Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2016 » July (Page 2)

Monthly Archives: July 2016

War and Memory

WAR and Its Memory

It’s no surprise that some aspects of Agincourt’s history are problematic for me, as they might not be for many others. War is at the top of that list.

At least three times I’ve tried to design The Square, the testosterone-infused block that serves as forecourt to the courthouse; yang to the yin across Broad Street at The Commons. It may be my coming-of-age in the 1960s — Vietnam and all that — that ill-equips me to identify with War; or it may have originated much earlier when Roy advocated pacifism. “Roll with the pinches,” he advised, and I took him quite literally. Whatever the source, I have made three valiant attempts to design the 300-by-300 foot aggregation of monuments to the nation’s armed conflicts and failed miserably.


After Agincourt’s founding in 1853, the Civil War would have been the community’s first opportunity to memorialize war generally and its own sacrifices, like young John Beddowes. [Only when I put a face on it (albeit and imaginary one) can I even begin to conceptualize War.] The pattern of Civil War memorials shown on this map might get me off the hook: notice how few there are in Iowa, though this is a statistic I can’t quite accept.

For the next Agincourt exhibit (perhaps at Grinnell, Iowa in the fall of 2017), the previous material must be edited; there just isn’t enough room. Despite that, there are some elements of the story, like the troublesome Square that have given me fits for ten years. If not now, when? If not me, who?

Desperate for advice, I found a book published in 2013 that might help: The Language of War Monuments by David Machin and Gill Abousnnouga that

analyses war monuments across Britain by developing a multimodal social-semiotic approach to understanding how they communicate as three-dimensional objects. It examines how monument designers have made use of specific semiotic choices in Iconography, objects, shape, form, angularity, height, materials, and surface realization.

Well, golly, that ought to help. This is just one of many reasons why I don’t make an acceptable academic.

I calculated elsewhere that we’ve been at war during more than one third of Agincourt’s history.  And I assume the accumulation of all those monuments and memorials is likely to have produced something cluttered, if not actually grotesque. We become attached to those statements of public grief, however. Short of some natural disaster — tornado, sinkhole, etc. — it would be a stretch to imagine the opportunity to replace that clutter with a timeless composite memorial. Something Egyptian, perhaps, like the Chapelle Rouge at Karnak, commissioned by Hatshepsut to house the solar barque used by Amun-Re on his daily journey across the heavens.

red chapel 1

It’s no surprise that I.M. Pei chose Egyptian imagery for his remodeling of the Louvre: few cultures have produce works as timeless as the ancient Egyptians, and Hatshepsut’s architect Senmut may have been among the most skilled. [It should also come as no surprise that there are rumors about their architect-client relationship.]

red chapel 5

The other architect who comes to mind is Sir Edwin Lutyens, always in my “Top Ten” and high as well on the Bucket List. In 2013 Richard Kenyon and I had a chance to see several of the forty-plus memorials to WWI that were designed by Lutyens. Given the number of those commissions and their near simultaneity, it would have been oh so easy to fall into formulaic work. Such was not the case, however, as each seems tailored to its scale (the number of burials) and site (from urban street or open field to bosky dell).

lutyens 6

With guides such as these, I may have a decent chance for success.

Cecil (on institutional memory)

institutional 1


There is a sociological phenomenon called Institutional Memory Theory, which Wikipedia introduces this way:

Institutional memory is a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations, and by extension in entire cultures.

I’ve worked at one of those places for forty-five years and I can tell you I.M. has not always been valued. The ability to identify policy, pinpoint its implementation, who created it, and how it has been applied can be “inconvenient” for administrators, who prefer to invoke precedent only when it serves their immediate purpose.

In the 1980s [oops!] when Cecil Elliott was our chair, “policy” was often whatever any two administrators remembered, and it just as often sounded like Tommy Flanagan (the SNL character played by John Lovitz; not the Scottish film director) making it up on the spot and giving away his stream-of-consciousness lie with the phrase: “Yeah….that’s the ticket.”

Cecil attended meetings — many of them with our dean at the time; an engineer who supported Intelligent Design! — and would then return to his office, review his notes, and write a memo to others who had been present, saying essentially this: “Thanks for contributing to our meeting this afternoon. These are my recollection of what we discussed, the decisions reached, and the action(s) to be taken. If they differ from your recollection, please reply as soon as possible so we can resolve the difference and move on.”

The department made headway during the “Elliott Years” because he played the administrative game better than they did.


Ghosts of Christmas Past #11

“Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.” — C. S. Lewis


“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past #11:

During the twelve months leading to our 2007 sesquicentennial celebration, this column explored the people and places we take for granted or, more often, never recognized — Agincourt’s hidden history. So while you attend the July 4th fireworks display tomorrow evening — sponsored for the first time by all of Fennimore county’s veterans organizations — recall the sacrifices made by those on and off the battlefield to keep this community secure.

korean war stamp

On the way to the office yesterday I invested two hours at The Square, reviewing the arsenal of lives recorded there on monuments, plaques, and pavements; names that once had faces smiling back at us, who might have made so many other contributions that death cut short. Some of those one-hundred-fifty-plus names were familiar: John Beddowes, only son of Amos and Circe Beddowes, among the earliest casualties in the Civil War. Or Marshall McGinnis, Agincourt’s first to die in World War I. At seventeen or less, what else might these boys and others have achieved?

The Square testifies to much — too much, I think, if we read between the lines. By rough calculation, and assuming that some of our armed conflicts have been simultaneous, the Nation has been “at war” for fifty-five of the last 163 years. That’s one-third of the time since Agincourt’s incorporation as a municipality! The odds that any of us have been untouched by war are astronomic.

The range of monuments are equally astounding for what they say about each generation’s way to memorialize: from spectacular (the High Victorian opulence of the Civil War) to spartan (Vietnam, the war that wouldn’t go away). But their collective spirit is summarized in the simplest of them: a ten-foot carnelian granite fallen obelisk inscribed “REMEMBER.”

I invite you to do just that tomorrow amid the sight and sound and acrid smoke of fireworks.


Fred & Ted: Needful Things


Needful Things

A lanky man sitting cross-legged in the grass. In his lap, a teddy bear. Teddy is holding a box of Cracker Jack. And we all know the unopened box holds caramel corn and a toy. These nested things — the toy and the treat in the box in the grasp of the bear in the lap of the man at the edge of the wood; an American matryoshka — stirred something in me; the inkling of a story that isn’t clear.

There’s a story here that wants to be told.

cracker-jack-box [#799]

Justice and the Law

Engineers to the contrary, the three great professions are Medicine, Law, and Architecture. I had hoped to count myself among one of them but that day has gone like snow on water. In the developing Agincourt story, two have been considered, if not completely dealt with (Medicine and Architecture), but I’ve been ambivalent about the legal profession, having been burned once or twice. Characters like Sheriff Pyne, who enforce the law and have often done so with humanitarian concern for its ethical application, are more comfortable. Perhaps I’ve been overly influenced by attorneys who promote “religious liberty,” control of reproductive rights, and the right to bear arms. One of Agincourt’s public schools is named for Clarence Darrow, which should give you a sens of my loyalties.

Architecture has revealed itself to the community in the persons of Anson Tennant, the Sioux City office of Joachim & Perlmutter, and the brief on- and off-stage appearances of Bernard Maybeck, S.S. Beman, Lawrence Buck, and a few others. Medicine has almost uniformly taken the guise of Doc Adams from “Gunsmoke” or the equally admirable character in “Doctor Hudson’s Secret Journal” (an early TV series from a novel of the same name). I suppose it’s time for Law to show itself.

It seems we have misconstrued Shakespeare’s oft-quoted line about killing lawyers; so says a 1990 letter-to-the-editor of the New York Times:

In reference to the review of ”Guilty Conscience,” (May 20 [1990]) Leah D. Frank is inaccurate when she states that when Shakespeare had one of his characters state ”Let’s kill all the lawyers,” it was the corrupt, unethical lawyers he was referring to. Shakespeare’s exact line ”The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” was stated by Dick the Butcher in ”Henry VI,” Part II, act IV, Scene II, Line 73. Dick the Butcher was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who thought that if he disturbed law and order, he could become king. Shakespeare meant it as a compliment to attorneys and judges who instill justice in society.


Westbury [CT]

That instillment of justice in society — the odd-couple efforts, for example, of David Boies and Ted Olson to defend marriage equity — has been overshadowed in current political rhetoric by NOM and the American Family Association. Time to explore the binary pair “Justice and the Law” as one of my favorite figures of speech: syzygy, which would be worth a fortune in Scrabble™ were it not for the absence of a third “Y.”



Attorneys and architects have this one thing in common: Firm names are like tracing genealogy through the female line: a shifting series of surnames. [My favorite architectural firm of all time — not because they did excellent work, necessarily, but because the prospect of their receptionist answering the phone makes me smile — is Affleck, Desbarats, Dimakopoulos, Lebensold, & Sise. Say that three times fast.

So, who are Messrs Cable, Coomaraswamy and Bell and how came they to become associated in the practice of law? Answers to those questions will address the Truth of Shakespeare’s words from the mouth of Dick the Butcher.

[#800] Surely this is some sort of landmark worthy of celebration.