The Porch Swing

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.

popThose 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.

 

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6 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  November 18, 2016

    Duane,

    You were fortunate to have had that time with your grandfather. Certainly, he never wanted you to witness his passing, but a man could only hope to establish the bond you shared with Pop in your short time together. I enjoy such a bond with my grandson, also two blocks away.

    I don’t think our grandfathers shared the fear we now have for the grandchildren’s future. We can show them love, our values, and a determined optimism to fight against hate and speak out against such ignorance. Thank you for sharing this!

    If you find a way to fight the ignorant hate of President-elect Archie Bunker…that’s not fair, Archie wasn’t that vile…of President Drumpf, then count me in on the battle. Your Pop tried to protect you, lets do the same for our grandkids.

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    • Thank you. I like what you said about “a determined optimism to fight against hate and speak out against such ignorance.” Our optimism will definitely have to be determined. It ain’t gonna come naturally.

      Funny you should mention Archie. That was my favorite show during my early teen years, when I was forming political opinions. I eventually came to see Archie as a fundamentally decent person who was much better than his prejudices, which he held rather reflexively, with no critical thought. Trump, as you suggest, is not that way. His prejudices are Bunker-like, but he has shown no empathetic capacity, as far as his public stance has been, and his cabinet picks demonstrate he is not about to change. He is Archie without any Edith around him.

      As far as what to do to fight all this, I am still having trouble figuring out how to proceed. The fight involves so many fronts, as the threat is so comprehensive. It is, I hate to say it, almost overwhelming. I’m still looking and reading and thinking. Only two months to go before the curtain is lifted on a new world. Or, maybe the metaphor is better put as the curtain is falling on the old one.

      Duane

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  2. ansonburlingame

     /  November 19, 2016

    Duane,

    Great “therapy” to remember and write about it, right? If you read Jim Webb’s last book he does the same, book length. His roots were dirt poor southerners but as an Air Force “brat” he moved all over the place growing up, reaching the pinnacle of actually running for the Presidency for a few months at least.

    I was 18 years old (1960 and too young to vote in that election) when Kennedy was elected and I was attending prep school in the DC area. I stood on the sidewalk, near the White House when Kennedy and Ike drove by enroute to the swearing in of Kennedy at the capital. I was 21 and a junior in college when word of his death hit sometime in the late morning, a Thursday as I recall and walked to class with a transistor radio to my ear as events were reported. The Brigade was all “lathered up” that day (before word of his death) as the coming Saturday was the Army-Navy football game, which was postponed for a week. That weekend I went to DC and stood on the sidewalk as his body was taken to the capital. In Jan. 1965 as a senior in college I actually marched in Johnson’s presidential parade. I had voted for the first time for Goldwater!! 8 months later, I was a “boot Ensign” when Vietnam went from advisory to real WAR (August 1965). Ever wondered what might have happened had Goldwater been elected??

    1968 was my personal year “from hell”. I lost my mother, father and (only) Grandparent (“Mammy”) that year. I essentially lost, in 9 months, my only “family” from my growing up years. Nationally, well 1968 was the year of death nationally (King, B. Kennedy, …..), the DC and Chicago riots and NIXON. What might have happened had Humphrey been elected? Professionally I had been “at war” for three years but it was not
    Vietnam. It was the Cold War, the details of which Americans knew little about, but I was out there on the tip of the spear in submarines. I remained fighting that war until I left the Navy in 1988, three years before we “won” that war, a real one except, thank God, no real shots were ever fired. What would have happened had Carter or Mondale been elected (in the 1980’s)?

    Then 2001 and the world turned again with 9/11. What would have happened had Gore been elected? Nationally we have been in deep tumult ever since and I see no end in sight. We reacted “conservatively” to 9/11, then, not surprisingly, we turned on a dime and went (very) liberal for 8 years. What would have happened had McCain been elected?

    Who really knows what will happen next, nationally? With Trump’s election and single party government under conservative rule (has not happened since 1928 and look what happened in 1929!!) I am deeply worried. Had Hillary been elected with Dem control of the Senate and GOP control of the House I would be …….. (terrified is too strong a word so I will stick with deeply worried I suppose).

    But so what. In that brief history above I can honestly say my personal and professional life, all the successes and failures, happened because of my own choices, not what some President decided to do. Had Goldwater been elected MAYBE Vietnam would have been different, MAYBE the Cold War outcome would have been different, but my guess is that I would have continued to “go down the the sea in ships” for 20 plus years, had a civilian career of sorts, raised two sons and now watch with extraordinary pride as they, part of the X generation, assume positions of really impact and have gone farther than I ever dreamed that I could have gone, no matter who became our next President, then or now.

    Does our 16 year difference in age make a difference, Duane? Maybe as I was an adult during those earlier years when you were just getting your feet on the ground. (In 1968 at age 25, when my personal world blew up and the nation went crazy, you were maybe 9). Now at age 74 and getting “tired”, you are a rip roaring 58, just about my age when I moved to Joplin and soon thereafter really got “into politics” for the first time in my life, publicly at least. OMG, that has been a “war” of sorts as well!

    You are closer in age to my two sons (ages 51 and 49). They are not “publicly political” in any way (a lawyer and a CEO, instead). But as I continue to fade into the sunset, I muse how interesting it would be for my youngest son (5 year navy nuke submariner and now civilian CEO) to become involved in your blog??? Boy oh Boy would that fight be fun to watch, maybe. But it won’t happen as he is head down and ass up trying to invent new chemicals to make better computer chips and far to busy, professionally and personally, to do what you and I do these days.

    What should you do now? Of course I have no idea and offer no advice in any way. I was 59 when 9/11 hit us between the eyes and we both know what HAS happened since then. And we can argue till the cows come home what SHOULD have happened in the last 15 years.

    My only point of course is 16 years from now you will be “getting tired”, maybe, and look back on ……….? I won’t be writing in your blog 16 years from now, but if there is a heaven or hell (very unlikely) I hope I can “watch”. My guess is that you will be living on a fixed income with food, shelter and a degree of comfort, watching your son rise to heights you never imagined, and still wondering “only what if……” but not being sure how to fill in those blank places as well.

    There will always be an American (human?) dream. Who might be our president made no difference in my personal dreams and have had only minimum impact on the reality of the outcomes of such personal dreams. At least that has been my experience. Had I been “born black” , well who really (the hell) knows. I, nor you or anyone else, really knows that answer. It would be like guessing “what would have happened had …… been elected president”!!!! As well, if my two sons “were black”, would you even hazard a guess as to their positions in life today? When it all comes down to personal strengths and weaknesses, mass statistics mean nothing at all, to me at least.

    But, contrary to the opinions of some, I do have empathy for those mired in some of those statistics and will offer a helping hand, one-on-one, when I can.

    Anson

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    • Anson,

      Sorry this is so long but, as you say, writing is therapeutic. It’s the only reason I keep doing it these days.

      I have to say that your rather optimistic, and personal, response caught me by surprise. The details of your life are very interesting, as is the counterfactual speculation in which you engaged. I can easily see how 1968 was very different for you than it was for most people, something we all should keep in mind when we think of the large events before us now. People have their own personal affairs and tragedies to deal with that often transcend what’s on our television screens or in our newspapers. 

      But, Anson, this present time feels very different from the national events you describe. I remember (as a rabid right-wing conservative who listened to Rush Limbaugh and others like him for about 8 hours a day) the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, and in 1996. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was in that outcome (I couldn’t stand Perot either). I thought the country made a great mistake. Clinton’s policy ideas and instincts, especially when added to his wife’s, I thought were way too liberal for the country and wouldn’t work, even though I look back now and see him and her (to a lesser extent) as relatively centrist on so many issues. But even though I was disappointed in that outcome (and wrong about Clinton’s general effectivess), I never once feared for the safety of the country. Not once. Not ever. Why? Because I knew that Bill Clinton was smart (a Rhodes Scholar) and I knew he had smart people around him.

      Although he was fairly young and had a lot of personal weaknesses, I had faith that Clinton possessed the ability to grasp complex national security issues and at least understood the world a little bit. I remember early on in his first term the seemingly interminable policy discussions he would have, in public with experts, trying to learn the details of this or that. That gave me a lot of confidence that he wasn’t just going to wing it (although I never had any faith he would see things my way).  Can you imagine in a thousand years Trump actually sitting through a long, detailed policy discussion with experts in the field and actually paying attention? Of course not. Trump is incapable of doing anything like that. We can see since his election that not only is he focusing on his business interests rather than learning anything about his new job, he is tweeting out stupid insults and attacks on, for God’s sake, people in a Broadway musical. And he is, day by day, adding to his future administration dangerous assholes like Michael Flynn and, for good measure, he even threw in a white nationalist just for spite (or was it because he is a white nationalist himself?).

      For me and so many others (including some thoughtful Republicans), what happened on November 8 was not just a matter of losing to a ideological foe, or a case of one party beating another and all will live to fight another day. Trump represents something neither you nor I have ever seen in our lifetimes, or even our fathers’ saw in theirs. He represents the ascendance of vulgarity and bigotry and ignorance and charlatanry and demagoguery in our electoral politics, even if you discount those who think he represents a form of hate-filled neo-fascism (I don’t discount it, obviously).

      He is not smart. He is not educable, except by conspiracy nuts. He is not ethical. He has no principles except one: self-aggrandizement. Because of this he represents a powerful threat, first to our democratic system (such as it is), but also to our national existence (not to mention that of other countries). He’s not just another politician with a set of ideological ideas he wants to implement. He is utterly incapable of grasping even the simplest concepts and on those matters will often yield to the last person he speaks with.

      His only discernible political skill is in his ability to manipulate the broadcast press. That he is good at because that form of press is so subject to manipulation by a showman-turned-politician, so easily fooled into following a distraction, rather than pursuing the real story for as long as it takes. He can use this one skill to offer the press tweets and short statements that he knows will distract from extensive broadcast coverage of things like his new business interests in places like Saudi Arabia and so on. This, when added to his invincible ignorance and impulsive, retributive behavior, is what makes him so goddamned dangerous and so unlike anyone we have elected at least since Andrew Jackson (who didn’t have nukes or we might not be here). 

      Trump will soon have control of the IRS and the Justice Department (with an obviously not un-friendly FBI director) and the Treasury and other agencies ripe for use by a thin-skinned demagogue like him. Nothing in his history shows us he will act with restraint in how he uses these agencies and the massive bureaucracy, much of which he will get to staff with his cronies, behind them. He has told us who he is. He has told us he is a counter-puncher who hits back ten times harder than he is hit. Do you think there are that many bureaucrats in the government willing to find out if he means it? I don’t. They all have families and mortgages. 

      And that is just domestic concerns. He is already shown he doesn’t understand military-civilian relations, military limitations, nuclear issues, and other things anyone in the job should know or at least begin to know. Neither has he shown any understanding of the ethnic and religious nature of many of the conflicts around the world. What he has shown is that there will be little if any separation between his own (and his family’s) business interests and taking care of the country’s business. Just pick up the Washington Post and, belatedly, The New York Times and read all about it. If his business interests would be threatened by pursuing policy X that is good for the country, what do you think he will do?

      The most troubling, of course, is his financial and personnel ties to the Russians and his willingness to allow them to dictate terms in the Syrian civil war and to, quite possibly, begin the annexation of greater Ukraine and the Baltics and make other mischief for Europe. But it doesn’t stop there. In the Middle East and Asia we have every reason to expect his first instinct will not be to promote the long-term goals of the United States in stabilizing those regions and keeping them stable. We do have reason to expect his first, and perhaps only, instinct will be to protect the Trump brand and make as much money as he possibly can while he can. 

      All of this is why I said I was surprised at your response. I thought, given your background and concerns, that you would, especially as events have unfolded after the election, be the first one to tell us how Trump poses an existential threat to the country, unlike any president we have had since the founding (sort of like you used to do with your obsession over the national debt). But, alas, maybe our disparate response is because of the difference in our ages. I can’t say how I would respond if I were 75. More likely, though, the difference has something to do with our political reflexes. Maybe I would tend to see things a bit differently if I were tilted to the right. I don’t know. Maybe I would count on Republicans in Congress or Democrats in the minority in the Senate to squelch the most dangerous tendencies of a Trump administration, since such checks on executive power have often worked in the past. I don’t know, but Republicans in both houses, and Democrats in the Senate, give me no reason to believe this will happen.

      What I do know now is this: perhaps most dangerous of all, in terms of our kids and grandkids and beyond, is something he will do that is close to certain: set back a move toward substantially curbing greenhouse gases and make it much more likely than it already is that nothing will be done in time to stop the catastrophic effects of a warming planet. I know most conservatives don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that, but science, quite emphatically, tells us they should—before it is too late. Well, maybe it is too late now. Trump will, as some experts are saying, pursue policies that will make the situation much, much worse—irreversibly worse.

      So, despite your rather cheery assessment (which I wish to God I could share), I think you are making the mistake of normalizing Trump, of making him just another white man with the Big Job in Washington who will come and go without, as Obama might say, moving the big ship of state all that much. That is not the most likely outcome. Bad things we can see in the distance, and I am not just talking about the privatization of Medicare and other policy oriented matters. This is a time when an international stew, chocked full of opportunists of every stripe, is cooking on a hot stove. And we have just added our own opportunist to the mix. That means no sober cook is now around who can turn down the heat, with the possible exception of Angela Merkel. Who knew that all these years after we had to rescue the world from Germany, we would need the Germans to keep the lid on the world? Talk about history.

      Duane

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  3. ansonburlingame

     /  November 21, 2016

    I understand, Duane. I really do, the depth of your despair. But i cannot agree with that depth, just as you poo-pooed all my “going over the cliff” concerns 6 or so years ago. We didn’t then and I don’t “think” we will now.

    Remember Love Canal, LA smog, etc. We have cleaned all that up long ago, to a degree at least. We have been releasing global gasses for a couple of centuries now and between us and physics we will do something about that as well, over time, a long period of time. Miami will not flood next year or in 4 years, but some hurricane with larger tidal waves may happen there.

    It “just makes sense” that as we put crap in the atmosphere bad things will happen. OK let’s stop doing that and then go back to a pre-industrial age?? No way. Want to STOP major US carbon emissions in say 10 years. Great. Build about 100 “cookie cutter” nuclear power plants starting this year (use US Navy designs that withstand battle damage!) and Navy training programs for ALL operators, owners, etc. of such plants. The Navy has been doing it right, handling nuclear energy for power since 1954 with zero major accidents and certainly NO core meltdowns, not even close. Don’t get onto the track arguing about nuclear weapons as well. Whole different “nuclear” kind of thing and many “near misses” have happened as Bud Morgan likes to point out.

    What to do for Dems. I just saw this quote (today) from Obama:
    “”One message I do have for Democrats, that a strategy that’s micro-targeting particular discreet groups in a Democratic coalition sometimes wins the election, but it does not win you the broad mandate you need,” Obama said.”

    Remember me asking you Duane, to give me reasons to vote for Hillary, different reasons from the Dem. party line focused on minorities, LGBT, etc. She and you lack including me in the discussions about how to best govern and some of your supporters just cast me aside as another bigot!! I am used to that herein but still ………

    Can “anyone” or any single party answer the calls from rust belt whites (primarily), whites in Appallaccia (spl?), Joplin whites, and THEN ALL minorities, plus a majority of women and even some “rich white men”? Hasn’t happened yet and if you keep trying to rob Peter to pay Paul it won’t happen. When ALL classes unite Iike in 1776 then only “Tories” are left saying No and they can all “go to England (then not now!!) to live out their lives.

    Look at the Globe (which you no longer do) in its post election call to raise gas and cigarette taxes to restore budget sanity to MO. WRONG!!! Raising sales taxes for much of anything is wrong and hurts, as you point out, the people too poor to pay income taxes. Want budget sanity, which I do. First, balance the budget, federally, and see just how bad it hurts. Then, state or federal, RAISE the income tax on EVERYONE, by the same percentages, 2% here, 2% there and soon another $1 Trillion to spread around.

    Tax wise, STOP picking on one group and demand that ALL Americans agree to pony up, with a graded income tax, but one raised proportionally on ALL Americans (with enough money to pay any income taxes)
    When voters kick tax raisers out of office, replace them with tax cutters, cut taxes, see the crunch again and ….. there we go again.

    But you can bet a lot Trump is going for another “Reagan” tax cut expecting Reagan economic growth (8-10%). Will it work? It did, politically for Reagan, as long as he was in office and even spilled over to Clinton in the booming 90’s. Will it d the same for Trump? Who knows but he seems to be going to try it, again and you of course won’t be able to type trickle down fast enough!!

    I think Obama points to way, for both Dems and GOP or whatever form they reassemble themselves in to in the coming months and years.

    Happy Thanksgiving and pray a little. We leave Tues AM to fly through Chicago enroute to the East Coast for a family gathering. G…. D……. snow, labor strikes, airlines, you name it. I am definitely too old to do this much any more.

    Anson

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