“. . . While the deepening shadows fall . . .” (W. F. Sherwin ― 1877)


Man made structures huddling on the earth as seen from the top of Scotts Bluff National Monument. (Photo: Harold Knight, August 21, 2016)

On August 24, 2016, my sister Bonnie Sato and I were in our childhood home, Scottsbluff, NE. We wanted to see a Nebraska sunset from “the bluff,” that is, Scotts Bluff National Monument. We drove to a small observation point we knew at the west base of the bluff. The sunset did not disappoint us. A cloud cover broke just above the horizon, and we were able to see the sun set under the clouds ― a common Nebraska event. I took about a hundred pictures.
___During the sunset I had in mind one of the first hymns I learned to play on the organ (I began lessons 62 years ago when I was 9 ― in Scottsbluff). In our hymnal, the tune was in the key of A-flat. The fifth note of the melody is D-natural, the raised 4th in the key of A-flat, creating a tritone, the “Devil’s interval.” It’s not harmonically important in this tune, simply an embellishment. But I heard it as a harmony tone and would often elongate the rhythm at that beat when I was alone. I did not know the name of that interval, midway between a 4th and a 5th, and, according to the Medieval theorists, difficult to sing and of the devil. I simply thrilled to the sound.
___The next time the Devil’s Interval impressed itself on me was when I was in high school (by this time in Omaha), and I learned to play the entire piano version of the songs from West Side Story. Tony sings the Devil’s Interval as the second note of “Maria.” Make of that what you may. My ultra-conservative Mennonite organ teacher would not countenance the worldly music of Broadway, of course, but he did explain the Devil’s Interval to me.
___Yesterday I was looking through my sunset pictures for a new “cover photo” for my Facebook page. I found one similar to (they are all similar to) the one below. As I was looking through my photos, I was taken back to August 24, even to the point of singing “Day Is Dying in the West” ― aloud here in the my apartment where I am alone.
___I thought of recording it on my Steuart Goodwin pipe organ (yes, if you don’t know, it’s in my living room) to put on my YouTube page, but I wanted the words, so I found the YouTube page of Faith Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, WA, by googling the hymn. It is here. Listen for the Devil on the word “the.”


Scottsbluff National Monument in shadow seen from the Wildcat Hills, 20 miles to the south. (Photo: Harold Knight, August 25, 2016)

___The hymn is musically too sentimental to be in sophisticated hymnals like those of the Episcopal and Lutheran churches (that’s not an elitist or sarcastic statement; they are the most musically sophisticated hymnals in common use). That begs the question, however, why the Episcopalians have not found a more sophisticated tune for those words. The hymn does not mention Jesus or “salvation.” Many fundamentalist Christians would think the almost “deistic” words would appeal to the Episcopalians, who, they suppose, are only marginally Christian. And yet I learned the hymn from a Baptist hymnal. Go figure.
___Perhaps because I learned the hymn when I was so young, even in my educated (presumably sophisticated) musical taste I still love both the tune and the words (mea culpa).
___Or perhaps my love of the hymn and tune is situated in my present age and understanding.

And when fading from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night. . .

This week I celebrated my 72nd birthday. Last night from the National Geographic TV channel, I watched an installment of the series Earth: The Making of a Planet (2015). Through the entire program showing the gathering together of space “debris” through millions of years to form the earth, I sat thinking (and several times saying aloud here in my apartment where I am alone), “How do they know that?” Is our science so advanced that we can state with (apparent) certainty what rocks, what elements, what minerals formed the earth, and how water managed to “cover the face of the deep?”
___Of course, the implicit question for me was, “If we know how it came together, do we know how it will end?” It will end. Our sun, a mature star, will become a red giant, and a red dwarf, and a supernova, and a black hole eventually (10 billion years? who knows?) and will take our solar system with it. More than “day” is dying in the west.


Sunset over Wyoming as seen from the western base of Scottsbluff National Monument. (Photo: August 24, 2016, Harold Knight)

___I no longer use the language of that hymn, “Lord God of hosts.” I find it difficult to understand any more the concept of God ― at least of a god who controls what our eyes will see (the sub-text of the hymn, of course, is that the dying day is really the image of our dying selves) when we die or any time later or sooner.
___On the other hand, watching from Nebraska as the sun sets over Wyoming I cannot help but find in the core of my self the hope, perhaps even the belief, that

“While the deepening shadows fall,
[a] heart of love [enfolds us] all,
And through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil [its] face,
Our hearts ascend.”

I don’t believe that in any religious sense ― or even in the ever-popular “spiritual not religious” sense. Here’s what I think: some force that we, homo sapiens, cannot control, did not put in motion, and cannot stop ― whether by building walls around ourselves, or by allowing the overwhelming forces of the material world to dictate our social structures, or by refusing to care at the basic physical level for all the people in our sphere of influence, or by deeming ourselves to have the only correct understanding of “God” ― is responsible for all of this, from my heart to the two black holes astronomers recently saw merge in space.
___It is as convenient to call that force a “heart of love” as anything else. Or express it as the Devil’s Interval. But I’ll bet anyone standing where they can see the openness of our “prairie,” even with its plethora of man made structures huddled on the ground, for long enough will know that in the

“pass[ing of] the stars, the day, the night . . .
eternal morning [will] rise
And shadows end.”

Neither National Geographic, nor Donald Trump, nor the National Council of Churches, nor I can have any concept of how that process began or how it will end. We can’t even know our place in it.

Faith Presbyterian Church, Tacoma, WA
Ron Bechtel, Organist
Words: Mary A Lathbury, 1877
Tune: W F Sherwin – Chautaugua, 1877

Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching earth with rest;
Wait and worship while the night
Sets the evening lamps alight
Through all the sky.
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of Thee!
Heaven and earth are praising Thee,
O Lord most high!

While the deepening shadows fall,
Heart of love enfolding all
Through the glory and the grace
Of the stars that veil Thy face,
Our hearts ascend.

And when fading from our sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night,
Lord of angels, on our eyes
Let eternal morning rise
And shadows end.

. . . seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all . . .


Scotts Bluff from the east, as migrants on the Oregon Trail would first have seen it.

Between August 18 and August 25, 2016, my sister, my brother, my sister-in-law, and I made a small pilgrimage to the cities in Nebraska where we lived from 1950 to 1969 – Kearney, Scottsbluff, and Omaha. Scottsbluff, 21 miles from the Wyoming border, is where we have the most memories in common. Scotts Bluff National Monument dominates the horizon from Scottsbluff the city, as it does all of the small cities in the area, Gering, Mitchell, Bayard, and others. The bluff is to this day a constant in my memory. I wrote the following shortly after our trip to try to explain the significance of Scotts Bluff to me.


From the southwest, approaching from Gering.

As geological formations go, Scotts Bluff National Monument in far Western Nebraska is not overly impressive. Its elevation above sea level is only 4,659 feet, and it rises only 800 feet above the North Platte River at its base. The Riverside Park in the City of Scottsbluff, is on the other side of the river.


From the south. A quintessential Nebraska view.

As a kid I discovered in the Encyclopedia Britannica that if the Empire State Building were in Riverside Park in the city of Scottsbluff, it would be almost half again as tall as the Bluff. I used to try to imagine how that would look, but I could never in my mind’s eye get the New York building even as tall as the Bluff.


The South Butte of the Bluff.

My birthplace is Douglas, WY, at the base of Laramie Peak. I have memories of the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming from the first five years of my life. I went to college at the University of Redlands, nestled at the base of Mt. San Gorgonio in Southern California. I lived in Upland, CA, for several years at the base of Mt. San Antonio. I know mountains. I know Scotts Bluff is not a mountain.

However, the Bluff dominates the lives and thinking―the consciousness―of the people of Scottsbluff (2013 population, 15,023), Gering (2013 population 8,084), Mitchell (2013 population 1,685), and several other small towns in its shadow.


From the top of the Bluff looking southeast.

Scotts Bluff still, 56 years after our family moved from Scottsbluff to Omaha, in some way I cannot explain, dominates my consciousness. This past week I was in Scottsbluff for only the fifth time in those 56 years. Driving across the plains of Nebraska and seeing the Bluff come into view brings me to a place of peace and self-knowledge that I have achieved nowhere else I have ever been.


From the top of the Bluff looking east toward Gering.

The Bluff apparently gave many of the settlers 150 years ago crossing the country on the Oregon Trail a sense of peace and understanding, or at least hope and courage.

Many times in my life I have wondered how I would be different if I had spent the 10 most formative years of my life in the shadow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the Library of Congress in Washington, or Mount Vesuvius, or the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, or the Great Wall of China, or La Scala Opera House in Milan.


Looking northeast toward Scottsbluff the city.

If I had read Proust or Heidegger instead of Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather.

It is, of course, pointless to speculate how my life might have been. I know only that my consciousness was shaped in part―a very large part―by seeing daily a geological dirt and stone formation the mystery of which is that it exists at all. The processes of the gathering and demise of the great North American inland sea, and the uplift and erosion of mountains are fairly obvious here. The geological history spans 33 to 22 million years.


Looking west toward Laramie Peak (128 miles away and visible on a clear day).

The history for me began in 1950. It is the history of knowing day after day the power of the natural world to create itself, to build structures that show us―me, at any rate―how little power or control we have over anything.  The Empire State Building may be taller than the bluff, and we could build another one exactly like it. But we could not―cannot― build another Scotts Bluff. It is not spectacular like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. It simply is. The bluff is the farthest extension of a reality stretched across the horizon of my life, the edges of my mind, reminding me that we, all of us humans together, cannot, did not, and could not create anything remotely like it. It is the embodiment of the mystery of my life.


Sunset from the base of the Bluff looking toward Laramie Peak.

“. . . memories are not retrieved but are formed; narratives are actively reconstructed. . . “ (Siân E. Lindley)

My first organ memories - Baldwin Model 5

. My first organ memories – Baldwin Model 5





If Siân E. Lindley has done her research correctly, and if scientific inquiry (in the United States this is always a matter of debate) can be trusted,

. . . we can surmise that memories are not retrieved but are formed; narratives are actively reconstructed (and co-constructed with others); a life story is interpreted and retrospectively reinterpreted; and narrative truth and belief, rather than objective truth, is bound up with identity. (Lindley, Siân E. “Before I Forget: From Personal Memory To Family History.” Human-Computer Interaction 27.1/2 (2012): 13-36.)

Lindley is a professional researcher; therefore, her conclusions are suspect to Americans. She is

a social scientist with an interest in how technology can be designed to fit, and how it is shaped by, the social context in which it is used (Lindley, “Before”).

Nevertheless (in spite of, not because of, her scientific methods) I find what she says fascinating. We don’t retrieve our memories, we form them so we can retrospectively interpret them to ourselves and to others. Wow! My memory of playing the piano for a wedding for the first time is what I form it to be, not the details of what happened. (If I remembered every detail, it would take as long as the wedding did—I don’t have time.)

I remember distinctly, hauntingly so, a meeting of a graduate seminar studying the writings of Hemingway and Fitzgerald (about 20 years ago). The half-dozen or so of us were seated at a table in a small classroom in the Jonsson Building at the University of Texas at Dallas. The professor (whose name I do not remember) was tall—6’ 3” or something—muscular, swarthy, black-haired, handsome (it’s part of my narrative that I remember what he looked like but not his name). The students in the seminar were mostly graduate assistants teaching in the freshman rhetoric program.

One of my friends said something about the “epistemological” something or the other of the story we were studying, and I knew—precisely at that moment—what I had been thinking for quite a while, that I did not belong in that graduate program. I had been trying to figure out what they meant by “epistemological” for some time—it’s a favorite word among scholars—with no success. “Epistemology” means, according to dictionary.com, a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.” I don’t have a clue what that means. I wouldn’t use “epistemology” in a sentence for any reason.

I would, however, show you the short stories of Hemingway that seem to have gay themes. My paper on the subject earned a B from the handsome professor, not because it was poorly written, but because he didn’t like the subject or agree with me.

For quite a while, my reconstruction, my re-interpretation of that memory was that I’m just not very smart. That is true, of course. But not knowing what “epistemology” means is not what proves that. Not being able to explain why people who irrationally hate President Obama ought to be ashamed of themselves—that’s evidence that I’m not very smart.

Or not being able to sort the flatware in my silverware drawer.

Or not being able to figure out how to get my “smart TV” hooked up to my router so I can watch Netflix movies on the big screen instead of on this computer, which I hate.

The first First Baptist Church

The first First Baptist Church

So what do I remember about playing the piano for a wedding for the first time?

In the far southeastern area our town in Western Nebraska in the 1950s was a small church known as La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana (I think that’s right—my memory may not be reconstructing that correctly). It was a small but not tiny frame church structure, and Pastor Raymundo was the pastor. He had a wife and one son, Sammy. Our family shared dinner with the Raymundos quite regularly, and—more fun—we went to events at the church, most of which were followed by dinners of Mexican food made by the women of the church.

Sorry, all of you Texans. You don’t know what real Mexican cooking is.

During the summer, La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana had overflow crowds on Sundays. This was at the height (I think, although I should look it up) of the brasero program, and Mexican workers came to work the sugar beet fields and create the economy of our county.

The Mexican Baptist Church has now—I believe (you’d think I’d do some research and know these things for sure)—joined with the First Baptist Church. The membership is constant because all of the Mexican-Americans are permanent residents, probably citizens.

They created the economy of Western Nebraska

They created the economy of Western Nebraska

My organ teacher gave me a book of organ pieces to learn that included both the Mendelssohn “Midsummer Night’s Dream” Wedding March and the Wagner “Here comes the bride.” I learned to play them (I was in about 6th or 7th grade) just in case someone would want me to play for their wedding.

A young couple from La Primera Iglesia Bautista Mexicana were getting married, and they wanted the American traditional music instead of the music their church generally used. My father suggested I could play the two wedding marches. My first wedding gig.

I don’t know if the couple or their families were Braseros or American citizens or illegal immigrants. We didn’t ask questions like that—at least we middle schoolers didn’t. The adults may have been concerned with such things, but they did not include us in their conversations if they did.

We just went to their church, and they came to ours, and we got to share in glorious (real) Mexican dinners, and Sammy Raymundo and I were buddies, and things were just fine.

I don’t know what happened.

The epistemology about the nature of the immigration crisis in this country may have to do simply with our collective memory. Somehow we’ve come to the point where our narrative, our reconstruction of the meaning of immigration has gotten really fucked up.

I wonder where Sammy Raymundo is.

“Time . . . dense and viscous as amber suspending intentions like bees. . .” (Kay Ryan)

Broadway, but not at the edge of my time.

Broadway, but not at the edge of my time.

Last Sunday my connection to the world broke. My iPhone crashed. I could not turn it on. Not 30 minutes before I had been telling a friend I should get a new phone to take selfies without my digital camera on a tripod. I was walking home from the train in the Arctic Vortex cold when it crashed. I thought perhaps the cold was preventing it from powering up.

I drove straight to the AT&T store. The manager/greeter had it powered up before he introduced me to a “representative” to see if, perhaps, it was time to get a new phone—I’d been eligible for an update so long I wasn’t even in their “update” system.

No wonder I couldn’t take a selfie.

Now I can. I’ve taken only three in three days, but why would I want to? Why would I want you to see me sitting here without having washed my face or brushed my teeth and only half-way into my second cup of coffee? Shall I make a duck-face?

You say you want to see me? OK. I’m neither proud nor ashamed. It’s just me. Besides, I should join the first-year university students who, a couple of years ago, would not allow their ID pictures to be taken if they were not dressed just right and their hair combed and styled perfectly, but are now willing to take their own pictures carrying on most bizarrely and upload them for the world to see.

Here I am. 5 AM and compulsively writing. Want to come over for coffee?

Good morning, sunshine! Selfie III.

Good morning, sunshine! Selfie III.

Now I have a new phone. For some reason it has gathered to itself two copies of every “contact.” And it doesn’t have a couple of apps I’ve paid for and are on my old phone but I don’t have a clue how to get onto this one. And it’s red, for goodness’ sake. Red?!

I shouldn’t be surprised. I have two laptops on my desk, one that works and I can’t figure out, the other that’s nearly moribund that I can use with alacrity. It’s not completely moribund. It’s like me, old and slow and unpredictable. I strike a “t” to start copying the words to “Thank you for being my friend,” and the cursor jumps seven lines above and, if I happen to be looking down at my hands (which I usually do when I type), I get “but I don’t have a thank you for cbelue” before I notice, or, worse yet the cursor will jump somewhere else again, and I will have “thank you for cbe new manipulations ing mylue.”

I know how to use Microsoft Windows Photo Editing (which is now out of production and is not on the new computer)  on the old computer, but I don’t have a clue what to do with Picasa on the new. And so on.

I sound like a 69-year-old (fart or curmudgeon, your choice) don’t I? Just a befuddled (almost) old man.

Connected to the world

Connected to the world

“It is at the edges that time thins,” says Kay Ryan. I don’t really want to be an old curmudgeon, but a poet. My time is thinning because I’m at the edges of my life, and I want to write poetry about some of the other edges of my life such as when I was as near the beginning of it as I am now close to the end. We’re close to the edges of our lives more often than we think—when we fall in love, or when we move from Boston to Dallas for reasons that make perfect sense but leave us open to fear and loneliness, or discover we need surgery to fix something  gone wrong with our bodies, or when we get up on stage to perform something either alone or as part of a company and are terrified, and when we were fourteen and the shoe shine boy in a barber shop and old men made us do things with their bodies we knew were wrong but we loved, and we discovered we could not, now or ever, finish the novel we had started writing because when people we loved died we became different people, and we did not recognize the writer who was making up that story.

The only technologies I had to worry about in the barber shop were the brushes and shine cloths that I was so adept with that I got tips beyond what any shoe shine boy ever earned before, and I had to worry about the technology of the tools to clean Jack’s electric clippers every night. And the black and white TV he let me turn on to watch “Have Gun Will Travel” and lust after Richard Boone while I cleaned the shop from top to bottom on Saturday evenings after Jack went home and trusted a junior high school kid to secure and lock up a place of business on his own. South side of 16th Street between Broadway and First Street, across from the Eagle Café. Scottsbluff, NE, 1958.

Ha! An artifact!

Ha! An artifact!

Anyone who remembers barber shops without Kerastase Paris, or Paul Mitchell, or styles with “shorter layers on the sides and back, maintaining a longer length on top” and held in place with “tea tree shaping cream” will probably not want to take many selfies. Because we get it that all the selfies in the world are not going to pull us back from the edges of time, time that used to seem as if life was suspended in it like bees in amber, but is now “a glittering fan of things competing to happen.”


It is at the edges
that time thins.
Time which had been
dense and viscous
as amber suspending
intentions like bees
unseizes them. A
humming begins,
apparently coming
from stacks of
put-off things or
just in back. A
racket of claims now,
as time flattens. A
glittering fan of things
competing to happen,
brilliant and urgent
as fish when seas

     (Kay Ryan. “The Edges of Time.” The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. New York: Grove Press, 2010. This collection won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011. Kay Ryan was Library of Congress Poet Laureate, 2008-2010.)

“. . . does its beauteous ray aught of joy or hope foretell . . .”

"pop" goes the drag show!

“pop” goes the drag show!

Imagine this (bet you can’t). Approaching midnight, December 31, 1958 (or -7 or -9). A half dozen middle-aged Baptist Republican men in Western Nebraska wearing “work casual” clothes (dress slacks, long sleeve shirts—it’s cold in Nebraska on New Year’s Eve), dress shoes (the only kind they had), a couple of them with neckties. Sitting in a circle, some crossing their legs in that “womanly” way (as if wearing a tight skirt), a couple of them wearing fashionable ladies’ hats, all of them wearing “pop beads” and earrings, one of them in high heels.

The YMCA community all-purpose room (down on the last street before the river—where it still is). Probably sixty people in the audience, and the men reading from a script pretending to be their wives.

How do I remember this so clearly? My first drag show, of course.

Except these men were not bending genders. They were definitely having a good joke at the expense of their wives.

The Baptist celebration of Christmas in Western Nebraska in the ‘50s was a fairly low-key proposition—at least for the community of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff. We apparently had no Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services (unless those days fell on Sunday) because our family was free to run off to Kansas City to spend Christmas with grandparents (both maternal and paternal) and aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I’m grateful for that. My siblings and I have a store of memories (both happy and unhappy) we otherwise would have missed. We knew our extended family largely because of Christmas. My Texas cousins and I have a history going back to our grandparents’ home in Kansas City more than sixty years ago. Their parents and mine, besides the fact that their mother and our father were siblings, had more in common than my parents had with perhaps anyone else. Both our fathers were Baptist pastors, for starters. I have written many times of the influence my Aunt Doris hadon my musical life.

Drag, anyone?

Drag, anyone?

It seems to me the celebration of New Year’s Eve was in some ways more important to the community of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff than Christmas was. I remember a couple of “Christmas Cantatas” the choir sang—but on the Sunday before Christmas. I also remember the year my father was roundly criticized for his Sunday-before-Christmas sermon on the Magnificat because it was too close to Catholic Mariolatry (never mind that it was a straight-forward exegesis of Luke 1:46-55).

By New Year’s Eve everyone in the Baptist church was home from the holidays with their families, and shopping was over, and we kids were about to go back to school. I remember the New Year’s celebrations, probably because it was the only night of the year we were allowed to stay up until midnight (which became less of a struggle as the years went on).

Besides the seminal event (as in “having possibilities of future development” –not a bad pun) of the drag show, I have a more significant memory of those New Year’s celebrations. They were called “Watch Night” parties and usually ended with a communion service at midnight. We always sang the Lowell Mason hymn tune “Watchman,” with John Bowring’s words, “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night.” Always on New Year’s Eve.

Lowell Mason (1792 – 1872) was the “father of American public school music,” appointed music superintendent of the Boston Public Schools in 1838, the first such appointment in the country. He was a composer of great repute until the sophistication of American music in the 20th century pushed aside music in his style. The premier setting of this Mason tune is the first movement of the Charles Ives Fourth Symphony. (Mason was, not coincidentally, a great friend and professional partner with Henry Kemble Oliver, who also taught public school music, and is the subject of my PhD dissertation.)

How a real man sits

How a real man sits

As might be expected, I came to associate Bowring’s words with Advent as I grew into the tradition of the “liturgical” churches. But, as with much of the music I [we] know, I [we] have important associations with the time and place we first heard it.

Indeed. Watchman. Tell us. Tell us the signs of promise. Strange to think how much of my life was prefigured in that one New Year’s Eve celebration. Or was it Advent and I didn’t know? Even though the specific beliefs expressed in the hymn have become foreign to me, I understand the hope that morning seems to dawn and that doubt and terror will be withdrawn.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes—it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.

Watchman, tell us of the night;
Higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light,
Peace and truth its course portends.
Watchman, will its beams alone
Gild the spot that gave them birth?
Traveler, ages are its own;
See, it bursts o’er all the earth.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
For the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, darkness takes its flight,
Doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;
Hie thee to thy quiet home.
Traveler, lo! the Prince of Peace,
Lo! the Son of God is come!

A river runs through it (my life, that is)

Laramie Peak - from a shorter distance than my childhood vantage

Laramie Peak – from a shorter distance
than my childhood vantage

On a bookshelf in my apartment, next to the two histories of our family my dad wrote and published, are three books (1).

Yesterday I was nostalgic—no, feeling a tad sorry for myself because here at 68 when I should be seeing the world with my husband and joying in the company of my grandchildren, I am alone with three cats. My mild nostalgia/self-pity is not a big deal. But I saw the books and my mind wandered to Dad’s work when he was my age.

At that time my parents lived in Sacramento. He was semi-retired, doing interesting work as an interim pastor sent to various places to work with churches without pastors. One of those places was Spokane, WA. My then partner and I visited my parents, and the four of us made a trip to Glacier National Park. A delicious outing.

For some time before he died (until he could not physically or mentally maintain his concentration—he was, after all, 97), Dad was writing a memoir tracing his life’s journey along the Oregon Trail.

He was born in Kansas City, MO, and lived (after five years in Wyoming) in Kearney, Scottsbluff, and Omaha, NE, all on the Platte River—and the Oregon Trail. Eventually he moved to California, that home in Sacramento—the ultimate goal of many pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail.

I am, as I said, in a nostalgic mood (or something related to that), so I will do a bit of river-remembrance of my own. And in the process, some Oregon Trail thinking which will be of interest to my siblings and about two other people.

My brother and I were born in Douglas, WY, on the North Platte River. Douglas is a small town nestled at the foot of Laramie Peak.

Later, we lived for two years in Kearney, NE, where my sister was born. The city is on the Platte River which is formed by the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers about 100 miles west of there. From Kearney, we moved to Scottsbluff, NE, which is (once again) on the North Platte River. “Nebraska,” by the way, is an Anglicized version of the name French explorers gave the river as a transliteration of the Omaha Indian name meaning “Flat Water.” Folks in Western Nebraska say the river is “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

A mile wide and an inch deep

A mile wide and an inch deep

Scotts Bluff, a siltstone outcropping (once under the water of the great inland sea) which has remained intact because limestone deposits harder than the sandstone kept the soil beneath them from eroding away, looms over the city Scottsbluff. From the top of the Bluff, Laramie Peak, 120 miles west, is visible on a clear day. That as I was growing up I could look west and see the (to a kid, faraway) place where I was born gave me a kind of comfort. Two promontories, both beside the Platte River.

We used to say ruts on the south side of the Bluff were made a hundred years before by wagons on the Oregon Trail. I doubt that, but I’ve never looked into it seriously.

We moved from Scottsbluff to Omaha, about 10 miles north of the confluence of the Platte and the Missouri (the city may have expanded that far south by now, for all I know).

The romance of the river ends there for me. I boarded a Greyhound bus in the fall of 1963 and headed to Redlands, CA, to go to college, and except for the following summer never lived in Nebraska or by the Platte River again. I was, however, in the state that was the destination of those pioneers on the Oregon Trail. I’ve lived all over the country since then, but I did complete the “westward ho!” as my father did.

Somewhere I have pictures of Laramie Peak faintly visible on the horizon from the top of Scotts Bluff. I took them before I had digital photography (the last in 2001). I, of course, can’t find such pictures on the Internet because people look east where the towns are when they are on top of the Bluff.

If you read my blog regularly (thank you) you know that you have to tolerate a great deal of sappy sentimentality and a lot of self-revelation no one should make in public. Yesterday I saw my psychiatrist whose job is to help my neurologist keep my meds in balance. [Note to myself: write someday about the “entitlement” that makes me eligible for this incredible care that I can’t afford. Hmmm. ACA anyone?]

At any rate, Dr. Bret. She always schedules me at the end of the day so we can talk for an hour instead of the 15 minutes my insurance (without co-pay) pays for. She understands all of my “issues” better than anyone else. Depression.

The chasm I cannot cross

The chasm I cannot cross

She said, “I think you have trouble finding people to be kind to you.” What? And then, “You know, you are fragile.” What? Ho, ho, ho! you’re saying to yourself if you know anything about me and co-dependency and addiction and all of those ways in which I’m screwed up.

I do have trouble finding people to be with who are kind to me. I’ll write about that the day after I write about my “entitlement.”

But fragile? I’m the bull in the china closet most of the time (not to be confused with other closets). I do not have a delicate nature. And I do not have one of those fine, sensitive “artist’s” minds.

From the time I was six years old until I was fifteen, I was regularly in a place (not figuratively, literally) from which I could see, staring over a chasm of 120 miles, the place where I was born. The chasm was (is) the earth. I don’t have pretty language for this. But I have known my whole life that I’m caught in that space, that I can see the place from which I came. But I can’t get there from here.


________________ (1)

•             Franzwa, Greory M. The Oregon Trail Revisited, 4th Edition. Tucson, AZ: Patrice Press, 1988.
•             Haines, Aubrey L. Historic Sites along the Oregon Trail. Tucson, AZ: The Patrice Press, 1981. (Foreword by Russell E. Dickenson, Director, National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.)
•             Mattes, Merrill J. The Great Platte River Road, Second Edition. Lincoln, NE: Nebraska State Historical Society Publications, 1979.

How to spot a Communist – er-uh, Terrorist

McCarthy and his lawyer: strange bedfellows?

McCarthy and his lawyer:
strange bedfellows?




My father listened to Edward R. Murrow on the radio (we didn’t have a TV yet) almost every day in the late ‘50s. I know he did because I did, too—mainly in the car. He was on at the time Dad and I were driving home from the church in the late afternoons, he from work, I from practicing the organ.

He did not like Edward R. Murrow, thought he was a pointy-headed liberal or some such (which I did not understand at the time), but Dad would tell me Murrow was an important American and deserved our attention. Talk about mixed messages from a parent!

Because we did not have a TV, we were spared watching the Joseph McCarthy House Un-American Activities hearings. I really had no idea that the Communists were such a huge threat to our way of life, to the very foundations of American government and society.  My parents talked about President Eisenhower, and about the Cold War, and about Pat Nixon’s cloth coat, about the death of Senator Robert A. Taft, and about –about many things. But I do not remember any discussion of Joseph McCarthy. (I remember being confused about the names “MacArthur”—the general, who was a favorite of my Republican parents—and “McCarthy.”)

Many years later my dad told me he never knew what to make of the “Red Scare,” whether or not it was real. But he loathed Senator McCarthy.

(Note: some of what I have presented below as facts may be, in some details, incorrect. I have only my junior high school memory to rely on. I know for certain, however, that the general outline of the story is true.)

In 1959 Dad was the president of the Scottsbluff, Nebraska, chapter of the National Council of Churches. The organization brought Dr. Edwin T. Dahlberg, president of the National Council of Churches to Scottsbluff to speak at a series of meetings (held, I think, at the First Presbyterian Church because it was the largest in town).

A bit later, in a bid to get rid of my father as pastor, a group of members of our church (the First Baptist) accused my father of being a “fellow traveler” because it was well-known that the National Council of Churches was a Communist Front Organization. My father, who admired Dr. Dahlberg as I think he admired few other people in his lifetime, deserved firing because he had been responsible for this Communist coming to town.

The President of the  Communist front organization?

The President of the
Communist front

Sidebar: Don’t you love the way church politics “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and live out the admonition of Jesus himself that, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

The church members who wanted to fire my father (he was entirely too liberal for Scottsbluff—he actually said evolution was a possible scientific theory and that, in any case, it didn’t matter because how God created the heavens and the earth was one of those mysteries we were perhaps not supposed to unravel) wrote to Robert Kennedy, who was then chief counsel of Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field and who had been counsel to McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations from 1953 to 1957 (a bit of Kennedy family trivia not many people like to remember). They were certain that Kennedy would answer their letter with proof that the National Council of Churches was a Communist Front organization.

My father announced his resignation contingent upon the answer from Robert Kennedy. If the Chief Counsel affirmed the NCC to be a Communist organization, Dad’s resignation would take effect.

The letter came back from Kennedy saying the NCC had never been found (by McCarthy or anyone else) to be a Communist Front organization, and that those rumors were entirely groundless. Believe me, McCarthy, who was as vociferous in promoting the Roman Catholic Church as in denouncing Communists, would have unearthed any connection the Protestant organization had.

We lived in Scottsbluff another year or so until Dad found another position.

Now we have CAIR for unthinking Americans to believe to be un-American.

And the anti-terrorism industry finding a terrorist behind every locked door and every website in America. I’m not saying terrorism isn’t a threat. Any sane person knew the USSR was a threat to the US in the ‘50s. [Note: click the arrow “read the article”]

But Joseph McCarthy, I’m sure nearly everyone in the country will now agree, was more of a threat to our way of life than “Communists” ever were.

We have given ourselves over to the “terrorism industry” unthinkingly and with a willingness to suspend our Constitutional rights that makes the country’s hoodwinking by Joseph McCarthy look like an afternoon outing in the park for the children.

Brandon Mayfield: How to spot a terrorist

Brandon Mayfield:
How to spot a terrorist

Politicians are the terrorism industry’s lead players. Unwilling to be seen as soft on terrorism, they engage in a process of outbidding, which has the effect of enhancing fears. In addition, the industry includes risk entrepreneurs, pork-barrelers, and bureaucrats, as well as most of the media. They all have an incentive to exaggerate the risk terrorism presents and to find extreme and alarmist possibilities much more appealing than discussions of broader context, much less of statistical reality.
——Mueller, John. “Fear Not: Notes From A Naysayer.” Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists 63.2 (2007): 30-37.

You may be, if you pay attention to such things as blog headings, wondering how this is a humorous look at the process of getting old. It’s not. It’s a resigned, sorrowful, agonized lament on the observation that the more things change, the more they stay the same.