by Emmett R Smith
[YOUR Attention, please: The following text contains bad language. It is material not suitable for small children; nor, argumentative and captious, tergiversant, adolescents; nor, for persons of an either arbitrary or conservative, or simply decent, temperament. It is included here as a curiosity; and, as material of interest to linguistic scholars of dialect; and, the pronounced decline of invective in LeRay twp, in old Blue Earth county, MN, in the 1950’s to 1970’s of the last century. Caveat lector.]
AS A small boy in the 1950’s, I first heard the ‘Schippel story’ in the summer of 1956, when I was seven. It was all about how my second Great-Uncle Albert Schippel, an eight-months’-old and safe in his mother’s arms, survived a close-run encounter with Dakota Indians in 1862—and, that he grew up to become an architect who would design ‘half the buildings in Mankato’, before his death on 22 January 1935, in Dallas, Texas. That was twenty-one (and a half!) years after Schippel’s demise, when I first heard his babyhood-story, and it would not be until the fall of 2002, in my fifty-fourth year, that I would first set down the well-remembered word-for-word tale of my Great-Aunt Leona Magly, a niece of Albert Schippel. One hundred and forty years after Schippel’s 1862 birth, sixty-seven years after his death….
Not surprisingly, perhaps, it took a great upset in my personal life to cause one such as myself, not accustomed to more than letter-writing (a lost art, today, quite apart from the question of whether I was ever particularly good at it!), to all at once embark upon composing a book. I’d lost a marriage–and, now, it was imperative to dig down to find at bottom what supported me in life.
Not least, I dove into memory and re-collection, the unanswerable ‘why?’ of rememberance….
QUITE Simply it was a disaster, and I needed to find out what it is that really is ones guiding star at such a time–in my case, this proved to be history.
Or, more precisely, the re-membered past.
Time, like the mosaics in the Spanish mosque in Fes, Morocco, is endlessly segmentary. Add to this that I’ve always had an exact head for dates (as well as geography and astronomy–I know all of the time where I am not only on the earth, and where are the directions; but, indeed, where we are at all the times of the year, in relation to the Sun, to our galactic spiral-arm; and, indeed, to this local group of galaxies in the larger universe–at least that much I do know…after which, well, I become vague), and it should be clear how my experience of the spatial world, and of the universe itself, is my feeling for time. Functionally, for me at least, time is so segmentary, so endlessly divisible, that it contains all of ‘infinity’ and Foreverness within its ceaseless clock-beats. This is no accident, perhaps, as my forebears being written up here were all Germans; and, the German Oswald Spengler (another member, on the young end, of the Schippel-generation!) it is who declared the mechanical clock and the bell-tower to be those uniquely germanic and horrible, western, things.
Certainly, I feel acutely the paradox that many a delightful, or harrowing, memory is just that—but, endlessly to be beheld anew in my mind’s eye, upon recall!
Memory I find to be an endless calculus of dates, anniversaries, years and decades; and, as I now enter on the threshold of the strangeness of old age, with each passing year, well, 1862 becomes–more recent. (It must be this same kind of perception that has led a contemporary historian, to declare that everything since Waterloo is ‘current events’; certainly for all the good it does to try to discuss ‘objectively’ the ultimately-challenging question of ‘what’ ‘really’ ‘happened’?)
I am fifty-four in this summer of ‘the Year of Our Lord 2003’—and how long has it been since any of us wrote down the date in ‘that’ (no longer this! ) manner?
WELL, Just sixty years ago as I write the Battle of Kursk was raging in southern Russia, between the nazi and the red armies. Over a million men fought, and for that reason Kursk arguably is the critical (not ‘decisive’, ie) military-encounter of World War II, the war of the re-emergent importance of land-, and not sea- (nor air-!) power. Kursk is the mile-stone in the twentieth century’s repris of the Thirty Years’ War, 1914-1945, for it marks the re-establishment of the primacy of land-warfare–however much that may, indeed, depend on ‘air-support’!
And only eighty-one years before Kursk, another rash of Germans, my maternal forebears, a population altogether more adventurous, optimistic, speculative, in southern Minnesota were embroiled in the first brutal clash of the last twenty-eight-year-long war to be fought on this earth between neo-lithic and modern men. It would end in the Christmas massacre at Wounded Knee, in South Dakota, in 1890; just as the first Indian uprising ended at Christmas of 1862 with the hanging of thirty-eight Indian prisoners in Mankato, Minnesota, on Boxing Day.
Albert Schippel was coming a year old in December, 1862, and he would be a year-and-a-half old at the time of Gettysburg, in the first three days of July, 1863; and, nearly twenty-nine at the time of Wounded Knee. He was forty-one when the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk in early July, 1903. When he died in the New Year of 1935, just turned seventy-three, Wounded Knee was over forty-four years in the past, Kitty Hawk thirty-two years gone. Kursk lay eight years in the future–Hiroshima (and Nagasaki) ten.
What an incredible ‘velocity of information’! (The phrase is military-affairs writer Ralph Peters’.)
SO, Necessarily, I have written a good deal about the ‘big picture’ in these pages, to demonstrate what can now no longer be disputed, therefore; namely that the modern age, in which Schippel lived his whole social- and business- and emotional-life in all obliviousness, came to an end in the twentieth-century collapse of the Old Atlantic West. I had no more idea than Albert Schippel of any of this until I began to read all of historian John Lukacs from about 2000 ca. In the mis-timed ‘millenium’ frenzy of the 2000 New Year, someone gave me one of Lukacs’ books, I noted a reference to the end of the modern age:
I was straightaway–and do remain!–convinced of the argument.
I do think this is in part because, having been raised with so rich a sense of family-history, something already a rare experience for the children of the 1950’s, I have had always a lively suspicion of the relative historical unworth of my 1946-64 generation. All of this may be to say merely that our unworth is the converse of our non-historicality—but say what you will, Khe Sanh and ‘Kent State’ [and, Falluja, regardless of how many times we may burn the lurking denizens therein to death–ERS, 17 iii 06] are not l940 and the Battle of Britain, no more than are W J Clinton and D W Bush even the remote successors, of Abraham Lincoln or Calvin Coolidge
Nevertheless, as a small boy in the 1950’s, it was all modern—and fun, exciting!—times to me. This, I think, is in part owing a rich diet of ‘Scrooge McDuck’ comics, on top of all my other childhood (and, adult!) reading. I was a child who loved to read, although wretchedly lazy in school as such; and, the late-modern satiric wit of the then-unknown Duck-comic artist was all of a piece with the narrative-style and heureses of my natal family:
You have to work hard but you’re entitled to what you’ve earned, providing you can keep the Beagle Boys (translation: ‘the goddam gu’mint!’ and/or ‘all the sonsofbitches!’) from stealing it. And, so on and so on….
The other part of the Scrooge-stories was the pervasive involvement with machinery and technology: an infinite-seeming array of gizmos and devices for protecting (or, in the hands of the Beagle Boys, attempting to appropriate!) McDuck’s money-bin with its three cubic acres of–money. Carl Barks was born, I think, in 1904; and, the atmosphere of his fictions is utterly, delightfully, modern.
Indeed, I remain a fan of Scrooge McDuck to to-day, and, as an Uncle Emmett now, myself, have given all of my comics to my nephew Milo, just as my maternal Uncle Emmett bought many of the collection new for me, one-by-one, throughout the 1950’s! However, it was only in the late 1970’s, during a period of dreadful inflation, and when comics-collecting became a profitable investment, that we learned that Carl Barks was the name of the one we all remembered from childhood as the ‘good [Donald Duck] artist’.
May peace be upon him, as muslims say.
THE Other point is that the modern age did not end all at once, BANG, on a given date; it was an additive (or, subtractive) transformative process which slowly manifested in a variety of ways. For example, politically, the seeds of collapse of the old age were sown with the hypertrophy of ‘nationalism’ (a word first used in the 1840’s!) in Europe, patriotism being no longer enough to hold the passionate attention of men. The watershed year for this was the proclamation at Versailles in 1871, after the defeat of France by Prussia in war the year before, of a German ‘empire’ internal to Europe. Among other things, this nationalistic avidity drove the ‘scramble for Africa’; and, it inspired US jingoes to plunk for ‘manifest destiny’ and trans-pacific expansion.
Properly, then, the american Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War herald the full-blown advent of the late-modern age.
All the big jingoes of this era were navy-minded men; and, this led us directly to the Age of Oil, in 1906, with the launch of all-big-gunned HMS Dreadnought. (Although Dreadnought herself was still coal-fired, the ‘information-density’ of oil-fuel was immediately obvious; and, after 1909 all new battleships in the world’s navies was oil-fuelled.) This was all part of a shift in the twentieth century to what I have called elsewhere ‘transcendental war’; and, it would bring in Japan, in 1941 heralding the beginning of the passing of the Old Atlantic West; and, the end, finally, of modernity.
ON The other hand, the modern spirit had made deep and strong roots in America in the century-before-last, at bitter cost above all to the Indians; and, nowhere was the modern spirit more alive and well than on the American farm of the 1950’s!
Not least of all in old Blue Earth County, in south-central Minnesota.
This was the cold war period, although by 1955 the leadership on both sides were beginning a subtle series of climb-downs, and there were nonetheless communists to be found under every rose-leaf—an opinion that, in south-central Minnesota at least, long-outlived the booze-fired death of Wisconsin Senator ‘Tailgunner Joe’ McCarthy! Winters in school at home with my parents in south Minneapolis, we all practised for nuclear war and rehearsed not only trooping to the centre of the school once a month, to the ground-floor passage outside the steel-framed gymnasium, where we all knelt down and ‘assumed the position’. Twice, in the spring and fall, the bells would go early and we would all go on foot in those days of neighbourhood-schools to our homes, where in theory our fathers were to drive from work and load up their families and evacuate the city.
To my not-unobservant child’s mind, there was lots wrong with this all!
Firstly, I entertained the liveliest suspicions of those steel beams high in the gymnasium-ceiling over our heads (my father and mother both had told me stories of friends of theirs who had been through ‘direct hits’ during the Blitz); and, I suspected that if all the dads, or even just a large number of them, were to act like the fathers of some of my friends just on our one block alone on 40th Avenue South, there would be car-crashes, swearing and fights. My father, moreover, called the whole concept ‘silly as bastards’ and said he ‘would be God-damned’ if he would consent to get ‘mucked-up’ in it’. Simply, he said, ‘it would be better to be grilled and broiled at home than to be blown to Hell’ while stuck in a major accident on the one-mile-long Mendota bridge and three hundred feet over the Minnesota river, just below its juncture with the Mississippi, at Fort Snelling; and, to our mother, when she said it ‘DOESN’T have to be awful’:
‘Good God, Naomi, use your head!’
(Poor folks—they were altogether, then, at least twenty years younger than I am, now…. And, when one realizes that this was a fair sample of domestic dialogue in those old days now so long ago, the fact that so many women in my generation went in for feminism becomes entirely understandable.)
THAT The possibility of nuclear war continued to provide public entertainment throughout the ‘fifties should also be understandable in terms of the facts of human nature.
I’m not so sure that the Soviet launch of ‘Sputnik’, the first satellite, in October of 1957 didn’t give the whole thing a new life-lease. At any rate, the implied imminent prospect of a hail of Russian trans-polar missiles put the lid on the evacuation-phantasy—and, everyone started putting in bomb-shelters. Or, at least, hiding lots of food in the basement. My mother did lots of canning, as did many of the mothers yet in those years; and, together with bought canned goods, the space under cellar-stairs was full!
I was in third-grade that fall, and my friend and classmate, Mark Bergquist, exclaimed admiringly one afternoon in our south Minneapolis cellar, ‘you have enough food there for–an army!’
My mother was no end taken by that and grinned all over her face when she told the story, afterward, to the other ‘Cub Scout’ mothers. Other families in our neighbourhood went so far as to lay block in their cellars and equip the resulting cubicles as out-and-out bomb-shelters. This frenzy peaked in 1960, in the run-up to the Kennedy-election, and it was driven by lots of wild talk about Soviet rocket-superiority and a quondam ‘missile-gap’.
(The parents of my sisters’ then-best-friend Debbie put in a bomb-shelter, and when Cris asked if she could hide-out there, Debbie cried and said her dad had promised to shoot anybody that tried to break in….)
SUMMERS I spent on the farm in rural Eagle Lake where my mother had grown up, and I always privately hoped that if it was to be war it would happen when I was in the country.
IT Was that first summer in 1956 that I heard the story of Albert Schippel. I used to try to figure if it would hurt less to be scalped, or to be blown up. I figured on being blown up and reckoned I could at least shut my eyes until it was over with….
But, the Indian might have said something like, ‘look at me!’ Just the opposite of my parents’ advice (‘don’t look, God damn it, you’ll scare yourself into a fit!’) when having shots for school. The thing about the farm nearly fifty years ago was that it was totally different than the city; and, it all seemed more alive somehow. Plus, being scalped was not the present danger that atomic bombs seemed to be. It was all safely in the past, on the farm, to be remembered and thought about, but with an entirely modern feeling of–success?–indeed, just as I now re-member this all:
A matter of consoling thoughts about problems now forever solved.
That was the atmosphere on the farm, too!
It was a place full of ever-new ways of doing things, with new machinery to help with raising and harvesting crops. It is true, we threw around a fair amount of DDT (in an oily spray that smelled very serious and important and grown-up) to keep flies off of the cows while they were being milked. I liked running the hand-sprayer and squirting it right on the flies where they were landed on the broad backs of the Holstein cows, where they stood in their stanchions.
And, I also liked pushing under water with my fingers the floating islands of herbicide in the five-gallon pail, when we mixed up batches of weed-killer, bare-handed and with lengths of snow-fence lath for paddles, for spot-spraying around the barn. The powder was about the same colour as ‘Bisquick’, a popular brand of ‘instant’ cookery batter; and, it made me think however inappositely of breakfast and pancakes.
Here, I need to stick in something, namely that I did have precisely this rather arch thought-tone and inner voice, even as a child; and, I just knew (NB) that there was a word for it; and, that I was not that alone and singular a being. So, even though I did not yet then know about ‘inappositely’, I knew that such a word existed–the very pattern of my child’s thought demanded it! For that is exactly how I perceived consciously my odd thought-oppositions. I think this all must have come about in part because of my father’s and mother’s distinctly different, if usually normally unhappy, voices; and, from having learnt to read a lot of words in Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck comics in the year before I went to kindergarten. That, and the fact that as children we had read to us all the proper books, Winnie the Pooh, Robert Lawson and Dr Dolittle, and all of the Beatrix Potter stories. Nor was there a TeeVee in the south Minneapolis house until the spring of 1956—whereas in June of that self-same year I left it for the farm without a look back!
ON The farm, if we were entirely too modern in our optimistic and adventitious play with weed-spray and pesticides, we were even more up-to-date in the matter of a self-propelled combine-harvester! In 1957, in the fall, my Uncle Emmett bought a new Ford ‘Fairlane’ motorcar, black-and-yellow in colour and with a fierce ‘overdrive’ switch that pinned me, giggling, to the hot and sticky black-and-yellow bench-seats clad in thick vinyl plastic. The next year, in June, as if being picked up at the ‘Greyhound’ bus-depot in the ‘Fairlane’ wasn’t enough, when I arrived for my third summer in the country, joy-of-joys! Uncle Emmett had a brand-new ‘John Deere’ number 45 self-propelled combine-harvester, sitting right out in broad daylight, in the middle of my Grandpa’s farmyard.
Not only was I knocked over (I immediately started in about having pictures taken of me standing behind the steering-wheel, to send to my friends in Minneapolis), but the gleaming green new machine was the envy of the neighbourhood! It wasn’t until the following year that neighbour Jerome Westphal bought a bigger model ‘55’ (‘…just for spite!’ Uncle Emmett said, chuckling); whereas when Uncle Emmett’s Cousin Leland bought his new ‘self-propelled’ in the following year, he got a ‘New Idea’ machine of similar size and capacity, ‘…because everybody knows that those green sonsofbitches are not worth a hooper’s good God damn!’ I admired Cousin Leland all to pieces not only for his precise enunciation, but because he’d been in the war, in the artillery in Germany, and ‘…actually did shoot at the dirty bastards!’ With a 105 recoilless rifle on a jeep-mounting, ‘…a really excellent God damn gun!’
Now that I am a grandfather (three times over! so far…), and I perceive anew what a treasure a new child is to the world, I realize of course that the clangour of language and verbal-play and profane speech-virtuosity is altogether a corruption of innocence; and, it amounts to a murder of the future. But, as that seven- and nine-year-old small boy, I was delighted at all of these individual expositions of idiosyncratic rough talk—I used to practise in back of the long machine-shed (built by Grandpa in 1940) saying sonsofbitches! out of a sheer delight in the pure grammar of it! (And, also, to get the right growly tightness of throat—I knew this phrase would not do in the high piping tones of nine-years’-old!) My own father was not above a dreadfully ignorant-sounding ‘son-of-a-bitches’ parody, which made me cringe to hear it. It was, in fact, his idea of mocking ‘the yeomanry’–but, in fact, all of my mother’s male relatives in her generation had flawlessly well-spoken vocabularies of well-declined and parsed American bad language.
‘A well-spoken lot of dirt-farmers, too, for all their mucky boots’, as my dad put it, behind mom’s back.
THE Point is that the economy of the 1950’s allowed farmers, in our countryside anyway, to have the best of both worlds. There was all sorts of new stuff available, and yet one remained a farmer: animals went outside in pastures, to graze, chooks ran around in the yard, and ducks—before being butchered for dinner! There was a BIG garden and lots of manure to be shovelled. And, as to the DDT, I remember it had an oddly salty taste….
Meadowlarks yet sang from the ‘phone-wires—pesticide build-up and excessive rural housing ‘development’ had not yet poisoned and crowded them out!—and when the odd town-person undertook actually to live in an old farmhouse in the neighbourhood, if they even opened their faces to complain about the odours of pigs and cattle, why, we all rolled on the ground with laughter and pointed at them until they grinned in rueful embarrassment and remembered how to play ball….
None of the roads out in the county were any more than gravelled, when once you left the state highway (Minnesota 60); and, the white lanes between deep green ditches amid fields of corn, oats, wheat and the then-coming soybeans, have a place in my visual (blinding dust-clouds) and auditory (the crunch of stone under rubber tyres) and olfactory (the actinic smell of crushed limestone) memory that is eternal. Not to mention that there were lots of ‘gardener’ snakes, frogs and toads. And, in the well-pit, salamanders!
And yet there was, one year, a new combine, and in another a new ‘plowing-tractor’ (and plough! And, disc, and ‘digger’, or field cultivator.)
Or, new waggons, or a new hay-baler….
Or, three new 1200 bushel grain-bins in a row (laughably tiny by today’s post-modern and unwholesomely ‘neo-con’ lights!)
The best of it all was that none of these new things had yet hurt the wildlife or, by force of the economics of scale, started to drive people off the land. ‘A man who is any good at all ought to be able to keep a woman and whole God damn TRIBE of kids on maybe a hundred-and-eighty,’ said Uncle Emmett; and, in 1957, for a family in Blue Earth county, Minnesota, to have ‘tied up’ three hundred-or-so acres, between a father and a son, say, or between brothers, was a big deal–probably it was ‘land-grabbing’!
And, after it all, after the dust had settled down from all those busy decades?
HISTORICAL Modernity was virtually at an end in rural Blue Earth county by 1980.
When I returned from the ‘Peace Corps’, at thirty-one and on the pre-mature death of my Uncle Emmett, from cirrhosis, the morale of the entire township was defunct. The very intelligent language itself, of profane and violated, hard-working, outrage, had avalanched into a crude and witless, dim, vulgarity of speech:
When I heard then the veterans of World War II, that ‘greatest generation’ now growing old at the end of the 1970’s, and wadded on the down-slope of their years, in snorting and enormous, pre-diabetic, mounds in their bibbed overalls, gasping for breath in the clouds of cigarette-smoke atop the bar-stools, in the dimly-lighted precincts of the ‘Town Pump’ liquor-store in Madison Lake, Minnesota, I knew that a world had collapsed.
[Emmett R Smith all rights reserved 1 July 2003]