We expected imitations of the goddess of the dawn

DSC5185_saadetty_teravoitettu_500px_fnnetti

Photo by Finnature Oy Ltd. Liminka, Finland

On the Fourth of July in about 1957 (when our family was living in a certain tiny house we hated―we all remember it too well 60 years later) our family had driven from our house on the farthest northwest corner of Scottsbluff (Nebraska) south through town and across the river in hopes of seeing a spectacular fireworks display put on by Terry Carpenter over his housing development, Terrytown. The show was a bust. Hardly anything more exciting than we might have put on ourselves in the vacant two acres next to our house where the new First Baptist Church building was about to be built.

Dad drove us home as we complained and begged him to go somewhere else to look for REAL fireworks. He became irritated and told us to “stop your bellyaching.” He drove into our longer-than-normal driveway (the “little house” was set back a good distance from the street, a highway to the sandhills). As we dragged ourselves out of the car in disappointment, nothing blocked our view of the farmland up to the crest of the hill about a mile away, the horizon somehow always visible, one shade of black separated by a line from another shade of black. We saw the vast open breadth of the nighttime Nebraska sky.

But with a difference.

The Aurora Borealis was hanging in the sky between us and the horizon, giant folds of green like a drape for the earth from the horizon almost to the sky above us.

I (we) had never seen anything remotely like it, have never again seen.

We stopped our bickering, our complaining about our disappointment. The family stood in our front yard, stupefied, speechless.

I don’t remember how the marvel closed, whether it disappeared or we watched until we tired and went inside.

What I remember is the sight and the mutual fixation of our family on the wonder, the wonder of the sky that brought us out of our disappointment and squabbling. I remember it clearly, with something like reverence, and, I believe, with accuracy. The memory has never changed in my mind.

Sixty years later I have the same awed puzzlement I had that night. What did we see? I know the name. I have searched and researched to find the scientific explanation. I know all of that.

I do not, however, know what I saw. I am loathe to use the language that comes easily to mind: the glory of nature, a glimpse of the eternal, those sorts of descriptions. But perhaps it is better to speak in mundanities than to try to explain how that sight affects me to this day.

Shall I speak in hyperbole: I am overcome with wonder when I think of that night? No.

I want to speak with humility. I have been allowed a glimpse of splendor that most of my friends have never had. Is that hyperbole? I don’t know.

What I know is that, when I am depressed, when I am at a loss how to live in this society, when I feel incompetent or unworthy, when I dwell on the fear of death, remembering that momentary, fleeting view gives me a sense of calm, of safety. The scientific explanation of the Aurora Borealis is quite simple. It is but a small nuance of our earth’s relationship with the sun.

But the thought of the Aurora’s amorphous, vaporous, impalpable ― but actual ― unexpected, unwarranted presence in my experience and its lingering in my memory grounds me in a way that I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out and perhaps explain.

A Light in the North

The fireworks did not thrill us that Fourth—they were bland and sparse.
A few Roman candles (why Roman?),
a few pathetic rockets, ordinary, dull, uninteresting.
What did we expect?
Fantastic fire to amaze, to astound, perhaps to frighten—
Streaking color, bursting flares, and then the “boom,”
the sound coming after the light, it was so far away.
We expected explosions,
the light spiraling,
the light coiled,
the light arcing,
the light streaking up toward the highest sky,
the light propelled outward by explosions,
and more explosions at the end of short trajectories,
illusive embers floating toward the ground.
We did not know their names (arguing what made some Roman),
these varieties of fire, these explosions of color.
We knew what we expected but did not see.
We expected imitations of the goddess of the dawn,
flashes on the horizon, announcing daylight soon to come.
But no light exploded this year—the hope of thrill was preempted—
no child’s delight in destruction, crazed, wild, and sudden,
no lurching light tossing illumination gloriously aside,
plunging the sky again into momentary darkness
to rest before the next round of fiery excitement.

Our expectations denied, Father drove us home.
The ’57 Chevy was too familiar, the streets too predictable,
the family disappointed—please, Father, let’s find a better vantage point—
the night wasted, the dark country sky stretching unbroken to the black horizon
where the end of the wheat fields meets the beginning of the sand hills.
Home,
where
against the
star-riddled blackness,
her green skirts folding onto themselves silently, languidly,
not spiraling, not coiling, not arcing, in motion too slow to comprehend,
the goddess of the dawn rose strangely in the north above the black horizon.
She floated unexpected, mysterious, silent, amazing, awesome in her beauty.
Ten hours before the dawn she heralded, Aurora held sway,
suspended in the highest sky, deigning on this night alone to appear to us.
Never again.
One need see the goddess only once. It is epiphany enough.
We know what we expect—fiery excitement,
not pantheonic grandeur.

© Harold A. Knight, 2013

“I Go for Joe” (Smith, that is)

terrytown4jres

The home of the richest man in town. He said so.

On Facebook yesterday, I posted the following grouse:

I have an old new theme song from junior high summer camp. “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. . .” At least this country’s not my home. What happened to the place I used to live where equality and civility were at least seen as goals to work for?

Silly, yes, but several of my friends responded positively, one – who is not quite my age – at some length.

My complaint could have several meanings, of course. The old camp song is about mortality and heaven.   I wonder what a bunch of junior high school kids could possibly have known of mortality. The Baptists were preparing us to believe we will be ushered directly into heaven if or when we die. However, at that age we surely did not think the angels would, in point of fact, beckon us. Ever.

The song raises and, for the faithful, puts to rest the question of mortality whether or not a bunch of 13-year-olds might understand it.

However, these days I take it to mean more, much more. In fact, I find it meaningful even though I have long since given up any belief in heaven.

In 1956, one of the most influential men in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, my home town, was a delegate to the Republican national convention. He was indignant about the inevitability of the nominations. When it came time in the roll call for the Nebraska delegation to pass so Richard Nixon could be nominated for Vice-President by acclamation, the delegate took the floor and nominated Joe Smith, a fictitious person. I wrote about this event awhile back.

Terry Carpenter  was not, at least by the reckoning of the adults I knew, admirable. He was wealthy, egotistical, and politically opportunistic. He famously said he wanted to help the little man because when the revolution came, they’d go for the biggest house in town, “Which is mine.” It was his – a two-story mansion on half a block of property, just down the street from our home. During his career, he was a member of Congress, mayor of Scottsbluff, and a member of the Nebraska legislature, switching back and forth from Democrat to Republican depending on which party was in power.

Something I read recently about the new “populism” reminded me of Carpenter (which incidentally indicated to me how bizarre the use of that term is in our current political milieu). I googled him. He died in 1978 at the age of 78. If we had been septuagenarians in the same place at the same time, I would like to have known him. I know no rich and powerful folks well enough to engage them in conversation about what they think and feel, but I’d like to ask such a person if riches and power preclude a person from thinking

. . . the angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world any more.

Terry Carpenter’s life and career remind me of other folks. For example, do Donald Trump and members of Congress, more than half of whom are millionaires, think “This world is not [their] home; [they’re] just a-passin’ through”?

As a kid at Baptist camp, I memorized the entire Sermon on the Mount from the book Matthew. I know the admonition, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:1-2, RSV).terry-carpenter-lincoln-journal-star-file-photo-1968

Senator Terry Carpenter opposing 1971 course in Homophile studies at the
University of Nebraska.

I’m probably judging (my friends would say there is no doubt about it), but I’m trying to understand how one might (apparently) live in such certainty of one’s place in the world, if not in the universe, to seem to have no awareness that “[their] treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” Is it possible to be unaware? Why does Donald Trump need to own towers all around the world? Why does Betsy DeVos need to be head of a government department? Why does Darrel Issa, with his half-billion dollar fortune need to be in Congress? He’s only 63, so perhaps it makes some sense that he’s not thinking about heaven. Yet.

I’m moderately certain that nowhere beyond the blue a treasure is waiting for me when I die. Or for Terry Carpenter, Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, and Darrell Issa. I am, however, relatively certain that whatever meager treasure I have this side of the blue is not going to keep me from dying. I am more and more certain with each passing day that this world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through. And I may be wrong, but I think  those other folks are just passing through, too.

My Facebook post was incorrect. I have never lived in a place “where equality and civility were at least seen as goals to work for.” Terry Carpenter was around when I was a kid, and all those other rich and powerful folks are around now. I was in Scottsbluff then, and I’m in Dallas now, judging and criticizing and being cantankerous (and perhaps jealous) as I apparently always have done.

Oh well. It doesn’t matter in the long run if we are civil or work for equality or do any of those things that seem like nice ideas – because there is no long run.

A CAMPAIGN STATEMENT BY JOE SMITH’S OPPONENT, ADLAI STEVENSON.
I think one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there’s nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way. . .  in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of self-criticism.  (Quoted in John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church. A Chosen Faith. Boston: Beacon Press (1998) 81.)

“I Go For Joe” or Adlai or anyone else who speaks truth to power

Adlai and Estes "going for Joe"

Adlai and Estes “going for Joe”

Growing up in a small city hundreds of miles from the nearest large cities (Denver, 208 miles southwest, and Omaha, 474 miles due east) we were not exactly cut off from the world, but our connection was somewhat tenuous.

TV reception came to Scottsbluff in 1955 in the form of a “booster” station broadcasting one channel from Cheyenne, WY, about 80 miles west. (My parents purchased our first TV set in 1957.)

TV reception came to Scottsbluff just in time for citizens of our city to follow the Presidential campaign of 1956. At the Republican convention that year (back when political conventions were actually political and not simply giant media advertising events), our State Senator Terry Carpenter made history (rather, provided a tiny footnote to political history) when he nominated Joe Smith for Vice President from the floor of the convention. (You really ought to click the link and watch the video. It’s more entertaining than any political event since then.) Joe Smith, if he existed at all, was a resident of the planned community Carpenter owned nestled between Scottsbluff and its neighbor across the North Platte. Terrytown.

Carpenter was, or so we gathered from all the adults in our lives, a perfectly objectionable character. Rich, powerful, beholden to no one, and a “loose cannon.” His purpose in nominating Joe Smith was to make sure the re-nomination of Eisenhower and Nixon was not unchallenged or unanimous. Even unbending Republicans like my father were aghast at Carpenter’s antics. I wish he were active in politics today. He was, in fact—see the link at his name above—champion of the kinds of causes progressives espouse today.

My father, the staunch Republican, and Emily Wilks, one of my  parents’ closest friends, a member of the local school board and active in Democratic politics, were part of the forces united against Carpenter in the only local political fight I remember from childhood. The school board had placed a bond issue on the ballot, and Terry Carpenter opposed it with all of his wealth and political influence. Carpenter lost. If I’m not mistaken (which I very well might be), that bond issue eventually resulted in the construction of the city’s new high school building (still in use today).

I remember the bumper sticker

I remember the bumper sticker

Mrs. Wilks owned a Lincoln Continental which was, according to legend among junior and senior high school students, the first car in Scottsbluff that cost more than $5,000. Mr. Wilks was a sheep-feeder and, while they lived modestly, we knew they had plenty of money.  Her car is important only as a point of reference for my memory of the 1956 presidential campaign. I don’t know if her car sported bumper stickers, but I remember bumper stickers from 1956. The Democratic stickers said, “I go for Joe,” and “Adlai, Estes, and Joe Smith.” Carpenter provided campaign material for Adlai Stevenson and his running mate, Estes Kefauver. Along the lines of “anyone but Eisenhower and Nixon.”

Mrs. Wilks had a lasting influence on my political thinking although it didn’t really take hold in my mind for several years. When John F. Kennedy was running in 1960, she and I had a conversation that changed my attitude toward politics. She noticed the Nixon button I was wearing. Funny, I even remember where we were. Our church had finished building a new parsonage where my family, of course, lived, but the new church building was not yet finished, so Sunday School classes were held in the parsonage basement (it was built with an outside entrance for that very eventuality). Mrs. Wilks and I were readying a room for a class, and she asked me why I was in favor of Nixon (brave woman to take on the Republican preacher’s kid).

One of the reasons (perhaps the only one I could think of) was that Kennedy was a Catholic. I had not heard my father judge Kennedy directly for that—but it was in the background of the campaign. Kennedy was so liberal, my father would have voted against him if he had been a Baptist (he voted against Truman in 1948).

With no judgment or attempt to change my mind, Mrs. Wilks asked simply, “Is a person’s religion any reason to vote against him or for him?” She planted the seed of an idea that, when it grew in my mind, changed my attitude toward politics and to this day guides the best of my thinking. Superficialities do not matter in politics. Speaking of the President derisively by his last name is not politics. It is simple personal, bigoted, ad hominem attack. Period.

Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent in 1956 (as he had been in 1952)—my father must have been almost as put off by his Unitarianism as by Kennedy’s Catholicism—would be, for some of us, a welcome voice in today’s acrimonious political polemics:

Looking north toward Scottsbluff from the Wildcat Hills, courtesy Mary Kalen Romjue-who also knew Mrs. Wilks

Looking north toward Scottsbluff from the Wildcat Hills, courtesy Mary Kalen Romjue-who also knew Mrs. Wilks

I think one of our most important tasks is to convince others that there’s nothing to fear in difference; that difference, in fact, is one of the healthiest and most invigorating human characteristics without which life would become meaningless. Here lies the power of the liberal way. . .  in helping ourselves and others to see some of the possibilities inherent in viewpoints other than one’s own; in encouraging the free interchange of ideas; in welcoming fresh approaches to the problems of life; in urging the fullest, most vigorous use of self-criticism.
——Quoted in John A. Buehrens and Forrest Church, A Chosen Faith, Boston: Beacon Press (1998) 81.

The tragedy of our day is the climate of fear in which we live, and fear breeds repression. Too often sinister threats to the bill of rights, to freedom of the mind, are concealed under the patriotic cloak, of anti-communism. [Perhaps he’d reference Islamophobia or anti-terrorism today].
——Speech to the American Legion convention, New York City (27 August 1952); quoted in William Safire, “Democratic Candidate Adlai Stevenson Defines the Nature of Patriotism.” Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (2004) 81.

Many of the world’s troubles are not due just to Russia or communism. They would be with us in any event because we live in an era of revolution—the revolution of rising expectations. In Asia, the masses now count for something. Tomorrow, they will count for more. And, for better or for worse, the future belongs to those who understand the hopes and fears of masses in ferment. The new nations want independence, including the inalienable able right to make their own mistakes. The people want respect—and something to eat every day. And they want something better for their children.
——Look (22 September 1953) 46.