In the summer of 1914, Frank Lloyd Wright made the rounds of his Chicago clients, favored galleries, and friends, converting his collection of Japanese ukiyo-e prints — and any other liquid assets — into cash. He turned his office and current work over to Herman von Holst, a fellow architect with no strong commitment to the emerging Prairie Style. All of this was preface to Wright’s elopement with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, wife of client Edwin Cheney.
The Wright’s departure with Mrs Cheney erupted onto the front pages of Chicago and other major newspapers for a few days — “above the fold” — until it was swept from public attention by the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo, capital and largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina — a place familiar to few Americans. World War had had distracted us from the personal infidelities of a temperamental artist.
As a Midwestern daily newspaper linked by telegraph with the wider world, The Plantagenet may have announced the first of these events; certainly the second. My point concerns the connectedness of even small communities with happenings far beyond their reach: We may suppose a small-town provinciality that simply didn’t exist.
Within days, anxiety spread among Agincourters who had European family connections; debate ensued regarding our neutrality, as German-Americans became sensitive to public perceptions of their patriotism; and the community’s youth considered prospects for military service. Within three years, the United States entered the war and our own Marshall McGinnis became its first casualty. I’m fascinated by the multiple entwined links between Agincourt and places and events far beyond its horizons. In that light, here is a story written three or four years ago about Kropotkin, a mysterious arrival in the year leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
Kropotkin, the Knife-Man
Agincourt has been slow to correct and even more reticent to punish its social fringe. But no one tested that tolerance more than an itinerant mechanic named Kropotkin.
Our community has been exceptionally tolerant—that is, it has accepted difference from, even defiance of, societal norms. It neither rewards not punishes for that difference from a so-called normative state or condition. Perhaps that’s our inheritance from the Dutch who came here in the 1870s, because the Low Countries have traditionally welcomed all, with an attitude that your behavior is acceptable so long as it doesn’t impinge on mine.
Some time after 1905, a rough man calling himself only Kropotkin (Кропоткин in what a friend of mine calls the Acrylic alphabet; thank you, Cecil) arrived in town with neither family nor much in the way of possessions. The little English he spoke came wrapped in a thick Eastern European accent redolent of onions. Everyone assumed he was Russian; some even inferred that his appearance had been connected to the failed 1905 revolution in Russia which was so prominent in the local and national press.
Revolution was on everyone’s mind—from rumors that Victoria’s death would bring about a British republic, to fears that our own oligarchy might be threatened. It may have excited the natives to imagine that a card-carrying anarchist revolutionary was in their midst. Radical change can be frightening, no matter how far from its source.
Kropotkin didn’t live in town; in fact, for several years no one was quite certain where he lived. But he and his horse-drawn wagon appeared regularly throughout town to sharpen tools, kitchen knives, lawn mowers, ice skates—anything with a metal blade dulled from use or abuse. He was the Master of Metal, plying his skills as far as Fort Dodge and Storm Lake in good weather.
Kropotkin’s wagon had a large whetstone mounted on a foot-fed treadle. He would set up business on residential street corners and announce his presence by clanging a large cowbell and proffering his sharpening services in a rich basso-profundo that would have secured a contract withe the Metropolitan Opera and the lead in “Eugene Onegin”! Eat you heart out, Robert Goulet.
A dozen or so years after his unheralded arrival, Kropotkin disappeared. Evaporated would describe it more correctly. It was only then that folks realized he had been living in an abandoned farmstead five miles south of town on the flats near Muskrat City. Pinkerton agents showed up a few weeks later seeking his whereabouts, which seemed to confirm local suspicions of anarchist tendencies and a possible return to Mother Russia following the more successful revolution of 1917.
An entire generation of Agincourt children ate their vegetables and took their medicine and respected their elders with a parental admonition that “the Knife-Man will get you!” if they didn’t behave. What a sorry example of tolerance. And what a sad legacy for the memory of a strange man who did no harm—strange only because we did not know him nor make the effort.
Not all strangers are strange.
And our cutlery has never been the same.
We’ve never formally met. But almost any night, some time between three and four an almost tangible presence enters my room. Clouds part, thoughts flow. Diffuse notions coalesce. I am overcome with a creative impulse as ideas rush toward me from all directions. My neurologist has referred me to a sleep specialist, however, so it may be the muse will pass me by.
One motivation for this blog has been an attempt to reconstruct the simple ideas that drove the beginning of the Agincourt Project. Hindsight shows me a random series of events, complex interactions, and unpredictable consequences that created the 2007 exhibit (far more successful than I could have hoped) and the somewhat disappointing (from my point of view, though friends have tried to convince me otherwise) exhibit of 2015, which certainly had its moments — Daron Hagen and Matthew Peterson and their interpreters deserve the musical credit, while Dan Salyards, Christopher Meyer, Mr Vandervort, and a wood craftsman who prefers to remain anonymous gave us important artifacts I could only imagine.
The muse’s continuing visits have generated new ideas that keep me busy, though few of them will see completion. Still, there is much here to occupy the rest of my creative time. Whatever unfulfillment I feel comes from the project’s ability to generate interest and even enthusiasm, but not actual engagement.
I forget, people have lives.
I wonder how Archers — that’s what the citizens of Agincourt call themselves — may be celebrating Pride this weekend. Would we need Gay Pride if there had been no Gay Shame?
Howard was accidentally present at the first same-sex marriage in Fennimore County, though his column about it has been lost when the original blog shut down and I failed to transfer everything. Somewhere there may be a back-up file. For Iowans, the story begins with Varnum v. Brien, a lawsuit filed by six couples who had been denied marriage licenses. The 2007 decision in County Court was upheld unanimously by the Iowa Supreme Court on 03 April 2009. Licenses became available statewide on the 27th and Agincourt’s first ceremony took place not long after in a back booth at The Periodic Table restaurant. The ceremony was conducted by Rev Candace Varenhorst from Asbury United Methodist. I’ll hunt for Howard’s piece, because the vows were memorable.
Iowa’s court-based acceptance of same-gender marriage was joined by Minnesota’s legislative decision on 14 May 2013 and the first statewide marriage celebrations took place at midnight on August 1st. [We were there!] Ultimately Obergefell v. Hodges made marriage equality the Law of the Land. But if you thought the battle has been won, think again.
While no minister of the gospel has been forced to perform a same-sex ceremony — not one — clerks-of-court, justices-of-the-peace, and judges have refused to perform their secular duties based on sincerely-held religious beliefs [marriages are civil ceremonies; only weddings are religious]. Though public acceptance continues to rise, the issue is far from settled. Given its complexity (and the demographics of Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, represented by the Hon. Steve King), the day may not have gone smoothly.
While Agincourt doesn’t yet have a “Westboro,” there are conservative Christian denominations that not only refuse to accept the principle; they work to undo the progress that has been made:
- Is there an LDS stake? The Mormon church has contributed millions to legal efforts to fight marriage equity.
- For every UCC, UMC, UU and Episcopalian who supports gender equity, there are at least two Missouri or Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, miscellaneous Pentecostals, or Southern Baptists who take the opposing view — and put their money behind it.
- Father Dorffman at Christ-the-King probably doesn’t tow the party line, like so many of his Progressive predecessors (Bishop Nickless to the contrary), so let’s hope he doesn’t get found out.
So how Proud were my Archers?
Sūji wa dokushin ni kagiru (数字は独身に限る), which can also be translated as “the digits must be single” or “the digits are limited to one occurrence.” —Wikipedia
As the only child of an only child; as the consequence of a divorce unusual in the 1950s (Roy got custody after Marge evaporated into a warm spring night and was never seen again), I became a feral child. Now, at seventy-one years of age — sixty-three of them in this feral state — I try to explain me to myself, without success. One thing is clear: because humans (one of them in particular) had proven unreliable, I chose instead the comforting company of numbers; indeed, as a Capricorn, that disposition was present from birth.
Numbers were a refuge from human relationships. [Duplicity was a word I learned years later.] Mother was gone and dad had about as much experience with children as I’d had with parents, next to none, so much so that our relationship became a living laboratory. The realization that numbers held a special fascination came in fifth grade in the person of Veronica Piper.
Miss Piper was a teacher in the classic sense; what I call a “secular nun.” Women of her generation “came of age” facing a stark choice: marriage and family OR career; one could simply not do both. And the career choices were severely limited: secretary/stenographer, nurse, teacher, or nun.
In her fifth-grade classroom, I answered to the name “Roy” for fifty minutes each morning because she had taught my father. I hadn’t wondered until recently about the mathematics of our trinary relationship, given that there were twenty-eight years difference between my father’s age and mine. How could she have taught us both? Genealogical records reveal that she had been born in 1913 and was, therefore, just four years older than dad, which means his class must have been one of her very first. No wonder he had made an impression.¹
The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry. — Bertrand Russell
For an hour each day, Miss Piper drilled us in what might have been the Paris Island of mathematics, though I never regarded it in terms of Marine boot camp. Rather, I saw it as an introduction to the universe of numbers, what Einstein saw as “the poetry of logical ideas.” No other subject in my primary education seemed so natural, so innate, as though an echo of something already known but half forgotten. No, let me amend that: Art was equally “familiar,” I think now because it also concerns the primacy of pattern; the recognition that universal, underlying ordering systems exist in two, three, and even four dimensions.
Any success I have had in life, I owe to the “parenting” of many people. Most of them were unrelated to me. Veronica Piper was one of them.
¹Veronica Piper died in 2003 at the age of ninety. I have thought of her often since our time together circa 1956 and regret not having found here in retirement to express my gratitude for the discipline she had imposed on my thinking. I wonder only now if her second Ramsey had met the standard set by the first.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Ghosts of Christmas Past #14
Garrison Keilor, America’s hometown satirist, has published a portrait of the current Republican presidential hopeful that may be the best profile yet written of Citizen Trump.
Seeking the man beneath the fake tan and tortured coif, behind the signature suits and monikered private jet, Keillor finds credible explanation — if not outright answers — for Trump’s behaviour during the twelve months he has actively pursued the nation’s highest elective office. Long before the purported wealth, or perhaps because of it; before the serial relationships (more corporate acquisition than marriage) a pattern of bravado and braggadocio has roots in his teenage years. Behavioural problems at an exclusive private school in Queens sent Donald to New York Military Academy, an upper class option unavailable to children of lesser means. Those lives would have been forever scarred by years in a reform school. Not so, Mr Trump.
Trump’s projects his demeanor long before he can berate a female reporter for her biology or mime the uncontrollable physical manifestation of someone’s inherited disease. It’s the hair: the Peck’s-Bad-Boy ducktail doo of James Dean and other tough guys of the 1950s. Keilor invokes Elvis Presley, Sid Vicious, and Johnny Rotten for those with shorter memories and brings Trump’s character closer to home as the grade-school bully we avoided at lunch and evaded as best we could during recess; “the C-minus guy who sat behind you in history and poked you with his pencil and smirked when you asked him to stop.” Keilor’s word picture reminded me of my own fifth-grade encounter with a Trump-in-training: Mike Corbett (whose name I’ve changed but whose story may be even sadder than The Donald’s).
Unlike our presidential hopeful — whose privileged birth actually nurtured his character flaws — Mike Corbett came from the other end of the socio-economic spectrum: a working-class Irish-American family whose poverty was humiliating when it couldn’t be hidden by the uniforms required in Catholic schools. I recall Mike in fifth and sixth grades, at about twelve or thirteen years of age; he was a year ahead of me in school and half a foot taller; thin but muscular, with dark eyes and black hair slicked back in a Trump-like doo. We weren’t in classes together, but how would I have known; as far as academics were concerned, he was invisible. It was only recess and lunch that crossed our paths. Then he would push, pummel, pound and berate me for ten minutes or so, as I honored my dad’s general advice to “roll with the punches.” I suspect now that dad had meant me to avoid the vagaries of life, to allow its vicissitudes to pass around and over me in a Zen-like way, though he was surely no Eastern mystic. In the case of Mike Corbett, I took it more literally and found after a few weeks the strategy worked quite well: I see now that resistance would have fed him; that without it he found other targets.
My “relationship” with Mike lasted no more than a month, I think; after that I lost track altogether — until a random encounter many years later brought it all back. One evening while spinning round the television dial (this was before cable) I caught a shard of conversation about “…Willow Springs, Illinois…,” a town where I had visited some cousins years before. It was an episode of “FBI Files” which presented crimes as badly-acted dramatizations. This case study of “Michael Corbett” cast him as a local police chief with Mafia ties, who had assisted the mayor dispatch a troublesome wife, a woman who had sought divorce and used the knowledge of her husband’s criminal activities as leverage. But rather than separation and comfortable alimony, she got several bullets and nine months in the trunk of a Cadillac submerged in a canal. He got twenty years in the state penitentiary; I’m not certain of the mayor’s sentence.
Until the last two or three minutes of the program I doubted that its subject had been, indeed, the guy who beat the crap out me in 1957 or 1958. Yet during the concluding narrative, there he was, in frontal and side-view mugshots, the grade school character I had briefly but intimately known. Since then, curiosity got the better of me and I learned why Mike had turned to the “life of crime” which makes movies — or in this case, TV documentaries. Perhaps the story wasn’t sufficiently nuanced for Hollywood and the likes of Sean Penn or Johnny Depp, bad boys whose on-screen demeanor might be mistaken for Citizen Trump’s.
Reflecting on the sad story of Mike Corbett — an accident of birth shaped his anti-social life and early death (he passed from natural causes in 2004) — I saw hints of Donald Trump who, were it not for the gold-plated spoon found in his mouth, might have come to a similar sticky end. All things considered, at the end of his life, Corbett turned out to be redeemable. Do you think the same will be said of Citizen Trump?