Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa

Home » 2016 » November (Page 2)

Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Lesson


Photography has always been my weakest subject: I don’t know how to take them — “I don’t take photographs; I take pictures.” — nor do I have the slightest ability to evaluate the qualities of a good photograph taken by others. Real photographers have tried, unsuccessfully, to illuminate me (James R. Dean, C. Mark Strand, et al.); this particular area of ignorance appears invincible. So this afternoon, I found this image, which I’ve titled “The Lesson,” and intend to weave it and a few others into the Agincourt narrative.

I play no instrument, though I play at the French horn. So if anyone would enjoy taking on the story of this beatific child, have at it with gusto.

The Fireplace


Pictorialism was a movement in photography that spanned the turn of the 20th century. Americans who contributed to the movement included Edward Steichen, whose image of the Flatiron Building in NYC may be among the best known. “Fireplace” is by amateur British photographer J. Peyton, about who I’ve not been able to learn very much. In the meantime, however, this evocative setting brought the anti-ornamental notions of Adolf Loos to mind [been talking a lot about him with Tommy Schmidt], who I have wanted to introduce to Agincourt for some time. What do you think about hybridizing these two ideas: pictorialism and Loos.

Alphabet Soup

Stanislaus County Hall of Records, Modesto, CA (1939) by Russell deLappe, architect

Stanislaus County Hall of Records, Modesto, CA (1939) by Russell deLappe, architect

In the early 1970s, shortly after I’d moved to Fargo, I began to wonder what the hell I had done. One reaction might have been a desperate search for work elsewhere. But my old friend Marilla Thurston Missbach claims that I’m one of those who “grow where they’re planted,” so my response turned in a very different direction.

With November temperatures hovering around 0°F, and snow already on the ground, I got far more “winter” than I’d bargained that year. Why have I come here? I wondered. But the follow-up question set me on an unexpected path of discovery: Why would anyone have come here a hundred years before? The first product of asking that question was my Master’s Thesis, “The Emergence of the Architectural Profession on the Northern Great Plains before 1930.” Marilla was right: I started to grow where I’d been planted.

Among the early forays into that topic was realization that S. Marius Houkom, an elderly retired architect, maintained a downtown office and came in each weekday to read his mail (mostly magazines) and enjoy the view he’d had for fifty years, more or less. He must have had an exceptional lease. I arranged a visit to talk about his life in architecture—which will get us, finally, to the point of “alphabet soup.”

Mr Houkom had graduated from the NDAC on the cusp of the Great Depression. He remarked how the curriculum of the 1920s had ill-prepared him for practice in a totally shifted scale of values. His courses in materials and structures, for example, had emphasized efficiency and economy, minimizing both labor and materials in the client’s best interest. Whereas, in the pit of the Depression, with millions jobless and homes in foreclosure, the architecture of alphabet soup—construction under the aegis of the PWA, WPA, CCC and other federal make-work agencies—the criteria for evaluating a good design consisted of how many building trades were employed. Before Black Friday, light steel trusses would have spanned an armory. But foundrymen and steel workers are highly skilled trades and constitute only a small segment of the population. Far better from a PWA perspective to conceive a hybrid system using both wood and metal (multiple trades and, preferably, some of them less technical) and to use fewer machines in the erection process (labor-saving devices in an era when labor was the point). Mr Houkom died in 1980 but somewhere, forty-plus years after the interview, I have the cassette tape of our conversation.

I mention Houkom here because his perspective on the architecture of the 1930s was one that simply hadn’t occurred to me. So, as I design Agincourt’s Medical Arts Building, you may notice Marius sitting on my shoulder.


Dietrich Buxtehude?


I’ve been on watch for Agincourt’s very own Dietrich Buxtehude — largely because I enjoy saying his name. Who do you suppose this young man is and what is he preparing for the Sunday service.

POSTSCRIPT (2016.11.12): On second thought (I have a lot of those) this fellow looks a great deal more like Francis Poulenc, of whom I have not thought in some time. Tell me if you agree:


And while I’m about it, the search for photos of Poulenc also led me to Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where Francis awaits the final trump. I’d expected a resting place more saucy:


Too bad Dietrich was too young to have known Francis.

“Oh, Captain! My Captain!”

“Oh, Captain! My Captain!”

There is a meme circulating on FaceBook lately which casts the President-Elect as metaphorical pilot of the Airplane-of-State and asks those of us who chose other candidates to “give him a chance.” There is one fundamental flaw in this analogy, and an inferred response.

Those of us who board airplanes for business, pleasure or other necessity do so with the assurance that the captain and crew have undergone rigorous training. The requirement for a pilot to obtain an FAA Airline Transport Pilot certificate is, at a minimum, 1500 hours, and that is often exceeded. Others in the cockpit have satisfied comparable requirements. But at the risk of challenging another meme, Government is not Business and time spent in one does not translate to the other. Piloting a family enterprise, with responsibility to oneself and one’s own, isn’t even the equivalent of being the CEO of a publicly-held corporation, with responsibility to shareholders and the general welfare. We’re being asked for implicit trust in someone who not only has no experience in public service, but who has expressed outright disdain for those who have earned those credentials.

And what of the other flight crew? The Vice President-Elect may have some years of public service on record, but 1) he was not elected to public office with or without my vote, 2) his re-election to that office was dubious at best, and 3) he is an ideologue with extreme views possibly antithetical to those of passengers whose trust he hasn’t earned. In other words, his experience meets no objective or even mutually-agreeable standard. Can you imagine similar issues with the as-yet-unidentified Navigator and others on the flight deck?

The airplane analogy is egregious for one other obvious reason. I and the other passengers have booked passage on this flight with a specific destination in mind. There is a reasonable presumption that Chicago was and will be the announced destination; that those of us not intent on arriving in Chicago should deplane immediately; and that our Chicago arrival will allow sufficient time to make strategic connections to Newark or Tampa or São Paolo. I have every reason to believe this Plane-of-State is bound for uncharted destinations, though some on board have taken on faith that they know and approve where it’s going. I am sad to the point of anger that more than 90 million metaphorical passengers have expressed no opinion on our destination and, of those who did, the majority prefer by an appreciable margin another Captain. There, if you seek one, is the failure of the American electoral system.

It should go without saying that an airplane is a complex electro-mechanical device — not unlike the complexities of a representative government with checks and balances among its three branches that inhibit unilateral decisions — that our lives depend on its performance, and that at least some of the flight crew are acquainted with those technical systems and their multiple backups. A large percentage of the President-Elect’s supporters, however, appear to have chosen him precisely because he has neither knowledge of nor respect for the intricacies of our governmental system. However flawed we believe it to be, it is difficult to fix something we neither understand nor hold dear. [For a more lighthearted take on this, read C. Northcote Parkinson.]

I’ve never been asked to inspect the plane that I’m about to board; I accept that required FAA inspections will assure a safe journey and timely arrival. But our flight crew are intent on eliminating the safeguards of government — the EPA, the FCC, the SEC and other agencies in the alphabet soup that add necessary inconvenience to our lives — and outsourcing several of the components essential to the performance of our plane. Will I mind that emergency lighting and oxygen masks fail because FAA inspectors were an unnecessary expense that cut into corporate profits? Or that our near-mid-air collision was attributable to the summary dismissal of striking Air Traffic Controllers? Those Chinese-manufactured seat cushions you’d been assured would serve as flotation devices in the event of a water landing may indeed become a sodden mass that drag you to the bottom.

Dare I mention cargo? My suitcase is down there with yours. But so, I gather, are some bombs. And at least a few of those are nuclear.

Is there a better analogy than the Airplane-of-State?

However antiquated it (or I) may be, let me suggest another vehicle for our Captain-Elect: an ancient roman sailing ship.


Neither as powerful nor responsive as the 737, I offer the lumbering Roman trireme. Its purpose was well defined: a warship. Its service: in the defense and expansion of empire. Its operation: dependent on all aboard. Its mission: clear (say, the suppression of Illyrian pirates). Its captain: responsible to his superiors, as well as to the health and welfare of the crew. All on board know their job; carry their weight; understand the consequences (say, of abandoning ship at the first sign of rough weather). As long as everyone’s oar is in the water, our goals may be achieved.

So long as we agree on those goals, that is. At this point I do not and neither, possibly, do the majority of Americans.

Keillor on Trump

Trump voters will not like what happens next

by Garrison Keillor

Special To The Daily Plantagenet

So he won. The nation takes a deep breath. Raw ego and proud illiteracy have won out and a severely learning-disabled man with a real character problem will be president. We are so exhausted from thinking about this election, millions of people will take up leaf-raking and garage cleaning with intense pleasure. We liberal elitists are wrecks. The Trumpers had a whale of a good time, waving their signs, jeering at the media, beating up protesters, chanting “Lock her up” — we elitists just stood and clapped. Nobody chanted “Stronger Together.” It just doesn’t chant.

The Trumpers never expected their guy to actually win the thing, and that’s their problem now. They only wanted to whoop and yell, boo at the H-word, wear profane T-shirts, maybe grab a crotch or two, jump in the RV with a couple six-packs and go out and shoot some spotted owls. It was pleasure enough for them just to know that they were driving us wild with dismay — by “us,” I mean librarians, children’s authors, yoga practitioners, Unitarians, birdwatchers, people who make their own pasta, opera goers, the grammar police, people who keep books on their shelves, that bunch. The Trumpers exulted in knowing we were tearing our hair out. They had our number, like a bratty kid who knows exactly how to make you grit your teeth and froth at the mouth.

Alas for the Trump voters, the disasters he will bring on this country will fall more heavily on them than anyone else. The uneducated white males who elected him are the vulnerable ones and they will not like what happens next.

To all the patronizing b.s. we’ve read about Trump expressing the white working class’s displacement and loss of the American Dream, I say, “Feh!” — go put your head under cold water. Resentment is no excuse for bald-faced stupidity. America is still the land where the waitress’ kids can grow up to become physicists and novelists and pediatricians, but it helps a lot if the waitress and her husband encourage good habits and the ambition to use your God-given talents and the kids aren’t plugged into electronics day and night. Whooping it up for the candidate of cruelty and ignorance does less than nothing for your kids.

We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids and we Democrats can go for a long brisk walk and smell the roses.

I like Republicans. I used to spend Sunday afternoons with a bunch of them, drinking Scotch and soda and trying to care about NFL football. It was fun. I tried to think like them. (Life is what you make it. People are people. When the going gets tough, tough noogies.) But I came back to liberal elitism.

Don’t be cruel. Elvis said it and it’s true. We all experienced cruelty back in our playground days, boys who beat up on the timid, girls who made fun of the homely and naive, and most of us, to our shame, went along with it, afraid to defend the victims lest we become one of them. But by your 20s, you should be done with cruelty. Mr. Trump was the cruelest candidate since George Wallace. How he won on fear and bile is for political pathologists to study. The country is already tired of his noise, even his own voters. He is likely to become the most intensely disliked president since Hoover. His children will carry the burden of his name. He will never be happy in his own skin. But the damage he will do to our country — who knows? His supporters voted for change, and boy, are they going to get it.

Back to real life. I went up to my hometown the other day and ran into my gym teacher, Stan Nelson, looking good at 96. He commanded a landing craft at Normandy on June 6, 1944, and never said a word about it back then, just made us do chin-ups whether we wanted to or not. I saw my biology teacher Lyle Bradley, a Marine pilot in the Korean War, still going birdwatching in his 90s. I was not a good student then, but I am studying both of them now. They have seen it all and are still optimistic. The past year of politics has taught us absolutely nothing. Zilch. Zero. Nada. The future is scary. Let the uneducated have their day. I am now going to pay more attention to teachers.

© Garrison Keillor, distributed by The Washington Post News Service with Bloomberg News.



Armistice Day



Where will you be at eleven o’clock on November 11th? Will it cross your mind to pause and reflect on those who have sacrificed to defend us from all enemies, both foreign and domestic? Mine may be the last generation to  recognize Armistice Day.

In the two hundred and forty years of American history (the years of nationhood and those that led to it), we have been “at war” for two hundred and three of them. That’s roughly thirty-seven years of peace. And at least a third of those years of conflict have been with our own Native population, including wars against the:

  • Cherokee
  • Creek
  • Seminole
  • Comanche
  • Arikara
  • Cayuse
  • Ute
  • Yavapai
  • Nisqually
  • Muckleshoot
  • Puyallup
  • Klickitat
  • Haida
  • Tlingit
  • Yakima
  • Walla Walla
  • Umatilla
  • Nez Perce
  • Navajo
  • Shoshone
  • Yuma
  • Mohave
  • Sioux
  • Cheyenne
  • Arapaho
  • Bannock
  • Lakota
  • Modoc
  • Dakota
  • Palouse
  • Yaqui
  • Pima
  • Opata
  • Creek
  • Paiute

Have I left anyone out?

So, as we pause to honor those in military service — especially those Native Americans like the Navajo “wind-talkers” who have served in our genuinely foreign wars — remember the current government-sponsored corporate war against the Standing Rock Sioux for construction of a pipeline guaranteed to add wealth to a handful at the expense of our most vulnerable.

“La guerre est non finie.”


Arcade 1.4

In St Louis, at the corner of Delmar and DeBaliviere, there is a three-story commercial building, with shops on the ground floor and apartments above. I happened on it many years ago while reviewing some old architecture magazines, circa 1928. I do that sort of thing. What struck me was the rich terra-cotta ornament covering nearly every surface, some of it highly glazed black, the remainder a Campbell’s tomato soup red with a matte finish. The architects were Bowling & Shank and partner Isadore Shank got credit as designer. I didn’t recognize the name, so some background research was in order.

You’d have stopped, too, whether paging through the mags or driving past the intersection, because Shank derived his ornament almost exclusively from the “textile block” patterns of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Los Angeles houses of the early ’20s:


See what I mean?


I’d filed this building away for future reference the next time I happened to be in St Louis. But that may not be for some years—and I don’t have all that many years remaining—so it may make a cameo appearance as the resurfacing for three 19th-century commercial fronts in Agincourt as they are unified to become DeBijenkorf’s Department Store. The 1920s are an unfamiliar decade for me to muck about, so what better opportunity than to explore one of my favorite architects [FLlW] and an episode in his career that has interested me for decades, those California “textile block” houses of the 1920s. If it’s good enough for Isadore Shank, it’s good enough for me.



Unlike Wright’s concept, however — the “textile” nature of which derives from the warp and weft of steel reinforcing rods woven between the edges of the blocks — Shank’s blocks seem to be simple molded terra-cotta units applied with mortar to a structural substrate. His blocks are merely ornamental. It remains to be seen whether my application of the “textile block” system should be structural or cosmetic.


Ghosts (Part Two)


Earlier today I posted some reflections on the first seven Ghosts because I’d lost track of how many there are; how many are either real or based on someone real; and of those who are fictional, which are composites of the real. Periodic review is no bad thing.

#8  As the only child of an only child, I have no aunts or uncles; no cousins. [That’s mostly true. If circumstances have allowed me to fabricate a family, am I permitted to purge it of one or two inconvenient relatives?] So twins Phyllis and Ella Rose Tabor, Agincourt’s “Daughters of Flight” and its pioneer aviatrixes, are my Explorers (a.k.a. its seekers, iconoclasts, wanderers, individualists, pilgrims), come home from lives of adventure. But, just because you’ve come home doesn’t mean the adventure is over.

#9  One summer I was reading in The Little House. The door was open; the air was still. Then I heard what sounded like gravel hitting the front porch. By the time I got to the door, there was Ray Jackson going round the corner and then I noticed he had slung a bucket of dried dog shit onto the porch. When you were Ray Jackson’s neighbor, there was no question where you stood with him. As one of the most unforgettable people of my long experience, Ray had to find his way into the Agincourt matrix. And so he did.

#10  Ernest “Red” Anhauser may seem one-dimensional to you. And so, in a sense, he is. But this single characteristic of Mr Anhauser is drawn from a dozen years’ experience with another Great Unbeliever, Cecil Elliott. You may get a glimpse of him in “Red” Anhauser’s single-mindedness atheism.

#11  Please don’t think that this one short entry will be all there is to say of Agincourt’s men and women of the military. There is a considerably larger and richer story to be told and tell it I will, however erroneously.

#12  Brother Crucible was a fleeting attempt to speak of faith in action. But coming, as it does, from someone of little spiritual orthodoxy, take it with a grain of salt—or pepper.

#13  Robina Lyle is another Jungian type, representing sacrifice and service. She was very real, the school nurse for much of my elementary education, who I thought would have slipped into those historical crevices that have swallowed greater souls. And then I discovered an elementary school in my old district has been named for her. Do you suppose the children who attend have any idea what a wonderful person she was.

#14  Mike Corbett is also very real and ought to have been left alone (so I changed the name from “Corbitt”). But because he beat the shit out of me during recess every day in Junior High School, Mike may forgive his inclusion here.

#15  Yes, “Whitey” is me. Enough said.

Ghosts (Part One)


Yesterday’s post suggested that a review of my Ghosts is in order. I’d lost track of how many there are; how many are either real or based on someone real; and of those who are fictional, which are composites of the real. Periodic review is no bad thing.

  1. Number One is as it should be: Cliff Pherson is based on my own father, Roy Clifford Ramsey, who also owned and operated a gasoline service station and did automotive repairs when they were damnably simpler than today. Our Phillips 66 station served as a community hangout for multiple generations, a fact brought home at Roy’s funeral: when I could step back from those gathered at his casket and listen to a conversation of three generations remembering Roy in precisely the same ways. The artifice here is Howard’s recollection the way I would have chosen.
  2. Dad’s gas station drew a diverse crowd of hangers-on. One of the most iconic was William A. Simmons, a broker dad used for investment in mutual funds; I’ve always wanted to know what the “A” stood for. There aren’t many gas stations, in my experience, that subscribed to the Wall Street Journal; ours did and I read it almost daily and Willie [I was uncomfortable with that degree of familiarity and continued to call him Mr Simmons] walked me through its content several times a month. At some point Mr Simmons retired, which made his visits all the more frequent and exotic, because he continued to arrive in immaculate three-piece tweed suits tailored before I was born. Let it not be said that hanging out at a garage is an illiberal experience. One Christmas I bought gifts for Willie and his wife Lillian and personally delivered them to their apartment on South Jeffries—one of the most pleasant afternoons of my life.
  3. Marilla Jane Thurston Missbach is very real and everything I have said about her is true in spades. We should all have such loyal and accepting friends. Howard’s encounter with her is fiction but the breadth of her connections puts it well within the realm of possibility. The part of the story I didn’t share concerns Marilla’s memorial service in the spring following her death, another Unitarian-Universalist tapestry woven from her comparably universal breadth of experience. You had to be there, I guess.
  4. The first and still most important character in the Agincourt narrative is Anson Curtiss Tennant, the founder of the feast. He is Agincourt’s ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Yet-to-Come and I will probably never tire of identifying each detail of his life—a life I wish I’d known long ago.
  5. Among the twelve basic Jungian archetypes, Hamish Brookes, bookseller, is the Magus: the magician-seer-revelator who knows more about you than you do of them.
  6. Slick and Frannie were neighbors in my third Fargo apartment; I’ve only changed their last name. Not only the McCreas (their real name) but the apartment building where we lived form the matrix of my happy recollection of Howard’s first apartment when he returned from Chicago.
  7. In my front yard there is a two-stemmed tree lilac named Alec and Margaret. Really. Mr and Mrs Parks and I became acquainted during a query to the East Sussex Historical Society, where Alec was a volunteer. My question had been directed to him and we continued our correspondence long after my curiosity was satisfied. Then one evening there came a phone call from the U.K.: Alec wondering if we would mind a visit from them. But their American encounter consisted of two weeks in Fargo-Moorhead and environs, passed back and forth among our friends and colleagues. Alec and Margaret are both gone now but I greet the two-stemmed lilac each day as though it were A. and M. standing sentinel.

So much for Part One.