Ghosts (Part Three)

#15 Henry “Whitey” Malone is a thinly veiled version of myself. “Whitey” was my childhood nickname but ti was years later that I turned out to be a partial albino. Really.

#16 Abel Kane deserved a second entry. Every town has its infidels and its infidelities. Abel Kane was both.

#17 Harold Russell Holt (a.k.a. Hal) was a retired engineer who became director of the Fennimore County History Center. A second article about his passing was written before the “Ghost” series began. Hal Holt isn’t based on anyone I know; I think he may be either someone I’d like to know or even someone I’d like to be. I’d certainly prefer to be remembered that way.

#18 Sandor Szolnay guided the Men’s Department at deBijenkorf. Sandor is a hybrid character, a blend of the Hungarian baker I knew in Argo (who arrived after the 1956 Hungarian uprising) and the nameless Hungarian tailor at Capper & Capper who fitted my first suit.

#19 Seamus Tierney was the founder of professional theatre in Agincourt. If he sounds familiar, simply substitute “art” for “theatre” and you’ve pretty much got it.

#20 Fred D. Shellabarger doesn’t yet have a place in Agincourt. But he is a fond memory from my own beginnings in architecture and was, in hindsight, a strong influence on its trajectory. I could not have known how that experience would connect with my later life.

#21 Edmund FitzGerald Flynn, Agincourt’s thirteenth mayor and husband of Amity Burroughs Flynn, died in office. Many people were not upset about this. The hidden treasure here was Ed’s widow, Amity Burroughs Flynn, who blossomed after his passing and became a character I could never have imagined — but I guess I did.

Ghosts (Part Two)

#8 Phyllis Tabor, with Ella Rose, her twin, were pioneer aviatrices (is that the plural of aviatrix?) and also happen to have been Howard’s great-aunts. He had a special relationship with Aunt Phyllis, who shows up in other settings. Twins fascinate me; in fact, there are multiple sets of them in the Agincourt story. And in two of the three cases, death took one of them prematurely. What do you suppose the impact had been on the survivor? Perhaps Howard asked Aunt Phyllis before she died a couple years ago.

#9 Ray Benson was retired from the Merchant Marine and a neighbor of Rosalie Oakes, mother of Rowan Oakes. Rowan is married to Howard. Ray sounds a great deal like my cranky former neighbor Ray Jackson, who may not have disliked dogs but did seem to have been bothered by mine, Mr Moose, a twenty-five pound Cockle Spaniard. One day as I read quietly in the living room of the Little House, with the screen door open for ventilation, I heard what might have been pellets being slung against the front of the house and rose to see what had rained down on me like hail. I jsut got a hint of Ray going around the corner and then noticed what he’d thrown: dried dog droppings — none of which were from Mr Moose, by the way, because we pick up after the animals — which Ray had assumed were ours and then accumulated them for “return.” Ray was a man of action, if not words.

#10 Ernest “Red” Anhauser was the village atheist, a watchmaker at Salmagundi, Agincourt’s jewelers and purveyors of “precious things.” He, too, needed a second entry. “Red” exhibits many characteristics of Cecil Elliott, a former colleague at N.D.S.U. There are those of us who have stepped away from our religious upbringing and the select few who carry an active grudge: it’s one thing to be irreligious and another to be hostile.

#11 “Veterans” is as close as I can get to understanding Agincourt’s many contributions to war. At some point, there’ll be a specific character who can stand for all those listed on the memorials in The Square.

#12 Brother Crucible is yet another attempt to tell the complex story of religious institutions in the community’s history. I don’t know him. Perhaps you do. Architecture is one of those professions, perhaps the foremost of them, that seem to be monastic. So why not imagine an order of actual monks devoted, not to silence and poverty (though architects can identify with the second of those), but to architectural restoration. Visualize coarse brown franciscan robes with a tool belt where the knotted rope should be.

#13 Robina Lyle is very real, the public health nurse in my elementary school, a character so legendary in my own community’s history that an elementary school is named for her.

#14 Michael Corbett was someone of my acquaintance in about the 5th or 6th grade. He beat the shit out of me during recess until it ceased to be any fun and then moved on to another target. Decades ago there was a TV show called “F.B.I. Files” which dramatized cases from the bureau’s archives. As I spun around the dial — this was long before cable — a snippet of narrative included “…Willow Springs, Illinois…” which caught my attention. I knew people from there; went to school with some of them. The case involved the mayor, who was being sued for divorce by his wife — she having discovered he had been operating an illicit gambling and prostitution ring; hey, it is Chicago! — and the local police chief. The half hour dramatization of their solution involved drugging Mrs Mayor, stuffing her in the trunk of hizzoner’s car, driving to the bank of the Sanitary & Shipping canal, where the Chief pumped a few bullets into her drugged body, and then pushing the car into the canal. Actors, of course, played the roles but at the end, there was my grade school nemesis in a police mugshot, frontal and profile views. All things considered, I guess I got off light.

Roy Times Two

When Roy lost his leg in 1926 at the age of nine, artificial limbs were clumsy and expensive. So he grew to manhood on a series of crutches until his growth had begun to slow. But graduation from high school in 1935 put him squarely in the midst of the Great Depression. What factory was likely to hire an amputee for the assembly line? So he and his dad, Roy L. built a gasoline station and garage for auto repair. When he married Marge, the station became a family affair until she disappeared in 1953. I hung out there as a child and eventually worked on weekday evenings and weekends — no doubt in violation of child labor laws. Eventually, I took on the half-day Sunday operations.

[In case this teaching gig doesn’t work out, I picked up some valuable job skills, like changing split-ring truck tires or giving a ’59 DeSoto a grease job and oil change.]

Ramsey’s Service Station enjoyed an eclectic clientele. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of our customers—in the days long before self service—were Blacks who had gone to school with my dad and knew him before and after the amputation. Many “protected” him while he was still on crutches; artificial limbs were both crude and expensive in the latter years of the Depression. So it was that I went to school with the children of many of Roy’s grade- and high-school friends.

These were families who had moved northward along the Illinois Central mainline from Louisiana, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of better wages and less overt racism—or at least a different species of it. We lived in Bedford Park but Argo (where the high school and dad’s grade school were located) was divided on racial lines, with Blacks living south of 63rd Street and west of Archer Avenue. I wonder if things have changed very much. Coming of age in the 1950s, I cannot recall my father ever uttering a racial epithet or slur. I’ve tried to build some of that part of American history into Agincourt: you may find interesting the story of Truman Hand, a.k.a., “Handy”, an exploration of that point of view and Agincourt’s own racial tolerance.

But back to Roy.

Preparing for the Minimalist seminar next spring semester, I’ve discovered the short stories of Lydia Davis; some of them are one sentence long. Here’s a short story about dad in the spirit of Professor Davis (whose work I recommend).

Do you know the way to Resurrection? 

Depending on the season or time of day, a long bench across the front of the gas station hosted a changing cast of characters, the usual suspects. In the heat of summer, Roy was there, shirtless and tanned like a Mexican, drinking Schlitz and whittling two-by-twos into wooden chains. He wasn’t disinclined to move but some customers would pump their own and save him the trip. After school and while he ate supper, I worked the pumps from about the age of twelve.

Now and then someone would pull up to the pumps, clearly positioned for a full-up, but only be interested in directions. The station at 6455 South Archer Road was just beyond the comforting grid of the city, on a road that followed an trail blazed by the Illini and other native tribes moving between the Mississippi and Great Lakes watersheds: Summit, the next village north of us, wasn’t named by accident. Archer was State Highway #1A, a winding road between Chicago and Joliet with a string of leafy villages along the way that are now part of suburban sprawl.  Strung along between them were four large cemeteries — Bethania, Resurrection, Archer Woods, and Fairmount — some of them near the Forest Preserves that were a legacy from the Progressive Era. Weekends, especially Saturday, Sunday, Easter, Memorial and Veterans holidays, traffic was heavy to those destinations and a good many of them got disoriented beyond the grid. We called them “Losts.”

If a “Lost” pulled up to the pumps and only wanted directions, Roy took a dim view of their presumption and, more than once, sent them on a quest more likely to locate the wild goose than the grave of Aunt Harriet. But the flip side was also true: if you pulled up to the curb, within a few feet of that bench, Dad would go well beyond the giving of simple accurate direction, drawing a map on a handy piece of butcher paper with annotations that anyone could follow. I remember one of those situations from the late 1950s.

It was late on a Saturday, a slow time on a hot summer day. A southbound car pulled in and idled a few feet from Roy, who had settled in for an afternoon of whittling. Fairmount was the driver’s goal but the I-394 bypass had been under construction for months and getting through that maze of barricades in a cloud of gravel dust was tricky, so Roy volunteered to provide a map. Pen and paper were in the station, so he put down the carving project and casually threw the pocket knife into his leg — which, of course, our Lost had no idea was made of wood. Feeling no pain, Roy stood to go inside but I watched as the expression of the guy behind the wheel turn from shock to “What the fuck have I got myself into?” He put the pedal to the metal and laid a ten foot trail of burnt rubber in a burst of exhaust. Dad and I just stood there, wondering what was wrong — a pen knife still firmly imbedded where his right thigh ought to have been.

Typical Roy.

Let sleeping doubt lie

A year or so before he died, I gave Dad a family genealogy as a Christmas present. I’d worked in those days with a professional in DC and put together quite a reasonable effort for not much investment. For the first time EVER, he actually talked about himself, like the picture of him, Roy L. and Clara (the lady in cloche hat) and his grandmother. Then he dropped the bombshell: Roy wasn’t at all sure that Clara was actually his mother!

It seems that my grandfather had been married twice and that the first Mrs Ramsey had died in childbirth. What had apparently concerned him for most if not all his life was that he had been that child and that Clara was actually his stepmother. Shit! You can imagine I manifest the precise opposite of his disconnect. That doubt was all I needed.

An afternoon at the office of Vital Statistics in downtown Chicago gave me all the information I needed. Roy L. had married Nellie in 1908 and their son Evard was born in early 1912, dying just seven weeks later, apparently along with Nellie. Roy married Clara in 1913 and Roy (confirmed by birth certificate) was born in June 1917. Clara, the woman who raised me when Marge left (with a suitcase of lingerie and loose cash, never to be seen again), stepped in and took me on as her “parenting” swan song. I slept well that night and so did Roy, though he never mentioned it again.

Perhaps that is the greatest difference between us: Roy could live with that nagging suspicion — he’d just rather not know — for most of his adult life, while I needed an answer a.s.a.p., regardless of the truth.

Cradle to Grave

This postcard is far too rich for my pocket book and the business it represents is also too large an operation, I think, for Agincourt and its hinterlands. So even photo-shopping this image wouldn’t be entirely appropriate for the project. But there very likely was a dealer in tombstones serving the community’s three burial grounds.

Our three cemeteries are grouped at the east edge of the Original Townsite, where Agincourt Avenue crosses the old city limit. The Catholic’s consecrated their ground about 1860, land purchased from the Schütz family; more likely a donation because the family have been prominent in church affairs for more than 150 years. Much larger (about three times the area) is the Protestant or non-sectarian cemetery, cast romantically as “The Shades”, a 19th century reference to ghosts as “shades” or “shadows”. Somewhat later, as the Jewish population warranted, a Hebrew Burial Ground balanced the group. So, among the three of them, there was a full range of decorative styles and ethnic traditions. Who crafted those monuments?

In 2001 I attended an Anglican–Episcopal church history conference in Toronto. It celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) and presented some of my research into the history of Episcopal church architecture in Dakota Territory. [Do you think I’ll ever get that material in print?] During a break in the sessions, I stepped into the courtyard of Trinity College, where a mason was trimming stone for the border of a planting bed: I was transfixed and began a conversation with him.

He was an Aberdeen native, an especially stony part of Scotland which is itself a particularly rocky country. If I were in the market for the services of a mason, an Aberdonian is precisely who I would seek — despite their reputation for speaking an incomprehensible dialect and alcoholism. Indeed, another Aberdeen native had already crossed my path: Nathaniel Maconachie (pronounced “muh·KAHN·shee”), who was the stone and brick mason for some of Fargo architect George Hancock’s earliest works — St Stephen’s Episcopal church in Casselton; Old Main at the NDAC; St Mark’s Episcopal church in Anaconda, among others. So I welcomed the opportunity to speak with a living craftsman practicing his trade.

I’ll try to keep that conversation in mind as I imagine who may have crafted funerary monuments in late 19th Agincourt.

Happy Accidents

One of the attractions of the Shingle Style is the opportunity to craft sophisticated simplicity: the ability to add nuanced detail to something derived from Platonic shapes, the sort that inspired Friedrich Fröbel and, through him, Frank Lloyd Wright. I designed this house (intended for myself in a youthful fit of optimism) in the late 1960s while working at the architectural office of Fred Shellabarger. It came to me in a dream and was quickly drawn as soon as I got to the office that summer morning before Fred, Richard or Bill arrived.

Years later — and I mean decades — I discovered this house of 1883 (below) in the pages of the American Architect & Building News; I read that sort of thing for fun. Imagine my surprise when Boston architect Samuel J. F. Thayer’s design appeared on the computer screen: not a duplicate but certainly a curious parallel with the house I eventually repurposed for the James and Martha Tennant family in Agincourt, Iowa. Mine lacks the third floor and nifty two-story dormers, but I’ve been more generous with ground-floor window and door openings (I’ve got a thing for French doors) giving access to the wrap-around piazza. All things considered, I’ll take mine over Thayer’s.

I’m inspired now to make a model for the next and presumably last Agincourt exhibit this fall.


In the Valley of the Mighty Muskrat

“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 tis 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 squinting back at you.

<This is a stub awaiting further inspiration. Have patience; Agincourt wasn’t built overnight.>


I had a dream last night…

“I dream. Sometimes I think that’s the only right thing to do.”
― Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

“I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart for so long. If we’re in each other’s dreams, we can be together all the time.”
― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”
― Bob Dylan, Lyrics:1962 2001

“I was in a dream last night. Was it yours?”
― me

It was late afternoon — unusual for me to have been in bed that long. I knew, no, felt that this would be my last day on Earth. Probably the most vivid dream I’ve ever had.

Why are you telling me this?

Because you were there, sitting beside the bed, holding my hand. I knew then that it was O.K. to go. Are you embarrassed?

Just a little but go on — I guess.

Then you and all the color in the room drained away. Even the walls — the walls, the furniture, the trees and slice of sky I could spy through the window, turned white. Not some antiseptic hospital white. Not the absence of color but what color had always wanted to be: its total presence. Somewhere between South Sea pearl, white diamonds, and — oh, I dunno — cottage cheese. You wanted to smear it on toast with a slice of lox.

Now here’s the weird part. Rick Astlie was there doing his MTV video “Never going to give you up” in a sharkskin suit with those 70s pencil legs.

But you hated everything 70s! Remember, I was there, too.

I know. Weird. Except it wasn’t Astlie in the suit; it was Morgan Freeman doing all those 70s dance moves.

Then the room turned Farrow&Ball red, crustini without the basil. It was the Dulwich Picture Gallery and every painting I ever loved was there: ‘Das Floß der Medusa,’ ‘The Martyrdom of Crispin and Crispinian,’ several by Holman Hunt and Alma-Tadema. And da Messina’s ‘Condottiere.’ Damn, I’ve got taste.

And Morgan Freeman was there, too, minus the sharkskin suit.

Freeman was naked!?

No. Three-piece. You’d take him for an annuity salesman. I said ‘I thought You’d be Ella Fitzgerald,’ and He said ‘Oh, I could be, if that would give greater comfort, but she’s with Donald Trump just now.’

‘Trump?!’ I asked in a more accusatory tone than the moment called for. ‘I thought he’d be in the other place, pitchforks, molten sulfur and such.’

Then He shocked me: ‘This is what you’ve all got wrong. Everything’s Heaven. Some people just don’t get the one they expect.’

I gotta ask: What did you have for supper? This reeks of indigestion.

‘Of course it’s happening in your head, Harry, but why on Earth should that mean that it’s not real?’ By the way, when it’s your time, keep an eye out Albus Dumbledore. This isn’t my dream, you know. You just watched Colbert, rolled over, and went to sleep. So this is in your head, not mine.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”
― Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy