“The fabric of our lives….” Sounds like a cotton commercial.
With time, the fabric can fray and fade. My own patchwork hides most of that hopeful pattern when life was new, unworn, its colors bright; its weight still a little stiff from the newness. Those patches are each a merit badge, won dearly and received with grace. They’re worn with honor, if not with pride. I’m grateful to have become Raggedy Andy in my old age.
Would I choose to be an aging child of privilege, at mid-life yet still wearing the Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes of youth? In other words, would I choose to be Mitt Romney, stiff in his tailored togs that are never allowed to become care-worn or thread-bare—certainly never patched? It’s easy to say “no” since that prospect was never mine.
My life is a story (one probably not worth telling, which of course hasn’t stopped me) and that may account for Howard’s penchant for weaving personal tales. Not always happy ones at that.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
In a room, darkly
This week is the anniversary of an event that left its mark on Agincourt, one still evident today. In the back yard of a house on North Fourth Street there is a pond, edged with flagstones; green with algae, waterplants and the golden glint of koi. But that pond was unintended, the patched and petrified scar of an accident a hundred years ago. This is one of those centennials—like Titanic—that should pass acknowledged but without celebration.
On Monday morning, the twenty-second of April 1912, Agincourt woke to a banner headline:
The crater filled with spring rain before Mrs Glennie’s release from hospital, eclipsed by a complication: the concussion had given her long-term deafness. Like “Murder on the Orient Express” however, there is the easy answer—a tragic accident—and then there are other more complex solutions.
The Plantagenet‘s clipping file owes everything to our long-time archivist Fran Jellicoe. Each day for forty years, Ms Jellicoe made confetti from two or three copies of the newspaper and cross-filed each clipping by multiple proper nouns. Her knowledge of local history might have rivaled even Hal Holt’s! Evidenced by their own file, the Glennies’ stayed below the radar: jury duty; promotions at the insurance company where Martin worked; his photographic hobby; Adah’s term as secretary at the Women’s Club.
But there are other unsettling scraps of paper. I have to wonder about these:
- Less than two weeks after the explosion, an audit at the German-American Insurance Co. (Martin Glennie’s employer) found irregularities in the company’s investments, losses so severe that the regular quarterly dividend was cancelled.
- Adah Glennie was pelted with broken glass, but were her wounds on her front or her back? Was she walking toward or running from that garden shed?
- Sheriff Krohn’s investigation was inconclusive, which allowed a substantial insurance policy to be paid out. [Where is CSI when you need them?]
- And two months after that, Adah Glennie filed for a marriage license to wed an old family friend from Omaha. She and her new husband moved to Council Bluffs.
Second-guessing isn’t second-sight, which is why I’ve changed the names. So, if these observations reflect badly on anyone, let the error in judgment be mine.
By the way, I visited Martin Glennie’s single grave last weekend, the anniversary of his explosive death. There were fresh flowers in a green glass vase.
I had known only the outline of Clover Adams’ life, wife of Henry Adams, familiar to all students of architecture for the prize that bears his name. NDSU’s recipients of the Henry Adams Medal and Certificate will be acknowledged in a few weeks at the culmination of the academic year and, more importantly, the thesis process. Natalie Dyksatra has published a biography of Marian (known to family and friends as Clover) Adams and I finished a first reading this morning. I shall read it again, probably more than once.
Perhaps the only thing generally acknowledged about Clover Adams was her suicide–an amateur photographer who drank her own developing fluids and must have died in agony. Three albums of Clover’s photographs provide the spine of Dykstra’s writing. And Clover’s creative outlet through the new medium of photography becomes a metaphor–uncomfortably close to home:
“Creativity can be compensatory, redemptive, a release, a reach toward freedom and hope. But this is not always the case. Artistic expression is not always consolation for emotional pain. Things can sometimes go the other way. Creativity also undoes, overwhelms, gives power to hidden undertows. What’s brought forward in expression is exposed and becomes irrefutable.”
Will Howard make some sense of this, I wonder.
Twenty-seven thousand five hundred ordinary people, more or less, live in Agincourt and its hinterlands. And they are more alike than different, whatever pollsters may say. Sure, there are ideologues on both extremes of the political spectrum, but when push comes to shove—as it is increasingly wont to do—accommodation springs from our better natures. Is that what makes the Agincourt Project a work of fiction? I hope not.
I’ve enjoyed, even relished, imagining its citizenry, though historical figures and past events have been more satisfying than contemporary figures in the present confrontational mood of the country. For it is ordinary people who do extraordinary things.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
An Eye for an Eye
Cherry-picking Bible verses is an armchair enterprise these days; the Good Book supports any position you may wish to take. So I invoke the familiar phrase “an eye for an eye” with caution, at least, and even a bit of irony. For today is the birthday of Theo Van Kannel, a man who gave that eye, rather than took it.
Theo Van Kannel was the grandson of Swiss immigrants who followed the Ohio River from Pennsylvania into Illinois. Theo’s uncle Theophilus Van Kannel was its best known member, holding a U.S. patent for the revolving door, and the youngest brother Abram had two sons, the youngest of them becoming Theophilus’ namesake—but always called Theo.*
The Chicago College of Pharmacy offered a two-year course to dispense pills and a three-year program to make them, which Theo completed with honors in 1902. Romance brought him to Agincourt in 1905 to marry Gretje van der Rijn, of the Dutch family that established our department store twenty years before. Van Kannel’s Sanitary Drug Co. opened its doors at the corner of Broad and James in October 1902 and though the name has changed, the Van Kannel tradition carries on in its one hundred and tenth year. But it almost didn’t.
THE GREAT WAR
Theo and Gretje’s only son Bart was just eighteen when the United States joined the Great War as an ally of England and France. At the Battle of Cantigny on the evening of 28 May 1918 young Bart Van Kannel’s troop endured a flamethrower attack, a primitive but effective weapon that may have struck more terror than real physical harm. He lost his sight and was transported to hospital in Paris to heal and return to his family and the life of a blind man—until history intervened.
In Agincourt, coincidence is commonplace and six degrees of separation are, frankly, pessimistic. That’s been my experience. So a remarkable set of circumstance brought Pvt Van Kannel to the Hôpital des Quinze-Vingt in the same week that Dr Eduard Zirm came to teach French Ophthalmologists the skills of corneal transplants; Zirm had performed the first such surgery only a dozen years earlier in his native Moravia. It took only two more weeks for Theo to be at his son’s bedside.
Louis IX founded Le Hôpital des Quinze-Vingt, the French national eye hospital in Paris, in 1260—the world’s first institution for the blind (a more clear cut, irreversible condition in the 13th century). The congruence of venerable hospital, suitable patient, innovative physician and compatible and willing donor happens less often than it should. Though no one spoke of it on their return, the father had given his right cornea so that the son might see.
There is an attractive portrait in the Memorial Gallery collection, a handsome unidentified man painted about 1920. His expression is wistful; the right side lost in shadow. I have never asked but wonder if we are looking at Theo Van Kannel who is half-looking back at us.
* The FF&M Bank at Broad and Agincourt still has the earliest installation of a revolving door in community history; Theo Van Kannel served on the banks board of directors. Yet another coincidence?
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There have been five moments in my life that qualify as “optimal.” I’m happy to report having been present and conscious at all five of them. Lacking the ability to have borne a child, I can only imagine what that is like; these may have been similar.
I’m embarrassed to admit that each of these was a lecture, which certainly says a great deal about me that is not flattering. The first was in 1988 at a convention of architectural historians in Washington DC. I presented my research on Frank Lloyd Wright’s so-called “textile block” construction system developed in the 1920s for that series of block houses in greater Los Angeles beginning with La Miniatura for the widowed Alice Millard. My scholarship has improved since then, but it was a good paper, well received and suitable for publication. Then again, you know me: always a day late and more than a dollar short. My research has never been published.
Number Two was another SAH conference a few years later. This time it was Cincinnati and my friend Richard Kenyon had driven out to attend and then travel a bit when the conference was over. My topic was the so-called Akron Plan, which is too complicated to explain here in any detail. Suffice to say it also has something to do with innovation (like the Wright block system) and the paper was even better received. Margaret Henderson Floyd—don’t you know someone with a name like that actually amounts to something—rushed forward at the end of my session, thrust a card in my face, asked for a copy of the paper and thanked me for explaining something that had eluded her: a simple and orderly treatment of the complicated issues involved in the Akron-Auditorium phenomenon. Dr Floyd was working on a book about Longfellow, Alden & Harlow, an architectural firm in Pittsburgh who spun off from H. H. Richardson’s office and designed a number of churches in greater Pittsburgh that bear the Akron stamp. I am acknowledged in her book.
The third optimal moment happened in Madison, Wisconsin, which hosted a “Breaking New Ground” conference co-sponsored by the state historical societies of Wisconsin and Minnesota. The paper at Madison was indelicately titled “Who was Albert Levering and why are they saying those terrible things about him?” Ask me about it some time and I’ll give you a synopsis. Suffice to say there were three people in the audience who mattered to me: Peter Vandervort and Steve and Joanna Martens. Mine was the last paper of the session, so it surprised me when people arrived rather than left just before I began my presentation. Despite running at least ten minutes overtime, I got rousing applause. Later Steve said he’d regretted not bring a tape recorder; it was by his estimation perhaps the best presentation I’d ever made. No notes. Without a net, as they say in the circus.
Number Four was the opening of the first Agincourt exhibit, on 25 October 2007. It was a Thursday night—a school night—but the Rourke Art Museum was packed with an estimated 200 people wondering why the hell a town in Iowa had decided to celebrate its sesqui-centennial in Moorhead, Minnesota. We didn’t have the heart to tell them. I dragged myself into that event but floated out on a wave of good feeling that I have yet to experience again. World premiers of musical commissions will do that to you.
And the last was over a year ago, again at the Rourke in Moorhead: the first public showing of my antique architectural drawings collection. The members’ opening on Friday night was OK. But those who attended the public opening and lecture on Sunday afternoon—despite the smallish turnout—were eager to hear the stories that each of these drawings tell. I did my best to satisfy them. And though I knew most of the folks in the audience, it was to a handful of close friends that I spoke. One of them—a recent graduate of our program and a friend, I am pleased to say—thought it may have been the best public presentation of mine that he’s ever heard. Why does no one ever have a tape recorder when you need one?
The bottom line here is that I am a lucky man. I have a brain. I have insatiable curiosity. I have good research skills and the investigative grip of a pit bull. And I’m a showman the likes of Ed Sullivan, for crysake. In sixty-seven years, I should count myself fortunate to have had five such moments—and to have had them in the presence of people I love, who are kind enough to tell me it was good and honest enough to tell me when it wasn’t, is more than anyone can ask in one life.
So now let me rethink that childbirth thing. Perhaps I do understand what birth mothers are talking about after all.
PostScript: My friends in attendance: Richard Kenyon (3 out of five); Peter Vandervort (3 out of 5); Steve & Joanna (2 out of 5); Jeremiah Johnson and Dan Salyards (2 of 5). I appreciate and, in fact, count on their support. What I also note with interest is who was not at some of these events, when they certainly could have been.
Last year, Marlys Anderson died. Marly had been our department secretary for well over a decade and I continued to know her and value her friendship for many more years. She had some of us—Cindy, Milton, Dennis among others—on speed dial and we often had long conversations that grew from reading the obituaries, where Marly would see a familiar family name and wonder if he or she had been a former student. Apparently you can take the secretary out of the department, but not the reverse.
Her daughter Lori called and asked if I would be a pall bearer at Marly’s funeral. I said “Of course!” Marlys had covered my ass so many times that I was honored to carry hers to the grave. I think she would laugh at that remark, by the way.
On the appointed day, I put on my suit and readied for the drive to her Moravian church in rural Cass County, then noticed something in the inside coat pocket: where I found two programs from the last two funerals I’d attended. This had apparently become my “funeral suit.”
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
Cleansing the way
He was an odd man, like his father. I knew them both.
The father paved the way for the child, as parents do. In this case, I think, with both concern and a disengagement that some might have mistaken for disinterest. Love and laissez faire in equal parts. Who would have believed.
My friend grew to manhood after his father’s passing, though I suspect “irresolution” hardly describes their relationship. Years of therapy later, there was one last act to cleanse the way between them. For my friend died this week—the day before yesterday, in fact—and set in motion one last promise I had made.
His dad was inclined to random acts of kindness, doing things and taking payment or not according to the moment’s whim. He fixed a truck tire once and refused payment—just because. The day before or an hour later he would have taken fair compensation but that day it was recreation, therapy. The trucker would have none of it, though, and left a case of Ivory soap, forty-eight bars of 99.44 % purity that went off to college with my friend.
I don’t know how long those bars lasted; Ivory is gentle, soft and quickly gone. But one of those bars lasted fifty years; a carefully preserved artifact of youth; an icon of ancestry; a link to the man he’d come to know in hindsight. I held that bar of soap in my hands last night and I held my friend as well.
He had asked me to perform one last act of kindness: to wash his body with that surviving bar of soap as preparation for the crematory. I recalled a favorite poem by Rilke and read it again before going to the mortuary.
“Washing the Corpse” by Rainer Maria Rilke
They had, for a while, grown used to him. But after
they lit the kitchen lamp and in the dark
it began to burn, restlessly, the stranger
was altogether strange. They washed his neck,
and since they knew nothing about his life
they lied till they produced another one,
as they kept washing. One of them had to cough,
and while she coughed she left the vinegar sponge,
dripping, upon his face. The other stood
and rested for a minute. A few drops fell
from the stiff scrub-brush, as his horrible
contorted hand was trying to make the whole
room aware that he no longer thirsted.
And he did let them know. With a short cough,
as if embarrassed, they both began to work
more hurriedly now, so that across
the mute, patterned wallpaper their thick
shadows reeled and staggered as if bound
in a net; till they had finished washing him.
The night, in the uncurtained window-frame,
was pitiless. And one without a name
lay clean and naked there, and gave commands.
What would Rilke have made of my Friday night? I was alone and this was the fulfillment of a promise, not the satisfaction of a job.
My friend’s naked body lay on stainless steel. I had seen him at least once a week for fifty years, yet I did not know the man before me. The appendix scar transported me to high school—1959 I think—when he was absent from several classes and we sent a get well card. I ran my finger over his writer’s callous, the skin on the inside of his right middle finger thickened from years of writing. And the indentations on his nose from a half century wearing glasses.
He’d been posed, at once unnatural yet entirely apropos, with arms folded, right had cupped within the left. His legs were straight and parallel and invited comparison. Our bodies are rarely if ever symmetrical; he’d been right-handed and was now just as obviously right-legged. The toes of his feet turned downward, pressed no doubt by the heavy blanket of his deathbed. And the resulting spike-like shape of the lower body suggested driving him into the ground like a spike, if he weren’t reduced to ash, that is. I thought for the first time since college of a herm, the Greek protector and marker of boundaries—a role my friend would have welcomed and performed with dignity.
I’d brought white cotton towels to wash and dry my friend. New and freshly laundered, they would perform their tasks and go to the oven with him. But what might have taken five minutes—surely no more than ten—I lengthened to an hour, a last hour with someone I’d respected despite his faults and loved because of them. Cleansed with that last bar of Ivory soap—my friend as well as myself—I left what was left of him and took the better part home in my heart.
Much earlier in this blog, I wrote about my dismal attempts at designing the courthouse square, one of the two public spaces at the heart of Agincourt. Nothing has changed here but I’m getting some help.
Without any conscious intent on my part, the original townsite plat incorporated 19th century notions of body, mind and spirit as integral parts of the community’s core: the courthouse itself (body), the now defunct Episcopal girls’ school (mind) and the four bracketting church lots (spirit) that occupy eight blocks in the shape of a bow tie (or a dog bone, if you must). But try as I might—and I did several times—the character of The Square eluded me.
Part of the problem I suspect is my origin as a product of the 60s—protest movements, burning bras and draft cards (I did neither, by the way)—not to mention the fact that no male member of my family ahs ever served in a war! Hard to believe, isn’t it. My father was an only child and lost a leg at the age of nine. My grandfather was either too old or too young. And the distaff side of the family wasn’t in my radar. War stories simply weren’t a part of my youth. For those and other reasons, my perspective on war and its memorialization ahs been problematic.
And yet Agincourt has its pair of public places: The Square (testosterone-soaked turf laden with civic monuments remembering community losses in the dozen wars since Agincourt’s founding in 1853) and The Commons (filled with the bandstand, puppet theater, duck pond and seersucker-clad families on sultry Saturday evenings). Is it too binary to think of them with that degree of polarity? Sue me.
Fast forward to last night’s LA322 class and four landscape students who’ve signed on to a team effort that will solve my dilemma. The task is clear, if complex, involving a buttload of background research into the American tradition of public squares. Not surprisingly, there is also a buttload of material on the interweb. Scholars have been interested in pubic squares since the 1960s and the rush to nominate county government fracilities of the 19th and early 20th centuries to the National Register. I’m anxious to help our students understand an important phenomenon in American history.
And, not incidentally, reaquaint myself with that theme and fill an important community need that seems beyond me.
PS: These Texas examples don’t quite match the situation in Agincourt. Wouldn’t you know I’d introduce a kink.
“It seems a long time since the morning mail could be called correspondence.” —Jacques Barzun
If everyone in the U.S. wrote just one letter each day, the Postal Service would be in the black—or a damned site closer to it. But twittering, tweeting, e-mail, skype and other popular forms of electronic communication have put so much distance between pen, paper and postage that letter-writing has become an endangered activity. Have we forgotten how to lick a stamp? Oh, that’s right; they come pre-gummed.
Howard is taking a class out at the College and wants to tell us something about it.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
As a journalist of sorts, I write for my supper. But this 666-word weekly essay is easy compared to other forms of written communication, so I decided to enroll in a writing course at our local college.
Our language has twenty-six letters that combine in astounding if unpredictable ways. And because of its adaptive, absorptive tendency, English has a larger (and arguably richer) vocabulary than any other living tongue, though we seem to use fewer words at every generation. Don’t even talk about spelling.
My friend Jordan Marsh and I had a conversation about this early last fall. Professor Marsh, who teaches “language arts” at Northwest Iowa Normal, tailored an evening course around that conversation and twenty-six of us—one for each letter—have been exploring the written word in almost as many forms since January. The semester is nearly over and a mid-term report seems long overdue.
Dozens of literary forms add to the richness of our language and we’ve tried our hand—writing; actually writing—at most of them. From haiku to its sleazy cousin the limerick; from sonnets and contracts to obituaries and want ads, I have newfound respect for teachers of English and their frustration at the minimum qualifications to be a speaker of our language. But the workhorse of our great Mother Tongue—until the advent of the computer, that is—has been the personal letter. When’s the last time you got one of those?
The New Testament would be a short story without its multiple collections of epistles—those are letters, by the way. I’ve never met a Corinthian but Paul sent an inordinate number of letters their way. Then there were the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Collosians and Thessalonians. Not to mention letters to Timothy, Titus, someone named Philemon and to the Hebrews. Imagine the Bible if Paul had had a twitter account and communicated in 144-character bundles.
Historians of the nineteenth and earlier centuries would have little insight to the personal lives of those times without letters. I’ve read, for example, daily missives from Julia Jackson in Williston, North Dakota, to her mother in Madison, Wisconsin (more detail regarding her family, their croup, collick and constipation, than history needs to know) and the courtship correspondence between architect William Halsey Wood and his fiancée Florence Helmsley (endearments that make him as three-dimensional as his architecture). Or the letters of Emily Dickinson and Eva Braun to their respective innamorato. Or a thousand postcards with messages at once both intimate and ordinary. And now as part of our class, we’ve written letters of inquiry, apology and accusation; to both the living and the dead; to public figures and corporations (they’re people too, I’m told); to enemies and friends.
Twenty years ago Elvis Constello collaborated with the Brodsky Quartet on a CD titled “The Juliette Letters,” imaginary correspondence penned by Costello himself and sung hoarsely to the quartet’s lyric harmonies:
The Letter Home
c/o St. Ignatus House, Willoughby Drive,
Parramatta, New South Wales
This fifth day of July, in the year of Our Lord
Nineteen hundred and thirty five
Why must I always apologize every time that I sit down to write?
Through my own fault, I may find you’re no longer living at this address
Please excuse the lack of news, the feeling of strange privilege
For the hour of trial, in these times of distress
Mean more than years imprisoned by etiquette
I can remember when we were children
Though I could never imagine this day
Your brother told me we’d live forever
“I’ll go one better,” I heard myself say
And it seems so strange, now that he’s gone
To recall all these games
Though the years have divided us
Friendships have strained and broken
Oh, by the way, how’s that girl that you wed?
I hated you then, but I’m over the worst of it
I can’t come home, I might as well say
Life is short, I shall not write againWhat will future historians say of us? What evidence will they gather to draw those conclusions? Will they have to make it up?
Anyone who has seen my office knows that my personal paper trail resembles a glacier; it’s that thick and moves with similar speed. And finding anything in it is an archaeological dig. The fire inspector has been told it’s a broom closet and hastily hustled to coffee and scones at the opposite end of the hall.
There are some letters in there—somewhere.
This one is for Dan.