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Ghosts of Christmas Past #16


I never met Hal Holt but by all accounts he mentored some of Agincourt’s most eccentric citizens. An engineer by training and practice, Holt was a right-brained engineer, a “poet-plumber” more inclined toward the big picture than to formulas and safety factors. Perhaps that’s why he retired from the profession and devoted his life to history. Howard wrote about Holt’s death in 2008, a paean to Holt-the-Historian, crotchety keeper of local lore and grandson of Malcolm Holt, founder of the county historical society. So it was natural that Holt would have known Abel Kane and, moreover, that he would have mid-wifed an introduction for Howard Tabor.

Harold Holt had been born in 1920, Kane in 1933, and Tabor in 1945, an interesting generational spread for that shifting conversation on a Saturday afternoon circa 1972. But Holt never said very much about Kane, I suspect, because it would have seemed an invasion of privacy, not to mention an evasion of his personal code of conduct as an historian.

And by the way, we haven’t heard the last word from Hal.

“A few figs from thistles…”

Howard A. Tabor

Abel Kane

Tottering-on-the-Brink was what every classroom should be: an open environment for unfettered exploration. I relished the two or three times a month we gathered for dinner and conversation—i.e., communion. Until last week, however, I had never read Plato’s Symposium (embarrassed to admit that), but now I understand.


A typical gathering at the Brink? Each of them and none were typical.

I recall one that began with John Kirkpatrick’s pioneer recording of the Ives’ Second Sonata (the one called “Concord”), so multi-layered and poly-rhythmic that no other performer would risk it. (There are now, more than thirty years later, a half dozen fine interpretations. Times change; skills improve. We stand on the shoulders of our elders.) That notion of a work so technically challenging suggested a verbal parallel in The Magic of America, architect Marion Mahoney Griffin’s autobiography, itself multi-layered, poly-valent and comparably intimidating of interpretation. Leaps like that were common.

If you want to know someone, look at their books. One week in the 1990s, when Abel went to research at the Library of Congress, he asked me to keep an eye on the place and his cat Drusus, I happily packed a bag and camped out in the big room, surrounded by the county’s second biggest library, but certainly its most eclectic. My book-a-day goal included these:

  • The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy, American humorist who lived in the namesake Tottering-on-the-Brink;
  • Hadrian the Seventh, semi-autobiography of Frederick Rolfe, self-styled Baron Corvo, whose language was more wrought than writ;
  • The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges;
  • Douglas Adams’ Hitchhicker’s Guide to the Galaxy;
  • Technics and Architecture, a history of building materials and systems (elevators, lighting, etc.; hardly the stuff of cliff-hanging thrillers) by Cecil Elliott—technology humanized; and
  • James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility, a book that I have read a dozen times since

All authors I might not otherwise have met.

My experience with teachers is simple: the better among them never stopped being students. And a large number of those never knew they were teaching in the first place. Such was Abel Kane.

Abel Kane died July 5th, achieving his own independence. At his request I am executing Kane’s Last Will and Testament, which states in brief what he wanted most and modestly: 1) to have done little harm; 2) to have left a family of friends; 3) to have taught more by example than by words.

Harold Holt gave order to the history of Agincourt, Fennimore County and the Muskrat River Valley, the fourth generation of his family to fill that community role—whether the community wanted it or not. The practice of history is about discovery and interpretation, the telling of a community’s tale. Now and then, it is also about editing; some things are better left alone, unsaid. That category includes Abel Kane’s origins, which Hal Holt took to the grave.

1 Comment

  1. […] Kane deserved a second entry. Every town has its infidels and its infidelities. Abel Kane was […]

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