I need seven singers – or a conspiracy theory, whichever comes first (Singers, sign up below!)

It takes a conspirator to know a conspirator?

It takes a conspirator to know a conspirator?

December 7th, “the date that will live in INFAMY!”

That sentence is one that I use regularly to demonstrate to students how the careful use of one word can change not only the meaning but the import of a sentence.

FDR’s first draft of his speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor began with the sentence (he wrote it himself, by the way), “. . . a date that will live in history.” Big deal.

Don’t all days live in history?

We don’t have a record of FDR’s thought process—my guess is there wasn’t one, that he knew it had to change because he had studied communications at the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU, and they teach people how to be effective—in changing “history” to “infamy,” thereby making the speech one that lives in history.

Teach people to be effective? Baloney. People with degrees in communications know how to follow trends, how to use tools, how to make money selling stuff, but no one—let me repeat—NO ONE can teach a person that “infamy” is more memorable than “history.” You’re thinking, anyone can see that. We have 72 years of saying the sentence over and over again to know that single word made the speech. FDR could have stopped right there, and Congress would have declared war (even Robert A. Taft voted in favor).

How do you start a conspiracy theory, anyway? As I’ve said in a post here before, you make people believe your explanation for an event is the evidence that it happened.

Dallas has been awash in conspiracy theories all this year. The 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination here in our fair city. The one person I know personally who is an authority—that is, he has been studying the matter and having his students research and write about it for 20 years or so—thinks there was a conspiracy to murder the President. I’ve told him I want to talk to him about it. Perhaps we will and perhaps we won’t.

It was revealed recently that Robert F. Kennedy did not believe the Warren Commission. So that is somehow evidence that there was a conspiracy.

Robert F. Kennedy got his start in government law in 1952 when his father, Joseph Kennedy, persuaded Senator Joseph McCarthy to hire Bobby as assistant counsel to McCarthy’s conspiracy-searching and character-assassinating committee in the Senate. Robert Kennedy got his start in government “service” sniffing out conspiracies. Does Bobby Kennedy’s explanation of his brother’s death count as evidence? No. Explanations and conjectures are not evidence.

The first great conspiracy theory?

The first great conspiracy theory?

So my colleague tells me there IS, in fact, evidence. I have not bothered to read any of it because—well, because what difference does it make? Will absolute proof that there were two killers change anything? No. The American people have already chosen their lot—let conspiracy theories make our decisions. To wit, September 11, 2001.

We have laid down our freedom at the feet of the federal government on the theory that there is a vast world-wide conspiracy of “terrorists” who will destroy society as we know it if we don’t kill them with drones and let our own government go sniffing in our private affairs just as Bobby Kennedy did for Joe McCarthy.

Rhetoric is the art of using all available means to make an argument (not to “argue” but to make an “argument”—there is a difference). That’s what Aristotle said, at any rate.

I have no idea what rhetorical strategy to use to get from Bobby and Joe sniffing around and the CIA and the DHS sniffing around to “infamy” and “history” and then to my need for some singers.

So I’ll just say it. What difference does it make whether or not my students understand the rhetorical power of one word over another? Conspiracies demand acquiescence. Young people have been so brainwashed by our concessions of our liberties that they have no concept of our rights under the First Amendment. There is little point in trying to help them have an “ah-ha” moment about writing, about the choice of words, when the only amendment to the Constitution they care anything about is the Second. (No, I don’t know what process of “logic” I used to get from one idea to the next here. Deal with it.)

And the power of language—of anything beautiful or expressive—has one purpose now. To make money. Or to wield military (or corporate) power. After all, according to one of the first great conspiracy theories, FDR’s choice of words was important because he was involved in bringing about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

I know, I know. I’m not making any sense, and I’m becoming one of those grouchy and irrational old men my mother warned me about. I want to draw myself into a cocoon and forget all of the nonsense of the world. You all can go ahead with your conspiracy theories, and with your forfeiture of your right of freedom of conscience if you want. Or any other freedom—like the freedom to get on an airplane without a stranger looking at your privates.

But all I want is to make some music. I can’t do it even as well as I used to (which was never brilliant, my degrees notwithstanding). So I want simple. And I’d love to have a group of singers to direct so the physical act of producing the music didn’t fall on my shoulders alone.

Singers. Send me a comment here—I’m not kidding!!!—and let’s withdraw from conspiracies together.

Here I am playing the notes without the words for Thomas Ravenscroft’s little anthem (1611). I need singers! I can play the notes for a work like this, but that cries out for the original (which has more stanzas than I have here).

Remember, O thou Man,
O thou Man, O thou Man,
Remember, O thou Man,
Thy time is spent.
Remember, O thou Man,
How thou camest to me then,
And I did what I can.
Therefore repent.

Remember Adam’s fall,
O thou Man, O thou Man,
Remember Adam’s fall
From Heaven to Hell.
Remember Adam’s fall,
How we were condemned all
To Hell perpetual,
There for to dwell.

Remember God’s goodness,
O thou Man, O thou Man,
Remember God’s goodness
And promise made.
Remember God’s goodness,
How his only Son he sent
Our sins for to redress.
Be not afraid.

America’s first satellite (and my first mass murder memory)

What American fun! My first mass murder!

What American fun! My first mass murder!

Terrorized excitement gripped the kids of Scottsbluff, NE, on January 31, 1958.

Charlie Starkweather, the first real-life mass murderer we had ever heard of was IN OUR TOWN!

But the story is more important to me for many reasons other than our childhood reaction to the presence of a real-life mass-murderer in our town.

Ask anyone who lived in Scottsbluff in 1958 (I was 13) if they remember Starkweather. Of course they do. And they probably remember the picture I’ve posted here. It’s not quite clear to me even today why the media made such a feeding frenzy of the mere fact that Starkweather was in town (well, no, he was across the river at the country jail in Gering) on his way to the state penitentiary in Lincoln. But it was better entertainment than anything on TV.

He had been arrested, it’s interesting to me to remember and note, in the town where I was born, Douglas, WY.

Starkweather’s murder spree was over 50 years ago and is now a footnote to Nebraska and Wyoming history. Even in 1958 it did not thoroughly dominate the news. In his “Recollections” (linked above), Rick Myers observes that even though the transfer of the mass murderer was taking place in our little city, the headline of the local newspaper the next morning was about another—more important—story.

On Saturday, Feb. 1, 1958, the Star-Herald reported on the transfer of the prisoners to Lincoln as they left the jail before a crowd of “200 curious onlookers.”
But the story was not the lead.
Something else happened on Jan. 31, 1958. The headline “America’s First Satellite in Orbit Around the Earth” as the launch of “Explorer” marked the country’s entry into the space age
(Myers, Rick. “A reporter’s recollections.”  starherald.com. Saturday, January 26, 2008.)

I remember that Explorer was launched—about three or four months after the USSR launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. I remember the sense of pride in our nation’s accomplishment even though we lost the race to be first to launch a satellite to the Russians.  I would never, however, have remembered that vastly more important event took place the day we were being aghast, thrilled, frightened, and excited by the presence of the monster in our county jail.

I’m not even sure how we knew Starkweather was in our midst. No FB, Twitter, starherald.com, or any other instant news source—except KOLT and KNEB radio stations. And I do not remember that in the local newspaper “the story was not the lead.”

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and say my guess is that Charles Starkweather bought the guns with which he killed eleven people legally. We had never heard of such a thing as gun-control-legislation. Have you ever been to Western Nebraska? In some minor respects it’s not much different from West Texas, both in geography and in population. You know, “I’ll let go of my gun when they pry my cold dead fingers off of it,” and all of that.

When we lived in Douglas, WY, my father’s friends were Wyoming ranchers. They had vast acreages next to even vaster public lands—wild, undeveloped lands—where they hunted antelope and deer. My dad learned to hunt, and he bought guns. When we moved to Worland, WY, he hunted with new friends, hunted deer and elk. Somewhere in the family pictures are photos of him standing with his rifle beside a deer he killed which was hanging head-down ready for butchering.

When we moved to Kearney, NE, my father learned to hunt pheasants. I knew where his guns were in the house, but I also knew I could not get to them. When my sister was born (my brother was 7 and I was 5), my father sold his guns.

He told me later he did not want us to grow up in a house where guns were kept. He did not want us to believe that owning guns was a way of life.

You have to know what a weak and lily-livered liberal my father was (if you believe that, I have a penthouse on the 19th floor of the Merc

George Pierre Hennard was here.

George Pierre Hennard was here.

on Main in Dallas to sell you). He was certainly a contradiction. Baptist minister and a lifelong (real, not faux) conservative Republican whose hero was Dr. Edwin T. Dahlberg, President of that Communist-front organization (according to J. Edgar Hoover), the National Council of Churches. Dr. Dahlberg had also been a conscientious objector during WWII, and my father told me on several occasions he hoped he would have had the courage to do the same if he had not had a medical deferment.

I obviously come by my hatred of guns honestly. I am perplexed, mystified—no, I am grieved—by the obsession with Weapons of Solitary Destruction that afflicts so many Americans. You can tell me all you want that guns don’t kill people, people do. Or you can throw into any discussion of murder and the Second Amendment or any other related subject the idiotic claim that as many knives are used for murder in this country as are guns.

And I simply remember my father who knew that little boys don’t kill other little boys, but hunting rifles might.

Charlie Starkweather (11), Aaron Alexis (12), Michael Kenneth McLendon (10), James Eagan Holmes (12), Jiverly Antares Wong (13), and George Pierre Hennard (23)—to name a few—would not have been able to kill 81 of their fellow Americans among them with knives.

Collateral damage

Collateral damage

We can no longer afford to fund the space explorations of NASA, but we have enough money to keep alive an $11,000,000,000 annual firearms industry in this country. Something is grievously sick.

“Baby, don’t hurt me no more.”

The incredible self-sufficient Jelly Fish

The incredible self-sufficient Jelly Fish

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A couple of weeks ago I heard on the radio a song that Bugged me so much I had to look it up. “What is love?” sung by Haddaway  (of whom, of course, I had never heard). The song bugged me because—an unusual experience for me with recorded singing—I understood the lyrics.**

They are mindlessly (yes, mindlessly) simple. “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me.” Over and over and over again.

The answer to the question, “What is love?” is “Baby don’t hurt me no more.” Good grief! It’s not really fair for me to leave it at that. There is more to the definition:

 Oh, I don’t know, what can I do,
What else can I say, it’s up to you.
I know we’re one, just me and you.
I can’t go on

So the answer to the question is not a definition, but a plea followed by the self-annihilating assertion that the relationship is “up to you,” and the singer says he “can’t go on.”

This is patently absurd. But the lyrics of pop music have always been (generally speaking) absurd. Among my favorite absurdities (I loved it as a nine-year-old and pretended I was Joan Webber singing it) is

Oh, let me go, Let me go, Let me go, lover, Let me be, Set me free, from your spell.
You don’t want me, but you want me, To go on wanting you.
Now I pray that you will say that we’re through.

A few days ago I was part of a Facebook discussion about “What is love?” One person was quoted as saying love is a decision and that sparked a debate.

I completely and steadfastly agree with her. Love IS a decision. Certainly a complicated, difficult, dangerous decision, but a decision nevertheless.

Let Me Go, Lover

Let Me Go, Lover

Forget your Greek philosophy and forget your belief (conscious or not—we’re all Ancient Greek at the core) that there are different kinds of love. We know about philos (brotherly love), eros (romantic love) and agape (communal love). Forget it. That’s highly problematic thinking.

Here’s the example I used in the Facebook discussion: I am approached by a homeless person asking for money. I have absolutely no attraction to her. In fact, I am offended by her. I can, however, DECIDE to treat her with dignity, with respect, with concern – in short, with love.

I know all the arguments against that assertion. “That’s not love.” Well, I say it is.

Then, of course, there’s the guy at the gym I can’t keep my eyes off of, and I can barely keep my hands off him. Is that love? Well, yes. Some would say lust. I don’t think so. I have to DECIDE whether or not to try to seduce him.

Here’s my very simple point. The other person—the person who is the object of one’s “affection,” momentary or otherwise, has nothing to do with how one decides to react. It’s completely my decision how close I get either to the homeless woman or the hot man at the gym. I can decide to join or not to join a community of interest or mutual support. Those are all decisions.

I think those decisions make the difference between fulfillment as a human “being” and the superficiality of human “doing” (sorry for the cliché). If our reactions were not decisions, we wouldn’t be much different from the species of jelly fish I heard about on NPR that don’t even have sex. They somehow simply reproduce themselves. And—most unlike human beings—they’re immortal. They die, and a few of their cells stay alive and start splitting up and make a new jelly fish. They need no one else to continue the propagation of the species.

Here’s how we’re not like those jelly fish. We make decisions. For one thing, we decide whether or not to disclose ourselves to others. I’m not making this up.  I’m not smart enough to come up with such an idea on my own. Sorry for the long quote, but I’m not clever enough to paraphrase or condense it.

To disclose your fears to someone you have known for a week is one thing. . . . It is another thing to disclose your fears to . . . [someone] who knows what you have been through and has, to some degree, endured it with you. . . shared history. . . not only enables the encounter by allowing one to feel comfortable . . . It also . . .  giv[es] it a different meaning and significance. Shared histories and intimacy are thus mutually informing.

. . .  it is because having such relationships is of crucial importance to us that we regard others as irreplaceable. We need people in our lives who are not interchangeable with others so that we can relate to them in unique and specific ways. . . .  if there is no one in our lives who knows what we have been through, and who has been there with us, it is hard to resist the conclusion that we will be missing out on an important form of human interaction.***

I’d say it’s pretty much like deciding to be a jelly fish.

What will your decision be?

What will your decision be?

___________
**Please understand before you read what I’ve written that I have almost no pretense of being a philosopher, a psychologist, a theologian, or a social scientist. I just observe what I observe.
*** Kadlac, Adam. “Irreplaceability and Identity.” Social Theory & Practice 38.1 (2012): 33-54.

Their way—not my way—with words

They have a way with words

They have a way with words

THE BACK STORY

A few days ago Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, hosts and stars of NPR’s “A Way with Words,” were in town. A crowd of us “grammar nerds,” packed the iconic 1938 art deco Lakewood Theater to hear them have fun with words. The program was—from any objective viewpoint—wonderfully odd. Martha and Grant emceed word games in the style of “Jeopardy” with three Dallas personages (including the Mayor) competing. And Martha and Grant each gave fascinating twenty-minute talks about their lives with words.

The event was a fund-raiser for the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas. (Please click the link and learn about the Center.)

If you know the NPR show, you know these two are quick-witted, smart, and funny. Their banter about the origins of words is for “grammar nerds” both entertaining and informative.

Grant Barrett’s lecture/talk/slideshow was about his new understanding of how we use words, based on his observations of his six-year-old son’s evolving use of language.

Martha Barnett told us about her seduction into the love of words through her private tutoring with an retired professor from the University of Tennessee when she was studying ancient Greek. Yes, ancient Greek—which became her college major. Her description of his teaching—throwing away all the grammar books and simply looking at words and asking questions—is my “take-away” for the evening.

THE TAKE-AWAY

This semester the students in the classes I planned wrote essays about three speeches by U.S. Presidents: Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” Reagan’s “Challenger Address,” and Roosevelt’s “A Date that Will Live in Infamy” speech. My “Goal” (a sacred word in education) was to accomplish the “Learning Outcomes” (an even more sacred term) of understanding the rhetoric of the speeches themselves and beginning to think about the role of Presidential rhetoric in our nation’s life.

The unstated goal—the education specialists who decide which words are sacred this year would not like to see this in my course description—was, as always, to help students to think well enough to put two ideas together (almost any two ideas will do) and write an essay explaining how the ideas go together, an essay that doesn’t sound as if either a fourth-grader or an academic wrote it.

The only textbook I had the students buy is a (tiny by college standards) book, Slipping the Surly Bonds, by Mary E. Stuckey, a study of Reagan’s “Challenger Address.” I chose the book for Stuckey’s discussion of “epideictic” versus “deliberative” rhetoric. Most presidential speaking these days is, by Stuckey’s definition, “epideictic,” that is, ceremonial and (perhaps) eloquent, rather than “deliberative,” that is, explanatory and (perhaps) logical.

He had a way with Peggy Noonan's words

He had a way with Peggy Noonan’s words

For three months we talked about epideictic oratory (Stuckey takes her definition from Aristotle). The  ceremonial occasions for it. The writing that makes it eloquent (sic) as opposed to thought-provoking. We found epideictic passages in the three speeches. We talked about how Reagan (more precisely, Peggy Noonan, his speech writer) wove epideictic speech together with deliberative speech in the “Challenger Address” in order to remember and praise the astronauts who died in the Challenger disaster and at the same time to defend and promote the nation’s space program.

I design classes so the students talk among themselves, write for themselves and each other, and critique each other’s ideas. I pretty much stay out of the process except to discuss their ideas and their proposals for presenting their ideas after they have struggled with them. Last week I discovered the failure of my approach.

The final assignment this semester was to write a personal statement why it’s important that Americans discern what’s going on in presidential rhetoric, a statement without my input, their only “solo flight” of the semester. One student’s essay included the following sentences:
Because presidential speeches all have a purpose, whether it is an epidemic or deliberative, the speech is not effective if the audience does not distinguish between the two. . . An epidemic is a way to affect or tend to affect a large number of individuals within a nation all at once. . . When you connect with the American people, then an epidemic starts to go in effect. Once an epidemic of a speech has started, you can tell. The attitude, the audience, and atmosphere change rapidly.

Stay away from Greek words

Stay away from Greek words

When you stop laughing and cringe (as I am, still), answer for me a couple of questions. How on earth does one teach? Is it possible to teach? How did Martha’s tutor do it—throw away the textbooks and inspire her? What is education anyway, a process, an outcome, something else that I haven’t even thought of yet? Forty years I’ve been doing this, and I don’t know.

Where is MR. REPUBLICAN when we need him?

“I remember the day he died,” I told my students recently, speaking of Robert A. Taft.

It’s too late, of course to listen to Robert A. Taft, Republican Senator from Ohio, 1939-1953. And some would argue that his anti-union, anti-big government, anti-New Deal politics are not appropriate for today (although the Tea-Baggers and Mitch McConnell would say they are).

Imacon Color ScannerBut I wish he had been around to give George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld a piece of his mind in 2002, and I wish Barak Obama would read a few of his speeches now.

No one has ever suggested before that a single nation should range over the world, like a knight-errant, protecting democracy and ideals of good faith, and tilting, like Don Quixote, against the windmills of Fascism [read “terrorism”](1).

Senator Taft had good reason to be wary of this Knight-Errant. Even his understanding of the world sounds eerily modern.

But now it is suggested that the whole world is different. It is said that distances are so short we cannot possibly avoid being involved in a general war. I don’t believe it. I think if we are sufficiently determined not be become involved, we can stay out. We learned our lesson in 1917. We learned that modern war defeats its own purposes. A war to preserve democracy resulted in the destruction of more democracies that it preserved (2).

And he had a clear understanding of the effects of war on democracy.

Not only that, a war whether to preserve democracy or otherwise would almost certainly destroy democracy in the United States. We have moved far towards totalitarian government already. The additional powers sought by the President in case of war, the nationalization of all industry and all capital and all labor, already propose in bill before the Congress, would create a socialist dictatorship which it would be impossible to dissolve when the war ended (3).

I think Mr. Republican, as Taft was known, would have been equally distressed to discover the “[move] far towards totalitarian government [that has] already” taken place today; that is, the move toward a government that is but a shadow government beholden to the incredible domination of every aspect of all of our lives by corporations responsible to no one but the power of making money. We live in a totalitarian state controlled not by politicians, but by the ridiculously anti-human abstraction global capitalism. Mr. Republican would be aghast at the non-democratic state into which we have allowed ourselves to fall in order to “preserve democracy.”
____

(1), (2), (3) Taft, Robert A. “Let Us Stay Out Of War.” Vital Speeches of the Day 5.8 (1939): 254.

The sweep of my [clock’s] hands

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Even though my first-year writing classes meet in a computer lab, and students do all of their writing electronically, I sometimes need to write notes for them on the white board.

This is problematic. Some of the students cannot read cursive script—because they can’t write cursive script. Their elementary schools did not teach them.

I spent hours in third grade honing the art of penmanship. My writing has devolved somewhat in the past few years. My control over some micro-movements of my hands has stiffened. But everyone my age can make at least an educated stab at writing a thank-you note by hand.``printing 009

Every semester I give my classes a quiz over the syllabus for several reasons. It makes the students responsible for knowing the class goals and guidelines (they can’t say to me, “But I didn’t know. . .”).  It gives me a snapshot of the students’ study habits. And it allows me to see who uses (and therefore can read) cursive writing. Almost none of them uses cursive writing on these quizzes. I ask about that, and it is—to me—shocking that more and more students say they have never been taught.

Like cursive writing, clocks with hands are becoming anomalies. Don’t let the Rolex commercials on PBS fool you. The only reason to wear a Rolex is to show you can afford a $15,000 watch. People who wear them certainly have all the electronic gizmos.

I don’t own an analog clock—except my watch (which is about as far from a Rolex as it’s possible to be). I wear a watch because I like to see the now time in relation to other times. I intensely dislike “digital” clocks.

People in twelve-step programs, and Buddhist gurus, and followers of Rumi, and all manner of well-meaning inspirational speakers advise us to learn to “live in the moment.” Well-meaning friends remind me often.

???????????????????????????????Everyone knows George Santayana’s famous adage (most often misquoted and always quoted out of context) from his Life of Reason, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Of much more interest to me is his assertion that “A man’s memory may almost become the art of continually varying and misrepresenting his past, according to his interests in the present.”

I think living “in the present” is impossible. The past is always one step back—and is always influencing the present moment. Santayana elaborates on our inability to live in the present because whatever we are doing at the moment, we have our memory, both short and long term, and

Even what we still think we remember will be remembered differently; so that a man’s memory may almost become the art of continually varying and misrepresenting his past, according to his interests in the present. . . .  Things truly wear those aspects to one another. A point of view and a special lighting are not distortions. They are conditions of vision, and spirit can see nothing not focused in some living age. (Santayana, George. Reasons and Places, Vol I., “The Background of My Life.” New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944.)

Writing by hand. Hands on clocks. Memory. “Conditions of vision.”

It seems to me that one of the results of the immanent loss of the ability to write by hand or to see and understand the movement of the hands of a clock is that we will lose the art of varying and misrepresenting our past according to our interests in the present. If we can no longer visualize the passage of time but are always trapped in a digital moment, we have no ability to absorb the past—even the immediate past—and make of it what we need in order to move to the future.

I don’t need to live in the past. But if I forget that standing on the toilet seat to put up a shower curtain is likely to end in a fall onto the bathtub, the next time I will most likely break my hip instead of simply crushing a few ligaments.

If all I know Is that it’s 7:57 instead of,
hand time 0
then all I can remember is three groups of seven LED bars, not that my arm is in process of writing or that those spots on my hand were not there ten years ago or that I can use my hands to communicate. I’ve lost something I love more than “living in the moment.” My “spirit can see nothing not focused in some living age.” The age spots on my hands and the imperfections in my script and the sweep of the dial of my watch help me remember that “Things truly wear [ ] aspects to one another.”

Who remembers Senator Taft?

The Las Vegas I knew

The Baptist Las Vegas I knew

After my posting here two days ago about George Frederick Handel and Stuart Hamblen, my sister remarked, “You remember too much.”

That’s a fine way to speak to your brother! Someone else reminded me yesterday that I saw Jersey Boys (the musical) last year. I vaguely remember seeing it, but I can’t remember the plot. The songs include “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You.” Those I remember. But not from the show. I remember too much?

But I remember July 31, 1953.

I seem to be surrounded by people who remember details of stuff of which I barely remember the broadest outlines. Movies, plays, novels, operas, paintings in museums. I’m intimidated when someone I love quotes a line from a movie he saw twenty-five years ago.  And my sister says I remember too much!!

Las Vegas, Nevada, July 31, 1953.

Of course, there are good reasons for my memory lapses. I didn’t have that good a memory to begin with. And my psychiatrist says depression (and taking meds to fight it) generates memory loss. Seizures (and taking meds to fight them) cause memory loss. I once asked my neurologist if anyone had done a long-term study of the effects of Carbamezapine, and his reply was, “You’re it” (32 years). So I shouldn’t beat myself up over memory loss.

July 31, 1953. Our family was vacationing in Las Vegas. No, not at a casino. The pastor of the First Baptist Church there and my dad traded preaching duties for a couple of Sundays, and both families got a little bit of vacation – we lived in each other’s parsonages, so we could afford the trip. We got the much better end of that deal! Las Vegas v. Scottsbluff?

My students are in the nascent stages of the semester’s research project.  They will invent (inventio, the first step in Aristotle’s process of rhetoric) their topics from an array of speeches about events leading to Pearl Harbor and FDR’s “date that shall live in infamy” speech.  No papers on the Sino-Japanese War or the conspiracy theories  in regard to FDR’s foreknowledge of and failure to prevent Pearl Harbor. Only the speeches.

Robert A. Taft (September 8, 1889 – July 31, 1953)

Robert A. Taft
(September 8, 1889 – July 31, 1953)

I was giving them historical background today.  One of the speeches is an “isolationist” speech, a speech against American involvement in war across either the Atlantic or the Pacific. The speech is by Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, leader of the Senate Republicans in the days leading up to World War II. A student asked a question about Taft, and as I answered, out it slipped. “I remember the day he died.”

Omigod! It’s true. I do remember. Standing in the living room of the Baptist parsonage in Las Vegas. The news report of Taft’s death had come over the radio. And I asked my dad, “Does that mean if he had been elected President, the President would be dead?”

My parents had wanted Taft to be The Republican nominee in the 1952 election instead of Eisenhower. Of course, Eisenhower was preferable to Adlai Stevenson, but they had wanted Taft.

With sixty years of hindsight, my question seems pretty silly. Obviously, if he were President and he died, the President would be dead.

But it’s not quite that simple. An eight-year-old boy aware somehow for the first time (perhaps) of both death and presidential politics—together, in the same moment.

Of course I remember July 31, 1953. I can’t remember the name of the actress who played Reno Sweeney in the production of Anything Goes we saw last night. Fantastic!—her every song (literally) a show stopper. But I remember the day Senator Robert A. Taft died.

Post script:

About memory. A student from last semester stopped me on campus last week to thank me for the research work last semester. He had been to Hawaii during semester break, and he wanted me to know how much seeing Pearl Harbor meant to him—how much more it meant to him than to his friends. I guess memory gets played forward sometimes.
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