It’s only been ten days. And it may be worse than we imagined.
In the meantime, a personal story:
Like the fall season this year, the fall of 1963 was a time of unthinkable, unspeakable misfortune, as well as a time of natural death. I was five years old. John F. Kennedy—my mom idolized him—was killed in November. C. S. Lewis, the great Christian writer I would later come to admire as a young evangelical, died on the same day Kennedy was shot. So did Aldous Huxley, whose Brave New World introduced many Americans, in 1932, to a fictional dystopia—and as we witness the creation of the Trump administration here in 2016, we can see that what is coming may be no dystopian fantasy. It could be all too real.
The fall of 1963 also saw the assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem, president of the Republic of (South) Vietnam. The United States government had apparently sought the overthrow of Diem and not his murder, but his death—the killers cut out his gallbladder while he was still alive—would nevertheless lead to greater instability and chaos, which meant greater American involvement in a war in Vietnam that would ultimately cost more than 58,000 American soldiers their lives and would lead to a profound lack of trust in the integrity of our government and the basic honesty of our leaders. That war, the first to be brought into our living rooms by way of television, also demonstrated just how powerful broadcast journalism could be, for good and, as this past election cycle demonstrated, for ill. Thus, one can plausibly argue that the televised Vietnam War, and the cultural cynicism it fathered, helped bring us what we see today in Trump and the deviance and decline he represents.
As remarkable as the deaths and events late in 1963 were, they did not much concern me, a five-year-old boy living in Kansas, in a little town called Fort Scott. Something much more important happened in my life that year, something that changed my world forever. On December 5, Louis Edward Lowry passed away. He was my grandpa. Everyone I knew called him “Pop.”
My mother and father both worked. My dad was a union cloth cutter who commuted to a coat factory twenty miles from home. My mother worked at a “dime store” downtown. Thus, most working mornings I was put in the hands of Pop, my grandmother having passed away a few years earlier. His tiny, fatigued frame house, at 1835 East Oak, was only two long blocks from mine, just up the hill on the edge of the city limits. He had a few cows and some chickens and the smartest dog you ever saw, named Tippy. Pop would always cook me a nice breakfast and lunch, and throughout the day I would drink the coldest and tastiest water in the world from an old tin dipper he had hanging in the kitchen. I can still see the patina and dents. I just wish I could taste the water again.
Pop, who was born in 1888, had once been something of a pool hall hustler. According to family legend, his cue skills were unmatched by the locals. He was really good. There is little doubt that his gambling helped his large family—he had 10 kids—through some tough times. As did his craps shooting. My dad wouldn’t play with him because Pop had a bad habit of taking his money.
Those things about Pop I didn’t know until later. The Pop I knew at five was a devout believer, a man of God. He prayed a lot. I remember my mom telling the story of how he once prayed a burned-out light bulb back to life. I heard other stories like that. And I believed them. My grandpa was larger than life to me.
Next to his house, just down a small hill, was an empty lot Pop used for planting. I’m sure he grew a lot of things, but I just remember the corn. And I remember the corn because it is tied to the oldest, perhaps most disturbing, memory I have.
After breakfast that December day, Pop and I, with Tippy following, went down the hill to his dried-up garden to get some corn stalks for the cows. We walked back up to the house and around toward the back, past the primitive chicken coop, to where an old wire fence barely kept the cows contained. Just before getting to the pen, Pop turned around toward me and told me that we had dropped some of the stalks and I needed to go back and get them. I looked back and, sure enough, there was one or two dried-up corn stalks on the old narrow sidewalk in front of the house. Right in plain sight.
I obeyed. I got the stalks. When I came back, Pop was flat on the ground, face down. His head had landed such that it was just underneath the old, curled-up wire fencing. One of the cows was licking through Pop’s white hair. I shooed it away again and again, as I tried to wake up my grandpa. But he wasn’t moving. I began to get scared.
On the front porch was an old swing that Pop and I sat on together. That was to be my refuge for I don’t know how long. I sat on that porch swing and rocked. And rocked. And rocked. I didn’t know what had happened. I knew nothing at all about death, about how people die and what that might look like, what it might feel like. I just knew I was frightened and confused—and very much alone.
It happened that my uncle, one of Pop’s boys, pulled up in the driveway. I don’t know why Johnny showed up when he did or why he was there. And I don’t know how long I had been alone on that swing. But I do know I was glad to see someone, anyone. Uncle Johnny got out of his old car and began to gesture toward where Pop was, shouting at me about leaving my winter coat out like that. He had not noticed that the dark heap he saw out by the cows was not my coat. I told him. It’s Pop. And from there, I don’t remember anything that happened, except the arrival of a large black car, men whispering and women crying, my heartbroken mother among them.
Did my grandfather know he was going to die? Did he send me away so I wouldn’t see the moment he was to fall, in an attempt to shield me from something little boys shouldn’t witness? I used to think so. As I was growing up, I used to think that Pop had a special kind of relationship with God, one that involved the two of them speaking back and forth, one that enabled Pop to hide his moment of death from me. Now, I just don’t know and can’t know.
What I do know is how hard that little boy, rocking on that porch swing, tried to cope with all the fear and confusion. How hard he tried, in the only way he knew how, to deal with something he had never seen, something beyond his control. Pop just would not wake up. He never would. I would never see him again. Tippy, who never left Pop’s side, who would bow his head as Pop said grace, would soon wander off and get killed by a car on the highway leading out of town. All that is tough stuff for a little boy. It is tough stuff for grownups, too.
As I sit here, ten days removed from that devastating election, I think about that little boy on his grandpa’s porch swing. I think about how he felt. About how little he knew of the world, how it works and how it doesn’t, how things live and how they die. Part of me wants to reach back in time and tell him to never leave that swing. To just keep rocking. Because too often there is little comfort in the truth, in facing reality. Once you leave that swing, you never know what might happen, what you might find out. Stay put.
But another part of me is wiser. We can’t just sit. We can’t just ignore what is happening simply because it is too terrible to contemplate. We have to get up and do something. Dystopia will certainly come if we don’t. It may even come if we do. After all, societies, like grandfathers, don’t live forever. But even if our cultural demise is inevitable, we can at least try to push back the date. Yes, the election of Trump is a significant sign of American decline. And it is likely there is more decline ahead. But what real choice is there but to fight?
How to fight is what I am now trying to figure out.