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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.


Ghosts of Christmas Past #14

“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).


Mike Corbett

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?


“…the gift that goes on giving…”

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

“…the gift that goes on giving…”

As small-town newspapers like The Plantagenet withstand the digital assault, Mark Twain and paper share one important truth: Reports of their death have been exaggerated.

I got a letter yesterday, as an example — actual personal communication written on sheets of paper — from a friend in Minneapolis, which set me to locate my own writing supplies and organize my response. I shall craft it with care and deliberation during the next few days. Yes, this all takes time — gathering tools, structuring ideas and setting them on the page — but think it, rather, one of the finer gifts of friendship. Where, indeed, would the New Testament be without Paul’s compulsion to correspond [“correspond = to be in agreement,” according to my dictionary]?

One of the contradictions of letter-writing is its tactile intangibility. Electronic communication offers speed but ink on paper has greater presence and commands more attention; a different species of immediacy. For expressions of emotion, compassion, or consolation, we’re over-inclined to let Hallmark be our default. I prefer something personally composed, apropos the moment, handwritten: Letters of Protest or Resignation or Recommendation or Testimonial. Letters-to-the-Editor. Letters of Love or Farewell. In an envelope. With a stamp. [Do you miss stamps that required licking? I do.] The walk to the post office affords time for reflection; for reconsideration or amendment. And that last physical contact at the mail drop is a commitment like few others. My words are on their way. I have lobbed them across the metaphorical net.

Today’s letter arrived just as I was thinking about a different sort of commitment: the longer-term communication called The Book, whose demise has also been promised but remains contentiously unfulfilled. We have a few — books, that is — around our house and I want to tell my Minneapolis friend about one of them: WAH-TO-YAH and the Taos Trail, written by seventeen-year-old Lewis Garrard and published in 1850 when he was twenty-one; a narrative adventure in the early American West. Garrard’s words were made better (if that’s possible) because mine is the 1935 reprint by the Grabhorn Press, willed to me in 1959 by Hamish Brookes, Agincourt’s long-time purveyor of that other sort of paper, the gift that goes on giving, The Book. Brookes deserves a few more words but that will wait another day. In the meantime, you can read about him in Ghosts of Christmas Past #5.

wah-to-yah 3


Ghosts of Christmas Past #13

robina lisle001

Agincourt’s Nightingale

Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” is a film you’ve never seen. It stars Edward G. Robinson in a different role than his characteristic gangster; he portrays instead a doctor seeking a cure for syphilis. When public funding for his research is withdrawn, a wealthy member of the nobility steps in (also played uncharacteristically by Maria Ouspenskaya, whom you’ll recall as the wizened gypsy woman cradling the head of Lon Cheney as the dying werewolf: “At last you have found rest, my son,” she intones with a thick eastern European accent). Ehrlich’s work is successful and an effective treatment for syphilis became available.

Just when we imagine a particular disease may be under control, others reemerge that were thought to have been eliminated. Headlines this morning, for example, hint at a strain of gonorrhea resistant to antibiotics. All of this brought to mind the school nurse I had known in grades three through six: Miss Robina Lyle. If public health is an under-represented topic in Agincourt, Miss Lyle might offer a solution.

When i was nine or ten — shortly after Marge departed — I recall an especially pesky bout of stomach flu. Miss Lyle, ever compassionate, suggested that I be sent home, and one of the teachers was enlisted midday to drive me the mile and a half.

Curious whether any biographical information could be found, her memory lives on, even if her former charges are rapidly dying off: an elementary school in District #217 bears her name. Yet biographical material is still very thin. And ancestry.com reveals only one exciting  fact: she was Canadian born in 1894 and emigrated to Chicago early in her career.

Sadly, I cannot recall her appearance; yet the starched white sterility of her uniform is a vivid recollection. And her glasses on a chain draped across an ample bosom.

PS: This postcard shows a your nurse identified only as Ada. In honor of my Robina Lyle, I think our character will become Ada Lisle. Is that O.K. with you?

Ghosts of Christmas Past #12


  1. a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures.
    • a place or occasion of severe test or trial.
      “the crucible of combat”
    • a place or situation in which different elements interact to produce something new.
      “the crucible of the new Romantic movement”

three monks001

“For he is like a refiner’s fire…” Malachi 3:2

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past #12: Brother Crucible

Brother Crucible (seated) and his two companions had come to Agincourt in the early 1920s. This photo was taken in my great-grandmother’s garden.

The brothers were staying in great uncle Anson’s old apartment above the stable [a typical ecumenical gesture for a woman whose religiosity, for her generation, was demonstrably small-C catholic], humble quarters convenient to the three Agincourt projects they’d come to build.

Before taking vows, Brian Havergal Armitage of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, had been an undergraduate student of architecture but found the prospects of professional life dispiriting. “The people who need architectural services aren’t always the ones who can afford them,” he told his host Martha Tennant, eighty years before the starchitecture we know today. So he left school, apprenticed as a carpenter, and joined the Franciscans, to bring building skills to a different audience.

Crucible recruited Brothers Andrew and Jerome and approached their abbot with the idea of a constructional swat team, to serve the diocese in a pilot program. But sixteen months into their new calling—repairing God’s foundations and fascias—their reputation spread beyond central Pennsylvania; invitations came from New York and Indiana. Then came their ecumenical moment: Father Farber at St Ahab’s and his Episcopal counterpart Chilton Fanning Dowd pitched a three-part project to the Building Brothers.

Agincourt’s Roman and Anglican church buildings have ignored each other on East Agincourt Avenue for decades. Contrarily, their resident clergy have often been on far friendlier terms than their upper administrations: covering for one another; performing baptisms and weddings long before the Spirit of Vatican II took hold; even their choirs shared voices, regardless whether the hymns were unfamiliar.

But the Fathers Farber and Dowd were aging, and building maintenance is a problem at the best of times. So matters of rotting window frames, leaking roofs and such were beautifully resolved with a visit by the “Property Brothers”. Martha Tennant offered shelter in her stable loft and Mrs Breen fed them at Saint Ahab’s rectory.

On the job, you’d never guess they were in vocation; the three resembled any tradesman of the 1920s: capacious canvas pants and blue-stripped cotton shirts made from mattress ticking; well-worn brown boots and tool belts from the 19th century. And after work and dinner, a discreet beer—whose origins were less clear than the beverage itself—finished the day.

Once the brothers broke the rhythm of construction, helping the Schutz family harvest their corn. And their last day in town—a Sunday—involved a barn dance and picnic, where we learned that Brother Andrew fiddled a respectable toe tapper.

Such were the ways of Agincourt ninety years ago, and such might be their ways again, if we play our cards right.

Ghosts of Christmas Past #10


Ghosts of Christmas Past #10: Ernest “Red” Anhauser

Ernie “Red” Anhauser was eighty-nine when he died last summer. He’d been a widower for almost twenty years; lived by himself but was never alone. He gardened like it was World War II. Watched at the polls to keep us honest. Volunteered at the animal shelter and read a book a week to friends at the Senior Center—until the tables turned and we read to him.

Ernie’s day job was unique in Agincourt; indeed, it may have died with him, at least the way he did it, because he was an horologist—a watchmaker. Ernie didn’t just clean and fix timepieces, replace broken crystals or dead batteries. Ernie could actually make a watch. From scratch. Watches today are practically disposable. And so may be their caretakers.


It was easy to stop at Salmagundi, just to say hello, and be mesmerized by the lathe-ing of raw metal into tiny widgets. Walk into the store, pass one delicate crystalline showcase after another, and there was Ernie in his own customized display, visor down, jeweler’s loop a bionic implant, wrinkled hands at work. Yet he took note of every caller, had an instructive word for kids, an inquiry for others about their health or that of a mutual friend. Yet outside the “office” (his word) Ernie’s avocations may come as a surprise. He was, for example, the long-time librarian at The Why, Agincourt’s gathering of non-believers, atheists, agnostics, and others unconvinced or downright skeptical about the existence of gods. As its librarian for forty years, Ernie may have become the most theologically literate person in Fennimore county, so it isn’t odd at all that ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and other spiritual leaders counted him a friend. Gurus, on the other hand, not so much.

Calling him a “Ghost of Christmas Past” seems a stretch, you say, but Ernie had the spirit of a holiday that meant nothing more to him than the opportunity to do more good than he normally would have done. I wouldn’t want to make a list of his volunteering; it would be long. The brief list above will have to do.

Physically, he was slight, no more than five feet eight (“and shrinking”). Never an athlete in the “brute” sense, he might have once been very good in track and field; I don’t know, just wondering. Those small bones and delicate hands were ideal for the craft he chose, however. But if you think his nickname “Red” had some connection with hair color or complexion, forget it: in addition to his role at The Why as its long-time keeper and scribe, Ernie was also the town’s most upfront Marxist, born into the turbulent ’20s and nurtured on Sacco and Vanzetti as well as Bradlaugh and Besant. “There are a number of reasons to dislike me,” he challenged me once. “Pick a good one.”

There’s a meme abroad these days about the possibility of good without God. But billboards blaring that message would have offended Ernie; he preferred deeds over rhetoric. “Actions count. Words get in the way.” And billboards may be a place to hide. “Pay no attention to the man behind the green curtain.”

What will fail me first, I’ve often thought, mind or body? Will I prefer to wonder with Carl Sagan about the mysteries of the cosmos and quest for signs of intelligent life or wander in the retirement home, concerned only whether Thursday’s dessert will be butterscotch or chocolate? Ernie has answered those questions for me.

Besides, I prefer rice pudding.


Ghosts of Christmas Past #15

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Whitey

Long before it became a forbidden word—a simpler time when lightening bugs animated the night sky and cicadas made unholy racket; when being “It!” in a game of Kick the Can was the height of childhood sturm und drang—I knew a boy named Whitey.

It was the summer of 1954, about the middle of June. Andrea Dillon and her parents had come to Agincourt for the week; Andrea’s maternal grandparents the Enfield’s lived here, in a big cream-colored house north of Darwin school, and the Dillon’s came more regularly as their parents aged. This summer’s regularity was supplemented with a guest: Henry Malone, a.k.a. “Whitey.” Or was it Maloney?

He was about nine—my own age that summer—and, like me, he’d just finished the third grade. His family lived in suburban Chicago near the Dillons but there were special circumstances surrounding his visit here, something we kids weren’t supposed to know but did anyway. Figured it out, the way kids do. It may have been the summer I was no longer a child: the summer when grown-ups morphed into adults; the summer I was spoken to, not talked about, as though I weren’t there in the midst of the conversation; it was the summer of inclusion. I’d sensed my older sister Catherine making that transition a couple of years before; saw what seemed at the time to have been the contradiction of her growing independence and simultaneous participation in family decision-making. Was it because she was a girl? I wondered. Will my time come?


Henry stood apart for a couple of reasons; things that made him different beyond being someone who was simply “the new kid on the block,” even if only for a few weeks. First, his hair was so blond, his complexion so fair, so pale, as to be borderline albino. I’d heard the story of our albino calf—a long night in 1883 when a pure white Highland calf brought short-term fame to the McGinnis farm out beyond Fahnstock—but had no idea humans could be born with pigment deficiencies, too. Henry was a living tintype. His appearance wasn’t as distinctive as his behavior, though, which existed somewhere outside the bounds of childhood.

He was feral, but not some 19th century waif living in the Schwarzwald, uneducated in the ways of his kind. Henry’s presence had been cobbled from other disparate sources. First, he was prematurely old—an Old Soul, like a handful of others I’ve known—in the sense of reticence that comes from seeing things we ought not; of wandering too near the edge; of Trust betrayed, the contract of childhood broken. What you heard contradicted what you saw and what you heard was not the childish talk of pre-adolescence. Henry did not speak, so much as converse.

Oh, sure, we played. I recall a Maxfield Parrish afternoon on the merry-go-round in the park behind the Methodist church when we spun faster than astronauts. Dizzy, giddy, laughing hysterically, for a moment barriers fell and the gaps between us closed. For a moment, Henry’s armor lay on the verge, safely out of reach, until the moment passed, so much salt in water. There were one or two similar events in the next few days. Then the Dillons and their guest went home. I wrote him now and again during the following months—those “penpal” letters are somewhere in the house, even yet, lingering like these recollections—but I do not know what became of him.

Perhaps google knows. It knows everything.

Little Lives


It’s obvious now that some of my reading habits during the last fifteen or twenty years have had a great influence on the character of this project—very likely on my own character, as well. A book that I acquired in the mid-80s is among them, Little Lives (which I continually recall as Minor Lives) by the pseudonymous author John Howland Spyker, who was really Richard Elman. In the tradition of classics such as Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg, Ohio, but sadly neglected today, I return to Spyker again and again. And on those all-too-frequent occasions when I’m unable to lay my hands on it, the sub-ether has made all too easy the ability to find a quick replacement copy; there may be four of them lying around the house right now. I blogged years ago about the virtues of Spyker’s local-history-as-biographical-anthology style and today I find myself back at the trough, wondering about the three generations of family in this wonderful postcard image.


Not in the “dime a dozen” category, still these unidentified family cards don’t sell well, unless there’s something special about them: obvious ethnicity or race; occupation or activity. Clowns are big right now, just not with me.

As someone from a very, very small family—technically, I’m IT right now—one wonders how such evocative images get away from the homes of other family members. I’d be disinclined to let my own ancestors slip from my grasp. Somehow, I feel a story coming on.

Ghosts of Christmas Past: The Village Atheist

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

The Village Atheist

How has “Red” Anhauser escaped notice here? This may be a case of not knowing something or not sensing its value until too late. Mea Culpa.

On Thursday week, at half past seven that evening, we gathered at The Why to note, to celebrate, acknowledge, verify or otherwise share the passing of one disinclined to have been the reason, cause or excuse for such a gathering. Had there been an actual body, one or two of those assembled might have brazenly held a mirror to his nose, alert for evidence of vapor, and would—with the slightest hint of any condensate—have, with equal boldness, held a pillow on his face for fifteen minutes or so just to make sure. It should also be said that another two or three, with equal gusto, would have applied CPR to bring “Red” back among us. Those opportunities, however, had faded several days before when “Red” slid into the crematory oven, at a toasty eighteen hundred degrees, the closest he believed would be his brush with Hell.

Several venues could have held this throng; indeed, a murder of its crows were here representing the major denominations: Candy Varenhorst from Asbury UMC; Fathers Chisholm (C. of E.) and Shannon (Romish), among others. Even Rabbi Mandelbrot drove from Des Moines to bid a crisp farewell. In the early mumbled rumblings of the crowd, one wondered What did they come to hear? What had they come to say? First, some background.

St John of the Ladder

Many in Thursday’s audience had come to simply see inside The Why, home to Agincourt’s free thinkers for seventy years, a re-purposed railway water tower given by the Milwaukee Road when two pre-fabricated units had arrived, not one. Ernie Anhauser had been its sexton until cancer made the stairs, already steep, too difficult. In his retirement Ernie was its librarian, keeper of a collection admired by schools of theology: The disputation of theology requires an intimate knowledge of that which you would deny. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer” wouldn’t be accurate in this case, however, because Anhauser respected honest disagreement. Contention fueled his belly, no quarter asked, none given. But victory or loss would bring the contest to an end and sadden him, regardless of the outcome.

Ernest “Red” Anhauser [1924-2014] was eighty-nine when he died last week, a retired watchmaker who’d worked for fifty years at Salmagundi. Ernie’s wife Lucy died in childbirth about 1945 and their baby passed a few weeks later, a little girl they’d named Annette. His faith (of whatever stripe it might have been) was already shaken by the Depression and the war, however, so the loss of spouse and child drove the little that remained from his heart and Ernest Anhauser joined The Why, immersing himself in Bradlaugh, Ingersoll, et al., and becoming a formidable disputant beyond the high school diploma he’d earned in 1942.

Anhauser never led the group—the Fennimore County Free Thinkers—that was not his style. But if he were not its head, he was assuredly its heart. To claim him as its soul, however, would bring Red back more surely than electro-shock to deny with well-reasoned vehemence the existence of such a thing.


At the center of The Why will be his memorial: an orrery, a clock-work universe that was his gift to reason. And one of its outer planets will house a spoonful of his ash.

Ghosts of Christmas Past #9

“A few figs from thistles…”

by Howard A. Tabor

Ray Benson [1924-2006]

As the 2014 campaign runs its course, I recall our neighbor Ray Benson. Some of you do, too.

Rowan Oakes’ mother Rosalie lived next door to Ray Benson until she died in 1999, which is how we got to know him. We’d have dinner with her every Sunday afternoon at 3:00, then play Monte Carlo until “Sixty Minutes” came on and she’d announce that it was “Time for you two to head home.” Rosalie didn’t mince words any less than her neighbor Ray, however, and most of our Sunday afternoon conversations were seasoned with stories of their verbal sparing during the week. “Benson shook his fist at me Tuesday. Said I shouldn’t use pesticides on the tomatoes. What the #%$* does that man know of gardening!” That last sentence wasn’t a question. Then she’d chastise him about recycling and he’d wonder aloud why she hadn’t gone to “The Home” years ago.

But then Rosie would find that he’d cut her lawn while mowing his own (“Well it just saves gas to not start the mower twice”) or that her walk was shoveled or her leaves raked (“There weren’t enough to fill just one bag”). She never had him over for a meal (“He’d think it’s too salty and then ask for the salt.”) but I know that one-in-four of her canned goods appeared on his back steps on a regular basis. And that her magazines found their way into his mailbox with the mailing labels carefully removed.

Ray’s parents farmed north of Fahnstock, so he went to Fennimore high and graduated in ’42 or ’43, then joined the merchant marine. Going round the world a dozen times or more, he came back to Agincourt twenty-five years ago. Never inclined to pull his window shades, Ray’s accumulation of tchotchkes from Borneo or Shanghai or Tenerife or Trieste were shelved for all to see. I think Rosie’s carved teak elephant might have come from him—”anonymously,” of course, and with the greatest discretion. Wouldn’t want to leave a paper trail.


Ray’s politics were anywhere but Right. The rear window of his Chevy was an evolving mini-billboard of in-your-face observations, hand-printed on poster board: “Drive a Japanese car? Thanks for shipping American jobs overseas.” Or supporting a flat tax. Or simply “Buy American.”

Ray moved into the nursing home about the time Rosalie died, though it never occurred to me until today that those two events might be linked. Though love often manifests itself in strange ways, our acknowledgment and involuntary reaction to loss is far too predictable.