker journalist George Packer’s new book The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America is the latest to explore the industrial collapse. Journalist Gordon Young has written a book about his hometown of Flint, Teardown: A Memoir of a Vanishing City. Packer wrote Assassin’s Gate about America’s war in Iraq and this one’s getting excellent reviews as well. The New York Times calls it a masterpiece. The most amazing fact about Flint is that the number of elementary students in Flint schools has declined nearly eighty percent since the late 1960s and early 70s. I was one of the elementary students from that era, as was Gordon Young. My two elementary schools and junior high have closed. The high school, at one time among the largest in the state, will close next year.

Charlie LeDuff’s Detroit: An American Autopsy is the one published in the last couple of years that I like the most, although no one will ever consider the book a masterpiece. His book is about fire, the epidemic of fires in Detroit raging through the abandonment. It began with fire and will end in fire.

My head felt like it was in an oven when I got too close to this fire burning through the abandonment on Flint’s north side, near the truly vanished Buick City Complex. I saw the flames and black smoke from miles away on the expressway and like a storm chaser, followed the funnel cloud of destruction to its epicenter. The most odd sensation, watching the flames explode higher and threatened to burn the entire neighborhood and come my way, was the absolute silence. There weren’t any cries of anguish or shock. A lone fire truck was on the street and the fatalistic firemen worked to contain the fire as a small group watched with stoicism. A small folding table was set up outside a grimy liquor store and a few men were watching the fire and drinking. More liquor stores were across the street and most of the residential houses were abandoned, probably like this one. An ambulance was parked nearby and a couple of homeless asked another man if it was a controlled fire. After he said it wasn’t, they noticed a man and woman packing food into crates across the parking lot. One of them exclaimed, ‘Food bank!” Then he repeated himself, again, and again. Free food was a bigger deal than the inferno. The two of them wandered over to the food bank with a “cool, man” jaunt. Surrounded on all sides with decay and fire, life was good to these two guys for at least the afternoon.

The Unwinding is thick with profiles, descriptions, and life stories. Data collection is a bigger deal these days than a compelling narrative. Do your research like NSA, collect every little piece of information and cram it into the story. The Unwinding was pretty disappointing, considering the reviews. George Packer is a much better writer than LeDuff. He does better research. Everything about Packer is probably better than LeDuff, like Manhattan is better than Detroit in every way but the coney dog. But something was missing. The autopsy report wasn’t signed, not by Shakespeare or a Kipling.

An elderly blind man was walking through one of the dangerous neighborhoods near the fire. He wore an orange safety jacket, helmet, and waved the cane back and forth in front of his feet. He walked with his head up and a smile on his face past the cracked asphalt, weeds, boarded up houses. I felt like jumping out of the car to ask him what he saw with his imagination that he couldn’t see with his eyes. Was he creating his own reality or stuck in someone else’s?

Close your eyes after reading LeDuff’s autopsy and you’ll see a tired hardened fireman whirling back at LeDuff in a neighborhood that’s one big fire trap, swearing at LeDuff to put the dead kid in his fucking notebook. You’ll see in your imagination that fat homicide detective sinking his teeth into a coney dog and talking murder and the Great Hunts, like Kipling’s Great Game, taking place in the squalor and refuse and enjoying this kind of hunt for the prize at the end. A certificate from Shakespeare or a Kipling for participating inside the gates. Close your eyes after reading George Packer and you’ll see his quality writing from the perimeter. He doesn’t go inside the gates.

I wanted very much for Gordon Young to write it like LeDuff and he almost pulls it off. Flint burns like Detroit. There were more than fifty suspected arson cases in the two weeks after Flint firemen are laid off and Young, an accomplished journalist and college instructor in Silicon Valley, writes of the impossibility of catching arsonists with so little staff. A fireman describes the arsonists as “a spider spinning a web of fires.” They’re sexual predators and suffering serious financial problems, according to the FBI profile. But these fires are not set by arsonists. The fires are set by professionals. Firemen burned down these houses. The fireman explains the difference between the pro and the amateur. The amateur stays on the perimeter, setting fire on a porch or window, always making sure there is an easy escape. The amateur arsonist never puts himself in danger to set a better fire.

The pro, the fireman explains, isn’t afraid of the fire and danger. The pro goes inside and set the house ablaze at its foundation, making the fire burn longer and do more damage before the alarm is sounded. The pro can take the heat.


Memorials to the Past and Future

Air Force pilot Michael Young memorial

Late in the evening of November 30, 2011, I decided to just keep going. This old lighthouse at the top of Michigan’s thumb near Port Hope was several miles north and I was already late going home, and home was south and west. The park was closed and a pack of maybe fifty deer ran around my car. You could hear the waves from a long way off. Three pictures from that evening became my “signature” photos. My favorites that expressed my attitude. The lighthouse rising above the trees and facing out to the harsh elements; the waves rolling in at shore, unrelenting; and the third one as I was leaving, a front picture of the lighthouse with a small cross and tiny flags in the yard. In the lonely, harsh environment, there was a whiff of defiance to the cross and flag. We got licked but we haven’t quit. We’re still here.  There was just enough to make me curious for more.

I got there too late to see why the cross and flag. Earlier in the day on November 30, 2011, the squadron commander for the 180th Fighter Wing flew his F-16 from the Ohio National Guard Base in Swanton, Ohio to the lighthouse in Port Hope to commemorate twenty years. Air Force pilot Lt. Michael Young of the 180th Fighter Wing had crashed his plane near the lighthouse on November 30, 1991. He ejected and the strong fifty mile an hour wind blew his parachute far into the freezing water of Lake Huron. Rescuers fought Mother Nature to reach him but the wind was too strong. After chasing him in the water for twelve miles, they lost him. Lt. Michael Young, age 28 with a wife and two month old baby, was never found. The memorial’s for the pilot with the Bible passage of going out on the wings of eagles. I searched his name in Google and found the article in the Air Force News:

“To mark the 20th anniversary of Lt. Young’s passing, Lt. Col. Tim Moses, 180th FW Operations Support Squadron Commander, carried with him an American flag and a United States Air Force flag and flew up the coast of Lake Huron and over the crash site, where a memorial in Lt. Young’s name now stands. The Air Force flag was presented to the Young family in honor of their sacrifice all of those years ago.

The American flag will be presented to the members of Amvet Post 115 on behalf of the 180th FW for their unwavering support of the Young family and for keeping the memory of Lt. Young alive for the last 20 years. The Amvets maintain the modest memorial in Young’s honor and conduct a small ceremony each Memorial Day, near Port Hope, MI., ensuring that he is a hero not to be remembered every 20 years, but every day, forever.”

Every day is a lot. Forever is a long time. A lieutenant in the Air Force isn’t English royalty and Amvet Post 115 in Port Hope isn’t Hilary Mantel. The old vets at the Amvet Post 115 are losing friends and family who will remember them. But I’ll remember.

A New Yorker article on Hilary Mantel last fall gushed the dead are real. Flannery O’Connor said it better about the dead, and the living, with The Violent Bear It Away, the last word in strangers passing through the centuries of violence, shattering the silence of the dead. The boy Tarwater finally throwing his face in the dirt of the uncle’s grave, the last word singeing his eyes and becoming a seed in his own blood. The past, like the dead, can’t be buried deep enough for the living to escape its seed. The corpse of royalty from a distant century might become this century’s pothole in a strip mall but the world was made for the dead more than the living, and the great pen of Flannery O’Connor and Hilary Mantel.

While driving through farms and small towns the other day, Fort Custer National Cemetery suddenly appeared in the windshield. All the flags were gone and dozens of deer were running in the snow, their mutiny against the military’s imaginative names like Army Street. Michigan native George Armstrong Custer was in command of the Michigan Calvary Brigade, known as the Wolverines, and fought at Gettysburg and Appomattox. Custer isn’t buried at the Fort Custer National Cemetery near Battle Creek, or Custer’s National Cemetery in Montana where the Battle of the Little Big Horn was fought,or Arlington, or Fort Leavenworth. There is some confusion about where Custer was buried. His last fight left enough body parts for multiple grave sites. After the Battle of the Little Big Horn, most of his mutilated remains were transported to West Point at request of his wife. German prisoners of war from World War Two are buried at Fort Custer National Cemetery. Abolitionist Sojourner Truth is also buried in Battle Creek. I didn’t find a street named “Unknown,” like the military put on the sign over the remains of the privates at Little Big Horn.

In Detroit, where “cemetery porn” is ruin porn for the dead, scrappers are plundering the graves for something to sell. Just like writers and historians.


You Have Been in Grand Rapids, I Perceive?

Grand Rapids

One of my favorite pictures from 2012 came late in the year, with this one in downtown Grand Rapids. The picture reminds me of a setting for novels and movies before the storyteller’s utensils went high tech, or even the theme of 2012 and the decade- the fight between the bulls and the bears. There’s a contrast between the office buildings of the future and the rust and decay of yesterday’s commerce. Winners and losers. Around the time I took this picture, the Gallup blog was forecasting that the future of America will be decided in its cities. The Grand Rapids skyline and cloud cover in the picture provide a murky forecast.

You have been in Grand Rapids, I perceive?

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, very keen on the power of observation, makes the famous declaration about Afghanistan. I can only claim Grand Rapids, not Afghanistan. But as Flannery O’Connor would say, the human race all comes out of the same slop. To appreciate the great mind of a Flannery O’Connor, try writing in longhand a passage from some of her best stories and then type it on the computer. Then do it from some other great ones. The genius is in their clarity and hardness of thought, like a hard fastball, or in Hemingway’s case, a hard punch. Imitation and pretense are interference.

Tiny Grand Valley State is nearby in downtown Grand Rapids. NFL personnel officials would come here to scout an occasional prospect and came away more impressed with the school’s coach. The administration and marketing departments at the big football programs were reluctant to hire a coach from a school like Grand Valley. The schools’ fear of hiring a coach with small credentials forced him to keep persisting one step up at a time until Notre Dame, failing with every big name coach, finally felt it politically okay to hire Brian Kelly.

One of boxing’s greats, Floyd Mayweather Jr. came from nearby and learned to box at the Grand Rapids gym around the corner from his home. From a May 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times : “The last time I checked, this is what the American dream is,” Mayweather said. “Who doesn’t want to be rich, and make this kind of money? They told me when I was growing up that dreams come true. I dreamed it, and made it happen.

His boyhood friend and assistant trainer from Grand Rapids said, “This is a person who understands you can have anything or nothing in life, that anything can happen to you. You can make millions. Be broke. Or be in jail.”

Or become President of the United States like Gerald Ford. His presidential museum is nearby. Ford is considered by historians to be the greatest athlete among the presidents. He was also a veteran of World War Two with heroics in the Pacific, particularly during Halsey’s Typhoon. A friend’s father served alongside Bush 41 in the Pacific and had good stories about him. These stories are fading with the rust of time but will live on digitally at the museums and archives.

Sally Field edited the prize winning 1979 Letters of Flannery O’Connor, writing O’Connor accepted and embraced her destiny with strong habits of art that grew to become habit of being. While in the middle of an interview with a reporter from the New York Times, Mayweather Jr. punched the heavy bag 1,000 times in 90 seconds. Your habits become your being. In a letter, O’Connor scolds a friend: “What I hate to think of is you with your talent wasting your energy fighting with idiots and crooks and such trifling people as you appear to have to grabble with to get anything done in the theatre.” She warns of a “lack of learning that would put you in a larger framework than just your personal problems.”

Another boxer from Grand Rapids, Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin, just became a world champion. He was raised in terrible poverty, drugs, crime, the familiar story. Kids ridiculed him for his ragged clothing and he learned to fight them off until he became such a good fighter, the kids used him as the enforcer for their gang fights. A friend finally scolded and warned him that the “idiots and crooks” he was fighting would one day kill him if he didn’t stop. His story is told in a fantastic video on the Grantland Network. He fights because his “whole life has been a fight.” Everyone is a fighter, regardless if they box in the ring. After winning the title, Kid Chocolate thanks Grand Rapids for making him a fighter, and New York for making him a man.

Flannery O’Connor has strong criticism for Ayn Rand in another letter to the same friend, Maryat Lee. “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can go re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.” She knew many of her own critics would compare her stories to a ride on the “glass bottom boat” and miss the message.

Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a master’s in English from Duke. Failing Sherlock Holmes, I can’t say I knew it. But if he knows his Flannery O’Connor, he’ll appreciate the fact that everyone comes from the same slop.


Look for the Eagle in Your Windshield

Soaring Eagle

The 2013 Statistical Abstract of the United States reports that liquor stores outnumber book stores three to one. There are 23,000 book stores nationwide, 5.7 million members of a book club, and 5.8 million avid bird watchers. I’ll throw in another number: 25,000 eagles, about the same number as book stores. If the eagle lands in Vegas, it will be surrounded by 197,000 slot machines. The eagle was to be the nation’s symbol of freedom and bravery. Soaring dreams are for the birds and book worms. It’s become a roll of the dice to the casino nation.

I’ve been reading a minimum of one book per week for as long as I can remember. I usually try for a “high brow” novel- the kind that win prizes or get a good review in the New York Times, a genre novel for my Lee Child or Michael Connelly fix, a history book, and either current affairs or, gasp, something on self improvement. I could ask for a refund on the self improvement. I’ve read four good books in about a day and a half, a history book by Eric Foner on Reconstruction in one day because the history professor read it in a day and I thought if he can do it, so can I; and Tolstoy’s War and Peace every year for one year because John Updike read War and Peace every year and I thought, well hell, if Updike can knock it out every year, I can give it a shot. I faltered on War and Peace, like with the self improvements.

I suppose everyone has their favorite saying or quote. Mine is from Isaiah:

They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

I really like the last line after signing up for a marathon in Traverse City at the end of May. I was planning on running the half marathon but it filled so damn quick. Maybe I can blame the marathon entry on a fat fingered mistake. The race course is along Lake Michigan, which makes the race one of the most popular in the country. The date means winter running to prepare. Global warming has quite a few degrees to go before I’ll stop feeling like Napoleon’s army on the retreat from Moscow.

The school massacre in Connecticut had a group of us talking about school violence and the plight of the schools in general. Some of them had experience teaching in the most violent and poverty stricken districts in the country. I’m convinced the most important story of the post World War Two era is the demise of the Great Society. The school massacres don’t happen in one dramatic moment like the Connecticut shooting. The casualties go on all week for years until a memorial of 15,000 miles, the number of miles of  neon lighted tubing on the Vegas strip, is needed to include every name. One of every 50 was on food stamps in the 1970s. Today the number is one of around six people requiring food stamps. More than one million public school students are homeless. Almost fifty percent of Americans are either defined as low income or living in poverty and more than one hundred million of working age do not have a job.

That’s the bad number column. The good news, from the perspective of my 182,000 mile bug splattered car windshield, is that the spirit of the bald eagle is still here. Economics professor Mark Perry writes in his popular Carpe Diem blog that the average price of college text books has risen 812% since 1980. The housing bubble had an average price increase of 325%. Health care has increased 575%. The consumer price index has increased 250% since 1980. Slate has published articles on college professors making millions on textbooks with a shocking sticker price over $200. Now the information revolution is pressuring the cartels and gatekeepers.The greatest failure of the Great Society has been in its leaders, the defenders of the working class who always made certain they were at the head of the class.

Tom Peters recently recommended Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent. I recommend that everyone should have Tom Peters in their windshield, along with his compatriots Seth Godin and Daniel Pink. The Little Book of Talent asks a very important question: what’s in your windshield? A few years ago South Korea didn’t have any female golfers on the LPGA Tour. Now there are 40 South Koreans playing on the LPGA. The power of the windshield. The girls watched one of their own have success and suddenly everyone set goals to follow their favorite role models. It’s much harder to soar like an eagle if there’s nothing but turkeys in the windshield.

The Little Book of Talent uses examples from sports and the arts to emphasize the importance of “deep practice” and embracing the struggle. Coyle writes, “We each live with a windshield of people in front of us; one of the keys to igniting your motivation is to fill your ‘windshield’ with vivid images of your future self… Studies show that even a brief connection with a role model can vastly increase unconscious motivation.” Coyle quotes Albert Einstein that “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

Then make landing space for the eagle between the slot machines and liquor stores.


Fishing in the Deep for Stories

fishiing pole on Lake Michigan pier

The Muskegon pier on Lake Michigan doesn’t have warning signs. Only a memorial near the end of it for those who lost their lives on the pier, and for those who tried to save them. Memorial signs of that type are very effective, at least from my perspective. Unlike the river in Grand Rapids, there was only one guy fishing here. He was smoking a cigarette and watching the sun go down on his fishing spot. He hadn’t caught anything. The Great Lake was going to beat him on this night.

I was on a Lake Huron pier last March in fifty mile an hour winds and holding a rail so I wouldn’t get blown into the water. There weren’t any memorials on that pier. Lake Huron is more rugged than the Gold Coast. A friend from the area in the Thumb had been diagnosed with a serious illness. She vowed to beat it, stoic about the slim odds. Her fight ended in November. The rugged land is the hard fought memorial over there. I quoted James Q Wilson in the post last March: “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society set limits to what those members can do.”

Machine politics have set limits on what people can do and now the machine is bankrupt. Ernest Hemingway wrote this in The Sun Also Rises: “How did you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Detroit doesn’t have the cash to survive December. Machine politics filtered opposing views for fifty years. The ten cities with the highest poverty rates have followed the same course, restricting what its citizens can do and see on the horizon. The UAW leadership in Michigan was willing to block construction of a new bridge to Canada. Then the unions went down, like the great fighter Manny Pacquiao in the fight with Juan Manuel Marquez. Right to work legislation delivered as a right hand punch from Marquez.

Hemingway wrote sentences as tight punches. He learned the craft as a reporter and columnist before turning to fiction, with columns such as this one in 1923 for the Toronto Star Weekly about the Spaniard Don Tancredo:

“No. He was neither an opera singer nor a five-cent cigar. He was once known as the bravest man in the world. And he died in a dingy, sordid room in Madrid, the city where he had enjoyed his greatest triumphs…

Don Tancredo himself tried to learn to become a matador. But he found himself up against a competitive profession in which his rivals had been trained since they were five years old. He proved slow on his feet and not particularly graceful.”

The dingy rooms can be the most profound memorials. The collapse of mass production industry has created a lot of these sad testaments. Union organizers and their political allies are too slow on their feet to compete against this fast moving opponent. Acting as a gatekeeper, opposing the construction of bridges to the future, is a bad bet.

While most reporters still with a decent paycheck chase stories on the union protests, John Carlisle has done it again with more great writing for his Detroitblogger column. He only writes it once every two weeks. “Last Days” is the simple title to his most recent post. He writes of an elderly couple who own the most lonely dive bar in Detroit. The man and wife, in their 80s and failing health, live above the empty bar. No one comes in for a drink anymore. The voices of mentally ill homeless are heard in the street. The casinos have taken the customers and now even the casinos are hurting for cash. As Hemingway wrote about the last days of Don Tancredo- “It takes money to sit in a café.” The casinos are more expensive than the dive bar.

Gradually, then suddenly, it will be over for Detroit. The people of Detroit will have to start over, like Billy Durant who went bankrupt in the Great Depression after creating a company called General Motors. The gatekeepers will move on to some other business where the cash flow is more dependable than the lonely dive bar.

Detroit Deeply can be the American edition to Syria Deeply, a news outlet set up for group reporting on the war and humanitarian crisis in Syria. This was written two days ago on the Syria Deeply blog:

“The whole world has abandoned Aleppo. We are left between the cruelty of the regime and the indifferent mobs of the opposition. But above all this, I cannot blame anyone but ourselves, because those who are raising the prices of fuel, electricity generators, coal, bread and all basics are also people from Aleppo. They are our new warlords, who are making fortunes on the expense of the poor people. I cannot ask the world to sympathize with Aleppo, when we are the ones who are starving each other and leaving each other in the cold. Our children are dying slowly while some people are using the chaos to make as much money as they can. And that is haram, haram money (cursed or forbidden money).”

Substitute gatekeeper for warlord and its problems could be translated into nearly every United Nations language.

Syria is becoming the 21st century Spanish Civil War. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, about the Spanish Civil War, had this:

“You and your safety! Did I live nine years with three of the worst paid matadors in the world not to learn about fear and safety? Speak to me of anything but safety.”

Going beyond the warning signs might not be safe but that’s where you’ll find the great stories and storytellers.


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