Home » A few figs from thistles
Category Archives: A few figs from thistles
The Land of Counterpane
by Robert Louis StevensonWhen I was sick and lay a-bed,I had two pillows at my head,And all my toys beside me layTo keep me happy all the day.And sometimes for an hour or soI watched my leaden soldiers go,With different uniforms and drills,Among the bed-clothes, through the hills.And sometimes sent my ships in fleetsAll up and down among the sheets;Or brought my trees and houses out,And planted cities all about.I was the giant great and stillThat sits upon the pillow-hill,And sees before him, dale and plainThe pleasant Land of Counterpane.
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
The Land Between
As a child of ten or twelve, I was struck by Scarlet Fever, a streptococcal infection whose bright red rash put me in bed in a darkened room for at least a week, as I recall sixty years hence. What the consequences of bright light may have been I was never told; children of that age, after all, are spoken about, never spoken to. Whatever pain may have been involved has carried no memory; what I do recall was a great deal of reading in the Junior Classics, a set of ten books on the small bookshelf beside my bed. Reading in that darkened room may have done more damage than the fever, but what I read has done me nothing but good.
It was an eclectic mix of authors and literature types. There was “The Gold-Bug” by Edgar Allen Poe, for example, and “Robinson Crusoe”. There was also “The Land of Counterpane”, a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Stevenson’s realm was familiar long before I encountered the poem. I might as well have been an only child (my sister was two years older), and a feral one at that, which translated in my case to a lot of time alone. The patchwork quilt that wrinkled and draped between my legs had long since become a land of lost and found, whose vistas rippled into the distance, fold after fold, to the horizon (i.e., the edge of the bed; guess I was a Flat-Earther at that age). But that landscape was uninhabited; no toy soldiers, no tractors or dump trucks, simply a world to wander.
Soon I did have a “traveling companion” in the person of Frank, the dog, equally curious about the world. And our exploratorium was Frank’s old neighborhood in Mesopotamia: trips to the FCC Grocery for mom, and that summer I tended the store for Mrs Pirtle; weeding our garden plot along the Milwaukee Road tracks; fishing below the weir with my friends Artie (Butch) and Bobbie (she hated Roberta). I got to know Mesopotamia more intimately than other parts of town, and its people, too; and how the rhythms there were different, slower, without being casual, than elsewhere. And there was a social structure, too, one that accepted me after a while as a benign invader without a need for antibodies.
Until junior high school, Bobbie and Artie and the others went to Darrow school, while I was at Darwin, which made for a different sort of friendship, more purposeful, since we saw each other only “by appointment”. But Bobbie was check-out clerk at Cermak’s Market and Artie became a mechanic at Cliff’s Garage, businesses not actually in Mesopotamia, but decidedly on the wrong side of town — which is probably why I hung out there. It was Albert Camus who observed: “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend”. We did. They were.
If you can tell me why someone is your friend — someone who knows you too well but likes you anyway and expects nothing but your own acceptance of them — I wish you’d share that wisdom.
Or is it Reflux?
Revisiting a post from thirteen months ago, this afternoon also brought a conversation with Mr Rutter about the prospect for a third and, very likely, final exhibit this fall. October seems to be Agincourt’s month — St Crispin’s Day is on the 25th; and the previous exhibits either opened or closed on the day — so we’ve tentatively set the end of that month as a target. There is so much to do and so much more I hope to “say” that the creative juices have already begun to seep, if not actually flow. Then again, it may simply be an issue of bladder control.
Themes for the previous shows related to the community’s sesquicentennial and to the all-American idea of homecoming, but this year’s will touch on an equally abstract matter: the question of how cities happen. Despite its roots in the minutia of architectural history — an obtuse musing on Louis Sullivan and Carnegie libraries — there is a more universal issue of urban design to be explored, including the current inclination toward a “new urbanism” as an over-response to the heroic Modernism of the 1960s. And while I may be drawn to the simplicities of “Our Town” and “The Truman Show” and “Mayberry F.F.D.” and several iconic episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, I’m suspicious that a species of Trickle-down Economics lurks within.
These are, as they say, perilous times in which the pretty platitudes of Seaside, Florida (the artificial setting for Truman Burbank’s postcard existence) simply don’t bear the scrutiny that changed Pleasantville from black-and-white to blazing color, with a reciprocal loss of innocence. Or was it the attainment of a necessary ambivalent ambiguity that comes with growing up? Is it naïveté to believe that coal jobs will return or fundamentalist wishful-thinking that traditional marriage — whatever the hell that ever was, if it ever was — is coming back? It’s not for me to say.
Parenthood may be among our higher aspirations. Not being one—a parent, that is, though my humanity also comes into question—I have to content myself being a pseudo-surrogate parent: i.e., a teacher.
“Mom” and “Dad” aren’t words that trip lightly from my tongue or my keyboard, but has anyone noticed that they’re both palindromes and that “mom” is also “wow” upside down? I’m just asking.
Howard hasn’t written much lately. Perhaps Mother’s Day will bring him out of semi-retirement.
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
“Mothers and Others”
Our calendar is rife with Days, Weeks, and Months devoted to some topic, status, cause, or condition, long-term or du jour. We’ve just enjoyed National Teacher Day and Star Wars Day (“May the Fourth be with you.”). Some are blatantly commercial or have become so; promoted by florists and greeting card companies. A few mature into national holidays (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day). But just a handful are fundamental to being civilized, Mother’s Day among them.
On this day of reflection on motherhood, I’m drawn to the broader topic of women in Agincourt’s history; our mothers, sisters, grandmothers, aunts and cousins; even the unrelated women who’ve taught and healed and clerked and served us throughout our lives. For the moment, let my recollection stimulate your own.
A few women of Agincourt
Women who came to maturity before the 19th Amendment—before their ability to vote or even own property in their own name—women from the first years of our community’s history, often found other avenues to power.
<still working on this entry. please be patient.>
“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 the expectation that it will be there when I come back. I was inclined to wander in those amniotic Eisenhower years.
Agincourt is a town of quadrants, each a mirror pattern 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 salaries of its residents. The north-west, where the Tabors live, is home to the butcher, baker, candle-stick maker; the business men and women 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 and the previous generation was heading to retirement in Arizona.
South-west Agincourt, the fourth quad where Crispin Creek meets the mighty Muskrat, has always been flood prone. Our earliest industries located there—the Syndicate Mill, the Krause foundry, and a short-lived brick-making operation—and so did the folks who filled those manufacturing jobs. Remember, “manus” is the Latin word for hand and these people 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.
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 smile I’d only seen on my great-grandmother, except Ms 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 customers saw to that.
In the fall, 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 register. Pearl, her dog, was pregnant at the time, so I was asked to stop in now and then and keep an eye out. 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 the pups, 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,
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
The Cheshire Bridge
The old Milwaukee Road right-of-way crosses the Mighty Muskrat river three times during its course through Fennimore county. Bad surveying, if you ask me, because it required two bridges and a trestle. And those don’t come cheap. Some of their cost was borne by the Northwest Iowa Traction Co., whose route followed the railway for more than half its length. But NITC ceased operation in the mid-50s and the last regular freight traffic passed through Agincourt twenty years later. Much of the route went through the Rails-to-Trails conversion, so things are running a bit more slowly these days.
Old Timers — which surely includes me — still refer to the trestle as Cheshire Bridge, I suppose because anyone younger has been over the trestle but never stood far enough away to get its full profile. If you do (and enjoy the view shown in this postcard from about 1910) and squint just a bit, you’ll see its Cheshire grin smiling back at you.
<This is a stub awaiting further inspiration. Have patience; Agincourt wasn’t built overnight.>
A few figs from thistles…
by Howard A. Tabor
Ghosts of Christmas Past: Shell
In the dogleg of a modest single-story office building at 700 Asp Avenue, where Duffy Street begins, just south of Asp Avenue’s own dogleg on its way to downtown Norman, Oklahoma, I worked for nearly two years in the architectural office of Fred Shellabarger. All our neighbors, in a building you might mistake for a mom-and-pop motel, were dentists, as I recall. [One was an oral surgeon who botched the removal of my wisdom teeth but he’s probably dead now. It’s curious the building is still there.] Fred — known to most of us as Shell — maintained his practice because that’s what architects do: practice, until they get it right, which, by and large, Fred had managed to do. I got $2.00 an hour.
Fred’s clientele were primarily residential — middling to large houses (but certainly not by today’s standards) for university faculty, doctors and the occasional banker. We designed a modest clinic for six doctors and the home for retiring O.U. President George Cross. I was the office go-fer, lowest on the pecking order, beneath Bill Peterson and Richard Kenyon, but because my desk was closest to the phone I was de facto receptionist and taker of messages. I was never asked to do floors or toilets but would have because Fred was a nice guy. He took me on, I think, because we had got along very well in his other occupation, professor of architecture at the University of Oklahoma just down the street. A little background seems in order.
FRED DAVID SHELLABARGER [1918-2002]
Shell’s obituary will acquaint you with the outline of his life. Frankly, it says more than I knew as his student-employee. He was born in Decatur, which connects us as sons of Illinois and, besides, Decatur is the site of two iconic Prairie School houses associated with Walter and Marion Mahony Griffin. I never asked if those houses had influenced his career choice. Architecture, of course, was our primary link: he was what I thought I wanted to be. What I didn’t know then was that teaching, Fred’s “other” job, would be our ultimate connection.
During nearly two years in his office, I learned a lot about architecture: how to design and how not to do business. The nicest house of those two years was the retirement home for O.U. president George L. Cross and his wife Cleo. If you should stop by, I designed the mailbox. Fred was at his very best at the scale of the single-family residence, where his strong suits were kitchens and bath-dressing rooms, the wet places of the house. If those are gendered space, Fred was a better woman than most in my acquaintance. His kitchens were generous and efficient, without the acreage consumed by today’s McMansions. His bath-dressing rooms [the phrase “en suite” makes me gag] were equipped with fixtures and built-ins that avoided the scalar issues of ancient Rome. I learned first-hand the anthropometrics of intimacy, the calisthenics of cleanliness and cuisine. Fred was at his very best at the scale of the single-family residence. That level of detail has its downside, however: such custom cabinetry does not come cheaply. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have learned from him these and many other lessons that I’ve passed along in my own studio classes.
About 1968, the regional A.I.A. held its annual meeting at Tan-Tar-A, a resort at Lake of the Ozarks. A few of us went as student representatives but Fred also gave me a letter of introduction to some of his earlier clients in Springfield, Missouri. Mrs Shellabarger, Gladys, was from there. I remember being welcomed into two incredible mid-century modern works that were even closer to the Wrightian ideal I treasured than were the houses in Norman. Here also was the chance to meet satisfied clients who spoke warmly of their relationship with their architect; to truly understand the work, talk to the client.
As a faculty member at O.U., Fred taught in three areas: 1) fourth-year design studio, 2) a course that blended interiors and landscape, and 3) the first two of four architectural history courses — Egypt through the Gothic. [William S. Burgett, a.k.a., Billy B, covered Renaissance through Modern, largely I think because he liked saying FRAN•SWAH•PREM•EE•AY instead of Francis the First; Bill was insecure that way.] Shell was the sort of design instructor I’d like to have been: supportive, non-judgmental, prescriptive without being presumptive. Whatever success I may have had came from studio experiences with Fred, Bill and D.B.V., alias Dean Bryant Vollendorf. [More about him another time.] ARCH 273 was the finest design studio experience of my undergraduate life. Fall semester fourth year, it was eighteen weeks of eighteen week-long projects — a Gatling gun of quick intensive studies, assigned on Friday and due the following week, when the next would be assigned. I learned to live with choices made on the fly.
During a crit Shell was poetry with a pencil; ideas flowed with no effort whatsoever, a light lattice-work of lines emerging, one of which eventually became the right one. I’m shocked to realize how, even today, I’m still trying to draw like him. His treatment of architectural history, however, I frankly don’t recall; a lot of slides in a darkened room. If that experience played any role in my eventual career, it was his example that someone could be both an architect and passionate about its history.
I saw Fred briefly in the winter of 1992-1993 when I should have thanked him but didn’t.
next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water
— e. e. cummings
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Edmund FitzGerald Flynn, Agincourt’s half-term mayor
When Ed Flynn announced his candidacy for mayor of Agincourt in late summer 1894, the country was deep in the Panic of the year before, a depression born of too much silver and too few markets for American crops. Urban unemployment was growing but the situation in rural areas (where unemployment figures are unreliable) was just as dire. Ed’s campaign took a protectionist spin — “America First” his banners proclaimed — protesting that his business acumen would reverse these trends and regain Agincourt’s greatness — though as a relatively recent arrival he would have known little about us. Ed must have found the Cliff’s Notes of Agincourt History, dropping a few strategic names into conversations and thereby gaining the trust of the business community’s Whiggish kind.
Flynn’s opponent was incumbent mayor Gordon Thursby, whose “day job” managing the Home Loan Association connected him with banking and insurance, contractors and material suppliers. Thursby’s wife Nadine taught school at Charles Darwin Elementary and the family attended Asbury Methodist Episcopal church, where Gordon superintended the Sunday school. His bases were covered — or so he thought.
Flynn’s arrival less that a year before ought to have disadvantaged his quest for public service, but he was a Mason, attended St Joe’s, and took rooms at the Hazzard House, where he and his young wife Amity Burroughs Flynn entertained in high style. Cassius Miller had to import expensive Nicaraguan cigars (which Ed passed around like business cards) and his tab at the Hazzard’s Tap Room seemed bottomless. Rumor hinted a monthly check from an unknown source kept his account in the black.
But it was the realm of ideas which differentiated them, not so much wheat from chaff as fat from lean. Thursby saw first hand the stress and outright suffering that economic panics can bring: choices between delinquent payments or missed meals; school tuition or a second job. He proposed belt-tightening strategies, fiscal responsibility. At Asbury, Pastor Quinn had impressed on him the Social Gospel of Gladden and Rauschenbusch as something more than abstraction.
Flynn, on the other hand, appealed to the protectionists in the community by preaching trickle-down economics of a sort: we’ll all benefit, he claimed, when those nearer the top of the food chain have feasted. Ed’s schemes were painted with a wide brush (in the firm grasp of another), leaving the details, the actual implementation to Leona Helmsley’s “little people.”
The Saturday before Election Day, Flynn held a rally out at Gnostic Grove, an affair “for the whole family” with fried chicken, potato salad, and “pink wobbly jellies that seem to excite all the men” (a line, I think, from Beatrice Lillie). “If Ed Flynn is evidence for the efficacy of his policies,” his guests reasoned, “then he’s got my vote!” And it worked: Thursby’s belt-tightening versus Flynn’s dreamscape was no contest: Edmund FitzGerald Flynn became Agincourt’s thirteenth mayor by a margin of forty-two votes.
POSTSCRIPT: Mayor Flynn’s administration began to unravel within six months of the election, about the time his “remittence” checks arrived from an Eastern bank with less regularity. Then one evening as he held forth at the monthly meeting of the Commercial Club* — among his most fervent supporters — the good mayor rose to offer a toast, clutched his chest and died, face forward in a plate of sauerbraten. It took eight of them to carry him down three flights of stairs, and Hemphill-Folsom had to special order a roomier coffin: even in death, Ed was larger than life.
Mrs Flynn’s reaction upon hearing the news is unrecorded.
*The Commercial Club met in the banquet room on the fourth floor at Hansa House. One wonders how two dozen portly plutocrats managed all those stairs.