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Four Generations

The range of flea market finds has shifted considerably in even the last ten years. Postcards were once a mainstay and kept me occupied for hours, but most of that trade has shifted to the on-line auction site that shall be nameless. It is still possible to find boxes of portraits, usually staged in the photographer’s studio. They can be stiff and as uncomfortable for the viewer as they were for the subject. They can also tell a story, as this family portrait of four generations demonstrates.

I don’t need an inscription on the reverse to know that great-grandmother is holding her great-granddaughter, with the two intermediate generations standing nearby. What continues to mystify me is how and/or why such family treasures find their way into bins at a flea market.

There are scarce few “family” photographs of my relatives and so many are unidentified that they won’t be of much use to future generations. Have I just answered my own question?

This one was two bucks, by the way, and may be the seed for an Agincourt story.

Ghosts of Christmas Past (#22): Fern Pirtle

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Fern Pirtle [1903-1978]

Growing up with an older sister as my only sibling, our dog Frank made life a little easier. Mixed breed — but mostly mutt — he came to live with us quite by accident. Explaining that will take a minute.

I was about nine or ten, growing up in a town that could have been the set for “Ozzie and Harriet”: still summer nights lit with fireflies, alive with the rhythm of cicadas; winter sledding behind passing cars; leaving my bike anywhere, with every expectation that it would be there when I come back. I was inclined to wander in those amniotic Eisenhower years.

Agincourt is a town of quarters, quadrants, each pattern a mirror of the adjacent sections but each, I was to learn, unique in its evolution. Plant the same seed in four different plots and watch the inevitable variation of organic life. The north-east quad, for example—Pill Hill—is the highest point in town, as are the net worth of its residents. The north-west, where the Tabors live, is home to butcher, baker, candle-stick maker; the business women and men of Broad Street. South-east was the last section to populate, mostly after World War I. Later, Baby Boomers bought there because prices were low as the previous generation headed to retirement in Arizona.

South-west Agincourt, the fourth quad where Crispin Creek meets the Mighty Muskrat, has always been prone to flood. Our earliest industries located there—the Syndicate Mill, the Krause foundry, and a short-lived brick-making operation—and so did the folks who bore those manufacturing jobs. Remember, “manus” is the Latin word for hand and these folks worked with theirs.

The F-F-C Market at the corner of SW Fifth Street and Henry Avenue was one of my discoveries in the summer of ’54. A neighborhood institution, it served a two-block radius with a limited supply of a lot of things. When the proprietress Fern Pirtle wasn’t at the register, she was out back tending her chickens or harvesting produce from the most productive garden in town. Paving and plumbing didn’t reach that part of the city until the 1940s, so there was some speculation about “night soil” contributing to the quality of her cabbages. Best to not ask.

Mrs. Pirtle was a widow; I think her husband Sam had died in a mill accident. Mom sent me to the F-F-C one afternoon to pick up a chicken she’d ordered — freshly killed, de-feathered and still warm, the freshest fowl in town. Mrs Pirtle’s chickens had flavor, too, probably because they enjoyed free range in the yard; they’d “scratched.” The same was true for eggs. There may have been an ordinance prohibiting livestock in city limits; but if there were, everyone looked the other way.

I liked Mrs Pirtle instantly. She had a large grandmotherly frame with, as they say, “ample bosom” and a knowing smile I’d only seen on my great-grandmother, except Mrs Pirtle was Black, complected like the tobacco in her ever-present corncob pipe.

During one of my regular visits to the F-F-C, I asked what those letters meant. “Full Faith and Credit,” she replied, “just like the U.S. government,” which meant, I learned, that very little cash changed hands. Bartering was common and she often waited until payday for folks to settle up. She was a living ledger, recalling accounts to the penny, and people knew better than short change her or contest her reckoning; a couple of her brawnier patrons saw to that.

In the fall of ’54, Mrs Pirtle got news that her sister Reba had taken ill somewhere in southern Missouri. She left for a week or ten days with no one in charge, yet customers came and went; shelves were stocked; accounts kept on a yellow lined pad by the till. Pearl, her dog, was pregnant at the time, so I was asked to stop in now and then and keep an eye on her. Sure enough, the day before Ms Pirtle returned on the Trailways bus, Pearl birthed five healthy pups. And the payment for my midwifery? She surprised me with one of them, who I promptly named Frank, for reasons I can’t now recall.

Fern Pirtle closed the store in 1973 but she still kept chickens. And the cabbages were bigger than ever — perhaps because the “fertilizer” was of questionable origin.

Martin Coles Harman

Martin Coles Harman [1885-1954]

About twelve miles off the coast of Devon in the Bristol Channel lies the Island of Lundy, just over a thousand acres of rocky outcrop no more than fifty above high tide. The name — Lundy — derives from the Old Norse word for puffin, by far the island’s most numerous resident. It has been owned outright for most of the last several centuries, until acquired by the National Trust which operates it today as a bird sanctuary.

Lundy’s most colorful seigneur was English financier Martin Coles Harman. Often accused of shady dealings, Harman was bankrupt in 1932 and imprisoned for fraud in 1934-1935, but not before he was the self-titled King of Lundy, the island he had bought in 1924 for £16,000.


Sixty puffin stamp commemorating the death of John P. Harman, recipient of the Victoria Cross and son of Martin Coles Harman

A virtual fiefdom, Harman ruled the island absolutely, presuming to mint his own coinage — the Puffin, in two denominations, 1 and ½ — for use only on the island. With values set to the equivalent English coins, the Puffin went into circulation in 1930, when the island had a population of just forty. This was a violation of British laws prohibiting private coinage, however, so Harman was tried a fined a nominal £15. There were bigger issues in his near future.

These coins have become collector’s items and were reproduced in 1965 from the original dies.¹ The Puffin is one of the oddities of 20th century coinage, inspiring American printer-publisher Henry Morris² to invent his own currency for the Republic of San Serriffe.

The Republic of San Serriffe

As an April Fool’s spoof in 1977, Britain’s Guardian newspaper published a seven-page hoax supplement as an elaborate tourist promotion for the recently independent Republic of San Serriffe. From its capital Bodoni to the largest harbor at Port Clarendon, pun after printer’s pun were missed by many (who took the place as real) but endearing to those in the fine printing trade, like Henry Morris, proprietor of the Bird & Bull Press. Examine the map carefully and identify all the puns.

Bird & Bull is renowned for publishing books on books, a niche market in fine printing occupied by few and most prominently by Morris until he closed its doors in 2013. But long before, in 1988, Morris had acquired several Harman coins; he also became fascinated with the San Serriffe hoax and set about minting his own commemorative coins and printing paper currency for the fictional republic that had fooled so many Britons.

Any time you’d like to see a Bird & Bull production, especially the coinage of San Serriffe, or hold one of Martin Coles Harman’s 1929 Puffins, let me know. All of this been fodder (i.e., subliminal inspiration), I think, for the fabrication of Agincourt, Iowa.

¹ The coins were struck again for Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 1977, and again in 2011 as collectibles.


² Not to be confused with Henry M. Morris (1918–2006), young earth creationist, hydrologist, scholar, apologist, and crackpot father of the creation science movement.


It’s interesting that pride as a noun represents something we take — I took pride in my daughter’s accomplishment (regardless whether I had anything to do with it)because we cannot bestow pride any more than we can grant dignity. Indeed, the active verbal form, to dignify something, has a quite negative connotation: in doing so, we give it a status it clearly doesn’t merit. So, surely we can find a better word for this weekend than “Pride”.

Beside being one of the Se7en Deadly Sins, even the dictionary doesn’t give “pride” an entirely clean bill of health: “a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired.” The Church, by the way, often pairs the Seven Deadly Sins with the Four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell), sending a clear message that successful avoidance of the former will have implications for the latter.

Synonyms for pride run the gamut: from pleasure, joy, delight, gratification, fulfillment, satisfaction, a sense of achievement, self-esteem, dignity, honor, self-respect, self-worth, and self-regard to less desirable characteristics such as arrogance, vanity, self-importance, hubris, conceit, self-love, self-adulation, self-admiration, narcissism, egotism, superciliousness, haughtiness, or snobbishness. I might quibble with the placement of one or two — after forty years “on the couch,” I regard self-love as a potentially good thing, unless it’s carried into those terms that follow in the listing. Nevertheless, a mixed bag, if you ask me. An exceptionally minor encounter this morning is stuck in my craw and moves me to think about pride.

I stopped this morning on my way to my Sunday volunteer job to buy a coffee. As I pulled to the curb, opposite one of two favorite coffeehouses, two people sitting in the shade of a tree waved me on with “You can’t park here,” which of course I do every Sunday on the way to the same gig. Then it came to me: This is Pride Week and it is likely that a parade has been scheduled. I rolled down the passenger window and said that I would be there less than two minutes, that a latté was in my future, and the parade would be unimpeded, by me at least. The grimmer of the two gestured toward a temporary sign attached to the lamp post and reiterated “You can’t park here,” to which I repeated my promise to be gone in less time than we had already invested in the conversation, to which there was only glaring. “Is that going to work for you?” I inquired, not anticipating a reply any more satisfying than what we’d managed so far.

It briefly crossed my mind to share with them my growing hostility this morning had nothing to do with antipathy to prideful expressions by the Gay community and its supporters (among whom I count myself); that I was, myself, a member of that community; that, indeed, I and my husband were two of the litigants who helped achieve marriage equality in our state. So please do not take my insistence on parking for 120 seconds as hostility to the scheduled event; I was simply responding to their rudeness, thank you very much.

The angst of “coming out” rarely occurs to me because I don’t think I was ever “in.” Instead, I suspect I may have been neuter, a male in gender with no outward sexual orientation. For Millennials, that may be hard to grasp, but many of the 70-somethings of my acquaintance understand full well.

Another interesting aspect of LGBTQ community life is the eagerness of a few to step up to the camera or the microphone when comment from that community seems required. Every community has such spokespersons; I’ve known a few and wondered about their motivation. Finding someone who “speaks” for the Gay community is as likely as Donald Trump speaking for America. He does not and likely never will. He certainly never sought my opinion.

Now that the Supremes have given full legal status to same-sex marriage, I look in wonder at the current state of affairs. Those achievements were unthinkable even five years ago. Varying acceptance of this change is obvious in the cultural matrix of America: deeply Red states will continue to resist what may seem inevitable to some and rural communities may hold to the comforting illusion that this is an exclusively urban phenomenon. The current administration gives them hope.

“Wearing” your Gay-ness probably depends where you live but it is also affected by age. A few years ago I was at an event with a decidedly mixed audience: old and young, Gay and Straight, urban and small-town, religious and not-so-much. As an older Gay male, attending with his husband and our dog, I went through reams of “litmus” paper; each introduction, every encounter was a test of sorts. And with just one significant exception, the afternoon was a tremendous success.

That exception were the Gay 25-35 year-olds who made no effort to speak to us. In fact, they took no notice of our presence whatsoever; we were simply invisible. I can’t recall having been looked through quite so effectively. I could speculate but it would reflect more badly on me than on that generation or at least that representative sampling. I wonder if some interesting conversations were missed.

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. // It is so ordered.”

I cannot imagine what is was like to have been young and alive and LGBTQ when Justice Kennedy this poetic legal opinion. But I will admit to taking more than a little pride in the moment.

What do you imagine is happening on Broad Street, The Square, and The Commons in Agincourt today. I’d give a lot to be there.