Historia Arcana

“The deeper you penetrated into the true South, a Protestant land of moral absolutes, Baptist blue laws, tent revivals, fire and brimstone, heaven and hell, good and evil, black and white, and damn little room between.”  Greg Iles, The Bone Tree

And bitter hypocrisy thrown in for good measure.

According to a “too large” number of my Southern brethren, racism hasn’t existed in a while…and if it does it is reverse racism.  All groups supporting social justice and the removal of monuments and flags are Marxist and radical, and the worst danger facing our country has nothing to do with the reactionary right.  Our President has even given us a new group to hate, the “radical fascist” which sets my teeth on edge just thinking about it.

Histories are written by the victors…or are they?

In the middle of the Sixth Century, the last great ancient Western historian, Procopius of Caesarea, wrote Historia Arcana which translates to The Secret History.  He hoped it would never be published, and it was not until well after his death.  It was to be his if needed, ‘get out of jail’ card.

The history chronicled the seedier sides of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and his wife, Empress Theodora.  It is not a glowing history and shows the author’s disillusionment with the Byzantine Empire.  Justinian is portrayed as cruel and incompetent, Theodora, vulgar, and lustfully insatiable.  I feel some of Procopius’ disillusionment today.

No, it is not the history Theodora and Justinian would want to be published and it was not published until nearly a thousand years later.  The sixth-century power couple would go on to be sainted by the Greek Orthodox Church.  Their hidden history remained hidden until it no longer mattered.

I have seen the same with some of our own “sainted” folk.  The heroes of Southern culture and heritage.  In the South, we guard our “historia arcana” with a tenacity unmatched by the rest of our nation.  Families of now-departed men and women hope their histories remain secret.

I’m reading Greg Iles’ Natchez Is Burning trilogy and stumbled upon the above quote on the first page of the second novel, The Bone Tree.  The original book, Natchez is Burning, while fictional, is based on a period in our history that anyone south of the Ohio River would like to forget.

The novel is fictional but based upon historical facts…the treatment of African-Americans during the Fifties and Sixties and how white men got away with the murder of black men and women simply because they could.  A period we are being asked to move on from without recognizing how evil it was or how events from forty or fifty years ago…or one hundred and sixty years ago…or four hundred years ago could actually affect the time we live in now.  Just move on…there is nothing here.

Any Southern town, large or small, has its share of “secret” histories…histories that display our dirty unmentionables, the soiled petticoats displayed as we try to navigate the deep mud puddles of Southern history before quickly dropping our antebellum gown to cover our ankles and muddy shoes.  Like Justinian and Theodora, it is a history we would prefer not to read in print and only speak to in whispered tones if we speak of them at all.

The mud stains are still on our shoes but we do our best to make sure they are out of sight.  Historical accounts we have purged from our memories it seems…or at least the “dark” part of our histories.  Histories so well hidden, a Southern, seventy-year-old retired history teacher didn’t know they existed.

Accounts we claim never existed at worse or were not as bad as were made out at best.  “Why can’t we just move on?” is a question reserved for the propagator, not the victims.  Maybe I should again pick up Faulkner, O’Conner, Williams, Yerby, or Gaines again.  Even in their fiction are large kernels of truth.

Men and women are human, with human failings.  Men and women can be both good and bad at the same time.  Bad…good old Baptist guilt or Calvinist repression, not necessarily the point.  This is more collective guilt…a collective guilt we refuse to accept or acknowledge.  The guilt we have turned into a “Lost Cause” and “Forget Hell” is only reserved for one side of the argument.

As we debate the removal of statues and memorials, the elimination of one hundred and sixty-year-old eulogies made of cloth, disclaimers added to eighty-one-year-old motion pictures, and the changing of aging athletic nicknames and mascots, we pontificate about what seems to be different histories from the same place and from the same time.  Some pray to the gods of the status quo, the good old days, while others are breaking under the burdens we refuse to remove.

Good men doing bad things or is it bad men doing good things…or is it just human nature to cover or change what is unpalatable for us?  Is it human nature to resist change or just a Southern cultural trait?

There is the fear factor too.  Fear that somehow we will lose control of what we have controlled for so long.  Similar to the old question asked by good Protestant ministers so long ago, “What will we do when they run off with our wives and daughters?”  We still look for boogie men under our beds and label them as Marxist or radically “fascist” whatever that is.

I do not know where to stand on statues and memorials.  I know, despite my deep Southern roots, I will not stand next to them in defense.  My great, great and great, great, great grandfathers may be rolling in their graves.

Our statues and memorials are tributes to men and to histories most unsavory but they themselves are not history.  They should not be celebratory, should they? They are reminders of not only heritage but the hate some of that heritage rests upon.

Having taught history, I never used a statue or memorial as a teaching tool but that doesn’t mean they can’t be used as teaching implements…provided those monuments are teaching the “real” histories which are found not on lists of gallant Confederate dead etched in stone or on mountains, but in the pages of primary documents and historical works.

We must focus less on gallant propaganda and more on the facts.  We need to recognize that our history didn’t end with the beginning of the Civil War.  We need to question why some men died to “make men free” and why others resisted…no matter how bitter the taste of the fruit of that resistance might be.

All countries have shame.  We are not unique.  Many countries have tread on the weak for national and economic gain.  We are no different.  We are not even the only country that has not come to grips with the travesties we have committed.  We are not the only country to ignore our travesties and attempt to squash the message of those tread upon.  Unfortunately, as a child in the Fifties, I bought the propaganda of American Exceptionalism.  I really believed we were supposed to be better than other nations.

I  admit to ignoring problems in hopes they might go away.  They do not.  They only grow worse and ours has festered for over one hundred and fifty years.  I have also learned when faced with an issue, the most unappealing and unappetizing option is probably the correct one.

Here in the Bible Belt, we are filled with religious indignation and justification toward anyone who questions authority…unless it is a fellow Christian of a certain race.  It is as if by conforming to a God’s will we give up the right to think on our own.

Here in the Bible Belt, we have tied our Christianity to our politics, and any afront to our politics is perceived as an affront to our religion.  I am seeing this more and more concerning “peaceful” protesters and reactions to “other” religions.  Too many “good” Christians wrapping their Bible in a flag and calling their racism and bigotry patriotism.

As I read Iles’ quote I thought back to my youth and own privilege.  I grew up a Methodist Protestant, graduated from a Lutheran institution of higher learning, and committed the mortal sin of marrying three Baptist women.  If at first, you fail….  I once considered taking up the mantle of religion…God does work in mysterious ways.  It is my historia arcana.

Moral absolutes were something I obviously had a problem with as did others.  I have just now learned others did a better job of covering theirs up and have throughout history.  In towns large and small, men and women have been willing to hide their moral absolutes away when it suited.  Good men and women doing bad things and praying for absolution on Sunday morning? Justinian and Theodora?  Or was I just cursed with the ability to see grays in among the blacks and whites?

I remember the revivals and the Blue Laws, the hellfire and brimstone sermons conjuring the smell of sulfur.  Hot and sticky Southern Sunday morning humidity with funeral fans working against the oppressive heat.  The preacher pounding his Bible before issuing his alter call, a closing hymn…benediction, please.

There was no gray, only heaven or hell, no in-between.  I remember the Wednesday night and Sunday morning Christians, the amen corners, the tv evangelist, and faith healers.  Billy Graham’s piety on display in black and white while George Beverly Shea sang “How Great Thou Art.”

I remember being taught from the pulpit, white was good and black was bad.  When white was virtuous and black was evil.  I remember when we used the same arguments a lifetime ago that we recycle now.  I remember our historia arcana and feel the shame that we can’t seem to overcome it or even admit it.

***

Iles, Greg The Bone Tree: A Novel (Penn Cage Book 5) (p. 1). William Morrow. Kindle Edition

The image is from The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s online portal.  https://nmaahc.si.edu/

Don Miller writes on various subjects that bother him so and in various genres.  His author’s page is https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2syCHGI2Eb96lK63frT528V_cBY995j2m_hd_LOLFPdV4KqqoZQn1J7Fs

The More Things Change…

 

…the more they remain the same.

Doing a little light reading…taking a little look-see at the Bubonic Plague.  Wow…the greatest of all pandemics.

I’m bored.  The better half is watching the Hallmark Channel which is like the greatest all-time worse things to do during a self-quarantine due to our most recent pandemic.  Oh, it’s baseball season…but it’s not.  At least it is the Hallmark Mystery Channel.

As I did my light reading, I could not help but notice similarities in our reaction to our present pandemic, Corvid-19, and the way our fourteenth-century forefathers reacted.  There may be something to this “history repeating itself.”

What concerns me is that despite some seven hundred years of information and knowledge-gathering, we do not seem to be any better prepared to deal with it scientifically than we were then.

Short history lesson.  The Black Death probably came from Central or East Asia along what was known as the Silk Road.  Traders transported their goods to major European cities but also carried stowaways in the form of rats.  These rats carried other stowaways, fleas.  The fleas carried a bacterium, Yersinia Pestis.  The fleas require a live host, the rats, and when the rats died, the fleas carrying Y Pestis simply jumped to the next closest host…another rat or a person.  Y Pestis carrying rats caused the Bubonic Plague.

During the Middle Ages, even the late Middle Ages, hygiene was…not…very…hygienic.  It wasn’t as bad as it has been portrayed but the flea carrying rats found a fertile environment to procreate in and a somewhat overcrowded population in cities chock full of hosts.  In other words, soap and water would have helped during these times as would a goodly amount of D’con had it been available or the invention of a better rat trap.

“Healers,” monarchs, and religious leaders never connected the plague with rats, fleas, and Y Pestis.  I kinda want to give them a pass.  They hadn’t developed past barbers overseeing bleedings, leeches to help keep the four humors of the body in balance and the burning of incense and sulfur…as well as rosemary, amber, musk, and fragrant flowers.  When they walked, people took their scents with them, carrying packets of herbs…

What is our excuse?  Despite advanced warning, people in high places chose to ignore the danger in hopes it would go away with the April warmth and humidity…It’s April 21 and it is still here.

I ask the question because it seems we would rather latch on to any conspiracy theory rather than science.  We would rather believe the opinion of a college dropout trying to sell advertisements on YouTube or on certain “news” channels or an Indian with a ‘piled high and deep’ degree in military science rather than epidemiologists with an MD following their names.  I digress.

Maybe we need a Jew to sacrifice to the purifying flames of a good ole witch burnin’.  Maybe we can use vestal virgins to keep the fires going.  We seem to be stoking the fires of disharmony, willing to burn our country to the ground instead of pulling together, not that our European forefathers were any better…but then we do benefit from scientific knowledge over superstition.  Don’t we?

Consider this, many Europeans at the time believed the supernatural, earthquakes and conspiracies were to blame.  God’s wrath, bad air released by earthquakes and the Jews, friars, witches, foreigners, beggars, pilgrims, lepers, and Romani were to blame.  Scapegoats, we must have scapegoats! 

Like those going before us, a large group believes, “It couldn’t just be a virus?”  There must be some ulterior motive behind it, even though the science says otherwise.  At least our forefathers knew nothing of viruses or bacteria.

One widely-held Middle Ages’ conspiracy theory was that the Jews were poisoning the water supplies.  Some old Jewish guy was seen feeding cracked grain to the ducks probably.  Christians had good reason to wonder, I guess.  Jews didn’t come down with the black, oozing lymph nodes as often as Christian Europeans, but no one considered Jews bathed more often and kept their homes clean and free of rats.  Hygiene, simple hygiene.

There is a parallel right there.  Have you seen the news shows and YouTube videos teaching us how we should wash our hands?  Seems after seven hundred years we would have progressed farther.

Another point to ponder, Jews lived separately from Christians in a type of “mandatory” self-quarantine before the Black Death hit and had a higher survival rate as an added result.  The Christian response was to burn them out…homes and entire towns.  They would have done better to have burned their own towns, killing the fleas and the rats that carried them.  That would have slowed down the plague more than burning a witch or a Jewish town or two.

Our response to stay home orders or quarantine?  Marching men, blocking traffic with automatic weapons.  Gonna shoot that bad, boy virus?  No, but you can’t force me to tempt fate…or the health of my family and friends.  Much love to the healthcare worker who stared some of them down.

At least we are not burning Jewish towns but violence against Asians has risen.  Chinese bioweapons are poisoning our air supply with 5G carrier waves after all or is it Bill Gates?  When he squints behind those hornrims, he looks a bit Chinese.  Scapegoats, we must have scapegoats with a conspiracy theory or two…just like my European forefathers.

An interesting fact during the Black Death.  The poor had a much lower incidence of survival.  They were already compromised.  Broken down by poorer diets and a harsher lifestyle, the serfs were the first to die from God’s wrath and went to their maker in much higher numbers.

Is there a parallel there?  I’m sure if I looked at the great flu pandemic of 1918-1919, I would see the same thing.  The poor dying in greater percentages.  I can see men sitting in their tall office buildings shrugging their shoulders and nodding in approval of “survival of the fittest” while their workers died, or men in business suits saying sacrificing our family members for the good of the economy is an honor.

During the Corvid-19 scare, we are seeing it again.  Compromised groups, groups without access to healthcare, people we call “essential workers” are being sacrificed for the greater good of our economy.  We are seeing high numbers infected by racial profile and interestingly, among grocery workers.  Along with them are the aged and those with underlying issues.  People we should be protecting instead of shrugging off as simply a statistic of “selective” Darwinism.

The response of some, “Well it’s not Corvid-19 killing these people, it’s their underlying conditions.”  Really?  Maybe you should go bleed yourself…a gallon should end the problem.

Every pandemic has caused major social upheaval.  Corvid -19 will be no different.  The Black Death led to the rise of towns and the middle class, the collapse of feudalism, the Reformation, just to name a few historical changes.  Maybe you should read about the changes caused by the Black Death to get an idea of what might be ahead for us.   Don’t I’ll probably write about it eventually.

The first thing you should keep in mind, the Black Death only peaked in the mid-1300s, it didn’t go away.  It came back again and again.  Corvid-19 will spike again if we choose superstition over science.

***

Superstition is not the best word, but I don’t know what might be.  We have a cult that believes nothing put forth by our scientists, medical doctors or news reporters and that a robust stock market somehow helps us all.

The picture of the rat…I personally have nothing against four-legged rats as long as they stay in the wild.  I don’t like the two-legged version anywhere.

Don Miller’s author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0KTel1ZOkEs6ionAjK8k5jwlt8q9QKXKdsazPkJQYrwJD2ZPhwsMtCpZs

 

Textile Strikes, Labor Unions, and Ella May Wiggins-History Repeated

 

During research for a novel I hope to write, I ran across the novel, The Last Ballad, written by Wiley Cash.  Cash’s novel is a fictionalized glimpse into the life and final months of union organizer and balladeer, Ella May Wiggins.  The story was inspired by actual events that hit a little too close to home.  Cash paints a historical picture that is both historically accurate and vivid, yet is as dark as the interiors of the textile mills he writes about and the lives of the people forced to work in them.  It’s a novel I wish I could have written.

Image result for ella may wiggins

Wiggins, a spinner at Bessemer City’s American Textile Mill #2 with a history of bad choices for many right reasons and some not so right, was shot and killed in 1929 during labor unrest leading up to the Loray Mill Strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, April 1,1929 and ending in the collapse of the strike after Wiggins’s death in September of the same year.

It was the end of the period called “The Roaring Twenties” which for the textile workers and farmers of the South, were anything but roaring.  While Wiggins did not live to see the great Wall Street crash, times were already hard for those who toiled in textiles, many who had just earlier been left destitute from falling farm prices.  As my grandmother often stated, “We lived so hard we didn’t notice the Great Depression.”

For anyone with empathy, the book is a tough read.  It is painful on many levels, not just Wiggins’s death.  It is disturbing because I see a certain parallel with “history repeating itself.”

I grew up a “hill milly”.  My youth was tied both to the fields of corn and beans of my grandparents and to the textile mills of my parents. By the time I cleaned the cow manure off my boots and traded square bales of hay for the lint, heat, and noise of the Springs Mills’ White Plant in Fort Mill, South Carolina, conditions, pay, and hours had markedly improved from Ella May’s day.  Improved, but still some of the hardest physical labor I ever did under some of the most taxing physical conditions.

On my first day, I was two months past my fourteenth birthday.  I was summer labor, a spare hand, working a six until two shift at whatever hell my second hand decided.   Doffing cloth, filling batteries, taking up quill and skinning them were my primary chores.  I must have done okay, I was invited to continue, working weekends during the school year.

The early shift allowed enough daylight in the evening to pull four additional hours hoeing corn, picking beans or tossing square bales onto the bed of an old flatbed for two dollars a day.  I was bone-weary at the end of the day and slept the sleep of the exhaustedly pure of heart, but in my immature brain, I was rich.

A dollar sixty-five an hour, time and a half for overtime over forty hours, plus the six dollars a week I got for tossing hay.  $93.80 a week before taxes for seventy-two hours counting four overtime hours…all hard work.  That was in 1964 and I wasn’t as rich as I thought.  My parents took half my take-home pay for room and board and I was forced to save half of my half for the college days looming in the near future.

My week’s take came out to about fifteen dollars a week in my pocket…more than what Ella May made for seventy-two hours in 1929.  Six days a week, twelve hours a day for $9.00 a week in conditions you can’t believe unless you lived it. $9.00 to house, feed and clothe herself and her five living children.  She had lost two children in early childhood who developed rickets due to malnutrition.  She was pregnant at the time of her death.

Image result for springs cotton mills fort mill sc

South Carolina has never been receptive to unions…the South has never been receptive to unions.  As of 2017, only 2.6 percent of the Southern workforce was unionized. During Ella May Wiggins’s day, unions had only just begun to move south and were met with a solid, often violent, effort to keep them out.

On my first day at Springs, a cousin, Charlie Wilson, took me aside and yelled his whisper above the din of eleven hundred looms, “Never mention the word union if you want to keep your job.”  I’m not sure I had heard of the word at the time but never mentioned it even though many days I doubted I really “wanted to keep my job.”

Despite the mind-numbing sound and physical labor, I was spoiled and didn’t know it until I went to work for another cotton mill during my college days.  Springs Mills was a Cadillac of cotton mills.  Well lit, it was reasonably modern and technologically advanced, cleaner than most, with a family atmosphere.

The two mills I worked at in Newberry, SC, during my college years were everything Springs wasn’t including an “every man for himself” atmosphere.  Dimly lit, the old Draper looms were contrary and dangerous, the closed painted over windows a reminder of what was just on the other side…bright sunshine and clean air as opposed to the oppressive, lint filled atmosphere and heat inside.

As I lived through a week that saw a major drop in the stock market and a toilet paper panic, I am somberly amused at some of the similarities that exist today as in those thrilling days of yesteryear.  Conservatives attempting to hold the line, liberals clamoring for change.  Name-calling, finger-pointing and unfortunately threats to our democratic system if not our very person.

I hope most threats are coming from internet trolls with nothing to do as we “hunker down”, self-isolating ourselves from the coronavirus, worrying about where our next toilet paper score might occur.  We can’t even agree if this disease is a health threat or simply the flu blown up by a liberal media controlled by communists and George Soros.  I digress with tongue in cheek.

The reason for the Loray strike were workers protesting for better working conditions, a forty-hour workweek, a minimum $20 weekly wage, union recognition, and the abolition of the stretch-out system, a system that doubled worker’s labor but reduced their wages as textiles fell on hard times after The Great War and the drying up of government contracts.

An estimated 1,000 strikers at Loray Mills, Gastonia, 1929. -- Millican Pictorial History Museum

The numbers and issues may be different, our responses have been eerily similar.  It would be during the middle of the Great Depression before minimum wage, the forty-hour workweek and child labor, along with the Social Security safety net, would finally be addressed…all maligned at the time as at best socialism, at worse communism, both a threat to American capitalism and the owners it made rich.

In 1929, company men labeled any check to unlimited capitalism as Marxist, socialist or communist, and yes there were more than a few of them around. Ella May’s National Textile Workers Union certainly had communist ties, not that Ella May and her fellow workers knew what a communist was.  She was simply seeking a better life for her children and herself.

I see the same labels raised when we debate increasing the minimum wage, health care, safety nets or educational opportunities.  Labeling has become quite acute with both our political parties battling to pass a coronavirus relief bill.

Union enrollment is on the decline while finger-pointing increases.  There is no middle ground.  Signs of the time…or as my Evangelical friends shout, “Signs of the Apocalypse.  The time is nigh.”

I wonder if we are nearing a tipping point when the national guard, new wave strikebreakers, and the police force will be employed to evict and expel people whose opinions simply differ.  Couldn’t happen, could it?  Yet in 1929 it did, and the violence would continue well into the Thirties.

Violence spurred by unchecked capitalism, fears of communism and being forced to work side by side with those of a different race.  All supported by a sympathetic conservative media, and government “for and by” the “Captains of Industries.”

On April 1, 1929, eighteen hundred workers walked off the job at Loray in Gastonia, mostly women, some marching with babes in arms.  Management evicted them from company housing, throwing their meager possessions into the street.  One striker was killed, many beaten.

The North Carolina National Guard was called out on the third of April, violence erupted sporadically over the next several months.  The police chief was killed, strikers and company men shot or beaten, and in September, a truck carrying twenty-two strikers was chased down and shot up.  The pregnant organizer and singer of ballads, Ella May Wiggins, was killed, shot through her chest.  Her children sent to an orphanage until their eighteenth birthdays.

Image result for ella may wiggins

A general wave of vigilantism washed across the countryside, company men arriving in the middle of the night, forcing strike participants out of the county in exile.  These were their neighbors, people they knew by name, people they might have worked with just a few weeks before.  People threatened with bodily harm if they returned.

The struggle continues today just not in US textiles.  Textiles left the South for climates more receptive to low pay and long hours.  There are a few specialty mills around but we simply can’t compete.   Our standard of living requires we have a higher level of poverty than places like China, India, and Pakistan.   Hopefully a higher level of empathy for our workers…but I am unsure.

***

I recommend The Last Ballad.  Again, I warn you, it is a painful history brought to life by Wiley Cash.  It is a history I was unfamiliar with even though I possess a history degree and lived within an hour of Gastonia and the Loray Mill site.  We Southerners have a tendency to overlook or twist some of our more unsavory histories.  This one seems to have been ignored.

The book may be purchased on Amazon or if you have a library card, downloaded to a Kindle or computer with a Kindle App for free.  Yes, I’m cheap.  https://www.amazon.com/Last-Ballad-Novel-Wiley-Cash/dp/0062313118

Image result for The Last Ballad

Don Miller is a retired educator and coach.  He writes on various topics and his author’s page may be accessed at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Images

Featured Image:  A member of the NC National Guard forcing two female strikers back. https://wilsoncountylocalhistorylibrary.wordpress.com/tag/ella-may-wiggins/

The first image is of Ella May (spelled Mae on her grave marker) Wiggins just before her death, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article175129556.html

The second image is of a young girl tending spinning frames in the early 1900s  https://www.pinterest.com/pin/83457399315355531/

The third image is of Loray Mill strikers who walked out on April 1, 1929.

The fourth image is of the truck that carried Ella May Wiggins to her death.  https://www.shelbystar.com/news/20190405/1929-loray-mill-strike-gastonia-violence-makes-waves

 

Hope Shines From Far Away….

It was the awful summer of 1969.  A continuation of the previous bad year, a protraction of bad times that would continue well into the Seventies.  As a country, we were reeling from assassinations of revered figures, a war we could not win but were hell-bent on continuing.  Later a President would use his version of the “Southern Strategy” to help win an election and later give permission for criminal activity to hold on to his office.  In amongst, there were protests and all types of lies and deceit.  I seemed to be watching our American Exceptionalism crumble before my eyes.

We staggered when the “most trusted man in America” stated that the Vietnam War was at best a stalemate and unwinnable.  Watched in sorrow and wept as news of King’s and Kennedy’s assassinations and the civil unrest that followed hit the presses.  Protestors at the Democratic Convention shot birds and thumbed their noses at the police in Chicago before being beaten by those same policemen.

On a lighter note, the Yippies nominated Pigesus, a live pig, for President.  It was lighter until they were arrested, even Pigesus.  I wonder if there was a BBQ.

In the later part of ’69, after having been covered up for over a year, we asked how My Lai could happen, weren’t we better than this? The Pentagon Papers proved we weren’t.

We cheered and shed tears watching the POW’s coming home before listening to a President shout to the cameras, “I am not a crook.”  We found out over several tortuous months that he was just that.

On the home front I had lost my mother on January 1, 1969, and later in the spring when my “fancy (should have) lightly turn(ed) to thoughts of love”, my “one and forever” true love fell under the spell of another…smashing my heart flatter than a toad on a four-lane highway.

My second-semester grades had suffered as I used alcohol and chased co-eds to ease the pain of both loses…chased but rarely caught.  I had barely hung on by my knawed down fingernails.

My wise father decided the best life-lesson would be a summer job with a local construction company charged with building bridges over Interstate Seventy-Seven in Charlotte.  I remember the summer as being one of the more brutal of my life and can’t drive I-77 without worrying a bridge might collapse.

For a few days in July 1969, I put my personal trials away and our country, its woes.  The world gazed skyward and at black and white TVs for news of hope.  Apollo Eleven had lifted off and was headed to the moon.  I and billions of others followed their trek with every newscast and special report.

I watched in awe and fear as the lunar module separated from the orbiter and touched down.  It was late Sunday afternoon on the 20th when I heard “The Eagle Has Landed.”

Neil Armstrong wasn’t scheduled to step onto the lunar surface until well after midnight.  I decided I had plenty of time to partake of an evening I usually dedicated to one last grasp at the weekend.

The Catalinas were playing at The Cellar and I’d be damned if I would let a little thing like the moon landing persuade me to stay home.  All I had to look forward to were five days of ten-hour hells awaiting me in the morning.  Maybe I could catch the “giant leap” on tomorrow’s late news.

I didn’t have much money but then you didn’t need much at The Cellar, a live music venue catering to college-age kids and featuring Beach Music bands.  Dollar cover and twenty-five cent drafts meant I had enough to ask if my latest companion in crime wanted to go…a pretty brunette I had known for most of my life and who, despite being unwilling to be a soothing anodyne for my broken heart, would be a good time “Charlene” on the dance floor.

The crowd was raucous, the band mellow, and the beer…well, it was cheap and cold.  We shagged, twisted and shouted and gave everyone the soul finger to the songs of summer and the Carolina shores.  We sweated like day laborers on the unairconditioned dance floor and cooled off with a draft beer in paper cups out in the parking lot.

The one TV set located over the bar was tuned to the local CBS affiliate with a fuzzy and grainy Walter Cronkite keeping us updated.  As we started to leave for home, the word spread; they were stepping out early.  As if controlled by one mind, we moved to the bar, the band quit playing and the crowd became quiet.  I remember putting an arm around the pretty brunette and she reciprocated with an arm around my waist.  It may have been as close as we would ever come…physically or metaphorically.

We waited, speaking in whispers as Walter kept us abreast of the schedule.  Finally, a little before eleven Eastern Daylight Savings Time, Neil Armstrong’s foot became visible on the lunar module’s ladder and we held our collective breaths until he had both feet planted on the lunar surface.  We cheered, we jumped up and down, we kissed and hugged people we didn’t know.  Hope had turned into a reality and we were so proud.

It’s funny the things I conjure in my aging brain.  The sticky dance floor from too many spilled beers.  The huge oak tree that sat just outside the entryway, a root sticking out of the ground that you had to navigate in order to prove you were sober enough to go inside.  The press of the brunette’s hip against mine as the crowd pressed in under the one TV set.  Walter Cronkite wiping tears from his eyes.

I remember feeling proud…and hopeful.  I’m thankful for having been there with people I didn’t know.  People celebrating the same accomplishment.  The good feelings didn’t last and we as a country would continue to tailspin into Watergate.  Still, it makes me hopeful today.

Despite what my former students might have thought, I’m too young to have lived through the Civil War but the Civil Rights Era and the years of ’68 and ’69, followed by Watergate were as bad as I want to remember…until now.  Our present situation may be worse, or it may be because I have some wear and tear on me…no it is bad.

We need some hope from far away…or next door.  We need something positive to focus on.  We need something positive to pull us together, NOT another war or some catastrophe.

We need to be a POSITIVE leader in the world with positive leadership.  Whether it is ending bigotry and hate or Global Warming, committing to alternative energy, or landing a man on Mars.  We need to be that “city on the hill” that people want to emulate instead of the “Angry American”.  We need to be the “light” that reflects off the good found in others instead of attempting to absorb their light.

The fiftieth anniversary is on Saturday.  It can’t be…but it is.  If The Cellar of my youth was The Cellar of today, I’d take another cute brunette and hoist one in celebration.  Instead, weather permitting I’ll be outside to watch the moon rise.  I’ll remember the hope I felt from far away and hoist one for the many heroes who made it all possible.

 

A modern rendering of the entrance to The Cellar, Charlotte, NC.  Origin unknown.

Don Miller is a retired teacher and coach who writes for his own amusement.  Having said that, and since I can’t live off amusement, should anyone like to purchase a book they can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

Featured Image by Steve Penley, Moon Landing http://www.matregallery.com/penleyprints/icons

Apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s for cannibalizing his quote, “In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” From the poem Locksley Hall

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RADIOACTIVE DUST

It was October 21, 1962. I’m quite sure of the date. The twelve-year-old me listened intently to the adults gathered around my Mother’s formal dining room table awaiting Sunday dinner. That would-be lunch in more civilized circles. Twelve-year-old Donnie was doing as I had been told repeatedly, “children are to be seen, not heard.” Despite being a pre-teen, I was unsure of my standing and decided not to chance a thrashing with a “keen hickory” at the hands of my grandmother.

The news around the table was terrifying to the pre-teen me. Nuclear weapons right down the road in Cuba. Just ninety miles from the good old US of A. An uncle, a member of the Navy reserves, was afraid he was going to be called up to help blockade the island that had become a bristling launching pad of fire and radioactive ruin. A cousin, an army reservist and paratrooper, was afraid he would be making night time drops attempting to capture the nuclear sites. Everyone at the table agreed they would rather be “dead than red.” Everyone but me. Me? I wasn’t at all sure.

Despite my youth, I understood the Soviets and the United States hated each other even if the reasons behind the hatred escaped me. My civics teacher had hammered the differences between the Soviet Communists and our democratic form of government but I just wasn’t sure about the “dead rather than red” thing. I had a lot of living to do even if it was under the thumb of the goose stepping Red Army and I could see no good in circling the earth in a radioactive cloud.

The following Monday, after an “In Case of Nuclear Attack” drill, I kept watching the heavens hoping not to see a Bear Bomber with its red star dropping a bomb on Indian Land, South Carolina, population…not many. I also prayed not to see the telltale contrail of a missile zeroing in on Indian Land School. Just to be sure I kept my largest textbook nearby so I could protect myself if the bomb went off.

Once home I tentatively approached my father. He was hard at rest working on a crossword puzzle after an eight-hour shift a Springs Mills. Ernest didn’t seem to be the least bit concerned that the “Dogs of War” were nipping at our heels.

“Dad?”

“Yes, son,” looking over his reading glasses.

“I’m worried about this Cuba thing. Do you think we ought to get a fallout shelter?”

“I tell you what. Get the shovel and pick a place. When you think you’ve dug deep enough call me and I’ll come see. Right now, I need a four-letter word that means a dueling sword.”

I wish I felt as calm and collected as he appeared. As I read about North Korean nukes and a President threatening “fire and fury”, I am sorely concerned. In 1962 cooler heads prevailed. Russian ships intent on breaking the barricade reversed course, nuclear weapons in Cuba were removed and I did not add my ashes to a mushroom shaped cloud.

I don’t know if we have those cooler heads. The little Korean guy scares me. I think he has “little man’s disease.” Our own guy scares me and if you are waiting for me to say something about “small hands”, well, I just did. I wish it was a sick dream and these two guys were not in charge of nuclear codes but the truth is they are and they are on a collision course with us in the middle.

Think I’ll watch “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Maybe Peter Sellers can give me perspective since my own president can’t. Where is Slim Pickens when we need him?

For more of Don Miller’s writings and musings, including his latest release, Olivia, please follow his author’s page at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM