Aug 19

The Twenties, Thirties and the turn of the century

I’m reading Frederick Lewis Allen’s Since Yesterday, which covers the span of the 1930s.

It is a popular history, which is to say that it was both a bestseller and written immediately at the conclusion of that most tumultuous time. History has its way of revealing itself in its own time, and Allen nods at that often. The Harper’s Magazine editor and historian just didn’t know yet how some of the things churning up to speed in the late 30s were going to work out yet. How could he? But this was what Allen did, he wrote recent and popular history. It is well thought out, grounded in contemporaneous research and commentary and is easily digestible.

The fun part is, that while his previous book on the Roaring Twenties was a smash success and he sat down to figure out his next effort, it had to be about the Great Depression. And while he was living it as he wrote it, you and I can still hear the echoes. This part sounds familiar to me, for example:

Back in 1880, only 25 percent of American farms had been run by tenants. Slowly the percentage had increased; now, during the Depression, it reached 42. The growth of tenantry caused many misgivings, for not only did it shame the fine old Jeffersonian ideal of individual landholding — an ideal in which most Americans firmly believed — but it had other disadvantages. Tenants were not likely to put down roots, did not feel a full sense of responsibility for the land and equipment they used, were likely to let it deteriorate, and in general were less substantial citizens than those farmers who had a permanent share in the community. In 1935, less than two-thirds of the tenant farmers in the United States had occupied their present land for more than one year! In the words of Charles and Mary Beard, “Tenants wandered from farm to farm, from landlord to landlord, from region to region, on foot, in battered wagons, or in dilapidated automobiles, commonly dragging families with them, usually to conditions lower in the scale of living than those from which they had fled.

The Beards were historians who, among other things, wrote The Rise of American Civilization and a seven-volume History of the United States. Allen uses their quote so he can dribble down into how things got to be that way. Why be attached to anything? And how could you be, if this was what life offered you?

In certain parts of the South and Southwest this trend toward making a mechanized business of farming took a form even more sinister in the eyes of those who believed in the Jeffersonian tradition. In these districts farm tenancy was becoming merely a way station on the road to farm industrialism. The tenants themselves were being eliminated.


How easy for an owner of farm property, when the government offered him a check for reducing his acreage in production, to throw out some of his tenants or sharecroppers, buy a tractor with the check, and run his farm mechanically with the aid of hired labor — not the sort of year-round hired labor which the old-time “hired man” had represented, but labor engaged only by the day when there happened to be work to be done! During the nineteen-thirties large numbers of renters and sharecroppers, both black and white, were being displaced in the South … In the areas where large-scale cotton farming with the aid of machinery was practicable, tenants were expelled right and left.

Large-scale tractor operations were reshaping farming that was a step or two about subsistence growth into the business and industry of Agriculture, a sort of sequel to 19th century industrialism. But then what?

Where did the displaced tenants go? Into the towns, some of them. In many rural areas, census figures showed an increased town population and simultaneously a depopulated countryside. Said the man at a gas station in a Texas town, “This relief is ruining the town. They come in from the country to get on relief.” Some of them got jobs running tractors on other farms at $1.25 a day. Some went on to California: out of farming as a settled way of life into farming as big business dependent on a large, mobile supply of labor.

He wondered how far the trend would go. Would there be giant farm corporations, controlled from cities, putting smaller farms out of business? He wasn’t far off.

This was the reality for a lot of people. In my family there was some of this, but they also lived and worked and farmed under the ever-growing shadow of the TVA. It brought electricity. It brought jobs. It brought the government into private business in a way not yet seen. Ultimately it brought a degree of prosperity heretofore unknown to an economically depressed region.

This was where my family called home. Some parts of my family tree go back to when it was a territory, not a state. Some of the earliest ones were trading with the Native Americans, before they were imprisoned and shipped west. Recently we found the ferry crossing where my mom’s dad’s dad’s ancestral line came into the state.

Reading this made me think of my mom’s dad’s mom. I have written here about my great-grandmother, Flavil, before. She was in a rural one-room school as a student one year, and the next year she was the teacher in that same school. Her new students were her former classmates. Some of them were older than her. And when it was time for the crops to come in, they all went home and took care of it. She talks about being a sharecropper in her memoir.

She was apparently named after a prolific hymn-writer, and preacher, Flavil Hall. It’s an Irish name: golden haired youth. Near the end of his own life Hall gather a collection of essays and columns he’d written in various magazines and journals and sermons he’d delivered and published them in a book he called Pearls of Grace and Glory. It’s not one of those books you can easily have shipped over from Amazon, today, but someone had a copy or found a copy and gave it to my mother, and she loaned it to me. Among the collection of published pieces there is a section on people who are named after him. Quite a few people were inspired enough by him to borrow his name, it seems. Somehow he came into possession of, and published, a letter my great-grandmother wrote to her parents just before she moved out.

To Mother and Father:

There are so many things I’ve wanted to tell you both, but tears always prevented my talking. First, let me thank both of you for the many, many things you have done for me, which I know I can never re-pay. I feel I have probably repaid the expenses of my rearing, but I know I can never repay the suffering and trouble I have caused. Only God knows how much I appreciate the many things that I can’t repay.

I have come to many cross-road difficulties before, when I knew not which way to go, but this is the greatest I have ever experienced — one that I have worried more over than anything that has ever crossed my life. There is a period in the life of every one when he really wants to begin a home of his own. It is only natural. God so intended it. I suppose every one has to make this decision some time in life, but I really don’t believe it has ever caused any one so much worry and so many tears as it has me. I have lain awake many hours when the rest of you were asleep, podering and crying over the matter. … I have always loved you both and home so much that it seems almost impossible for me to part with you. The nearer the time comes the worse it hurts me. I really don’t believe there has ever been any one who loved his mother and father any more, if as much, as I do you. I fear when I am gone your love will gradually diminish. Do you think it possible to still always love me as you do now, as as you do the other children?

I wanted so bad, and tried so hard to help get the house completed, so you could have a peaceful, happy, comfortable home in which to spend the evening of life, after your hard battle of work and toil, caused by us children …

Again let me express my gratitude and appreciation to you for the many kind deeds you have done for me, for home, clothing, and food. And most of all for your love, for that was what prompted you to “bring me up in the way I should go, and when I am old I shall not depart from it.” What I am, or ever hope to be, I owe to you.

Remember and love me just as the same little girl, and let me have your prayers, for I am just the same.

There’s also a photo of her as a 15-year-old in that preacher’s book. The photo might be blurry and the transfer wasn’t especially clean. It’s that same little girl, but it’s hard to discern much more than that.

It’s difficult to think of your great-grandparents at these ages, or writing letters to their parents, or causing so much grief for them. Maybe it’s just a failure of my imagination. I knew the quiet, old woman and she’ll always be that person to me. But there’s always more, my imagination or not. There’s no imagining this: the roaring part of the Roaring Twenties were just about to end, even in the dirt poor South, when she wrote that letter. My great-grandmother had been courted by two young men. One she liked, but her father didn’t approve. The other, she said, really liked her but it wasn’t an especially mutual feeling.

She decided to write them each a loving letter and mail them in the wrong envelopes to see which one of the boys quit visiting first.

Her conscience though, she wrote in her memoir, got the better of her.

“I could never endure seeing Kelsie with some other girl.”

So my great-grandparents got married in 1927. She was attending college and teaching. My great-grandfather was also a teacher, or would at least become one by the time of the 1930 Census. In 1940 he operated a mercantile. But in that first year of their marriage, she once told me, she was laid low with tuberculosis. Right after that came The Great Depression. Sounds like a rough way to start your family. She said she never found out why her father disproved of the man who would become her husband, but they had three kids and eight grandkids. Somewhere around becoming a mother and a grandmother she was a sales manager, ran an electronics store and became a secretary. In her memoir, which she wrote in 1980 at around age 75, she says that was work she always wanted to do.

Really, she should have written that book later, or at least included an addendum. She still had a few fantastic stories to tell.

I just found one of those “Remember Our Town When” groups on Facebook. It seems that my great-grandmother, in the year 2000 took part in a re-dedication of a World War I memorial at the local high school. She read In Flanders Fields. And, according to that post, she had read the same poem 75 years before at the original dedication. (She loved poetry.)

UPDATE: A few days after writing all of this, I dug up this picture and wanted to include it here.

She lived to 98, a full life in the 20th century in the Deep South. Imagine all that she had seen in those years.

I’m reading about it in Allen’s book, from a comfortable chair in an air-conditioned room. Maybe she knew anecdotes like this one herself:

Jul 19

On the anniversary of the completion of Apollo 11, and other things

Today is the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Apollo 11 mission. And somewhere in the comments of this NASA stream of the capsule recovery someone writes “Is this happening now?” And that’s what you’re going up against in the world. Maybe Buzz Aldrin is right, about this too.

Anyway. I put this picture on Instagram over the weekend, while I was watching the CBS special marking the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

I took that photo Thanksgiving weekend in 2006 at the Space and Rocket Center. A whole bunch of family decided we’d all go look at all the sites in between turkey and barbecue and it was a great day. I’m not related to the people in that photograph, but I did listen in to the conversation enough to figure out what was going on.

There’s three generations of a family in that photograph. The younger man brought his son and father to see the museum to show his son what Grandpa did.

Grandpa worked on the Apollo missions, as an engineer. This was a trip down memory lane for him and he played the moment very cool. The grandson was too young to really appreciate this yet, but the father that middle generation man, was very proud of this moment.

The little boy, he probably just wants to go flip and toggle things in the museum’s displays. It might not have mattered to the old man, who, along with a lot of other people were taking part in A Great Thing.

It mattered, though, to his son, who carries this sense of pride about it.

Attitudes are curious. They can attach, morph and bind themselves to a single moment or ideal or action and carry us through a generation. That older gentleman had the war, and then space and the moon. His son has the memory of the moon, the echoes of the 1970s and the information age.

What’s that little boy going to have? Of course, he’s not so little anymore. That photo is almost 13 years old now. But this was the part of their conversation that I recorded at these displays.

“Ask Granddad about which one he worked on.”

“Which one did you work on?” the six-year-old asked.

“Apollo 17,” the grandfather replied, a little quiet and sheepish that others might hear.

What’s an Apollo 17 to a 21st century babe? Maybe dad, or grandpa, was teaching him how to throw a football. He surely was showing him his gramps was a big man. “Grandad helped send people to the moon … ”

Yes he did young man, yes he did. Your grandfather helped do that. Tell everyone you meet.

We watched an IMAX about the lunar landings and, afterward, my mother asked me if that was something that is impressive to my generation. She was in middle school when NASA first kicked moon dust around. She probably remembers what dress she had on the day those crackling little words made it back into the atmosphere.

The moon landings had come and gone before I was born, a historical inevitability. I have the sense of wonder of the achievement, but not the drama of the attempt. It has always been a magical thing to think Someone’s been there, but I’ve never had the notion that it couldn’t be done, only only the question of why we haven’t gone back. Budgets, interests, war, different rhetoric and other causes dragged us away, and but for robotic exploration the interim has been full of wasted moments in that respect. We had moonmen on MTV and conspiracy theorists.

To think it was only a few years before I was born that we reached up and grasped at something we’ve feared and marveled at for all of time … that carries a weight.

That we’re on Mars, that’s impressive. That we have tourists in space, that’s already become passe. That I shared a room for a brief moment with a man — and in a NASA facility the number might still be “several” — who helped put us there, that people a generation younger than I am will remember him, that’s special in a very important way.

Haha. I’d forgotten about this. That same day, at the Space and Rocket Center, someone suggested we ride something they now call the Moon Shot. Through the magic of science, you are flung 140-feet straight up in 2.5 seconds, achieving 4Gs on launch, and a few seconds of weightlessness in the descent. I started talking smack. My grandmother, who delighted in showing me up, agreed to a ride. Again, the conversation as I recorded it:

The Yankee: Arrrrrgh!

Mom: Arrrrrgh!

GrandBonnie: When does the ride start?


When we were doing this in 2006 NASA was still working on the hardware and software for the Mars Science Laboratory. Launched in 2011, of course, it landed on Mars in August of 2012. I have a dim recollection of watching live footage of the control room when it landed, and I wondered how that felt next to the moon.

Robots! On Mars! (And still operational, years after the initial goals!)

It is never happening now, as grandparents always know. The ride always started a long time ago.

Jul 19

And sure, I’m now all caught up on everything

Still filling time in this space for the week by catching up on things I haven’t already put here while updating the vacation pictures. Next week I may have to build out a section of the site just for that trip. And some of the stuff will definitely go on the front page. I’ll let you know.

Anyway, here’s something completely unrelated that I’ve re-learned. If you wait, usually for just a few seconds, that flower photograph …

… will reward you with something a little bit better:

I think I may re-learn that every year. Is that possible? Could it be that sometimes you and your brain disagree on the importance of things when you file them away for recall? I’m not speaking of distraction, or short term memory or forgotten things or even a serious neurological condition, but the simple stuff.

No, in fact, Noggin, this is a useful bit of information and I’d like it ready for immediate recollection, please and thank you.

Or it could be that information like this, knowledge which slowed The Yankee and I down from getting lunch on Wednesday by a good 15 seconds is something she’s de-programming. She could be spending the night whispering “That bumble bee thing isn’t important at alllllll.”

(Because it was on a television show somewhere once upon a time we now think this is how we are programmed, by whispered things said over and over while we sleep.)

I’m not saying she’s doing that. It’s probably just something my brain doesn’t prioritize in lieu of, I dunno, which light switch does what on the kitchen wall or where I left my phone charger last night. Nevertheless. Sometime in May next year, when I’ve long and truly forgotten how they sound, I’ll be startled by the sudden and late presence of bees and then two or three weeks later I’ll have this realization: If you don’t rush right off after taking your petals picture a little winged creature will come by and make your composition that much better.

That just doesn’t seem like a thing you’d need to re-learn, is all. And yet I think I might be doing that almost annually.

In these last few days we’ve had something of an anniversary around the house. Seven years ago, last week, I had a big bike crash. I hit something I didn’t see and went straight onto my shoulder and head at a respectable speed. Seven years and two days ago I had a surgery that put me some of the finest medical-grade titanium that Germany has to offer into my shoulder. I was off my bike until the next year January, and the plate and six screws mending my collarbone were just part of it. I don’t remember as much as I should about the next six months or so, owing to the crash and surgery and medicine, I guess. But I remember being amazed at what happened to that helmet. It kind of exploded on impact.

That helmet took a huge blow my skull didn’t have to. It did its job. Maybe it saved my way of life. Maybe it saved more. Of course, after you destroy a helmet you have to replace your helmet. It turns out you should also do this on a regular basis as well. It’s a shelf life thing, basically. The good people at Giro Cycling, who make my favorite helmets, recommend doing so every three-to-five years even if your previous headgear hasn’t been damaged. So keep your purchase dates in mind.

Anyway, it was time for me to get an update, and I got an upgrade. My new helmet, a Giro (with MIPS!) arrived today and we took our first spin together Wednesday evening.

Looks sharp, right?

If you ride a bike and don’t wear a helmet, it’s worth considering. I get it; I’ve heard the arguments against helmets. They all sound thin to me. You’ve heard the arguments for helmets, and maybe you disagree. I simply suggest that it’s worth considering how they can be helpful in some circumstances. Or, as I tell my students I see riding around town, “You’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on your brain; protect your investment.”

If you do wear a helmet, make sure yours is still roadworthy, undamaged and up-to-date.

Jul 19

Don’t call me Zippy

Since we couldn’t dive that Friday afternoon, we went into the tree tops. The Yankee and I and a couple from our boat and two people we’d made friends with over the course of the week. We’d taken a shore dive with them, had a few dinners together and commiserated about that one bratty kid that was intent on ruining everyone’s trip. Anyway,

Eight of us from the resort went to this particular zip line experience. I think The Yankee and I were the only one who had never done this before. And, of course, she was great at it immediately, looking like Indiana Jones up there:

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a brief video clip:

They had us pulling down on that cable to slow down, and depending on the line you were on and the distance and speed you covered, you were supposed to start the slow down at different times. I wasn’t always clear on when that time was. And, also, I kept over-rotating somehow. It was all great fun.

We did something like 13 zip lines on our way from one of the island’s high points down to sea level. And when we were all safely on the ground we met a new friend:

That evening we had dinner with our New Mexico friends above and most of the survivors from our dive boat. Someone there had the coolest idea among all of the long-shot “Let’s all get together and do this again one day” notions. They brought along postcards to share contact information. I have to remember to do that, otherwise, it’s business cards a-plenty, and who needs that? The last thing you’re trying to do on vacation is remind yourself of overcooked job titles. We just need emails for Box folders and a postcard gives you all that extra space for a personalized message, and dive jokes, too.

And, yes, I think I can get another two or three days worth of photos out of our trip. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about dolphins!

Jun 19

Happy anniversary to us

Moves, trips, gains, losses. It’s all just noise in the way of things that matter.

The times she does a favor for me matters not next to how she wrinkles her nose when she giggles. The times I’ve done something for her are inconsequential to the feeling of all of those times she’s fallen asleep in my arms.

You can count the big things. I would chart the shared knowing look, the now routine lunch, the still-excited feeling I get when our time apart has ended, sitting together and talking about absolutely nothing, all the many times she’s patiently sat with me while I thought through something out loud, the peaceful quiet when we read next to one another, the number of times a day I can think “This is one of those moments.” These things, and all of those like them, are what make people a pairing, anyway. I long ago learned to count the things that matter.

The only trouble is I lost count long ago. Or maybe I can’t count that high anyway. This is the number the calendar would tell you: 3,652 days married. Or, if you prefer a bigger number: 5,298 days together. The number of laughs and smiles and adventures is too high. The tally of memories, great hugs, silliness, seriousness and hot dates would stretch too far. The list of blessings is too extensive to know, probably, and would be deeply humbling to understand.

So let the number be this: ten years ago today, my uncle performed our wedding service. When he agreed to do the job he said, in as many words, that he would tie us in a knot we wouldn’t soon be able to unravel. It was his way to put me at ease, I’m sure. It did, and I still thank him for all of that. I’m grateful for that and all of the important parts that make up everything between then and now, and the simple thought of what still may come.