Thursday, March 31, 2011

What Do The Simple Folk Do?

Boys don’t need money, just space. Both of my boyhood homes were a stone’s throw from the “country.” To the west of our George Street house a field that measured about 300 ft. by 600 ft. provided seasonal variety to the neighborhood. It hosted a variety of crops over the years including, one year, a crop of seed tomatoes. There is nothing more delicious than a tomato, freshly picked from the vine, ripe and sun-warmed, full of juice and pulp. Alas, they were not ours, Dad reminded us, so we watched the neighbors sample them that summer. Most years the little field served as an extension of a larger field to the north, sharing its crop of corn or soybeans. Once the crops were cleared it was, for the rest of the fall season, a baseball field. In snowy winters, (not all Illinois winters are snowy) it became a battlefield, dotted with makeshift snow forts. The little field butted, on its western side, against the railroad tracks. Beyond the tracks was the Clinton Pure Ice Company. It would play a major role in our lives and will undoubtedly figure in some of the stories I’ll tell.

About 200 ft. to the north of our house was open country, vast Illinois fields that alternated, from year to year, between corn and soybeans. A small creek coursed though the field closest to our house. A swampy swale in the same field interrupted whatever crop was sown there, forcing the farmer to leave that unplowed area to grow its crop of tall weeds, a perfect habitat for boys to carve out a secret place to plot their revolutions.

In winter, my oldest brother, Marvin, would take his shotgun or rifle, and with the dogs, roam the fields, hunting for rabbits, scaring them out of corn-stubble “tents” where they had built their burrows, or flushing them from a lumber pile or a deserted automobile shell dumped along the railroad right of way. It was not uncommon for him to bag three or four. He and Dad would dress them out and put them in salt water over night to remove the “gamey” flavor. The next morning Mom would fry the pieces much like she fried chicken, making a gravy to serve with the rabbit over hot biscuits. I used to think I liked rabbit gravy over biscuits. Not so much anymore. But the memory of those breakfasts could almost tempt me to try it again.

There was a period each March when no one ventured into the fields. Their soggy clay sought to capture any creature that set foot upon it. I can imagine archaeologists of the future finding an army of perfectly preserved bodies under that field.  I learned of its hazards the hard way. Something lured me into the field one spring day and before I knew it I was ankle deep in sticky clay, unable to move without leaving my shoes behind. If Dad had not heard my cries and rescued me, I would surely have joined that missing army awaiting the archaeologist’s trowel. I recall a great deal of displeasure in Dad’s tone as he rescued me. It is likely that I had been told not to go there. It is likely, too, that he threatened to leave me there if I ever did it again.

But in summer and fall the fields provided a wilderness in which Donald and I, and our neighborhood buddies roamed at will. Ten Mile Creek ran close to the railroad right of way less than a mile across the field. Weeds and immature trees lined its banks. Its muddy bed was home to surly crawdads, resentful of boys whose delight it was to annoy them with sticks. Ten Mile Creek was stocked with a million little suckers, each with a million little bones. The day we brought home a stringer with thirty or so, six inch suckers for Mom to clean and cook she demonstrated the unfailing love that only mothers have. Other adventures revealed a different side of Mom. When we returned home soaking wet from falling in the creek, or failed to return home at the expected time, or when we ignored her calls because we wanted another hour to play, there was a price to pay. Once the punishment had been meted out we were required to admit that the pleasure gained by disobedience did not compensate for the punishment later inflicted. But, perhaps it did. The next day, or week, the lure of the wild would draw us into disobedience again. We were boys! Sons of Adam.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Seeking a Firm Foundation

There is little that a four or five year old can do around a construction site. My brother Donald, who was five when the construction began, and I, who at the time was barely four, have only limited memories of the original construction of our house on George Street. In a couple of years we would be given claw hammers and crowbars and set to work pulling nails out of scrap lumber and piling it for future use. A few years more and we would be consigned to opposite ends of a crosscut saw with the task of cutting railroad ties down to firewood size. (That was undoubtedly the least successful collaboration the two of us ever attempted.) But in the first couple of years at our new home we were only observers with little reason to store away memories of what we were viewing.

By the time Dad and Mom decided to add a basement to the house, Donald and I had reached the age of usefulness. Well, limited usefulness at least. We were shorter that Marvin, our older brother, and therefore fit under the house more easily. But the sticky clay through which we had to cut with shovels and picks yielded more readily to Dad’s and Marvin’s strong arms than to ours. So, in the end, they moved more cubic yards than we did. There were grandiose discussions at meal times, of contraptions we could get or make, to ease the labor and speed the project along. Talk of reasonable, hopeful, solutions like using a tractor with a bucket on the front to scoop out the dirt, or employing a “slip” pulled by a horse to dredge it out, or a motorized conveyor belt to carry the clay out to waiting wheelbarrows, all helped to energize us while we continued to “cut” and “clear” and pitch the awful, soggy, heavy, yellow soil day after day.

As the hole under the house enlarged, so the piles of clay in the yard grew. They waited for us, lying in the summer sun, draining out their moisture, turning to rock-hard mounds, knowing we would come again to invest our sweat and toil dismantling them, spreading their infertility over the yard in the vain hope that grass could be coaxed to grow there.

Eventually the time came to pour the footings. A Sears and Roebuck cement mixer arrived, gravel was delivered, and bags of cement were purchased from any source available. The war was still on and building materials were rationed as strictly as sugar or gasoline. Dad did not fancy himself a brick (or block) mason so a local man was hired on a per diem basis to lay up the blocks.

Perhaps out of deference to the shortage of materials, perhaps to save money, the excavated space under the house measured only 30 feet by 24 feet – 3 feet smaller on each side than the house itself – creating an earthen ledge on all four sides of the basement that would later be covered with a layer of concrete. Thus, the footings were poured further out, at the perimeter of the house, at ground level. Only three or four courses of blocks were needed to raise the building to the desired height. The house had spent several months suspended above the ever-growing excavation, held in place by long heavy timbers that rested on cement blocks. The whole project proceeded as a carefully choreographed process of adding support here and removing it there until we reached the grand moment when the mason would do his work and the house would finally rest on a firm foundation. The mason was reputed to be a man of great skill.

At the end of the first day of block laying, the mason cleaned his tools, surveyed his work with pride, collected his pay, and promptly went on a multi-day drinking binge. Dad decided that he had observed enough of the mason’s art that he could finish the job. It is arguable that his skills improved as he progressed through the job but it is, nonetheless, possible to discern which blocks Dad laid and which were laid by the mason of great skill.

Many lessons were learned over those years during which our house took shape, but none were more important than the principle that it is best to build from the ground up rather than the other way around.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Home Sweet Home – Always Under Construction

It is unclear if the first building constructed in 1940 on the lot at 928 North George Street was intended to serve as part of the Rapp residence. Probably not. It was built at the back of the lot, a 36ft by 15 ft structure, facing west, with a gabled roof pitched at 3 - 12, no more. There may have been some urgent need to get a temporary shelter done. For some reason the family moved in, occupying only half of the structure, before it was finished in any sense of the word. There were no amenities whatsoever. Water was obtained from the Addy’s well until one could be sunk on our property. As I recall the “house” occupied the northeast corner of the lot, the outhouse sat a few feet away on the southeast corner. Neither my brother Donald nor I have any memory of electric lighting at that time. It is likely that kerosene lanterns served for lighting. What was used for cooking and heating is likewise unknown.

If that original building was not intended as the first installment on the completed house, it very quickly became such. By 1941 foundation pads were poured and the “house” at the back of the lot was moved to the front, using a system of planks and pipe rollers. It was lifted up, using railroad jacks, to sit on piles of cinderblocks stacked on the concrete pads. Another section of house was built on the east side of the original, roofed with a low pitch that rose no more than one foot from its east edge to the point where it intersected with the steeper pitched roof of the original building. The combined structure, now double the size of the original building, was subdivided into six roughly equal rooms – three bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room and living room. Thus the basic structure that would constitute our house was in place.

But it was not finished. Windows, doors, floors and interior walls, a full basement, all awaited further funds, and thus were completed, over the next several years, as need dictated, and funds appeared. Donald recalls that material for those projects was obtained by mail-order, mostly from Sears and Roebuck. I have no memory of such purchases or deliveries but I trust his memory. The trim around the doors and windows, though, bore greater resemblance to Car Shop material than to anything purchased new. There was undoubtedly a mix of both. The impending war, with the material shortages it engendered, and the ever-present economic distress, dictated in favor of greater use of recycled materials.

One purchase marked the house for all the years that Mom and Dad lived in it. The exterior was wrapped in faux brick siding, an asphalt-based material that came in rolls, three feet wide and several yards long. It was attached to the car siding sheeting with galvanized nails. The new siding may have excited some pride initially, as the fresh faux bricks concealed the rough exterior, but it became an icon of poverty over the years, and was the first aspect of the house to change when it was sold to a grandson fifty-one years later. Dad and Mom had talked of new siding over the years but there was always something else calling more urgently for their attention, and their cash.

It would be impossible to pinpoint the moment when the house ceased to be primarily a “thing in the making,” and began to regress into an object of decay. That moment must have come sometime long before the house reached completion. The struggle to maintain was on long before the struggle to build had ended. Dad chose, voluntarily, to go to a nursing home for his last year so he could be near Mom whose failing health and dementia had taken her there a couple of years earlier. But as strong as the pull was to be by her, there was also a growing realization that the progress of decay in the old place had outstripping his ability to ward it off. He spent a part of his last day at the house, seated, in deference to his failing heart, on a rusty old chair at the fence line, waging a losing battle against a superior foe, fighting to save his garden from encroaching weeds.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Losing Battle

Our house at 928 North George Street met at least one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s criteria; it was an organic structure, always coming into being, always returning to the earth. In the fifty-one years that Mom and Dad lived there a silent war was being waged between their desire to make a home and the pernicious climate that resisted every advance they made. Summer, and soil, I’d say, were the forces arrayed against anyone who chose to erect a lasting edifice. They joined forces, an atmosphere permeated with moisture, and a soil sodden with goo. Hot, humid summer nights preserved the moisture in the sticky clay. The clay reciprocated by feeding moisture to the air. Even in winter the night air held you in its clammy grip.

Human artifacts fare poorly in such conditions. Rust and mold and rot race to ruin new construction. Cement basement walls are slowly turned to powder by incessant dampness from without and from within. Treasures, thought to be preserved, are later found in tatters, victims of an enemy of all that wants to be. Repairs upon repairs bear witness to the never ending struggle. Generation passes to generation the depressing heritage of decay. Only the optimism and energy of youth gives hope to those who wish to make a home in such a place.

Dad was thirty-six, Mom thirty-five, when they began to build in 1940. I was too young to know, and subsequently too careless to ask, what impelled them to do so. The times were hard. The New Deal had brought some life back to the economy, but the war, which would ultimately end the Great Depression, was still only a dark cloud on the horizon, if anything, another reason to fear, to take no chances.

Dad had worked through the late 20s and part of the 30s as a farm hand, then later, for a brief period, on the WPA. As the 40s dawned he was an entrepreneur, though he would not have known the term. He was a collector of paper and rags, glass, and metal; a handyman and stove repairman. He owned a fleet of two push carts that he wheeled from store to store collecting cardboard boxes and any paper he could bale for sale. His toolkit consisted of a few tinner’s tools, a supply bolts, asbestos, and stove cement. How he scratched enough from those activities to support a family of six is a mystery; how he found the fifty or one hundred dollars to buy a lot and build a house is almost beyond belief.

Granted, the house was not built in a day, and when it reached something like its final form, it was an embarrassment to the neighborhood and, regretfully, to some of its inhabitants. (It is easier to look back on poverty with some kind of perverse pride than it is to live in its immediacy.) The neighbors (most of them) came to see, in Dad (and Mom), a dignity – a decency – that belied the humble house Dad built. I look at his accomplishment and remove my hat, knowing now what heroic stamina it took to be the husband, father, man he sought to be.

Our house still stands, as do most of the others on the block. Some seem to be holding their own better than others, but there is no sign that they are regaining ground previously lost. Aluminum siding has helped to hide the scars that time and climate have inflicted on our house. Frequent painting gives others the appearance of some stability. Some have fared less well, have not been able to attract the youthful inhabitants, infused with the hope needed to stave off decay. One has the feeling, walking through the neighborhood, that the enemy has withdrawn his forces, knowing that the wounds already inflicted are sufficient to finish his work. He is training his guns now upon the new, upscale developments, south and west of town. It is only a matter of time.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rethinking a Thought

It took a while to get to sleep last night. I was “haunted” by some words I wrote for yesterday’s blog. I had quoted the C.S. Lewis character, Hyoi, from Out of the Silent Planet. In speaking about memory, Hyoi said to Ransom, “When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes me in all my days till then—that is the real meaning.” (Emphasis added)

We know very little about the cognitive capabilities of our non-human fellow creatures, but we assume that their capacity for memory is far less than ours, and that, more to the point, their ability to connect their various memories and reform them into a collective “history” of their past is, in all but the highest vertebrates, nearly non-existent. Or, to state it Biblically, man is made in the image of God, having some God-like capabilities, admittedly writ small, but nonetheless considerable in contrast to all other earthly creatures.

I cannot plumb the Mind of God to depths sufficient to explain why He would lay a burden such as that upon his creature. He must have had great hopes for it. We can only wonder if, amidst the torn and tattered history humans have accumulated, there is anything that even dimly fulfills those hopes. But if there is any hope at all it is embodied in the wisdom of Hyoi – to paraphrase, the redeeming power of human memory lies in what it makes of us in all our days till we lie down to die. That is the real meaning.

We seek to retrieve the joy of pleasant moments through repeating them, but find, as C.S. Lewis has noted, there is less joy in the encore than in the initial experience.  Hyoi’s insight is that memories are not static experiments, subject to codification or replication, but rather living cells, implanted in our being, that continue to nourish (or destroy) us until the day we die.

We try to wrest meaning from past unpleasant times by working and re-working them in our troubled mind, hoping we can reshape them to say or be something less hurtful to our spirit. Hyoi would tell us the meaning is not in what we make of them, but in what they make of us.

Robert Browning Hamilton’s poem, I Walked a Mile with Pleasure, has been memorized by thousands, the author included, and recited in times of sorrow.

I walked a mile with Pleasure;
She chatted all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she;
But, oh! The things I learned from her,
When sorrow walked with me.

Those are wise, insightful words from Hamilton, with which I would not quibble too much. I would only add that our walks with pleasure are gifts as well; gifts, given to instruct us and build us more into the image of God, blessings, given not because of what we are, but to assist us in becoming something else, something better, vendors of pleasure to those who share our earthly journey. Likewise, our “walks with sorrow” are not just about learning, but about growing as well.

At the risk of triteness, I offer a paraphrase of John’s Kennedy’s famous challenge. My challenge would be, “Ask not what you should make of your past; ask rather what your past can make of you.”


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Myth-Makers

We are all myth-makers, constructing the truth of who we are – who we have been – from events and facts handed down, or errantly observed, partially forgotten, reshaped in memory, but doggedly believed – insisted – to be true.

Things, we say, are clearer in retrospect. So we think. I’ve found, over the years, that my memories of events are not always shared by others who were party to them. The little ducky dish that I remembered belonging to both my brother and I, he recalls was mine alone. In reality, clarity, in retrospect, carries the paradoxical hazard of time induced accretions and deletions, adding to and taking from the original memory each time it is brought to mind.

The world is awash in memoirs, and here I am, adding to the flood with these daily reminiscences on my blog. Good memoirs – the ones we like to read – make claim to perfect vision of the past and clear understanding of the connections between cause and effect. I make no such claim for the things I recall. I can only say, “This is the way I remember it.”

But it is human to remember, to connect, to relate. By remembering, we keep the past alive, not as a thing that once was, and is no more, nor as a thing that once was as we recall it to have been, but as a thing that is, now, and that continues to inform and influence who we are.

C.S. Lewis beautifully described the power of remembered events in the words of Hyoi, the hross, who befriended Ransom on the planet Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet.

A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered. You are speaking, Hman, as if the pleasure were one thing and the memory another. It is all one thing. The seroni [another intelligent creature on the planet Malacandra] could say it better than I say it now. Not better than I could say it in a poem. What you call remembering is the last part of the pleasure, as the crah [recitation] is the last part of a poem. When you and I met, the meeting was over very shortly, it was nothing. Now it is growing something as we remember it. But still we know very little about it. What it will be when I remember it as I lie down to die, what it makes me in all my days till then—that is the real meaning. The other is only the beginning of it. You say you have poets in your world. Do they not teach you this? (C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet, MacMillan Paperbacks Edition, 1965, p 73)

Things remembered will not take their final form until we “lie down to die”, and what they make us “in all the days till then,” is what really matters.

                An Ode to Memory
                                      by Jim Rapp

There is only one road to travel,
The ever-unfolding, well-worn path called "now".

Standing on the high precipice
Of the eternal moment,
The unknown looms ahead,
A wispy, wishful construct, shaped to resemble
Cherished memories from the past.

The once-known, once-held, once-cherished
Lies behind us, muted mounds
Of all we've had, and said, and done.

As now crumbles
Under the weight of our mortality,
We cling to faith for this moment,
Hope for some tomorrow,
And draw comfort
From what used to be.

Memory -
                all that's left of everything.

Friday, March 25, 2011

That Building at the Back of the Lot

I have no memory of Dad ever buying a new piece of wood from a lumber company. Nails, yes. Bags of cement, yes. Cinder blocks, yes. Roll roofing and faux brick siding, yes. But never a new 2x4, or sheet of plywood, or other dimension lumber. I have no doubt that he did in fact buy such, but I was either not present when he did so, or my memory of helping “clean up” scrap lumber from the Car Shop – an onerous task that my brothers and I worked at with less than half a heart – is so imprinted in my mind that I can recall no other source of building materials.

The lumber pile at the back of our lot was mostly composed of boxcar siding but there were  odds and ends of 2x4s, 4x4s, and occasionally one inch thick planks of varying widths. And there were a number of old creosote impregnated railroad ties, deemed to be unfit for further use as holders of the rails, and thus left lying by the tracks by Section gangs. Not all of the lumber Dad brought in came from the Car Shop, nor was all of it designated for building. In fact, once our house was completed, most of it became firewood. But a significant part of the pile would be held in reserve, indefinitely, as it turned out, in case it was needed for future projects. That wood needed sorting and piling so it would not warp. All the bent and rusty nails had to be removed, the nails straightened, if possible, and sorted into coffee cans. The wood was laid carefully in neat crossing patterns to allow air to flow and keep it dry. And that was boy’s work.

Near the lumber pile, at the back of the lot, stood the two-seater outhouse that was, perhaps,  Dad’s first project at our new homestead, built even before construction began on the house. Neighbors were generous in sharing the use of outhouses in those days. They were not, in most cases, the gleaming jewels that now adorn our houses, and required little upkeep beyond a little sweeping and maintaining a supply of old newspapers or catalogs on hand in lieu of store bought toilet paper. The Chinese, by the way, were the first to use toilet paper about 1400 a.d., but it was an American, Jospeph Gayetty, who, in 1857 began to sell 500 sheet packages of Therapeutic Paper at fifty cents per package, each sheet imprinted with his name. However, Mom and Dad were loathe to impose themselves (and their children) upon others so Dad built our own outhouse, secured against Halloween pranksters by four railroad ties sunk deep in the earth at its four corners. Dad was never accused of being a minimalist. And, since the outhouse had no intricate plumbing to be fouled by the use of courser papers, we did not use Therapeutic Paper in our outhouse.

The outhouse became a social center of sorts. It was not uncommon to see adults conversing, one standing outside the outhouse, speaking to another inside. We think nothing of speaking “through the door” to someone in the rest room today and, though the “restroom” of that day lacked some of the dignity of its modern cousin, folks in that era thought nothing of doing the same. Children of the same sex found the dual seating conducive to prolonged sessions of sharing. It became, for them, a sort of summer clubhouse.

And so it was that my brother, fifteen months my senior, and I retired to the “clubhouse” one day to escape for a while from the odious chore of pulling nails from boxcar siding. One of us – or perhaps both – brought along a stick from the woodpile, long enough to stir the contents of the pit beneath the outhouse, while we talked of things now long forgotten. It was our misfortune that Mom appeared, needing the use of the building, just as we had raised the methane level in its interior to its maximum. When she emerged to see us snickering at the stink we’d raised she issued one of the summary judgments for which she became famous – the punishment must always fit the crime. We were returned to the “clubhouse”, the door was fastened shut, and we were left to savor the aroma of our efforts for several minutes.

Prolonged breathing of methane may be hazardous to your health. But it also raises one’s appreciation of fresh air and increases one’s incentive to pull nails and pile lumber.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Car Shop Bonanza

The railroad lay across Clinton like the crosshairs of a surveyor’s instrument, dividing the town into quarters. That meant that no part of the town got off scot-free. The shudder of huge steam engines could be heard all over town, their wheels straining to grip the rail, moving slowly at first, then losing traction and spinning rapidly before gripping again, over and over, gradually building speed until finally they rolled smoothly down the track and out of town, whistle blowing to warn all comers at each intersection, billowing black smoke and cinders from their stacks. The rumble of the heavily loaded cars shook houses blocks away from the tracks. The wind generally carried the smoke over the eastern half of the town, but the whole town heard the whistles screaming day and night. There were no overpasses and only one viaduct (underpass) so intersections in any part of town were subject to long blockages as the trains rolled through, or while the switch-engines pulled the cars apart and formed them up in new configurations heading for new destinations.

Clinton was a railroad town. It had the one-armed men to prove it. Some had been injured working on the railroad, but others lost body parts trying to hitch a ride, or crawl under a slow-moving train that blocked their path. The most illustrious victim of railroad violence, in the eyes of an aspiring major league baseball player, was a one-armed, local baseball hero who could scoop up a ground ball and, in one seamless process, remove his glove with his teeth, allowing the ball to roll out into his hand, and fire it off to first base ahead the runner. His powerful one-armed blasts with a bat frequently cleared the fences and the bases.

But the presence of maimed people wasn’t the only evidence of the town’s major industry. A crossing town, serving travelers from the four winds, it had almost everything any major railroad terminal would have including a bona fide station with a ticket master and a cafe. At the east end of town the Round House – a huge carousel or lazy Susan –turned the engines and sent them back in the direction they came from. In a day of wooden railroad cars, Clinton boasted a Car Shop where wrecked or worn boxcars were brought for repairs. Frank Burns was a carpenter at the Car Shop. At the north end of town cabooses were shuttled onto sidings near the Store Department where they could be resupplied with ice, water, coal, stationary, kerosene, flares and other supplies needed by the conductors on their long hauls. Eventually Dad would work the graveyard shift in the Store Department, supplying cabooses, but not until he had worked his way up through the ranks as a Section hand, beginning late in 1941, after war was declared against Japan. Finally, in the center of town, at the junction of the north-south and the east-west lines, stood a large grey, almost windowless building, the exact purpose of which I never learned. It seemed to be the local headquarters.

The railroad was a boon to poor people. Boxcars leaked grain, and coal cars often overflowed  along the tracks. Enterprising folk took advantage of the free wealth. Railroad spikes, pieces of broken rail, parts that rattled loose from passing trains, discarded crossties were all considered free for the taking by scavengers. In addition, the trains provided transportation for any nimble enough and brave enough to hitch a ride to where they were going. There were occasional derailments, and those who got there before the cleanup crews could always find things of value in the wreckage. The scrap heaps left behind by the section gangs provided fire wood for nearby residents or transients living along the tracks. All of this scavenging was unsanctioned; the railroad Dick (detective) would run you off if he discovered you shagging a ride or picking up things along the track. But there weren’t enough Dicks to police the whole line.

Perhaps the railroad’s greatest gift to Clinton in those late Depression years, other than the jobs it provided for locals, was the Car Shop. Many of the boxcars arrived so badly damaged that they had to be stripped down to their frame and rebuilt, discarding the old materials and using new. The pile of used lumber near the shop was a bonanza for material starved “builders”. Dad was such a “builder”.

I was too young to know the family dynamics of the decision to give up our home on Clay Street, very likely a rented home, and build a “new house” a few blocks away on the north end of George Street. I never knew from whom Dad bought the lot on which he built. I can only guess the thoughts of the neighbors as they watched him hauling in the building materials from the Car Shop. The adventure was about to begin.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Siting a Home

Not much has changed in the last seventy years at the north end of George Street. Only three houses have been added since Dad built ours in the early 40s. George street ended in a sudden one-way turn to the east becoming East Marion which ran for two blocks before it trailed out into the country, flanked on either side by corn or soybeans. The land north of Marion still has enough value as cropland – corn and soybeans – that developers haven’t grabbed it yet for residences. Of course, the homes on the north end of George Street and the two streets to the east, running parallel to it, are not the kind that invite development. A few of the existing houses show signs of expert carpentry, perhaps constructed before the Great Depression, but even they have deteriorated to the point that they barely rival their poorer, ad hoc neighbors.

Our house was the epitome of ad hoc construction. It was built in two installments, one structure on each end of the lot, later brought together to make one building. Apparently there were few, if any, building codes at that time. Otherwise our house would have been condemned from the start.

Our 50ft x 150 ft lot was nestled between two of the most substantial houses on the block, the large two-story Burns house to the south and the smaller, but much newer, Addy house to the north. The Burns house had the appearance of a farmhouse that got isolated when the neighborhood developed around it. The Addy house, the last on the block, was built on a double corner lot by Will and Minnie Addy not too many years before we arrived and, until Minnie died, it was the best maintained property in the neighborhood.

As I say, if there had been any scintilla of a building code in the town our house would never have been allowed between those two. Frank Burns was an Illinois Central Railroad carpenter and, though his income could not have exceeded by much that which Dad scratched out from baling and selling paper, collected bottles, and scrap metal, Arabelle, Frank’s wife, imagined herself a person of some importance. She was, after all, a kindergarten assistant at the school three blocks away.

Will Addy died of a heart attack shortly after our house was built. In writing that, it makes me wonder if there was a connection. If so, Mrs. Addy never seemed to hold it against us. She was a sweet, humble woman, but also proud in the good sense. Minnie skillfully navigated the politics of the neighborhood, partly as a service to the community, and partly, I suspect, because it gave her more immediate access to information she enjoyed having. She loved to relate, to anyone willing to listen, her stories of life on the St. Croix River at Hudson, Wisconsin during the winters that her husband spent building a suspension bridge across that wide expanse. I never learned what brought them to Clinton, Illinois, and more particularly to the north end of George Street. But there they retired after Will built the most attractive, though not the largest, house on the block.

So it was, that there, between the noble houses of Arabelle and Frank Burns, and Minnie and Will Addy, Dad began to build our house. But that part of the story must wait for another day.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Wash House Memories

Storms have always made me happy. Any kind of storm will do; gentle rain, thunderous downpour, snow, sleet or hail, thunder and lightning. Storms have gotten a bad name, perhaps rightly so. We borrow the name to speak of all manner of destructive things, storming fortresses, storming into work late, etc. The geological variety also causes harm as often as it causes good. But I love storms anyway. The thunderous variety stirs my soul and the quiet kind brings me calm.

They don’t make them like they used to though. The rains I recall, growing up in central Illinois, were of Biblical proportions, sometimes going on for days, pounding down on the roof of our un-insulated house, running in torrents off the un-guttered eaves, over flowing the short sections of gutter at the corners of the house intended to fill the rain barrels, overfilling them, and rushing into the streets to turn the ditches into community wading pools. Those were spring rains and fall rains. The summer rains were violent, arriving after days, or even weeks, of scorching heat, accompanied by loud claps of thunder and bright flashes of lighting, winds that tore at shingles and rearranged the neighborhood. Summer storms always brought out the kerosene lanterns, just in case. How we kids hoped that they would be needed. And it was always nip and tuck as to when or whether we would huddle in a corner of the basement. But oh, how cool, and sweet, and clean the air when it had all blown by!

That was a day of stay-at-home families. Dad worked nights – the graveyard shift from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. – and eventually the older siblings got jobs too. But often we were all there to “enjoy” the weather together, six of us when the count was full.

On long rainy days we kids escaped the stuffiness of our confined little cottage to spent our hours in the “wash house,” a little building next to the house, originally built as a smoke house, but renamed “wash house” when it became obvious that we couldn’t afford a hog to smoke. (Its name would change once more to “garage”, but being too small to house a car, it was slowly filled to the rafters with Dad’s “treasures.) In its years as a “wash house” it was equipped with a large cast iron cook stove on which to boil water. Benches held galvanized tubs in which the clothes were washed and rinsed and wrung by hand. But rainy days were not wash days so the benches and tubs and table served as furniture in our special retreat. There was no television or even radio – especially not during an electrical storm. In those pre-FM days the static on an AM radio during an electrical storm was too annoying to be tolerated. Besides the family had only one radio and that one was not allowed in the “wash house”. So we played checkers, Chinese checkers, and dominos. If there was any stormy discord in those hours of confinement (it surely seems there would have been), the years have erased the memory of it, leaving only pleasant thoughts of wood stove warmth, childhood play, the sound of rain on the roof, and reprieve from outdoor chores.

Ah, there, I may have gone and given it away. Was my love of storms just a dislike of chores? No, not really. I loved them for themselves – but the reprieve from chores was a nice bonus.

I’ve often wondered – and would love to read – what my children remember from their idyllic, old-time, childhood days.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Hard Decision


One of the hardest choices we make in life is deciding what we want to “make of ourselves.” Even the sound of that sentence grates on the spirit of a Christian who knows that all that he/she is, that is worth honoring, is the work of God’s Spirit. Worth honoring? That too grates, as a goal unworthy of one who wishes their life only to honor their Lord.

So what are we to do? I’ve struggled most of my life with a desire to use those talents that I sense I’ve been given, but to not raise my profile so high that I seem to be saying my “achievements” are anything of my doing. “In Him we live, and move, and have our being.”

The goal, I guess, is to do what we do to the best of the ability God has given us, and then wait to see what God deems worthy of His praise. It is in that spirit that I presume to write a Blog and fill it with my thoughts, which I trust are not my thoughts but rather thoughts spoken through me.


              The Honor of Anonymity
                           by Jim Rapp
(A reaction to an e-mail solicitation from
Kim Hornyak
Director of Book Marketing, Jenkins Group, Inc.)

Why should one strive to be known?
Is it important that one be known?
Why should one work to avoid . . . anonymity?

Some of humanity’s most honored “poets”
are known only by their work, coming to us
unsigned . . . Anonymous.

Those who invented the wheel, cultivated maize,
discovered uses for fire, and created the first
alphabet are . . . Anonymous.

Prehistoric potters, sculptors, balladeers,
warriors, statesmen, farmers, inventers, engineers
all remain . . . Anonymous.

The basic tools of all we know of math and art
and game and song, of work and play,
are gifts given by geniuses . . . anonymously.

I’m being hounded by those who
want to help me become known; who will,
they say, for a fee, save me from . . . anonymity.

But waving, exclaiming, “I did it! I did it!”
assumes the work I “did” would bring no shame
if made the bearer of my name.

Perhaps a “poet” should make Time the judge,
deciding what deserves a name to blame;
reserving the best for the honor of
                                     . . . anonymity.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

On Doing What Love Demands

                Love’s Ought
                          by Jim Rapp

Ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin,
and have omitted . . . judgment, mercy, and faith:
these ought ye to have done, and not to leave
the other undone. Mt 23:23 

In the end it’s not the things I’ve got
through thrift, or wit, or battles fought;
not things at all that “spice” my lot,
for things are fraught,
before and aft, and wrongly thought
to be a source of joy they’re not.

It’s nothing that I’ve sold or bought
but rather gifts I’ve freely brought
to Compassion’s altar, all unsought,
to bless another, overwrought
with cares or needs, that caught
the meaning of Love’s ought.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Heavenly Thoughts

The Negro Spiritual warns, “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout Heaven ain’t goin’ there.” Undoubtedly the slaves and later the repressed Freedmen who sang that song could think of some who “talked about heaven” but didn’t deserve to go there. But the fact is that most people, be they scoundrel or saint, have a hope that, despite the message of the Spiritual, they will pass from this life into a heaven of some sort. I wish them all well but have fears for some of them.

I can’t speak for other religions (most, I know, have some concept of an after-life) but I know that the Christian religion is rife with “pictures,” conjured over the centuries, of what heaven will be like. There are commonalities in the pictures as would be expected. All have access to the same Bible and can build upon the images given in its pages. But the more I’ve thought about the subject the less I feel comfortable declaring with any precision what heaven will be like. The Bible, after all, except for those vivid, but very likely symbolic images in Revelation, is pretty skimpy in the details it gives us of heaven. Reinhold Niebuhr has said "It is unwise for Christians to claim any knowledge of either the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell."

But we try, nonetheless. It is not difficult to imagine what heaven could be, or what one might wish it would be. We’ve all spun those dreams and continue to do so. But they really are just projections of our favorite things in this life onto the screen of eternity. So we end up with a heaven that looks like earth without all of its warts and worries, populated with the people and things we love and would be loath to lose. Some pave their heaven with gold and deck it with jewels. I tend to leave it wild with vast spaces to explore; a place eternally coming to be, with a learning curve that stretches over millennia of millennia into infinitillia. My heaven is no different than that of others, though, in that it is made up of things I already know. It looks a lot like the picture astronomers paint of our universe except in my vision it is all habitable, easily accessible, and anywhere you venture, the presence and the joy of God is there.

All this dreaming, and hoping, and imagining must have a meaning. We can’t know what goes on in the “mind” of an amoeba, or even a zebra, but we know that in the human mind there is a sense that we are made for more than this brief earthly existence. The Christian Gospel is the answer to that longing. Paul, the Apostle said that if we only have hope for this life we are terribly miserable. But the primary meaning of the resurrection is that because Christ rose from the dead, we too can live and have life everlasting. The details we’ll have to leave to God. I’m guessing, though, that for those who get there, it won’t be a disappointment.

               Last Thoughts
                         by Jim Rapp

What is the purpose of that last thought;
That last remembering of things I ought
To do when I get home at night?
Why did I have that "dream" of possibilities,
Of ways to strengthen my abilities
To do the things I do more right?
Why all this planning if, at this very moment,
I come face to face with death's certain omen,
And then cease forever to see light?

What can the purpose be –
            except there be Eternity?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thoughts After a Big Meal

The world is obsessed with food, half of the world obsessed with getting enough of it to cover their ribs, the other half obsessed with managing the glut it is “blessed with” while still keeping their toes in sight.

Many things contribute to the struggle that much of the world must go through to feed itself: war, natural disaster, greed, geography, climate conditions. Some say there is food enough in the world for everyone to eat a healthy diet but that problems of distribution keep two-thirds of the world hungry. I suspect that “distribution” is a euphemism for all those conditions just named. So in reality there is no reason, other than human indifference or perversity, for the food shortages in the third world.

But for much of the world food has become a narcotic. We eat not so much because we are hungry or even because we know the food is good for us. In many cases it isn’t good for us. But still we fill our plates, probably in an attempt to fill an emptiness we sense in our deepest being. “Man shall not live by bread alone,” we’ve been told. Our spirits tell us it is so but our “flesh” is weak and so we fill our plates.

In the United States, and most other wealthy countries, obesity is epidemic, even among the very young. Visit any buffet and look at the number of morbidly obese clients. Visit any hospital or clinic and be amazed at how many staff persons are seriously obese. Visit any playground and see the obese children. Visit any nursing home and count the number of obese residents. Walk by a mirror and you may very well observe obesity.

What to do about it? Michelle Obama is being pilloried by some who see her attempt to raise our nation’s awareness of childhood obesity as an intrusion upon the rights of families to manage their own affairs. Fair enough if families are managing adequately. But the evidence says something different. And we all pay the price in higher medical costs, insurance cost, and reduced productivity when we, and our fellow Americans, allow ourselves and our children to become too fat for our own good.

It is time we go on a diet, personally and culturally. Me first!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Free at Last

             Four Words
               (John 3:16)
                     by Jim Rapp

Four words
Bring freedom to the world.
The Father looked toward
Our captive race and hurled
The words that broke our cords,
When on a cross, unfurled,
He wrote the words,
"I love you, world!"

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Meditation on a Word

                                  Phenomena
                                       by Jim Rapp

I like phenomena much more than miracles;
They make no judgment of the why or how of things,
But simply make one wonder; stand in awe.

Phenomena are gentlemen and lay no obstacle –
Assess no blame – to those who choose to cling
To mundane explanations of the things they heard or saw.

Beacons they are, and banners, calling us to see;
But never telling what to think or do or say;
Calling without words, speaking without tongue.

They turn our head – command our gaze – but leave us free
To call them ordinary – plain events of every day;
Leave us free to live as though their song was never sung.

Phenomena are not rare events, though some,
Who see them rarely, would have us think it so.
Phenomena are like the air we breathe, as close as skin.

They require a prism to show us that they've come,
A gateway to our senses that will let us see and know
That we are in the presence of a Gift – that God has come again.

Note: phenomenon is from the Greek root, phos, meaning light.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

On Hanging Together or Hanging Separately

         Autonomy: To Be Or Not To Be
                                    by Jim Rapp
   
What if every atom in me
Insisted on autonomy?
And what if each desired to be
Something utterly,
Utterly, otherly?
Soon I'd be
Less than what I used to be.
And eventually . . .
Non-entity!
I'd cease to be!

Is there a lesson here to see?
Perhaps a trillion atoms, floating free,
Could be more than each,
Alone, could ever hope to be.
By lending individuality
In service of some greater corporality,
They could be,
I venture cautiously,
A part of something quite observably
Close to being me.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Poetic Musings

                    Love’s Anointed
                                  by Jim Rapp

Some want so much to be seen as loving,
            are so disappointed
            that others do not see them so.

Could it be that in all their pushing, shoving,
            to be Love’s anointed
            they’ve lost the very power to be?

                 The Status Quo
                               by Jim Rapp

Everyone loves it . . . and hates it –
Defends it . . . and seeks to upend it.

It undergirds the things we’ve come know –
Preserves some things we’d like to throw.

Depends, I guess, on how one ends –
With full, or with a pair of empty, hands.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Remembering Sundays Long Ago

    
            A Sabbath Remembered
                                by Jim Rapp

Sunday afternoons were meant to be
A time of quietness – an over-arching tree
That offered shade and beckoned me
To lie beneath its branches
            snoozing lazily.

I remember times when Sundays
Were just such; we found a way
To slow the clock for half a day –
A lazy, restful, holy Sabbath
            on us lay.

Ah, those were days idyllic,
When in our crowed little billet
We waited out the time and tried to fill it;
Counted down each lagging hour,
            with no good way to "kill it".

But boys will find a way somehow,
They'll practice "killing" on some cat or cow,
Or on a sibling if conditions will allow,
A "sacrificial Sabbath killing" –
            It was often me or thou.

Our Sabbaths aren't what they used to be,
We fill them, stem to stern, with "good" activity,
And miss the peaceful quiet that there used to be
When Sabbath meant a battle royal
            ‘twixt my sibs and me.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Hope and Faith

Hope and faith are easily confused, transposed,  and sometimes even used as synonyms. But they are quite different things. Hope is a frame of mind, faith is a firm conviction.

Perhaps the confusion comes because they both hang by a thin thread, so thin that many are afraid to commit themselves to them. That is a shame because hope and faith are hallmarks of Christian orthodoxy. But the thread that holds faith in place is the more substantial one.

Some talk of “blind faith” but such talk is oxymoronic. Faith goes beyond “things hoped for” and becomes “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence (the seeing) of things not seen.” It aims at a reality and relies upon credible evidence.

One can live one’s life, truly hoping that some landfall from some unspecified source will bring  sudden and lasting happiness and success. But to live with that kind of hope would not be productive. Mark Twain accuses his father and siblings of frittering their lives away, hoping that a chunk of land the family held title to in Indiana would accrue enough wealth to put them all on easy street. Their foolish hope was not productive of anything but lethargy. It was mere hope – life-delaying hope.

Faith, we’re told, comes by hearing, but more specifically, hearing – attending to – a credible source. Twain’s Clemmons clan had no credible reason to hope that their land had, or would ever have, value enough to put them all on “easy street.” But they had hope enough to deter them from doing the sensible things that might have helped them gain the realistic potential of the land.

Granted, it is more comfortable to be with people of hope than with people of faith. Hopeful folk are cheerful, sometimes even inanely so, even in the face of certain disaster. They often ask little of others or of themselves. They simply hope. And who doesn’t like to hang out with hopeful folks.

People of faith, on the other hand, demand agreement, urge action, insist on taking risks. Those who merely hope are an irritant to them; those who doubt, an outright drag, a harmful weight to be shucked off. Conversely, those who have no faith, or whose faith is in something/someone else, find people of faith to be uncomfortable, even dangerous, companions.

Hope, wonderful though it is, if not built on faith is a mere grasping at the wind. And faith, powerful motivator that it is, if not built on credible evidence is likely to disappoint. Indeed,  faith placed in the wrong evidence – based on destructive principles, or in self-serving causes, or in manipulative leaders – can destroy lives and disrupt societies.

Two things are said to be eternal: hope and faith. (A third eternal verity is love.) God give us hope – based on faith – faith built on the credible testimony of God’s declared will for us and our world. That kind of hope will make us productive people – good people to be with – faith-full people, working urgently, but peaceably, to make a better, more hope-full, world.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Seen While Passing A Swamp

                    Permanence
                               by Jim Rapp

Old Stump, you look so lifeless –
leafless, limbless, hinged by a lightning strike,
you are only a third of your former self or less.

At swamp’s edge, leaning, hobo-like,
you seek to fill your cup with nothingness
but cannot rise to drink or hope to hike
beyond the place you occupy
                        in stubborn rootedness.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Birthday Remembrance

Happy Birthday to me! I’m seventy-five today. I remember the day before my birth in 1936. I had decided not to go through with it. I had it pretty good where I was and things didn’t look too promising where I would be going. I would be the fifth child born to my parents. A brother I never knew had died recently in a tragic accident so, for all practical purposes I’d be the youngest of four siblings. My brother, just older than I, had been born fifteen month before, a replacement, I presume, for the son lost in the accident. So I was essentially superfluous.

Besides, the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression. President Roosevelt was experimenting with ways to solve the problem of massive unemployment, and to insure that no future “crashes” of that magnitude would ever occur again. My father was scratching out a living, working briefly for the WPA, then baling rags and paper and collecting glass and metal to sell at depression-level prices. The announcement of my impending arrival could not have brought much joy.

And added to difficulties in our nation and our family were the dark clouds looming over Europe and the Pacific. The world, lead by truly evil men, was spiraling into a second World War only two decades after suffering through one of the deadliest eras in its long and bloody history.

No! I decided, I’d just take a pass on this one and leave more room at the table for my hungry, growing siblings. They’d never miss me and I could continue on in the warmth of my sheltered world. But to my horror, that was not to be. The next day, March 10th, my little world became more chaotic than the world outside. I felt myself suddenly squeezed and pushed and ultimately propelled into a cold strange world governed by rules I had not learned. If someone had not grabbed me by the heels and smacked me on the rump I might not have made it. But in that gasp of pain I learned the most essential rule of my new world . . . breathe!

There was, of course, much more to learn. But, to my great relief, there were many hands extended for my comfort. A colicky baby, I needed much comfort. So in those early months I  fed upon mother-love, father-love, and tentatively given sibling love, to get me through.

And now I’ve arrived at seventy-five. Some things have changed and some things are not much different. I’m still a colicky old guy, easily upset by many things, still dependent upon the many hands extended for my comfort, not the least those belonging to my dear wife of 53 years. But of those that greeted me 75 years ago, all are gone except my brother, fifteen months my senior.

The economy is, we hope, recovering from a recent Great Recession. Parts of the world seem to be spiraling into chaos again while the remainder looks on helplessly. The New Deal programs, instituted in 1936 to help assure the security of millions of average citizens in times like this, are being repealed, victims of a seven-decade-long relentless attack by the same forces of conservatism that opposed them in Roosevelt’s day.

Some days I wonder if my original resolve might not have been a wise one. Some days I wonder if anyone has learned the rules that govern this harsh world. Some days I find it strangely hard to breathe! I wonder if the leaving will be as traumatic as the coming was.

This I know for sure, I’m not resisting next time. I may find the process unpleasant but I’m eager to go through with it. I’ll be born into a world whose rules will be a pleasure to learn, whose laws will be just and eternal, whose air will be easy to breathe.


Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Declaring my Love for a Season

Spring is the fickle season of the year. Though she has an official beginning date she regularly chooses to ignore it. She does as she pleases. Summer, Winter, and even Fall are better mannered than their frisky sister whose winds and rains and snows she mixes with tantalizing days of sunshine . . . and considerable mud. When she finally settles down, sometime in May, and begins to raise her brood of lawns and bushes, early flowers and returning robins, some forget the tricks she played on them in March and April and praise her for her final beauty. They forget the swirling floods that swept their goods away. But I remember! And I only partly forgive.

Summer, I endure. He brings his pleasures – sun-drenched days to brown my skin and humid nights to grow the corn and coax the fireflies to fly. But he is not afraid to ask a lot as well, insisting that the shrubs are trimmed, the lawn is mowed, the garden tended, and the roof repaired. I must admit his cloud-filled skies are often awe inspiring.  And his thunderstorms excite my nature-loving soul, but these come far too seldom, and are interspersed with weeks of endless, dry, monotony. I’m always glad to lay his labors by.

I’m partial to Fall. I lovingly call her, Autumn. Autumn is not incapable of storms and floods but her preference is for frosty, coffee-perfumed mornings followed by lazy, sun-drenched, scent-rich days. And her choice of wardrobe is without peer – greens mixing with every shade of red-blending-through-orange to the deepest oak brown and the brightest yellows. She comes, her arms enfolding the bounty of harvest, gathered from the fields where careless Summer left it lay.

I can’t help myself. From the first red flash of sumac until the last golden oak leaf falls to disappear beneath the snow, I give my love to Autumn.

Much as I love her many beauties, I love her, too, for bringing Winter. Suddenly, and with no seeming regrets, Autumn dons her winter robe and invites me to enjoy with her a season of indoor warmth. Surrounded by the stunning beauty of pristine snows, sub-zero temperatures, and the quiet murmur of winter winds, we spend hours upon hours before a fire, reading, chatting, sleeping, sipping, forgetting Summer’s chores.

Gladly will I spend my waning days with Autumn, blending into Winter.