Category Archives: essays on culture

Our Toils Obscure and A’ That

Canadian Pacific Railway

Canadian Pacific track, 1881, Fraser Valley 

 

 

Cascade Mountains

The green Armstrong plaid  had once been a fearsome sight along Scotland’s  border, being  the tartan worn by rustlers and ruffians.  Reluctantly adopting a more settled life, later generations of Armstrong men went down into the coal mine dungeons near Edinburgh to eke out a precarious living for their families.  The course of my family history began when my grandfather Armstrong  glimpsed brighter days in Canada’s West.  His sense of adventure may have been inspired by his cousin’s letters back to the old country from the Canadian frontier, filled with yarns spun from scouting a passage for the Canadian Pacific Railway through the forbidding barrier of the Rockies.

[I’m re-posting this today in honor of the birthday of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796).  The title is a line from one of his poems, “A Man’s a Man for A’That”]

Tam Armstrong secured passage for his family on a ship out of Glasgow, bound across the wine dark sea for Nova Scotia.  Along with various Stuarts, McEwens, and Smiths, they traversed the Atlantic, the convoy dodging U-boats during the First World War.  Upon arrival in Halifax, they took a train across the verdant  farmlands of eastern Canada to Toronto.  From there, the CPR tracks reached to the north shore of Lake Superior, left that great inland sea behind, and struck out through the tractless pines and muskeg of Ontario’s wilderness.  Finally, the train took the Armstrongs over the prairie, golden with wheat waving in the summer winds, to a coal-mining town on the eastern slope of the Rockies.

My mother often reminisced to me about her home town of Nordegg, an outpost of human activity encircled by the dark silence of the forests.     Over the years, I heard a hundred stories, and remain firmly convinced that a few at least were true.  Cougars sometimes strayed into Nordegg’s streets, and family legend held that one cat chased Uncle Andrew into his house.  The Stoney Indians often showed up in town, and later disappeared back into the wilderness after having beguiled the white man in the Indian barter.

Yet, this mining town’s frontier brashness often yielded to Old Country courtesies.  Nordegg was no rough-and-tumble mining camp, my mother insisted.  A golf course, albeit with sand “greens,” followed the Saskatchewan River, grey with silt from melting glaciers at its headwaters.  My mother’s Uncle Jock soloed on trumpet, when he was not anchoring the Nordegg brass ensemble.  Proudly, my mother recalled the Literary Club, where miners discussed novels and plays, naturally with a Scottish burr.  As her anecdotes sparkled, I imagined that the cultural life provided a welcome tonic for the deadening drudgery of mining coal.

But not all her memories spoke of the promise of spring.  One October day, the mine’s whistle had screamed.  Terrified wives and mothers ran to discover what they really did not want to know.  Twenty-nine families mourned.  Nordegg wore black.   Uncle Jock, a pit boss whose warnings on hazardous conditions went unheeded, was among those who did not come up from underground.  The newspaper articles about the disaster mentioned that Jock himself had lost a brother to a prior mine cave-in.

Beneath an autumn sky the color of lead, the funeral procession descended the hill along main street, black flatbed trucks each bearing six flower-draped coffins to the special cemetery plot.  The entire town turned out, many trudging behind the trucks, while others mutely watched from the sidewalk, men and women with bared heads bowed, their faces ashen.

Sometime after the empty trucks returned to the mine, and the sidewalk witnesses retreated to the privacy of their homes, to the privacy of their sorrow and despair, the mine workers’ union built a monument at the cemetery.  The simple stone sentinel bore the names of those lost.  Thirty years later, on a family vacation, I had watched my mother weep at the grave site.  “Jimmy McLaughlin, he was only eighteen,” was all she said.

The Nordegg mine, no longer profitable, closed after the Second War.  The town soon followed, and cougars met no people in Nordegg streets.  My grandparents, hoping to start anew, moved to nearby Edmonton.  Neither my grandfather nor his descendants ever went into a coal mine again.

The Spiritual in the Political: Dr. Martin L. King’s Birthday

Dr. King, 1967 Minnesota Historical Society photo

Dr. King, 1967
Minnesota Historical Society photo

Dr. Martin Luther King, whose birthday we celebrate today, infused the spiritual into American politics as no one else has–at least since Lincoln.  His “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 was one of the great uplifting moments in American history.  “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope,” King told the assembled crowd.

Before he became widely known, Dr. King addressed a church congregation in my home town of Detroit, and explained how faith inspired his political vision.

“There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally and basically wrong,” he told a Detroit congregation in 1954. “The great problem facing modern man,” he said, “is that . . . the means by which we live have outdistanced the spiritual ends for which we live. . . . The problem is with man himself and man’s soul.”

Those words illuminate our current political culture with a light that is sadly lacking in today’s discourse.

Living Water

Au Sable RiverToday’s Americans prefer endless and fruitless political combat to the restoring waters of reconciliation.  The choice is in favor of self-destructive behavior rather than life.

A woman of Samaria came to the village well to  draw water.   Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.”

 Then the woman of Samaria said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.

In today’s America, Republicans and Democrats disdain to drink from the same well.   How far have we devolved in 2,000 years?

May we choose in future to drink the living water of tolerance.

Meryl Streep Fires at Trump, Misses the Mark

Kensington Park Michigan autumn fallMeryl Streep, in 1978, appeared in The Deer Hunter, a great movie which sympathetically treated the experience of working class Americans during the Vietnam War. Railing against Donald Trump is easy. I would rather have heard Streep criticize Hollywood for not following Deer Hunter with more art that reflected the lives of people like those played by Robert DeNiro and Christopher Walken. Instead, Hollywood too frequently in recent years (with notable exceptions) has treated working class Americans as invisible or caricatures–a disdain that significantly contributed to Trump’s appeal. Something about seeing the speck in your brother’s eye while ignoring the plank in your own.

A Conversion While Witnessing the Flames

One spring day in 1911, Frances Perkins, a young social worker,  witnessed one of the most heart wrenching scenes in American history. The epiphany she then experienced led her to a path less traveled, as she became  the first female Secretary of Labor and the leading architect of the 1930s New Deal.

[Repost]

She was lunching that afternoon with friends at a small café in the Greenwich Village district of New York City. Nearby, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory occupied the upper floors of a grimy, rundown building. In crowded quarters, young immigrant women sewed clothes in nine hour shifts, six days a week, for paltry wages.

The Witness

While Perkins was sipping tea and conversing, a hidden fire smoldered in the lint and scraps of cloth  in the factory. When it flared up, the women ran to escape.  The fortunate discovered  a  way out, but many workers found exit doors impossible to open. Banging and pounding on the doors proved futile, and their desperate pleas went unanswered. One hundred feet above street level, they were trapped with the flames. The Triangle owners  had locked doors from the outside, so they could control the workers leaving the plant.

Smoke poured from the upper floors, and Perkins went into the street to see what was happening. Women climbed out of the windows and stood precariously on the  ledges, hoping for a miracle. The fire trucks arrived, but their ladders did not reach high enough. The firemen watched helplessly as women began to jump to their deaths, driven by the searing flames. One hundred forty-six workers perished. The youngest among them were fourteen year-old Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese.

In a civil suit resulting from the fire, the plaintiffs were awarded $75 per deceased victim.  Two years later, one of the owners was found guilty of again locking factory doors during working hours, and he was fined $20.

The Path Less Traveled

Perkins, then 31, was a social worker by profession, but after watching the horror of the Triangle fire, she chose a  new direction. She threw herself into political reform to advocate for the working class. When women won the right to vote in 1920, more doors opened for skilled and dedicated women to rise in the progressive movement.

Perkins joined the administration of Governor Franklin Roosevelt in New York. When FDR became president in 1932, with the country prostrate and demoralized in the Great Depression, Frances Perkins became the Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. She found herself right at home in the rough and tumble of national politics.  Perkins was tough, but she was also persuasive. She knew how  to work with people on their terms—an invaluable skill, particularly for a woman in the 1930s.

Perkins became the New Deal’s chief policymaker, overseeing reforms that would allow blue collar workers greater participation in American life. The American middle class flourished in this fertile soil. In the process, Roosevelt’s Democratic Party grew to be a broad coalition, with the working class as an integral  partner. This realignment of American politics endured for two generations.

The Charlatans

In 1968, a young man wrote a book entitled Revolution for the Hell of It. Abbie Hoffman was a leader of the late 1960s counter culture and the icon of a new social type, the celebrity protester. He was famous for being famous, and the television cameras, like faithful puppies, followed him from protest to protest.   His remarks, however inane, regularly made the evening news.  As his book’s title implies, Hoffman mocked the diligent efforts of reformers in the mold of  Frances Perkins. He was, indeed, openly derisive of the American working class and its culture and values.

It has been remarked that as the Vietnam War became more unpopular with the American public, the anti-war protestors became even more despised.   While this might seem a paradox, the attitude and behavior of the Abbie Hoffmans of that era dispels any apparent contradiction.  Although the vast majority of anti-war protestors demonstrated peacefully, the fringe who instigated violence were always sure to attract the media’s attention, and the American public reacted.  The provocateurs’  contempt for working class Americans goes a long way to explain the election of conservative Republican Richard Nixon as president in 1968 and his landslide re-election four years later.

Yet, a strange thing happened after the Democratic Party’s presidential election debacle in 1972. As the years went by, through the 1970s and the 1980s, the attitudes held  by the 1960s extremists migrated from the fringes to become more  prevalent in the Democratic Party. Perversely, repeated defeats led to a doubling down on failure.  Instead of a searching self-examination, Democrats of the leftist persuasion blamed the  voters, especially those in the working class who were white. This arrogance was no longer confined to the activists, but came to permeate the party leadership.

Frances Perkins would have been appalled, both on a personal and political level.  The Democratic Party had not only turned its back on her constituency, but it had also eschewed her politics of persuasion.

All the World Will Be in Love with Night

Newburgh Lake, Michigan53 years ago today, a pall fell over my country.  I remember, as if it were last week, being in grade school and having our teacher, ashen-faced, his voice husky with emotion, tell us that our President, John Kennedy, had been shot on the streets of Dallas, Texas.  I could not then fathom the full import of our loss, but I am sure that to many adults it must have  seemed as if Hope itself had been assassinated.

I remember watching on television a year later  the Democratic Party’s convention where the late president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, delivered a eulogy.  At least, he tried to as the audience applauded the memory of their martyred president for 20 minutes.  Several times Bobby started to speak, but the delegates, caught up in their own emotions, would not let him continue.

When Bobby finally spoke, the crowd listened in hushed silence.  He concluded with a passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

And when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

 

Faith Between Men and Women: Light in a Murky World

creeping murmur and poring darkA sky the color of smoke broods over the docks of an East Coast city, as Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) sleepwalks through indifferent days unloading freight in the landmark 1950s film, On the Waterfront.  He coulda’ been a contender, could have been somebody—as he confides in his brother—but now, let’s face it, he’s just a bum. His prospects look to be nil, until fortune lends a hand. As the film’s story unfolds, Terry’s path crosses that of a young woman he had known when they were kids in the neighborhood.

With her aura of unsullied idealism, Edie Doyle (Eve Marie-Saint) seems as out of place as a lily of the fields amidst the gritty world of the docks, the musty bars with separate ladies’ entrances, and the working class row houses crowded together like cell blocks. Angelic appearance to the contrary, she is not a delicate flower. Committed to her sense of what is right, and undaunted in trying to find out who is responsible for her brother’s murder, she forces the parish priest to confront reality: the prayers of distant men will never right the wrongs.

Through their growing relationship, Edie brings Terry back to life, spiritually and morally. Viewing himself through her eyes, he reclaims his identity from the shadows of self-doubt. He challenges the very forces who rendered him a nobody, and, in so doing, renews himself.  The faith between men and women shines in a murky and corrupt world.

The character of Edie is really the fulcrum for the actions of Terry and the priest in On the Waterfront. Her resolve imbues them with the strength and courage to take action against the corruption controlling the docks. In the 1950s, this was a remarkable feminine movie role.  In this instance, art  provided a counter vision to the restricted identity available to women in American culture at that time, and a window into the future.