The Real Problem With Taxes in America

Republicans in Congress, having failed at healthcare “reform”, that is – taking away health insurance from some 20 million people, are now getting ready for “tax reform”. Yes, the pundits and the Party are somehow calling it “reform”. Interestingly, this word is defined in my Oxford Reference Dictionary as “make or become better by removal of faults and errors” and in my Apple computer dictionary as “to make changes in something (typically a social, political or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it”. And if Republican “healthcare reform” is actually making it worse for the country rather than better, we all know what Republican “tax reform” will be – reducing taxes on the rich and on corporations. So, writers and reporters, pundits and talking heads, let’s be honest and stop calling this pending Republican-sponsored legislation “tax reform” and call it what it is – “tax cuts”, and to be even more honest – “tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy”.

Our country seems to have truly lost its mind. First we elect Donald Trump, then try to pass legislation that would cause over twenty million people to lose health insurance and now we are trying to reduce taxes on corporations and the wealthy. Why would we want to reduce taxes when we suddenly have huge bills to pay for the extensive damage wrought by the three monster hurricanes striking Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, and record breaking wildfires in northern California, together estimated at upwards of a half trillion dollars? Also, why would we reduce taxes when the cost of fighting two wars and maintaining our American Empire with 240,000 troops overseas in 70 different countries continues to accelerate? And why would we want to reduce taxes on the wealthy when we already lead the world in income inequality and lack of upward mobility, both proven drags on any economy? And why would we want to cut taxes during a time of economic growth when there is little room for additional expansion? And finally, why would we want to cut taxes on corporations when corporate profit is at an all-time high and they are rolling in seas of cash?

Well, we’re cutting taxes on the wealthy and on corporations because their donors have bought and paid for it. And cutting taxes, especially for the rich, is an old and honored Republican tradition. The dismantling of our formerly progressive income tax structure with the top bracket of 91 percent, began with little nibbles under presidents Kennedy and Johnson (remember Kennedy’s “a rising tide lifts all boats”?) and then Reagan’s gigantic reduction of the top tier down to 28 percent.

Income tax rate by president

According to economic researchers Picketty and Saez, the destruction of progressive taxation of income is not only the most significant cause of U.S. economic inequality but also the cause of stunted economic growth. But never mind – the economy be damned – it’s full speed ahead for Republicans obliging their wealthy donors – 80 percent of intended cuts will go to the top one percent of earners. And another Republican tradition will be honored – when their tax cuts cause the budget deficit to explode, their solution will be to cut “entitlements” – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not to restore taxes to required levels. Nor will the Republican Party ever cut the Pentagon budget, which continues to relentlessly expand. Republicans pretend to care about the deficit when Democrats try to improve the welfare of our citizens and the healthcare and retirement of our elderly, but care little about the deficit when it comes to cutting taxes on the rich or funding the military.

e4f0f0b52ee3a3ef631d653f3d0bceb7

And Republicans continue to bray several myths to justify their folly. First is Trump’s blatant lie that “America is the highest taxed nation in the world”. Actually, as a share of GDP, the most accurate measure of tax burden, the United States is among the most lightly taxed nations in the world, ranking near the bottom of all the advanced nations of the world and well below the median.

101417krugman OECD taxes

The second blatant Republican lie that they have claimed for years is that “tax cuts pay for themselves”. No, they do not. There is absolutely no evidence that this is true on a national level. And on the state level reckless tax cutting, mostly in the form of abolishing progressive income taxes and relying on regressive sales taxes, in Kansas, Wisconsin and in my own state of Arizona, have seriously reduced state revenue and economic activity, causing serious harm to education and other state functions. This silly claim has been discredited again and again, yet still is the rallying cry for Republicans doing what they do best – cutting taxes and exploding the deficit. Just as George W. Bush put his trillion dollar wars on a credit card, the Republicans will be charging their tax cuts – feels good now but it won’t to later generations who will have to pay the bill.

Conservative economist and Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson asserts in a recent column that “we need higher taxes”, are “undertaxed” and should not be considering tax cuts but tax increases instead. Our obligations and commitments require more revenue, not less, and furthermore, as noted above, we are pretty much at full employment right now, rendering increased economic activity from tax cuts unlikely.

The third flagrant lie in the Republican tax cut scam is, in Trump’s words – “…ending the crushing, the horrible, the unfair estate tax…” This fictitious claim that ending this tax would “…protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer…” is absolutely false. Ending the estate tax, or “death tax”, as Republicans have chosen to call it, is a time honored canard of the Republican Party. The estate tax will affect very few of the country’s estates as the following table makes clear. If anything, the estate tax needs to be increased because it is failing in its original justification – to break up huge fortunes and prevent the formation of oligarchies and plutocracies. Furthermore, since charitable contributions reduce taxes on any given estate, this tax is not only an important source of federal revenue from people who can easily pay but a valuable source of induced charitable giving.

small-farm-tax_450_copy

The fourth blatant lie from the Republicans is that cutting corporate taxes will create jobs. This is totally untrue. Corporate tax cuts will result in higher executive pay, stock buybacks to increase stock value or larger dividends to stockholders. As I asserted in my “Economics 101” article, corporations invest and create jobs when there is increased demand for their products or services. Corporations are right now sitting on massive amounts of cash. They don’t need more. What is needed is more money in the pockets of consumers – this would increase demand, increase hiring and job expansions. Additionally, as noted earlier, with the economy doing well and corporate profits at an all time high, why the big push to reduce corporate taxes? Also, the corporate income tax, as a percentage of federal revenues has been steadily dropping – from 33 percent in 1952 to about 9 percent today. Corporations are simply no longer bearing their fair share of the expense of running our nation. There is very little substance to the steady Republican drumbeat that U.S. corporate taxes leave our country at a competitive disadvantage to foreign businesses. With all the loopholes available to corporations and their tax lawyers, the much-decried 35 percent top rate is in reality less than 20 percent. Among profitable companies from 2008 to 2015 there were 100 companies that paid zero or less in federal income taxes for at least one year, and many of these companies received some form of federal tax rebate, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.

2017-Revenues-2

Now, do we need real tax reform? Of course we do. We need to close loopholes that have enabled huge corporations like International Paper, Verizon and General Electric to pay zero corporate income taxes. We need to find a way to stop corporations like Apple, now storing more that $230 billion in profits overseas, from avoiding taxes on that income. We have to close the estate tax loopholes that have allowed the Walmart fortune to be handed down almost intact to all its worthless heirs. The estate tax should be increased, not decreased, and the amount protected from taxation should be decreased, not increased. Republicans plan not only to not only raise the amount protected for now but phase out the estate tax entirely, leaving oligarchic fortunes intact.

We should establish a sales tax on security transactions. Why do I pay sales tax on a $75 pair of shoes and huge multi-million dollar stock transactions among wealthy investors escape tax altogether? Senator Bernie Sanders and others have suggested a small tax of .01 percent on such trades that would raise a significant amount of money for our treasury – and from the investor class, the people who can most afford it. Furthermore, we need to establish a tax on carbon – this would accomplish two important objectives: raise additional revenue and reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

On the state level we have to prevent the ALEC-sponsored, Koch brothers-backed weakening of progressive taxation, by eliminating graduated income taxes to exclusive reliance on regressive sales taxes. Several states have already fulfilled this cruel promise and a dozen or so have placed it on their legislative agendas and are well on the way. Progressive taxation needs to return to states, not be reduced.

Well, late in this writing, the news is out – the House Republicans have approved and gleefully presented their “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” bill. We have been subjected to an avalanche of Koch-supported TV commercials touting “middle class tax cuts” and and begging us to “support tax reform” and to “bring the middle class back”. As you can easily tell from what I have presented above, this bill is simply one more Republican effort to cut taxes on the wealthy. The truth of what this ill-advised program will do to our people and our economy is coming out daily from nonpartisan organizations like ITEP (Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy), TPC (Tax Policy Center), CTJ (Citizens for Tax Justice) and others. And that truth is that this program is just another massive tax cuts for the rich and corporations program with a few crumbs tossed at the middle class.
If ever approved in something near its present form, this horrible bill will dramatically increase inequality in our country, a shameful measure in which we already lead all the developed countries in the world. Furthermore, it will explode the deficit, significantly increasing the bill to be eventually paid by our progeny. Additionally, it will not create jobs. Demand creates jobs, not tax cuts for corporations and the rich.

More importantly, this bill flies in the face of American public opinion. Results of a recent Pew Research Center poll make it crystal clear that a majority of Americans think that taxes on the wealthy are too low, not too high. Similarly, Americans feel that corporations should pay more in income taxes, not less. But, American public opinion be damned, its full speed ahead for Republican tax cuts. Screen_Shot_2017_04_13_at_10.04.28_PM
The details of this plan can be found in many places. One of the better is William Gale’s very balanced description on the TPC website. Another, more concise and succinct list is that presented by Howard Gleckman, also from TPC:

  • It is a tax cut, not tax reform.
  • It is not the biggest income tax cut in history—not even close– despite President Trump’s repeated promises that it would be.
  • For households, it will almost surely create winners and losers. Many middle-income households are likely to pay more under this plan, not less.
  • It is not tax simplification. Indeed, for many taxpayers the House bill would make filing more complicated.
  • At the end of 10 years, it likely would end up increasing the deficit by far more than the advertised $1.5 trillion.
  • It will not lead to a 3 percent permanent economic growth.

And from ITEP’s website, “Richest Americans Benefit Most from The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” lists and elaborates on the major provisions of the bill. The most egregious giveaways to the wealthy and corporations are without doubt the following:

  • Repealing the alternative minimum tax (AMT).
  • Reducing and eventually repealing the estate tax.
  • Establishing a special 25 percent rate for pass-through businesses.
  • Reducing corporate tax rates from 35 to 20 percent.

The Senate is now working on its own “tax cuts and jobs” bill. You can bet, since it’s being written by Republicans, that it will contain virtually all of the what the House bill contains. The American people neither need nor desire either of these bills. We need to fight this dreadful and disastrous proposed legislation in every way we can.

And when they’re defeated, we need to work to elect a Congress and a President who can create a fair tax system that yields the revenue we need to provide for the health and welfare of the American people, provide a well paying job for every person willing and able to work and repair our crumbling infrastructure.
.

 

 

 

Advertisements

From Chaos to Clarity: My Undergraduate Education

Tags

, , , , , , , , , , ,

During most of my senior year in high school I gave little or no thought to going to college. While in the high schools run by the church in which I was reared most of us assumed that we would go right on to Alma White College, right there on the same campus. It was only when I moved to stay with my Aunt and Uncle in Wooster, Ohio for my senior year that I was forced to consider what comes after high school.

Even while at Wooster High, my experience was so isolated from what classmates were experiencing it was pathetic. Due to my initial appearance when registering (striped pants, Wellington boots and ducktail haircut), I was put into some pretty low levels of classes. When January came around some test scores of mine must have come back because I was placed in proper Civics, English, Physics and math classes. Also I think I did pretty well in an annual test for seniors called the Kent State Scholarship Test. But I don’t recall ever visiting with a counselor about college or getting any help whatsoever from school. However, with my Aunt and Uncle’s help I did sign up for the College Boards which I took at Wooster College in the winter and then sent away for application materials for Rutgers University, my very own “local” (ten miles away from my New Jersey home) university. I was duly accepted, received my thick package of registration materials, filled them out, sent them in and was ready to begin when I rejoined my family in August.

My not visiting with any counselor at Wooster High was indeed unfortunate. I guess I was quite naive about academic counseling and never realized actually what role it performed or what help the service provided in the college application process. I only discovered during my sophomore year in talking to my friend Bryan Garruto who happened to mention to me that he had earned a New Jersey State scholarship that paid his tuition at Rutgers because of his College Board scores. You can imagine my chagrin and disappointment when I discovered that my scores were higher than his and I could have had my tuition paid for. I could have been freed of much of my financial struggle requiring me to borrow tuition money on a federal student loan and borrow money for books and other incidental expenses from my father. A visit to the student aid office at Rutgers revealed that, having missed the opportunity to apply before the start of my freshman year, I no longer qualified for this award.

Rutgers University is the state university of New Jersey with the main campus in New Brunswick and other big campuses in Camden and Newark. I didn’t know much about the school before attending – it was simply the university located in New Brunswick, the big town on the Raritan River located about ten miles from my home where we shopped once in awhile. But Rutgers has some unique distinctions – it is the eighth oldest university in the country, founded as Queens College in 1766, one of nine pre-American Revolution institutions of higher learning. More than 67,000 students are served by over 22,000 faculty and staff. And, if you are interested, the first intercollegiate football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1866.

Having taken some Masters level history courses at Rutgers, I guess Dad was happy with my choice and immediately began to take an interest. He took me in to the bookstore to buy my books for me and also my “dink” (a beanie hat that all freshmen were required to wear) and my navy blue and red (pardon me, scarlet) Rutgers tie, also required of freshmen.

During orientation week I attended, along with most of the other freshmen, an evening reception at the home of Dr. Mason Gross, the Rutgers president. I don’t remember much about how I got there – I could have driven in the family car or Dad could have taken me and picked me up later. After nibbling on snacks and grabbing a drink, I joined a very long line which moved slowly and finally moved you up for a greeting and handshake from Dr. Gross himself. What I remember most from this experience was simply the vastness of it all – so many people, so much confusion (for me probably, not for everyone else). And I remember a queasy feeling of displacement, of not belonging. I was definitely out of my comfort zone. I knew nobody and was a stranger among a huge mob of other strangers.

During these first years of college I continued to live at home. More properly, I should say that I lived on campus and  slept at home, because I was gone from the early morning until evening, spending my time between classes in the library, a facility which I got to know very well and became a retreat, a comfort for me. And my having to commute to school continued to exacerbate my feelings of discomfort and displacement. It also sharpened my resentment of students better off financially than I. They had the money to live on campus and enjoy college life and I did not. During these two years of full time study I never went to the university cafeteria once but instead bought my lunch and snacks from vendors who sold their fare from trucks parked on College Avenue and its side streets. I can remember many days sitting in the car shivering as I ate my cold sandwich and waited for my next class. Another place where I ate occasionally was a small restaurant run by a couple of Greek guys, Central Lunch on Albany Street in downtown New Brunswick. My standard choice here was a bowl of bean soup and a chili hotdog. I have never in my life tasted soup as good as this but I was convinced that the huge kettle was never really emptied – just new ingredients added from time to time to keep the kettle full – probably accounting for the aged flavor of the soup. Oh, and probably the most important reason I went there was that my lunch cost fifty cents – 25 cents for the hot dog and 25 for the soup.

The courses I took my first year were required of all College of Liberal Arts students: English comp, Western Civ, a basic math course, Economics, and a foreign language, in my case, German. Our big freshman class of about 1300 students was sliced up alphabetically for required classes so my acquaintances and friends included Billy Garbarini, Allan Fritz, Stephen Gottlieb, Bryan Garruto and other last names like Friedman and Goldstein. A grim fact circulating among us freshmen was that typically about half of every freshmen class “washed out” every year, so we always looked around at each other wondering who would or would not be there next year.

About some of the courses, the Western Civilization course was anchored by big lecture hall sessions presented by notables of the History Department, supplemented by smaller “recitation” sessions” usually taught by graduate assistants. However, I was fortunate to find my recitation section taught by one of the lecture hall stars and department luminaries, Dr. Peter Charanis, noted for his knowledge and writings about Ancient Greece, Rome and especially the Byzantine Empire. Dr. Charanis’ animated and colorful accounts of the dramatic careers of Justinian and Theodora were quite memorable.

Another memorable lecturer in the Western Civ course was Professor Henry Winkler  (no, not the Henry Winkler portraying Fonzi on Happy Days!), the author of one of our texts and an excellent teacher. His famous lecture on Nazi Germany routinely drew over a thousand students, many not even registered for the course, to our modest-sized lecture hall, many equipped with tape recorders which they arrayed around the lectern. Dr. Winkler’s history was good, but what really drew the crowd was his theatrical delivery, punctuated with timely and dramatic sarcasm and contemptuous sneers, drawing ooh’s, ah’s, boos and cheers from his predominantly Jewish audience.

Another course that I remember well from my first year at Rutgers was Economics 220, taught by Dr. Alexander Balinky, not only a very knowledgable professor but an excellent teacher. Highlights from the course that I remember well were our textbooks: “The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times And Ideas Of The Great Economic Thinkers” by Robert Heilbroner and “The Theory of Countervailing Power” by John Kenneth Galbraith, both of which I kept in my bookcase and referred to for many years. The first, along with Dr. Balinky’s lectures, offered me invaluable first encounters with the contributions of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Robert Malthus and John Maynard Keynes, much of which has remained with me and strongly influenced my opinions today. Galbraith’s book also made an indelible impression upon me which makes me lament the decline of labor unions in the US because their power, along with corporate and government power were an essential element of Galbraith’s theory.

Another highlight (or lowlight) from the course was not academic but is worth relating – my first and only encounter with large scale cheating in college. On the midterm exam day, instead of Dr. Balinky administering the test, a distinguished white-haired professor emeritus from the economics department arrived with the tests and an armful of bluebooks. He requested a couple of volunteers to collect the bluebooks when the course period ended and bring them over to the economics building, and then he left the room. Astonished, most of the students promptly opened their notebooks and texts to help with their test responses. Others of us did not and two of us – the aforementioned Bryan Garruto and I, after discussing the event, decided that we should share the incident with Dr. Balinky, which we did. Of course, at the next class, Balinky really let the whole class have it and reamed us out royally for betraying the confidence of the elderly professor who trusted us to be honorable, informed us that he was throwing out the bluebooks from that test and was administering another, more difficult exam at the next class. Looking back at the incident, I think that the decision to share what occurred with the professor was the right thing to do, although many students were irate that certain unknown students had chosen to “rat” on them. To my knowledge Dr. Balinky never pursued the incident any further, for example referring it to the Committee for Academic Dishonesty for action, perhaps because it was an isolated incident involving virtually the entire class.

The basic math course, Math 161-162, was very difficult and was an ego-crusher to someone like myself who had enjoyed success in math in high school and also was the proud owner and skilled operator of a high quality slide rule, the “hand held calculator” of the 1950’s. I had bought this prized instrument during my senior year of high school primarily for a trigonometry course and, snugly nestled in its nice leather case attached to my belt, was proudly displayed in the hallways of Wooster High. However, I struggled during the first semester of the course and barely passed with a “D” and then was totally overwhelmed second semester when I failed the course, putting myself on probation, perilously close joining the many others who were forced to leave after their freshman year. I will never forget the diminutive, manic little guy who taught the course, Dr. August Hercksher, whose explanations and examples left me completely befuddled. As I recall, there were many others who struggled with the course and failed it as well, offering some consolation. In retrospect, this course, along with English composition, must have been the courses that honed the freshman class down to size before advancing to the second year. Fortunately I did finally pass the course, taught by a different instructor when I repeated it during the summer and eked out a grade average that narrowly allowed me into my sophomore year.

And speaking of English composition, I was continually chagrinned to find that not only was I a mediocre math student but a mediocre English student as well, who hung his head sadly at every “unclear”, “cliche”, “illogical” or simply “???” scribbled by some graduate assistant in red pen on what I expected to be a stellar piece of writing. Fortunately, however, I didn’t fail the basic required English course as many others did but squeaked through with 3’s (equivalent to “C’s”) both semesters. A few other shocks that first year deserve recalling and recounting – my required freshman Physical Education classes and required ROTC. Everyone was required to take a swimming test during orientation week. When I arrived as scheduled, I was totally shocked to find that we were not allowed to wear bathing suits. Having to expose my entire skinny body, including private parts, to everyone else was deflating enough, but the ultimate shame was having to be fished out of the pool hanging on to the end of a bamboo pole proffered by one of the instructors (who did wear swim suits), after foundering midway on the required second lap in the pool. Thus I was consigned to beginning swimming instruction for my entire first semester, having to immerse myself in the cold pool water at the early 8:00 time of the class, especially shocking to the system after a chilly walk from my car. But most uncomfortable were all the unattractive naked male bodies and the potential genital pain or, God forbid, damage, when participating in the diving portion of the course. Fortunately, I passed beginning swimming and diving with flying colors and was involved in more pleasurable and more appropriately clothed sports during second semester.

And then there was ROTC, to which my introduction was being herded into a long line for the issuance of my uniform – wool worsted pants and fancy jacket with brass buttons, tan shirt, dress hat, plain toe GI shoes and black socks and black tie. The uniform fit well and looked sharp and wearing it was undeniably a boyhood dream come true. After being taught to properly heed drill commands “forward, march”, “column left” (or right), “halt”, “at ease”, and most welcome – “fall out”, we also learned how to march holding an M-1 rifle (bolt removed) on the right shoulder and later the basic rifle drills – “right shoulder – arms”, “present arms…” and the rest.

We gathered weekly for our initially pathetic efforts at precision drill at Buccleuch Park on Easton Avenue and adjacent to College Avenue in New Brunswick during the fall and spring of that first year. And since some of those days were quite hot and we had only our wool uniforms, our ranks were interspersed by a dozen or so cadets who had succumbed to the heat, fainted and “fell out” a bit early, before the official command to do so. And once a week during the year, we attended the classroom portion of our ROTC requirement, studying military “science” and history. Our ROTC unit also went on a long field trip to visit the huge Letterkenny Army Depot near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Yes, I was impressed by my first closeup looks at huge tanks, vehicles and guns and the hundreds of acres of similar armaments poised to repel invasions or to be transported overseas to “defend our freedom”.

Since Rutgers was a land-grant college, two years of ROTC was mandatory. However, sometime during 1960 ROTC became voluntary, so I took advantage and withdrew for my sophomore year, with few regrets. My brother Robert chose to take ROTC for his entire four years at Rutgers a few years later and served as an officer in Germany after his graduation. My aforementioned friend, Bryan Garruto, also chose to remain in ROTC. I should mention something about those valued friends like Bryan during my first year. Yes, they were guys I chatted and joked with before and after classes, but since I commuted to school, we never saw each other socially and never ate meals together. But they were fellow students whose fellowship I valued highly and whose company I sought at every opportunity, to alleviate the great loneliness I felt so acutely during that first year. Bryan was also a preceptor in one of the Rutgers dorms and would often appear bleary-eyed at morning classes because, as he put it, “the natives were restless last night”.

I know I could have eased the isolation that first year of college if I had involved myself in some extracurricular activities. It’s not that I didn’t’ want to – I truly didn’t know what I wanted. My enjoyment of music and singing did induce me to try out for the renowned Rutgers Glee Club, directed by legendary F. Austin (Soup) Walter. I did go to the Club office to set up a tryout, which involved replicating with my voice some simple one-finger melodies tapped out by Mr. Walter on his grand piano. I was crushed to be told that I didn’t make it – I guess my voice cracked on Walter’s high C (or was it a D or an A?). But at least I had tried. Since my friend Allan Fritz had tried out for and made the Rutgers baseball team, I briefly considered trying out myself. But thorough consideration of Allan’s long experience in high school, comparison to my own limited experience and the risk of more embarrassment after my Glee Club failure, dissuaded me from trying.

I did, however, involve myself in two cultural experiences that first year that were thrilling but lonely experiences. I bought a ticket and attended a Philadelphia Orchestra concert in our gymnasium. To see the famed Eugene Ormandy and this great orchestra live was a great thrill. Another time, after seeing it advertised, I bought a ticket and an express bus trip into New York City to see the famed Moiseyev Dancers from Russia, again thrilling but very lonely since I didn’t know anyone on the bus or at the performance.

I practically lived in the library during that first year of full time study. I was enchanted by the size of the place, the thousands of books and especially the shelves of bound periodicals. I spent many hours perusing old Time magazines, re-reading old familiar articles and contemporary articles published during World War II. I remember especially looking up one special 1955 issue of Time which included a picture of singer Patti Page with whose face and prominent décolletage I had fallen in love with at age 13. What an experience, what feelings, to see this picture again, there in the stacks of the Rutgers Library.

I was also pleased to find books by Mark Twain that were new to me and gave me much pleasure to read, among them “Sketches New and Old”, the stories in which I found hilarious. This book was illustrated by the same Twain illustrator, True Williams, whose incredible work I had enjoyed so much in my old and dogeared first edition of “Innocents Abroad”.

Along with many other students, I frequented the reserve room at the Library quite often to read assignments in books professors had placed on reserve. One memory associated with this area is that of a terribly crippled student who used to come often as well. Swinging an inflexible body on two crutches, he would approach the desk, get his book, tuck it between his arm and a crutch and approach a sofa. Then he would call for help from someone to lower his stiff body onto the sofa and place the crutches near him, where he would read his assignment. After reading he would again call for help and someone would come, tuck his crutches under his arms, lift him and his crutches to an upright position, pick up his book and tuck it between a crutch and his arm and he would be on his way to the desk and then to the outside. I helped him down and back up many times that year but never followed him outside to see how he got to and from the library. Also, for some reason, I never saw him around campus and was never in any of his classes. But I do clearly remember this man and how he bravely managed down there in the Reserve Room.

During those days in the library, my home away from home during my freshman year, I did lots of searching and lots of reading. But unfortunately little of the reading had anything to do with the courses I was taking, certainly explaining part of the reason I did so poorly that first year of college. I was getting a great education but paid a price in poor grades in my actual courses. Also, reflecting on that first year of college, I was terribly immature compared to my classmates, many of whom were military veterans. Here I was with my very parochial background, having just turned 17, quite lost on this huge campus among all these new experiences.

In addition, I am now convinced that I had a bit of Attention Deficit Disorder. When writing papers, listening to lectures and taking exams, my mind always wandered and I had difficulty paying attention. I was perplexed and upset as well by many classmates, who through their responses and questions clearly were my intellectual inferiors yet they always got much better grades than I on papers and tests. Clearly I was far less mature than many classmates but also could not focus or concentrate the way others could. After my year and a half working in Colorado after my sophomore year, I apparently had outgrown much of this ADD problem because I could concentrate so much better, as reflected in much better grades.

My loneliness and isolation on campus were considerably alleviated during my second year at Rutgers. Some time in the fall I was approached by a classmate by the name of Paul (can’t remember the last name) and invited to visit Theta Chi fraternity. After doing so, I was invited to pledge the fraternity, to me a really big deal. What a pleasure to realize that someone wanted me and valued my presence and companionship.

I was quite proud to be a fraternity pledge. In spite of the onerous tasks assigned to me such as memorizing parts of the Theta Chi manual and doing lots of favors for the brothers, it felt great to finally be a part of something and respectfully exchange greetings with my new friends at the house and elsewhere on campus. I selected a very dignified and distinguished senior, Jay Fein, as my pledge “father” to advise and help me as necessary. Another brother, Joe (can’t remember last name) made me memorize the first ten lines of the poem “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. I can still remember the first line – “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….” In the meantime I started eating my lunches and many dinners at the fraternity house, a real pleasure, in spite of the duties imposed on me as a pledge. These meals, however, cost money, so I reduced the cost by waiting tables and doing dishes as often as I could at the house. I also that year worked part time at Kendall Park Pharmacy, fairly close to New Brunswick to help with my expenses. However, I left school after my sophomore year with a sizable debt to Theta Chi which I was able to finally pay off that fall.

It was tradition at Theta Chi for the group of pledges to play a prank on the rest of the group – something that caused inconvenience and consternation, not destruction. So I borrowed my Dad’s pickup truck and at 2:00 or so at night sneaked into the fraternity house with the other pledges and quietly took all the fancy decorations off the walls of the house lounge room, took them to my house and put them in my garage. They were returned by us pledges after the proper amount of punishment was meted out to us by the brothers.

Later that fall, prior to our induction ceremony, we pledges were initiated or “hazed” by being made to wear burlap sacks with arm cutouts against our skin under our clothes, and required to stay awake for an entire weekend doing a series of onerous tasks, one of which included painting a hall and stairway. After the elaborate and very impressive ceremony inducting us a full-fledged “brothers” we celebrated in the party room in the basement which was outfitted with a full-fledged bar. Drinking that mug of beer with which we toasted our new status was my first experience with alcohol and for the first time I experienced the pleasant, exuberant and euphoric sensations induced by alcohol and thought of how foolish my parents and other church people were to oppose drinking and how much they had missed with their silly abstinence and sobriety.

The several fraternity parties that I attended that year were fabulous experiences that were brand new for me. The sound of live rock and roll music from the several bands that were hired for entertainment and dance was incredible. The music, the dancing and the camaraderie, lubricated and heightened by alcohol and the presence of a comely date (that a brother fixed me up with) created fabulous and memorable experiences for me.

I should also mention that the pain of my rejection for the Rutgers Glee Club was ameliorated somewhat by Theta Chi’s distinction as the “singing fraternity” at Rutgers. We almost always won the annual singing contest among the fraternities. I don’t know why, certainly singing ability was never a criterion for pledge invitations, but there was an ongoing interest in vocal harmony among the brothers at Theta Chi. We sang a lot together for no reason at all, so when the time came for vocal competition, we were ready. That spring of my sophomore year, we again won the contest hands down.

Another incident I remember well was the “Ugly Man Contest”, a considerably less notable competition among the Rutgers fraternities. When no hands went up at a dinnertime request for a volunteer and wishing to distinguish myself, I tendered my services. So I had the pleasure and the pain of being Theta Chi’s candidate for this undignified competition. But the preparation was not without pleasure. I accompanied a couple of brothers over to Douglass College, the women’s division of Rutgers, where their cute girlfriends and a couple of their attractive friends, provisioned by a few of their makeup kits, made my face over for the competition. I would like to think that making me up for an ugly man contest was a huge challenge for these girls, but I think that instead they looked me over and decided they had a pretty good head start for the process. I did not win the contest (thankfully!) but somewhere in the Theta Chi archives at 51 Mine Street is the picture of Ralph Friedly, the “Ugly Man” contestant for 1961.

My pledge group was rather small – as I remember there were five of us, of whom I remember two quite well – Gordon Moore and John Kelly. Gordon was a real gentleman and later became a teacher in neighboring Piscataway Township schools, eventually serving as a principal and then personnel director. I’ve had occasion to see Gordon’s name in print several times over the years. John I remember well for a different reason – I stole his cute, vivacious girlfriend from him. A bunch of us used to enjoy occasionally going to Staten Island where we could enjoy the lower New York drinking age. So over the Outerbridge Crossing from Elizabeth we’d go, to the first town, Tottenville, and then to the first big bar, the Totten Villa. One evening, John was accompanied by his date, Janet Domhoff, from nearby Carteret, and somehow, Janet and I ended up together. Janet was the first “outside”, that is, non-church, girlfriend I had ever introduced to my humble Zarephath home and introduced to my equally humble parents. I saw Janet off and on until my departure to Colorado in the fall of 1961. I don’t know what became of her – my Google searches have come up empty.

So in my second year of full time study at Rutgers I felt that I finally belonged there and had considerably widened my friendships through joining Theta Chi. I did considerably better in my courses as well, maybe growing out of my ADD cloudiness or just learning how to manage my time and study habits better. The best and probably the most transformative course during my sophomore year was “Masterpieces of French Literature in Translation”. This was a “dream course” because you carried a towering stack of paperback novels from the bookstore “English 420” bin, which included masterpieces like Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary”, Stendahl’s “The Red and the Black”, Zola’s “Germinal” and many others. The professor who taught this marvelous course, Dr. Serge Sobolevitch, was a fabulous teacher. He was also a dedicated smoker, whose first act upon entering the classroom was to carefully arrange three packs of cigarettes on his desk – Camels, Winstons and Salems. Then he would chain smoke these regular, filtered and menthol cigarettes in succession, never stopping for the entire class period. And yes, both professors and students could smoke in class back then. I loved this course and valued the opportunity to become acquainted with these mighty French authors and their enduring works. It also propelled me on the way toward minoring in English.

I did comparatively well in other classes as well that academic year 1960-61. I took my required science course, choosing geology, which I did find quite interesting. The course included a field trip to examine notable geological formations, yes, even in New Jersey and nearby Pennsylvania. The year included two semesters of American history too. One of the required texts was “George Washington: Man and Monument” by Marcus Cunliffe, which I remember well for shattering all the myths about our first president popularized by Parson Weems. I also took my second year of German, finishing my language requirement. And I should add that my two years of German were a big disappointment. For someone who had two years of German in high school, this requirement should have been a pleasure and a breeze. But it was not – I think a “2” (the equivalent of a “B”) was the highest grade I got over the entire four semesters.

I left school after my sophomore year and searched for a job to pay off my debt, finally obtaining a good-paying job on the assembly line at the Ford plant in Metuchen, not too far from New Brunswick. As I recount in another article , I was soon laid off from that job because of a congenital defect in my back but did barely accumulate enough money to pay off my debt. I had not the resources that would allow me to return to school full time and could not face continuing to live at home so I left New Jersey for Denver, Colorado, where I remained for the next 18 or so months working as a clerk for Navajo Freight Lines.

When I returned to New Jersey I resumed work on my degree at night at Rutgers University College. While there I took some great upper level history courses and several more sweet advanced English courses with the stack of paperback novels as the texts. Having gotten married and settling into a full time accounting job at Johns Manville Research, my life became much more stable and I was able to summon the discipline and will to succeed in my courses, attending class, studying and writing during my evenings and weekends. One semester I took 13 credit hours of work, yet earned good grades in all the courses,. Some of the courses were perhaps not as demanding or as competitive as the courses taught at the Colleges for Men in which I had been enrolled my first two years from 1959 to 1961, since they were sometimes taught by retired professors working part time or new professors jockeying for a full time job, but they were still challenging and stimulating. Some of the advanced history and English courses were in fact scheduled and staffed to serve both the full time and the part time Rutgers student populations and thus were quite competitive.

During this time my brother Robert started at Rutgers and as a liberal arts student later majoring in music, likely struggled with some of the same bewilderment and confusion with which I struggled. However, there were some significant differences. First, Robert was likely smart enough to apply for and receive the Rutgers state tuition scholarship that I missed. And somehow Robert managed to live on campus and he also tried out for and was selected to a major sport, heavyweight varsity crew (or rowing). His abilities and dedication even earned him the distinction of rowing at the key stroke position. And as I mentioned in my first “Home Sweet Home” article, Robert lived in a small apartment, a converted storefront, right around the corner from where we lived on Easton Avenue for awhile. So Rob likely felt much more a part of college life and the Rutgers campus than I ever did. Furthermore, the close teamwork required by his crew commitment must have earned him some lasting friendships, as did perhaps his ROTC for all four years. While Rob was at Rutgers, I attended, along with our proud parents and other family members, many of his local varsity crew races on the Raritan River in New Brunswick and at Carnegie Lake in Princeton. When thinking of Robert’s Rutgers career, his living on campus and his rowing success, I am always struck with conflicting feelings of envy and admiration – Rob did what I could not do – live on campus, perform much better in his courses and even earn his way onto a varsity sports team. What qualities and abilities did he possess as a young man that I did not? Did he have more opportunities than I or was he more resolute and did he work much harder? Or maybe he was just brighter.

So in 1965 I was finally able to graduate with a BA in history and English and the handful of education credits that enabled me to obtain a temporary teaching certificate and begin my career in education. Although for many years I never really stopped going to school, earning two more degrees while working as an educator, I was happy to put those chaotic and stressful years of undergraduate education behind me. My 44 year career in education, which turned out to be no less chaotic and stressful, and my recent retirement have brought me to this point – sitting in my leather armchair during the early morning hours in the basement study of our little Vermont house reminiscing and writing. Why? I don’t really know. It just feels like what I should be doing at this late stage of my life. Dear reader, if you were able to get through the 6000 plus words of this ponderous and detailed tome, thank you for your patience and for allowing me to share this part of my life with you.

Addendum

Reflecting on and writing about these difficult years moved me try to find out what happened to some of the dear friends from back then. I have to admit with some shame that I’ve never been good at maintaining friendships. Perhaps if I had stayed in New Jersey or remained in Massachusetts, things would have been different. Here in this beautiful green Vermont summer, my wife can gaze across the road at the house in which she grew up, changed a little now but still the same house. She can point to where her grandmother’s house was and where the barn and the “night pasture” were located. And she occasionally says hello to any one of several childhood friends from her elementary school days. I have no such opportunity. I have bounced around the country and the globe quite a bit in my life and have not cultivated those valuable roots and connections that others have. So most of my friendships have burned brightly and then were extinguished over time because of distance and years or my own carelessness. I could find no information on anyone I have mentioned from my days at Rutgers save Gordon Moore, whose name shows up in some googled documents, Stephen Gottlieb, who became a teacher and school administrator in the Plainfield, New Jersey area, and Bryan Garruto, who excelled in his undergraduate studies, served in the army, went to Rutgers law school, practiced law and became a judge. I learned all this from an obituary that I found on a Google search. Bryan passed away last spring.

 

 

 

 

Should Ken’s Thoughts About Gender Offend Her?

“What’s the difference between males and females?” Kenneth inquired of his wife Barbara one evening.

“What kind of a question is that?” Barbara responded. “Everyone knows the difference. Men have equipment that women don’t have, women have what men don’t have. Women are smaller, rounder, more delicate, softer. Men are bigger, stronger, faster, more angular. Men act rashly and impulsively. Women are more thoughtful and contemplative. Men are loud, women are quiet. Men are on time, women are late. Men never ask directions, women do. I like most of these things about men and I assume you feel the same about women. Okay, does that answer your question? What else is there?”

“Well,” Kenneth replied, “Those differences are obvious although some might be arguable. But what strikes me, what provokes the question, was thinking of more subtle differences. Take our granddaughter for instance. Even at four years old, she walks like a girl – a sweet, mincing gait, occasionally carrying her weight on her toes. She could be shorn of her long locks and dressed as a boy, but she would still very obviously be a girl. A little boy her age generally has a distinctly different gait and physical presence. Even disguised with long hair and a dress, that child would still walk like a boy, handle things like a boy and simply behave like a boy.”

“Boy (pardon the pun), you’re really getting into it, really figuring things out. Tell me more about your observations.”

“Okay, something else – even at the tender age of four, our little granddaughter holds her little tea cup differently, more delicately, with her little finger out. Her mother did not teach her to hold her cup this way, she simply does because something deep inside her tells her this is the way she should hold a cup. I don’t hold a cup this way, neither does our son, nor did he when he was four. Most fingers were utilized and that little finger was tucked in, touching the heal of the hand with the rest of them. Nobody taught him how to hold a cup either. Something deep inside him told him to hold a cup the way he did and our granddaughter does not.”

“How interesting, how analytical”, Barbara responded. “But I think you are behaving like a man – rather than simply accepting things, you have to analyze them, figure them out. I have observed these behaviors too I am sure, but never stopped to think about them, just accepted them and went on. Let’s hear some more analysis, professor. What else, what other behaviors, have you catalogued in that compartmentalized list of things that you call your mind?”

“Well, now that you asked”, Kenneth replied. “I do have a few more observations about males and females, men and women. How about the enunciation of the ’s’ sound? There is usually a distinct difference between the genders in the production of this common sound in our speech. The male ’s’ sound is rendered with the tongue farther back on the roof of the mouth behind the front teeth allowing more air to pass through for the ’s’ while the woman’s enunciation is made with the tongue closer to the front teeth and more pursed to let less air through. Try it – you’ll see what I mean. Hearing a man say his s’s more like a woman heightens the listener’s attention and awareness and immediately the man’s essential “maleness” becomes somewhat suspect and less complete. And when a woman’s enunciation of the ’s’ is male, her femaleness becomes somewhat reduced. And interestingly, I have noticed that this distinction of the pronunciation of the ’s’ sound as a sign of maleness or femaleness applies across many other languages and cultures.”

“Really, tell me more”, implored Barbara.

“Well, here’s an example – I have enjoyed seeing actress Jody Foster in many movies, among them, a couple of my all time favorites – “Silence of the Lambs” and “Contact”. And while Ms. Foster is small, delicate, shapely and beautiful, really quite feminine, there were always her ’s’ sounds, which made me wince and wonder. And then, sure enough, just in the last couple of years, Ms. Foster emerges from the closet and confirms my long standing suspicion. And then there is tennis announcer Mary Carillo, whose very masculine s-sound is quite striking and whose sexual orientation consequently has been a source of media speculation.”

“Come on now. That observation about the s-sound is quite interesting, but I wouldn’t paint everybody with that brush – the rule doesn’t always apply”, Barbara retorted.

“I agree”, Ken continued. “Certainly there are scores of gay females who are feminine in every respect, from their general overall appearance to the feminine pronunciation of the s-sound. And there are certainly many gay men who are masculine in every respect, including their s’s. A perfect example is Thomas Roberts, the MSNBC anchor, over whose incredible good looks and perfectly matched attire you have always swooned. I must say – I was surprised too when I read his interview account of love at first sight – falling in love with a man he met at a party, and later married. For Mr. Roberts appears heterosexual in every respect, including the pronunciation of his s’s.”

“Well,” Barbara admitted. “You’re right about that. I actually was a bit crushed and deflated when I learned that Mr. Roberts was gay. But in relation to what you mentioned before about females’ s-sounds, isn’t the pitch of a female voice more important, I mean doesn’t a low female voice sound masculine?”

“Hmmm, interesting question….I would say no. Some examples are the low voices of actresses like Marlene Dietrich or Lauren Bacall. Yes, low voices but distinctly feminine because of the feminine s-sound. Also some low female voices from popular music. Listen to Swedish singer Monica Tornell’s voice singing the Dylan classic “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, or Marianne Faithfull, her voice lowered significantly over the years by illness and lifestyle, sing “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”. Both voices as low as a man’s yet clearly feminine – the old s-sound again.”

“Yes”, Barbara replied. “I have heard both of those songs by those artists and you’re right – voices pitched much more like a man’s yet I never doubted that they were women’s voices. What other examples have you taken note of?”

“Well then there are female athletes, especially tennis players, whose exhibition of these characteristics is quite striking. I don’t happen to have knowledge of the sexual orientation of any of them, save the long-public same-sex orientation of Billie Jean King and of Martina Navratalova. But there are female tennis players who, despite their height, strength, speed and hitting power, are still very feminine. Chris Evert comes to mind as a prime example, Martina Hingis is another. Some female players who are otherwise feminine in every respect, have a very masculine gait, almost a swagger, which to me calls their orientation into question. The very beautiful and otherwise feminine Canadian professional, Eugenie Bouchard, is an example – beautiful face, lovely blond hair, slim shapely body, even a spread in the annual Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue, but when she walks and talks (yes, listen to those s’s) I begin to wonder.”

“OK, if what you are saying is true…but it does seem to be a bit stretched and twisted to fit your preconceptions – how did we get this way?”

“Well, again, these characteristics seem to be innate”, Kenneth responded. “I don’t think that mothers teach their little girls how to walk daintily or to crook their little fingers when holding a teacup or that dads teach their sons to grip a cup handle or to walk a certain way. And I certainly don’t think that mothers or fathers ever correct their little girls’ or little boys’ enunciation of the “s” sound. In short, I know that parents can’t and therefore don’t teach their children how to behave to reflect their gender. It just naturally happens.”

“My God, your analysis is so detailed. And it’s so weird that you take the time to think about all this? What else is on your list?”

“Well, I’m so glad you asked. You’re a teacher and I’m a teacher. I’ve graded lots of writing papers – not as many as you, I admit, but certainly enough to notice that generally speaking, boys have different handwriting than girls. I can look back at those goodbye letters my kids at Irwin School wrote for me back in 1968, cover the names and still tell whether they were written by boys or girls. And I still have many handwritten letters from my father and from my mother. Both wrote very legibly but there’s a difference – Mom’s handwriting is more delicate and artistic – more curves and swirls; Dad’s is more harsh, linear and definite. Also, take a look at our writing – both quite different. When I’ve been in a bind and I’ve had to forge your signature on something – it’s been really difficult – I’ve had to hold the pen more loosely and concentrate on the swirls, the wider verticals in the l’s, h’s and g’s. And I am sure when you’ve had to forge mine, you’ve done just the opposite – really grip that pen, press more firmly, write more heavily and jaggedly. So think about it – you can’t deny that there are gender differences in handwriting. And our moms and dads or teachers didn’t teach us to write differently, we just did, because something deep inside us was guiding those pens and pencils.”

“OK so there’s handwriting differences. I can’t disagree but perhaps girls’ and women’s hands are not as strong as a boy’s or a man’s hands are, so of course the writing is different.”

“Nonsense, even if a woman’s hands are bigger, stronger, more mature than any given man’s or boy’s hands, you still get this swirly, circular, artistic and expansive kind of writing from females and a much more thrifty, spare, choppy and angular writing from a male hand. Strength, age, maturity and coordination have little to do with writing style. Gender has everything to do with it.”

“My God, anything else?”

“Indeed there is. Surely you’ve noticed how women and girls, even little girls, punctuate their conversation and provide emphasis with their hands. Think about it. And most of that hand and finger flavor for a conversation is done daintily and delicately with a flexible wrist. Yes, there are boys and men that often use their hands when they talk but this activity is much more limited and the wrist is usually rigid. And rather than two hands, a man might use the fist or a finger for emphasis. Remember the incredible job that the late Philip Seymour Hoffman did in portraying Truman Capote in the 2005 movie “Capote”? Let me tell you, he had those s-sounds and the flexible wrist and delicate hand and finger movements down perfectly”.

“Well, ok, maybe you’re right. I’m not going to argue with you about your observations. But where does all this get us? What’s the point? And don’t you think that you’re being quite sexist, pasting these kinds of labels on people? People simply are who they are and they are the way they are through no fault of their own. They didn’t choose their parents or the genes that determine and regulate the way they behave? I mean who cares about the masculine or feminine qualities of men and woman? Why do you spend your time cogitating about such things?”

“Well, there’s no point really. Maybe in my need to organize and categorize to better understand, I just loosely divide people, men and women, boys and girls, into groups, actually continua – one for females and one for males. At end of one are clustered all the characteristics that we commonly accept for extreme femininity and on the other are those that represent extreme masculinity. And along these continua are males with greater or lesser of the characteristics described and females with more or less of the characters defined as female. Also somewhere along those continua are gay men and gay women who perhaps exhibit some characteristics of the opposite sex, like that key s-sound or a distinctive gait. And I don’t really think that noticing things about people and thinking about them is at all sexist. I think that I’m just interested in those things and find that maybe I notice them more than other people. There’s nothing wrong with that – I’m not making a value judgement, just an observation.”

But before I stop talking, I have to mention one more thing, Barbara, please don’t roll your eyes, about the s-sound in one’s speech. Have you ever noticed the peculiar ’s’ sound that is exhibited primarily by some men from the southwest, especially Texas, that is more an ‘sh’ sound than an ’s’, like an exaggerated or ultra masculine male s-sound? They tend to pronounce the name of their state “Tekshesh”, pretty much like President Johnson did. Do you know what I mean? “Yesh, we live in the United Shtaytsh of America”. I mean it’s not a complete ‘sh’ sound but it’s close and definitely not really the commonly heard s-sound. You hear it from some of those retired generals that serve as the “military experts” or “ekshpertsh” as they would “shay” it, on cable news, excuse me, cable “newsh”

“Ken, really, that quite enough”, Barbara said. “You’ve ’s’ sounded me to death. I’m going to miss important words and phrases in conversations and newscasts now because I’ll be focused on peoples’ s-sounds. And don’t you think you’ve missed lots of important information yourself as your ears have strained to focus on these distinctions? Enough already.”

“Barbara, you’re really shomething elsh.”

Barbara shakes her head, rolls her eyes and goes back to the book she was reading before this conversation began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Simple Solution to a Perennial Problem: Raise the Fuel Tax

Our new president recently made a statement that, unlike most of his utterances and tweets, actually made some sense. Of course the statement was made in isolation and not in association with any broad policy statement so it was likely a mistake, but he actually announced that it would be good to raise the gasoline tax to help pay for infrastructure needs. He evidently did not realize that his Republican Congress will absolutely not allow the fuel tax to be raised, regardless of the good sense it makes. But do we need it? Can we afford it? Absolutely.

85

As a regular “road tripper” between Arizona and Vermont I have seen and experienced firsthand the deterioration of our highways and bridges. I have hit an unexpected hole at 70 miles per hour on I-70 near Indianapolis and afterward wondered about the condition of my right front tire and front end alignment and have rattled over the cracked and potholed surface of I-40 through Oklahoma City and afterward wondered about the state of my shock absorbers. I have dodged dozens of dreadful potholes on I-86 between I-90 and Jamestown, NY and then, foolishly taking my eyes off the road for a couple of seconds, felt my whole car shudder as my left front tire hit one. I have glanced in horror at the chunks of concrete falling off the side and center barriers of the I-270 bridge over the Mississippi River north of St. Louis and wondered if I was about to suffer the same fate as the motorists on Minneapolis I-35W in 2007.

I-35EW bridge collapse Minneapolis 2007

The deplorable condition of our highway infrastructure is well known but a reminder might be useful. Today, more than 60,000 bridges in the United States are considered structurally deficient and 32 percent of U.S. major roads are in poor or mediocre condition. It is estimated that it would take at least $780 billion to bring our highways and bridges up to adequate standards (incidentally that’s about what we have spent in Afghanistan over the last 16 years). The latest assessment of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which released its 2017 “infrastructure report card” last March, showed the grades for US roads and bridges to still be “D” and “C+”, unchanged since their last report four years ago. Well, what seems to be the problem? Why don’t we have the will and have mustered the means to address this huge problem? Let’s take a look.

Fig1Construction and maintenance of our highways is financed mainly from the Highway Trust Fund which is maintained with a gasoline tax of 18.4 cents per gallon and a diesel fuel tax of 24.4 cents per gallon which together provide about $34 billion per year, both unchanged since they were last raised in 1993. And over the last couple of decades these taxes have become seriously inadequate because of the increasing fuel economy of automobiles and the increasing costs of highway construction and maintenance. A dollar in 1993 is worth only 60 cents today. If the gas tax had kept up with inflation, it would be 30 cents a gallon today and pull in nearly twice the amount of revenue, or $68 billion rather than $34 billion. In other words, Congress is leaving billions and billions on the table by opting for the politically expedient move of leaving the gas tax untouched. with Federal highway spending at about $50 billion per year, the yearly shortfall has had to come from other sources. But even then, that figure obviously falls far short of what we really need.

Purchasing power of gas tax dropped

In addition Congress has failed to come up with a long term highway bill for years and has chosen instead to plug the hole with a variety of other sources: Stupid, gimmicky other sources, stopgap measures since 2005, the most ridiculous in 2014 when the Highway Trust Fund shortfall of $10.8 billion was filled by something called “pension smoothing” – additional business tax yields provided when businesses choose to reduce their contributions to employee pension funds – talk about “smoke and mirrors”! President Obama reluctantly signed that bill saying that Congress “shouldn’t pat itself on the back for merely averting disaster, kicking the can down the road for a few months and careening from crisis to crisis when it comes to something as basic as our infrastructure”. It’s shocking that since 1992 our Congress has chosen to come up with patch jobs for the Highway Trust Fund 33 times. One time in July of 2015, the patch was a three month program. And even more incredible, on October 15, 2015 Congress passed a three week extension. Try to do some long range planning to repair our roadways with this kind of financing.snipofgastax1

These funding games are ludicrous and totally unnecessary. As noted earlier, if the gas tax had simply been indexed to inflation it would be bringing in almost twice what it yields today. But the childish and petulant aversion to taxes exhibited by our Republican-dominated Congress (I am sure that most of them have signed the “no new taxes pledge” promulgated by tax abolition guru Grover Norquist) holds sway over common sense. It’s not that hard to justify this tax. The fuel tax does not even have to be called a tax. When it was increased twice by anti-tax President Reagan in the 1980’s, and then by Clinton in 1992, the act was easily rationalized and rendered palatable by calling the tax increases “user fees”, simply charges for the privilege of using and wearing down our highways, roads and bridges. Yet our Republican congress could not even do what their hero Reagan did – increase “user fees” for our transportation system. And unfortunately, neither Reagan nor Clinton had the wisdom to tie the the fuel tax to inflation.

Cumulative highway trust fund shortfall

And Congress didn’t have the courage either to simply increase fuel taxes. Gasoline prices now are at the lowest they have been in decades. So even doubling both taxes would have resulted in fuel prices nowhere near where they have been over the last several years, would have created no hardship at all for commuters, pleasure drivers, the trucking industry or the airline industry and would have provided a much needed shot in the arm for the Highway Trust Fund. In fact, studies of gasoline price changes over the years, when indexed to inflation, show that gasoline is as cheap today as it was in the “good old days” of the 1950’s when gas prices ranged from 20 to 30 cents per gallon. On my most recent cross country car trip, I availed myself of fill-ups for as low as $1.78 per gallon, with the average expenditures ranging around $2.00 per gallon, the same or less than 1950’s prices when inflation is factored in.

gaspump_113016getty

But instead, look what we got. Last year with great fanfare, Congress finally passed a new five year Transportation Bill. In the boastful words of House Speaker Paul Ryan, Congress was doing “the people’s business”, finally achieving the necessary bipartisan consensus to pass a major piece of legislation. But although somewhat better than the last several highway bills which were patches at best, the new bill falls far short of what the country needs. Yes, we do finally have a multi-year bill instead of the annual patch job, which will finally enable planners and contractors to extend work over several years. But again, smoke and mirrors financing is problematic. To make up the shortfall between the expected yield of Federal fuel taxes and the 305 billion dollar total of the new highway bill presented so proudly by Ryan, the new bill relies on a number of ridiculous short-term financing provisions that have absolutely nothing to do with the problem, among them requiring the Federal government to use private collection agencies to recoup certain outstanding taxes, allowing the government to deny new passports to individuals owing more than $50,000 in back taxes, the sale of 66 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and cutting the Federal Reserve’s annual dividend payments to large commercial banks, redirecting that money to highway construction. Can you believe this….or understand it? Again – smoke and mirrors! And Congress again refused to increase the gasoline and diesel fuel taxes or even tie them to inflation.

US Gas Taxes comparison to others

So what should we have done and what should we do in the future to make sure that there is enough money to maintain and repair our highways and bridges? According to ITEP (Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy) we need to do the following. First, the fuel tax should simply be increased by 10 to 15 cents per gallon to compensate for the loss in purchasing power that has accumulated over the years. Second, the tax should be indexed to inflation to meet the expected increases in construction costs. Third, the tax should automatically rise in relation to the increasing fuel efficiency of automobiles. And finally, the fuel tax should include mechanisms to prevent sudden large changes from year to year, for example, the large increase mentioned above should be phased in gradually over several years.

But a crucial question remains. Will our Republican-dominated Congress ever have the courage to increase this necessary and easily rationalized tax? The disgraceful sleight of hand shenanigans performed to fill the huge gaps in the latest multi year Highway Bill indicate that they do not. So even though we are the richest nation on earth, we will continue to have some of the lowest fuel taxes on the planet and will consequently continue our ridiculous struggle with potholed highways and collapsing bridges. Taxes are necessary costs of living in a civilized society and “user fees” to maintain our transportation system are among most easily applied and willingly borne. We need a government that has the brains and backbone to do what is necessary for the well-being of the nation.

 

 

 

Rx for a Sick Democratic Party

 

 

“Wake Up, Liberals: There Will be No 2018 ‘Blue Wave’, No Democratic Majority and No Impeachment”,
“There’s no quick fix for Trump or our damaged democracy—and the Democrats still look hopeless”
“Beyond Opposing Trump, Democrats keep searching for a message”
“Democrats in the Dead Zone”
“Can Democrats Fix the Party?”

Not a day goes by that I don’t read yet another article about the problems in the Democratic Party – no presidency, neither house of Congress and only a third of governors’ offices and state legislatures – and also not a day goes by that I don’t encounter another exhortation or reason or strategy to “resist” Trump and his agenda. It appears that all the Party can do is lick its wounds, point fingers at who or what they think was responsible for its devastating losses and oppose Trump, all totally insufficient to generate the enthusiasm and the votes needed to take back the House or the Senate in 2018, much less the presidency in 2020. “Not Trump” or “Resist” might be rallying cries for the Democratic Party but they are not strategies for winning.

And despite Trump’s record unpopularity and obvious incompetence and millions of dollars poured into them, the Democratic Party is 0 for 4 in recent special congressional elections. How can this be? While it’s obvious that Democratic victory in these four traditionally solid Republican districts would be difficult, another reason for the losses is simply that the Democrats no longer have a clear message other than opposition to the president and the Republican Congress. The latest disappointment, the contest in Georgia’s Sixth District, the lame Jon Ossoff and his DCCC supporters erred seriously with a campaign right out of the vanilla Hillary Clinton playbook – fight government waste, trim regulations, support Israel, promote “civility in politics”, “personal responsibility”, etc – nothing for the guy who’s working two jobs, can’t pay the electric bill, has a chronically sick kid and a pregnant wife and just had his used car repossessed.

Clearly the party needs to stand for something and truly, when I ask myself what the Democratic Party stands for today I am at a loss. This point was perfectly illustrated in the 2016 presidential campaign when what the standard-bearers of the respective parties stood for were in sharp contrast to each other. The authors of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” painfully describe the difficulty the campaign had in even coming up with the reason Mrs. Clinton was running for president. The best the campaign could manage was – “I would have had a reason for running or I wouldn’t have run.” In addition the authors describe a board in the campaign’s Brooklyn office totally covered with sticky notes listing “what Hillary is for” – actually so many that the net result was nothing. So it should be no surprise that the Democratic candidate lost the election. It would seem that at the very least it should be clear what a candidate stands for and why s/he is running for office. And during the the campaign there was never any doubt as to where Hillary’s Republican opponent stood and why he was running. He was going to bring manufacturing and mining jobs back, keep Muslims out of the country, build that wall and “Make America Great Again”.

These thoughts have prompted me to reflect on my own political convictions. Since my early twenties, when I finally shook off the last vestiges of the parental cocoon of Republicanism in which I had been wrapped since childhood, I realized that the Democratic Party best represented what “I am for”:

  • concern for the health and welfare of my fellow man;
  • concern for the working man and the union that represents him;
  • a living wage for a full day’s work;
  • limiting the power of corporations and big business and ensuring that they paid their fair share of taxes;
  • progressive taxation for individuals with the wealthy paying their fair share of taxes;
  • a dignified and comfortable retirement for everyone;
  • affordable and adequate healthcare for everyone;
  • good public schools and and an education for everyone who wanted it;
  • a reasonable “floor” under our society beneath which no one could fall, meaning unemployment insurance, welfare for the poor and Social Security for the elderly;
  • a safe and healthy environment through regulation and conservation;
  • accepting that we are a nation of immigrants that requires laws that foster a steady flow of new blood and energy from foreign lands;
  • a belief that the government can be a force for good in people’s lives;
  • promoting the importance of voting, that this right should be guaranteed to all citizens.

It seems that these personal convictions have always been staples of the Democratic Party but if so, why is it so difficult today to shout them loud and clear? Obviously the Democratic Party is ill. Its symptoms are obvious: no clear message, ossified leadership, forsaking its working class roots, selling out to Wall Street, economic issues eclipsed by social issues, writing off the working man and relying instead on the minority vote, representation by corporate Democrats like the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Shumer and Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the “Republicans in Democrat clothing”, cross dressers like Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitcamp. What prescription can we offer to address these symptoms? What can we administer to the Democratic Party to get it well? It doesn’t need some expensive drug to treat or mask symptoms or that produces negative side effects, like identity politics,  cultural issues, opposing Trump or defending Obamacare. What the Democratic Party needs is a robust return to the basics of good health – fresh air, good food and lots of exercise. And what are those for the Democratic Party? A return to the principles articulated and espoused by the greatest Democrat of all  –  Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On January 6, 1941, President Roosevelt gave his “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress, “a vision of the world that would be worthy of our civilization”. He announced simply and eloquently that the United States should dedicate itself to advancing these four freedoms everywhere in the world:

  • Freedom of speech and expression, the best defense against the corruption of democracy;
  • Freedom of worship, our shield against the forces of bigotry, intolerance, and fanaticism;
  • Freedom from want, a commitment to erasing hunger, poverty, and pestilence from the earth;
  • Freedom from fear, a freedom dependent on collective security, a concept carried forward with our leadership in the United Nations.

Certainly, the Democratic Party, in reviving and resuscitating itself could start here – embrace of these “four freedoms” certainly compels a robust Democratic response to Trump’s attacks on the press and the environment, his recklessness and ignorance in foreign policy and his racism and bigotry.

Another place for the Democratic party to start should be reviewing and dedicating itself to Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights”, those principles having been included in of all places, the Charter of the European Union. It might be useful to go back to the speech in which they were outlined. In Roosevelt’s words spoken to the nation on January 11, 1944:

“This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.
As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.
We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.
In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all—regardless of station, race, or creed.
Among these are:

—The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;
—The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;
—The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;
—The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;
—The right of every family to a decent home;
—The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;
—The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;
—The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.
America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.”

Incredibly meaningful meaningful principles, aren’t they? Surely here in the wealthiest nation on earth, we ought to be able to guarantee everyone a home, an education, a decent paying job, medical care and a dignified and worry-free retirement. These are principles that the Democratic Party has forgotten and that if they were embraced anew,  the Democratic Party would regain its rightful place as the party that really cares about people, the party that for decades stood up for the common man.

Everything in FDR’s “Four Freedoms” and “Second Bill of Rights” can be readily extended and translated to what should be the major tenets of the Democratic Party today – including strengthening Social Security, strengthening unions, increasing the minimum wage, and endorsing single payer healthcare. And all of what the Democrats should stand for is supported by the American people. Poll after poll have indicated that most Americans support the principles enumerated above and oppose the cruel Republican agenda of Trump, Ryan and McConnell. The following statistics tell the story:

  • 64% are significantly worried about global warning;
  • 71% want the US to honor the Paris Agreement on climate change;
  • By a ten point margin (49% to 39%) voters polled oppose removing regulations on businesses and corporations;
  • Oppose removing regulations specifically intended to combat climate change by a margin of 61% to 29%;
  • 58% want federally funded health insurance for all; 85% of black voters and 84% of Latino voters favor placing the government in charge of managing the health care system in the United States;
  • a sizable majority — about three in five Americans — say the government has a responsibility to ensure everyone has health care;
  • 64% would pay higher taxes to guarantee healthcare for everyone;
  • 60% of Americans would favor replacing Obamacare with a federally funded national health plan;
  • 74% are opposed to cuts in Medicaid;
  • 61% of Republicans and 95% of Democrats would maintain or increase funding for health care in general;
  • a majority of Americans support “expanding Medicare to provide health insurance to every American”;
  • a plurality of voters support “a single payer health care system, where all Americans would get their health insurance from one government plan”;
  • 61% percent of Republicans and 93% of Democrats would maintain or increase spending for ‘economic assistance to needy people in the U.S;
  • two thirds of the American people say that the government should care for those who cannot care for themselves;
  • 70% want nuclear disarmament;
  • 72% want the US out of Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • 73% want the government to maintain or increase government support for green energy;
  • almost 70% favored Obama’s Clean Power Plan;
  • 80% approve of Planned Parenthood receiving federal funds for non-abortion health assistance for women;
  • 70% of Americans support a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy;
  • 60% of Americans support doubling the national minimum wage to $15 per hour;
  • 60% are favorable toward unions;
  • 63% of Americans say money and wealth distribution is unfair;
  • Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to tax policies that benefit corporations and the rich;
  • 90% agree that there are already too many tax loopholes for the wealthiest Americans and corporations;
  • 80% agree that it would help grow the economy if the country made sure the wealthiest Americans paid their fair share of taxes;
  • voters broadly agree that Republicans in Congress put the interests of corporations and the wealthiest Americans ahead of average Americans;
  • 61% say that the wealthy pay too little in taxes;
  • 80% feel strongly that Trump should release his tax returns;
  • about 80% of voters from both parties want to reverse Citizens United and get money out of politics;
  • 70% say that the government should regulate financial services and products “to make sure they are fair for consumers”;
  • 79% say Wall Street financial companies should be held accountable with tougher rules and enforcement for the practices that caused the financial crisis;
  • a broad majority (77%) says that there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations;
  • by a 10-point margin (49% to 39%), voters oppose removing regulations on businesses and corporations;
  • 66% of Americans believe there are “very strong” or “strong” conflicts between the rich and the poor, an increase of 19 percentage points since 2009;
  • three-quarters of all American adults favored Mr. Obama’s decision to re-establish ties with Cuba;
  • a plurality – 39% of Sanders supporters backed Palestinians while just a third backed Israel; support for Palestinians has tripled among US youth;
  • 92% favor universal background checks for gun purchases;
  • 80% favor letting undocumented immigrants stay here legally;
  • 60% favor legalization of recreational marijuana;

So, with the American people solidly behind a progressive agenda, my fellow Democrats, let’s get well. Let’s flush the dangerous and corrupting drugs of Wall Street big money and Clintonian centrism down the toilet and get out into the clean fresh air. Let’s stop supporting already doomed Obamacare, get profit out of healthcare and support Medicare for All; let’s support unions and collective bargaining; regulate big corporations and eagerly “welcome their hatred” as Roosevelt did; let’s support public schools and get corporations out of education; let’s fight to get money out of elections; let’s fight for fair taxation for corporations and individuals; let’s reject the cruelty of the Republican budget and support the Progressive Caucus’ “People’s Budget” ; let’s promote peace, negotiate with our enemies and put the military-industrial complex out of business; let’s support women and their right to control their bodies; let’s reject the influence of the pollsters, idea people, analysts and fundraisers like Neera Tanden, Robbie Mook and John Podesta who helped blow the last election; let’s stop beating around the bush with “identity” messages, “stronger together” banners and advocacy of social issues and get down to the reality of supporting our base with an economic message that will bring our voters together – the original Democratic base of American workers, plus our more contemporary base of minority voters. Let’s support all the traditional Democratic issues mentioned above but let’s wrap them all tightly in an economic message that everyone can support and everyone can understand – President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms and Second Bill of Rights. If the Democratic Party is brave enough to do this, to eschew the money and resultant influence of corporations and billionaires and rely on common people as Bernie Sanders so successfully did, we can look forward to a Democratic House in 2018, the House and Senate and the presidency in 2020.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, Trump Voters…

When you pulled that lever, connected that line or drew that X for Donald Trump as President of the United States, when you delivered that sucker punch to the “latte liberals” you can’t stand, when you stuck your finger in the eye of those hateful Hillary minions, did you realize what you voted for? Oh yes, you voted for the misogynist, the serial liar, the narcissist, the only candidate in the last 40 years not to reveal his tax returns, but that was ok because he was going to “drain the swamp”, provide “better and cheaper” health insurance for everyone, bring back the coal mines, revive manufacturing, and “build a wall”. Oh sure, right.

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reads the lyrics of Al Wilson's song "The Snake" during campaign event at Grumman Studios in Bethpage, New York

Well, how do you feel now, after six months of this gasbag buffoon president and his billionaires’ club “cabinet from hell” who are destroying that which they were sworn to preserve and protect? Some of you who have watched closely, done your reading,  kept track of what’s happening in Congress and know what’s in the latest healthcare “reforms”, who realize what’s happening as rules are cancelled or “delayed” and regulations are shredded, may be having second thoughts and may have joined the swelling “disapprove” ranks counted by the pollsters.

But others of you, some of whom I know, have actually doubled down on your reckless choice. You’ve clenched your fists, stiffened your back, closed your eyes and ears to anything else but Fox News and talk radio, continued to lamely chant, “lock her up, lock her up” or “I hate Nancy Pelosi”, and excused this clown president’s disgraceful behavior with feeble excuses like, “Oh well, he’s just being bombastic”.

Well Trump voters, in addition to governing by tantrum and tweet, and a general coarsening and cheapening of public discourse, here’s some more of what you have so far and your leader has only just begun. Ask yourself – is this truly what I want for myself, my loved ones, my country and my planet?

  • United States withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, which is embraced by virtually the rest of the world,
  • Decimation of Obamacare which, however imperfect and based on the shaky foundation of corporate profit, did extend coverage to millions, now to be taken away,
  • Attacks on reporters and an undermining of a free press, absolutely essential to a democracy,
  • Planning for an infrastructure program based on corporate investment and profit and that aims to privatize what should be public,
  • A planned tax program that will reduce taxes on the wealthy and on corporations,
  • A childish and cynical reversal of our fifty years overdue improvement in relations with Cuba,
  • Implicit approval of racism and prejudice against Muslims and Muslim countries,
  • Retarding efforts to resolve the immigration question and establish policies that provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants,
  • A spawning of the most significant graft and corruption at the presidential level in history,
  • Presenting an ignorant, undignified and selfish national face to other nations and the world,
  • National parks and national monuments attacked in the hope that they will be opened to corporate exploitation,
  • An accelerated pace toward privatization of public functions, the latest example being air traffic control,
  • Privatizing and corporatizing public schools, making them profit centers instead of learning centers,
  • Disdain for and erosion of the rule of law – attacks on Federal judges, the Justice Department and the FBI,
  • Gutting Dodd-Frank, hastening the day for the big banks and corporations to cause another economic meltdown,
  • Emasculating the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau,
  • Increasing limitations on voting rights, making voting more difficult, not easier,
  • Bringing back the futile “war on drugs” along with discredited mandatory minimum sentences,
  • A crippled federal government riddled with vacancies because candidates are reluctant to work for a reckless chief executive who could harm their careers,
  • Rolling back of civil rights enforcement in the Justice Department and Education Department.

Trump

And from the New York Times a couple of days ago – “Are you really ready to abandon protections of your drinking water? What about that school hamburger? Is it O.K. to eat? Can you depend on Medicare or Medicaid? Are toys safe? Can workers fight overtime violations or discrimination? Will government agencies be there to police mortgage, student-loan and retirement-savings abuses? Will the education of special-needs students be protected?”

God help us all….and thanks again, Trump voters.

 

 

Home Sweet Home

“Home is where the heart is”; “there’s no place like home”; “it’s so good to be home”. Yes, a home is important. In the words of George Carlin, it’s also a place to hold our “stuff”. And it’s also a place to sleep, to eat, to keep you out of the rain and cold, a place in which to feel secure, a space to share with loved ones, a place to enjoy and love. A home is cozy and comfortable.

Over my 75 years I’ve lived in many homes and looking back on them each place had an influence on me and was significant for me. And each home in which I have lived has provided indelible memories, mostly good. And when I visualize each place where I have lived I realize that it has provided something special to me – the unique experiences, the people with whom I lived, the feelings generated by daily life in that home. As such, the homes in which all of us have lived form an important biographical thread in the fabric of our lives. What follows is that thread for me, a narrative of places where I have lived, divided into three parts: Part I 1942 to 1972, Part II 1972 to 1983 and Part III 1983 until now. Here’s the first part.

Part I

Image0294

Barbara and I at Sunset Farm 1942

I was born in Somerset Hospital in Somerville, New Jersey and as an infant lived on Sunset Farm, a residence and farm buildings owned by the church of which my parents were members. This place preceded my memory but visiting it as a young adult and seeing pictures taken there when I was very young enables me to speculate on what life was like there for my mother, already caring for four year old Barbara, with infant me and shortly after, another pregnancy and my sister Elaine, to be born while we lived there also.

Image0267

Barbara, Elaine and I 1945 (note the wartime wood construction of the stroller and wheelbarrow)

 

In 1945 or so my family was assigned by church authorities to live at a church home in Oakland, California, where my brother Robert was born. At this house my memories began, with hazy impressions of a trip on the Oakland Bay Bridge with its multiple suspension spans, a tunnel and then multiple truss spans. I recall seeing somewhere from this bridge a Sherwin Williams sign with neon animation spilling paint down over a neon globe.

Image0268

Elaine and I, 1946 or so

And at our house I recall spotlights filling the sky, maybe having something to do with the war with Japan. And I remember looking for pretty stones in an area between the rungs of a ladder lying where rain fell from the roof. I also recall as a little boy marching around an oval rug chanting “round round Hitler’s grave”. Apparently this ditty came from an Almanac Singers song in 1942 but I don’t remember how I came to know it. I also have a memory of clouds of fighter planes flying overhead, probably from a nearby Air Force base.

Image0278

Barb, Elaine and I

 

 

 

 

 

The next home to which my family moved in 1946 or ’47 was a church home called “Lock Haven”, on Canal Road about a mile east of the little church community town called Zarephath, between the towns of Bound Brook and Manville, New Jersey. We shared this large rather ramshackle house of graying and peeling white wood siding with several others – an elderly couple, the Schisslers, and an elderly single man, Mr. Wittekind. We occupied the two floors in the main part of the house, with the Schisslers in the lower floor of an addition and Mr. Wittekind in a single room above.

Image0244

Me, Rob, Barb and Elaine, forsythia and swings in background 1947 or so

Outside was a long cinder driveway meeting a gravel main driveway that went left to the barnyard of a large gray barn and to the “bee house” where Mr. Wittekind kept his bee equipment: some “smokers”, extra hives, beeswax frames and a large centrifuge. (I knew about this paraphernalia because after Mr. Wittekind’s passing, my Dad tried to take over and learn the bee business.) The gravel driveway to the right went downhill to Canal Road which to the left took you to Zarephath and beyond to Weston, Manville and Somerville or to the right to Bound Brook, South Bound Brook and towns beyond, like Dunellen, Plainfield or New Brunswick.

Image0026

Robert outside the Lock Haven house with the forsythia

Around the house were maple trees, forsythia bushes, grass lawns and a large lilac bush, which you could actually enter and navigate little paths among the stems and branches. Adjacent to some large forsythias was a rusty and old but still serviceable set of swings which we kids enjoyed. There was also an incongruous small hexagonal building with maroon shingles on its exterior which my sister Barb used to raise her flock of ducks. The big barn was used for storing some church farm implements and stacks of bales of hay in the haymow. The haymow had that wonderful unique smell of old wood and hay, not readily describable but instantly recognizable and known only to people who have experienced barns in their lives.

Image0043

Charlie and Elaine, Lock Haven barn in background

The driveway left extended beyond the beehives and bee house and eventually met a dirt road which left would take you to the Tabor (another church home which anchored the farm operations) peach and apple orchards and right would take you to past some hayfields on to Zarephath, our “church town” which I will describe elsewhere. That right turn would first take you over a culvert containing our little creek, in which I occasionally “fished” for non existent fish with a stick, a string and a piece of wire “hook”, while letting my mind run on about fishing and a thousand other things.

Image0030

Me, Columbia bicycle and our ’49 Chevy

Across Canal Road from the house was “the canal”, our simple colloquialism for the Delaware and Raritan Canal, an old formerly important transportation artery constructed in the 1830’s connecting the Delaware River and the Raritan River and used for about a hundred years to transport cargo between Philadelphia and New York City. It was only later that I realized that the path on the canal bank that I knew as the “toe path” was really “tow path”, the path worn by the horses and mules that had towed barges on the canal. “The canal” played an important role in our lives during those years in Zarephath. I learned to swim in the canal, as well as doing my first real fishing. And in the winter, when the canal froze, you could ice skate all the way to Princeton, getting off the ice to walk around the bridges and locks between.

Image0040

Elaine, Rob, me and Charlie, lilac bush in background

It was at Lock Haven that big sister Barbara raised her flock of ducks  and Dad and Mom raised several flocks of chickens to sell. For some reason both Mom and Dad frowned on pets so there were never any dogs or cats to pet, love and take care of. But one time when Dad had a flock of speckled  Plymouth Rock chickens there was one all-black chicken among them that got picked on all the time by the others for being different. I used to protect this chicken, put him under a crate to keep him safe and gave him his own food and water and he became, believe it or not, my pet, even coming to me when I called his name, “Blackie”. So, Tommy Smothers, you weren’t the only kid who had a pet chicken!

Image0275

Me, Blackie,  Elaine

The tall chimney over the kitchen and dining room of the Lock Haven house went down during Hurricane Hazel in 1955, thankfully not penetrating the roof, which likely accelerated our move to another church residence – “Morningside”, about a mile west of Zarephath. This house, which also served as the home of another family, the Chambers, was located among some flat, fertile fields, the floodplain between the Canal and the Millstone River, a tributary of the Raritan River.

This house was small for a family of our size. At Lock Haven Charlie had arrived, born at home and Richard also, right before we moved, making eight of us to fit into three upstairs bedrooms. Later an addition was built onto the house and Mom and Dad’s bedroom moved downstairs, making it a bit more tolerable for us six kids upstairs. Of course, while in this house, Glenn and Stan were added to the family making the final eight, so it was always crowded. I initially shared a bedroom with Robert and Charlie so the three of us became quite territorial, in order to share the space and the drawers of one dresser. Barbara and Elaine were in another bedroom.

Image0273

Richard, Stan and Glenn at Morningside

The childhood memories that accumulated in this house were many, and included assembling serviceable bicycles from the pile of accumulated parts in the garage each spring and riding them on the many dirt roads in the immediate area, to participating in Dad’s truck farming operation, which blossomed into running a roadside stand on the “Weston Causeway”, the road between Canal Road and Weston Road into Manville. The stand was run by the younger kids, namely Charlie and Richard, while Rob and I and sometimes the girls helped with the planting, cultivation and harvesting of strawberries, sweet corn, tomatoes, and other vegetables.

Image0078

Elaine outside, Millwood across the fields

Another fond memory was rocking my little brother Richard asleep in his wheeled baby basket while I listened to The Lone Ranger, Jack Benny and other popular radio shows from the 1950’s. Also I remember my Dad’s “It’s a girl!” joke when my brother Stan was born. After four boys in a row, all of us older kids had hoped for a little sister. But it was not to be, it was our last sibling, dear brother Stan instead.

Image0080

Rob in back, Glenn, neighbor Celeste Chambers, Richard and Stan in front

While living at Morningside I made my first foray into radio and sound reproduction. It was there that I assembled a mail order crystal set, a rudimentary radio that picked up a signal from a connected bedspring antenna and was listened to on a set of headphones. I could not believe at the time that this little gadget actually picked up WOR from New York City as well as our local religious station, WAWZ. It was also at this house where as a teenager I assembled my first really good sound system – an Eico amplifier I built from a kit, a 15 inch Jensen coaxial speaker that I mounted in an old wooden radio cabinet, and an old Garrard turntable. It was on this system that I used to blast Rossinni’s William Tell Overture and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture as well as Fats Domino and Little Richard.

Image0305 (2)

Elaine and Charlie in front of Morningside house

The yard of this house also contained several symmetrical and eminently climbable maple trees, in one of which I fashioned a nice seat-back from baling twine in a fork of three branches high up in the tree. This became my redoubt in which to escape from the noise and chaos of my little brothers. Today looking back I can think of nothing more relaxing than climbing that tree with a sack of tomato sandwiches in my belt and a good book in my hand and settling back in that comfortable seat, reading my book, eating my sandwiches, feeling the tree gently sway and hearing the leaves rustle from a warm summer breeze, above it all, away from it all, in total privacy and relaxation. Yes, I could still hear the noise but I was above it all and thus quite removed.

Image0104

Glenn, Richard, Stan, Murphys’ house in background

Other memories I associate with this house are a unreliable heating system which allowed the glass of water by my bed to freeze one winter night, and the several early spring floods we had. Being in the floodplain of the Millstone River, the area was vulnerable to flooding and we did experience a couple of these, when water ran down the cellar steps in a waterfall, causing havoc with Mom’s jars of canned fruit and vegetables and presenting a huge cleanup job when the flood subsided and water was pumped out. The house looked like an island in the middle of a huge lake and it was exciting to work with my brothers making rafts and then floating out into the deeper water.

Image0082

Charlie among the maple trees 1960

“Morningside” was located about a mile away from the church headquarters town, Zarephath, and was conveniently reached on the Weston Canal Road or on the “back road” a road past “Millwood”, another church home, through the woods and over the dike (an earthen structure to protect Zarephath from the occasional Millstone River flooding and down into our little church “town”. And halfway along our long cinder driveway from the Weston Causeway was the home of the Murphy’s, another church family.

Image0258 (1)

All six Friedly boys at the Morningside house, ’56 or ’57

In the fall of 1958 I was sent to the church school in Westminster, Colorado for my senior year of high school, got into some trouble there and in November was sent to live with my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Emil in Wooster, Ohio. The Wooster High School chapter of my life will be discussed elsewhere on this blog but in terms of a home, I lived in a really nice house, the first family home that my uncle, a general contractor, had built for his family. Built on a hillside in the farmland outside of Wooster, the basement of this beautiful house with real redwood siding was exposed in the back where you could enter and exit through a basement door. It also had a two car garage attached to the house by a breezeway. While there I lived in a comfortable basement bedroom with access to my own bathroom. I was with my Aunt and Uncle through my graduation and into most of July when my parents picked me up to return home to New Jersey and start college at Rutgers University in nearby New Brunswick. Before I left that summer I was able to work for Uncle Emil and receive firsthand a valuable introduction to basic carpentry skills, which I have used my whole life. I also painted, actually stained, the entire house before I left in August. I could not find a picture of this 1958 – 1959 home in my files.

During my first two years of college I again lived at home but obviously spent little time there since conditions were never appropriate to promote study and deep thought. I loved my little brothers but study there was impossible, so I spent most of the day and evening at Rutgers (see “Chaos: My Undergraduate Education”, to be published soon).

After my second year at Rutgers and after some disagreement with my father, I moved to Denver, Colorado and lived in several different apartments at 3001 Umatilla St. From here I could easily get on Speer Boulevard and then on Interstate 25 to get to my job at Navajo Freight Lines on South Santa Fe Drive. I began living there in a one room efficiency apartment where I slept on what was my couch during the day. After a couple of months I moved to a one bedroom unit with a roommate, John Griego. Later, having befriended a couple of Regis College students, Rich Byrne and Ken Adams, I moved into a three bedroom unit with them, all the while working at Navajo. Later that year, a couple of girls in another apartment whom we had befriended, Jerrilyn Rickey and Janice Goddard, joined me in deciding to leave the apartments and rent a furnished house. We did so in south Denver. I cannot remember the address but the experience of being in an actual house with these roommates was rather pleasant. Janice had a little baby girl so Janice, Jerrilyn and I seemed like an interesting little family. Eventually Janice and her little girl moved back to Alaska, Jerrilyn back to Montrose, Colorado and I rented my fourth residence during that year and a half in Denver, a small furnished apartment in central Denver. I don’t remember too much about this little place except that it was comfortable, furnished and conveniently located. Nor could I locate a picture of it in my files or elsewhere.

Image 6-11-17 at 2.12 PM

3001 Umatilla, Denver, Colorado

I returned from Denver in 1962 to live at home for awhile, found a job and resumed my education at Rutgers at night. After getting married in 1963, my wife Elaine and I lived in a one bedroom apartment adjacent to the Rutgers New Brunswick campus – 85 Easton Avenue. A half block away was a Rutgers gathering place called Olde Queens Tavern, very convenient for a quick hamburger or a take-out pizza. Adjusting to marriage, Elaine and I had some loud differences of opinion while in this apartment and I remember being shocked once, when lying on the bed during the day, that I could hear a phone being dialed by my next door neighbor – yes, the walls were that thin and I am sure my poor neighbor had heard all the anger and profanity that had passed between us. For awhile, my brother Robert, who had just started at Rutgers, lived around the corner from us in a small empty store-front that had been turned into a small apartment.

Image 6-12-17 at 4.48 AM

85 Easton Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ

About the time I graduated and began teaching, we moved into a new apartment complex at the junction of Route 18 and US 1 in New Brunswick – 200 Hoffman Boulevard. This apartment was convenient to my job at Irwin School in nearby East Brunswick but also convenient to a number of part time jobs I held at that time. Elaine had started work for a pediatrician, Dr. Hyman Gelbard, at about this time, whose office was also readily accessible. The apartment complex had a swimming pool perched right above the noise and exhaust from US Highway 1 which we used to enjoy, despite the fumes. I have not seen these apartments in many years but we entertained many guests while there, both friends and family.

While staying in the same complex, we later moved from our apartment in order to escape the noise from college student neighbors underneath us to another in the next building, only to find the same problem, this from the neighbor above us, forever fixing a powerful aversion to living next to, above or below anyone at all in an apartment house. It was at this time too when through Elaine and her contact with drug detail men, I began to take pills to sleep or pills to keep me alert (see “My World of Work”) as I worked a number of part time jobs, in addition to my full time job of teaching, to help make ends meet.

In 1968, after obtaining the job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we moved to Pinon Boarding School in Pinon, Arizona, a million miles from nowhere, right smack in the middle of the vast Navajo Reservation at the end of a 45 mile paved road west from Chinle. I recall vividly the Mayflower truck drivers’ comments when delivering our furniture to our primitive cinder block duplex on a mud-filled alley (can’t call it a “street”) in Pinon – “Are you guys out of your minds?” These were the same drivers who had picked up our furniture from our significantly more luxurious apartment home in New Jersey.

img110

Pinon Trading Post 1969

One of the Navajo Reservation school complexes that one passed on the way from Chinle to Pinon was a new day school called Cottonwood, which had, in addition to new school buildings, a dozen or so brand new individual houses for teachers. Actually I had initially thought that this was our Pinon destination on the road from Chinle; it was disappointing that it was not and we had to go on – to old Pinon Boarding School, with the main school building a WPA – built structure and other buildings – the dormitories and residences – painted cinderblock. But our time in Pinon was indeed exciting and memorable. It was at Pinon Mercantile, the local trading post where I met a lifelong friend, Bill Malone, his lovely Navajo wife, Minnie, his stepson and his three little girls.

img112

Bill Malone and daughters 1968

I had read about and finally got to meet the notable BIA school administrator, Wayne Holm, who at his school, Rock Point Boarding School, had formed the first functioning Navajo School Board and had instituted a number of innovative instructional strategies so I applied to be transferred to his school, close to a hundred miles from Pinon. Wayne said he wanted me so we packed up and moved again, this time at our expense and this time in a U-haul truck or a borrowed pickup truck. We moved to a nice single family 3-bedroom house, similar to those I had noticed at Cottonwood, in the residential area of Rock Point School, which cost us, as I recall, about $24 per bi-weekly paycheck. We paid for the utilities.

Parent-Involvment-600x400

Rock Point School, housing in background

We were at Rock Rock Point for just one year, since I had applied for and was admitted to a post-masters program at Harvard Graduate School of Education. So we sold all of our furniture that had been carefully transported from New Jersey to Pinon and less carefully transported a year later from Pinon to Rock Point, packed what was left in our new VW Kombi and headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we had been fortunate enough to get into Harvard married student housing, a high-rise near the Charles River called Peabody Terrace.

Peabody_Terrace_From_Footbridge-1_detail

Peabody Terrace, Harvard married student housing

Our home here for one year, 11 Peabody Terrace, apartment 412, was a partially furnished studio apartment on one of the upper floors, where we had a table and chairs, a mattress on the floor, stereo equipment, LP records and books in a brick and board bookcase, a couch and a desk. I can’t really remember what we brought with us in our VW but it could not have been much – we certainly had stripped ourselves down to the bare essentials – maybe the desk and the table and chairs since we had sold our living room sectional couch, coffee and end tables to my friend Bill at Pinon and sold our beautiful Spanish “distressed finish” dark wood bedroom set to someone at Rock Point. Everything that mattered to us at that time was packed into our vehicle – essentially clothes, music and books. Also, our dog, Seymour, from the Rez, must have come with us because he was with us in Marshfield and Plympton, our next two residences, but I don’t remember traveling with him at all – must have been because he was such a good dog. Nor do I remember him in Cambridge. Maybe he was somewhere else at that time? But where? Did someone take care of him for us? I simply do not remember.

Finishing my year of school, I obtained my first school administrative job as Assistant Principal at Duxbury Elementary School in the south shore community of Duxbury, about 30 miles south of Boston. Our first move to this area was to a small furnished rental a couple of blocks from the beach in Marshfield, the next community north from Duxbury. A small two bedroom house without a garage, this place was ideal as we tried to settle down after the year of school in Cambridge.

After my first year in Duxbury, we bought our first house at 69 Ring Road in Plympton, Massachusetts, about a twenty minute drive to my job in Duxbury. The house was built by a local contractor and landowner who also sold building lots. It was quite modest sized, three bedrooms and one bath with attached two car garage, although to us it seemed very spacious. It was basically a ranch style and was covered with attractive New England style cedar shingle siding. We enjoyed this, our first real house, the first home that we actually owned. It was built on a two acre wooded lot and was located well off the road, hidden back among the trees. I recall a pleasant walk behind the house among some lovely hemlock trees, especially beautiful after a winter snowfall had decorated the branches. It was here that we replenished our furniture, buying much of it from Jordan Marsh warehouse in Quincy. Having built my first stereo amplifier made by Heathkit and the pair of KLH speakers bought while at 85 Easton Avenue in New Brunswick, it was at this house that I finally assembled and finished a beautifully designed music component console made by Furn-a-kit which held the amplifier, tuner and turntable with shelves and sliding enclosures for our LP records on each side.

69 Ring Rd Plympton MA (1)

Our house at 69 Ring Road, Plympton, Massachusetts

It was at this house where my brother Robert visited us from Germany, where he had made his home after serving as an officer in the Army. Accompanied by his girlfriend Helma, we enjoyed his visit very much. Rob also pitched in to assist in some landscaping outside and uphill from the house. As I remember it was a sort of rock retaining wall by the garage. Another memorable occasion was a surprise visit was from my cousin Sandy. We took him into Boston for a superb club concert by the incredibly rich-voiced blues singer Tracy Nelson.

This concludes the first section of “Home Sweet Home”. My memory, though pretty good for a guy my age, may have provided some inaccurate information, so please don’t hesitate to let me know if something needs to be corrected. All articles on this blog are really works in progress, anyhow. My second and third sections are written and will be published as soon as they can be illustrated.

 

 

 

Summer 1957

Tags

, , , , , , ,

I don’t really know how it was planned, maybe spur of the moment, but I don’t think I was heavily involved, maybe just expressed some interest, but I spent the summer of 1957 on the Baxstrom farm in Mylo, North Dakota, the little prairie town where my mother was born and raised.

In the spring of 1957 my Grandmother Friedly passed away from cancer at the age of 59. My father and his brother Gene, also living in New Jersey, Mr. Mark Tomlin, a young Pillar of Fire church minister, whom my grandmother had asked to conduct the funeral service before she died, and I, traveled by car from New Jersey to Missouri, leaving in the morning, driving all night and arriving at midday.

The funeral itself was conducted in a local church with Mr. Tomlin giving a very heartfelt eulogy, recounting my grandmother’s life, her conversion and relationship with the Pillar of Fire church. Details of the service I cannot remember clearly but I do recall joining in singing one favorite old country hymn that she had requested – “The Unclouded Day”. The funeral was attended by many relatives – my Dad’s surviving siblings Ada, Burton and of course, Gene, and a host of grandchildren who lived in the area. Also attending were many of Dad’s cousins from both the Friedly and Arnold sides of the family.

One cousin, whose name I cannot remember, drove me and my decrepit suitcase, to Kansas City, where he lived, and put me aboard a Greyhound bus, bound for Minneapolis, Minnesota. I rememberer the bus trip quite well – the overwhelming acrid smell of cigarette smoke in the bus, to which I, as an occasional teenage smoker, contributed. I remember catching little naps on the way and arriving in the Minneapolis bus station in the evening. My next bus connection, to Grand Forks, North Dakota, did not leave until the next morning, so I was stuck in Minneapolis for the night. I put my suitcase into one of those coin operated storage units and spent some time sitting on the benches in the bus station, reading magazines, dozing occasionally and killing time. Then, my first, and later, second, encounter with a predatory gay man occurred. An old man sat down next to me and asked me where I was going and proceeded to try to strike up a conversation. I put him off and he soon left me to my magazines. Seeking to kill more time, I left the bus station and walked toward a nearby all night movie theater that was showing “Gunfight at the OK Corral”. On the street I met the same man and he inquired as to my welfare, and actually reached up and brushed my hair back. This freaked me out so completely that I literally ran all the way to the theater, enjoyed watching the movie, came back to the bus station and resumed my long wait for my morning bus to Grand Forks. Thank God, I did not encounter this man again.

Reaching Grand Forks, I bought a ticket (honestly I don’t recall whether I made the arrangements or my parents or my Dad’s cousin, nor do I recall how I got from the bus station to the railroad station) for a train on the Great Northern Railroad from Grand Forks to Rugby, where my Uncle Clarence would pick me up. The train I boarded was not the fabled “Empire Builder”, which as an express train went right on by Grand Forks and Rugby, but the lesser known, more “local”, but still somewhat famous “Western Star”. I took this train in the afternoon, I think, got off in Rugby and was cheerfully greeted by my Uncle Clarence, the eldest of the Baxstrom siblings, of which my mother, Ida, was the second youngest. (Some typical  scenes of North Dakota from the “Empire Builder”, now an Amtrak train)

After the long drive in Uncle Clarence’s truck and being greeted warmly by Grandma and Aunt Ruth I settled into to my new life in North Dakota. I slept in the same room as my Uncle Clarence, where we kept a “thunder mug” between the beds in case nature called during the night. There was a radio in the room also that we both listened to every evening – he to the local news and I to a music station from Winnipeg, Canada. I will forever remember the songs i heard that summer, among them Paul Anka’s “Diana”, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy”, “That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Hollly, and “C.C. Rider” by Chuck Willis. Terribly homesick for my parents and especially my little brothers, these songs and others kept me company that summer.

The assortment and the arrangement of the buildings on the Baxstrom farm was interesting. Adjacent to the house was a cistern which collected rainwater off the roof. My uncle and I used this water to clean up in a nearby wood frame building called the “wash house”. Here were tubs and basins for sponge baths, a mirror for shaving, the wringer washing machine for washing clothes and various other items related to keeping us and our garments clean. I don’t think I took a bath or a shower for the whole summer but kept clean, as did Uncle Clarence, with just sponge baths in the wash house. Oddly, the house did have a full bathroom and bath tub, installed there by Uncle Emil and (I think) Uncle Vernon, in 1953, when there was a family reunion held there. But the bathroom was evidently exclusively for the use of Grandma and Aunt Ruth. I never asked why, but looking back on it, that circumstance was indeed rather strange, not to mention, inconvenient for my Uncle and me.

Another building was the “cook car”, an oblong wooden building on wheels which used to be towed out into he fields during harvest time as the place where the women prepared the meals for the workmen to eat at a long table in this structure. My mom had many stories about what it was like to prepare and serve meals to a dozen or so hired men in the cook car. There was also a large coop for Aunt Ruth’s turkeys and nearby was a large garden area for vegetables. And across the road north of the farm was a large granary building in which bags of grain and seed were stored.

Image0269.jpg

Barb and I in 1953

South and a little east of the house was the barn, which when my Mom was little, was used for milking the dairy cattle the family owned. I can remember when I was visiting in 1953, standing with my sister Barbara on top of a wagonload of hay waiting to be lifted and dumped in the haymow of the barn. At this time, my uncle had no dairy cattle but he did maintain a herd of beef cattle, Herefords, to be exact, in the pasture “out west”.

Another notable building was the outhouse, actually a rather modern and sturdy structure, apparently built by the WPA during the Roosevelt administration, which was a “two-holer” constructed above a very deep concrete lined pit. Real toilet paper holders by each place were a vast improvement on my Friedly grandparents’ Missouri outhouse’s Sears catalog, as were the hinged wood covers for each hole. Screened ventilation openings near the roof kept the air fresh inside and I do remember a haunting whistling noise from these openings from the constant prairie wind. This was the “bathroom” my Uncle and I used. A nice concrete sidewalk, constructed by my visiting Baxstrom uncles in 1953 and starting at the front gate connected the house, wash house and outhouse.

Directly west of the house was a workshop kind of building where tools were kept and tractors and other vehicles were parked when they were being repaired. The place had a very pleasant smell – a combination of gasoline, oil, grease, old wood, soil, and creosote. I can remember during one of our summer visits watching Grandpa Baxstrom sitting at a concrete grindstone, turning it with two oscillating pedals and sharpening an axe. A tin can of water with a hole punched in it with a 16 penny nail hanging out of it was suspended above the turning wheel and the water dripping from the nail onto the wheel kept it and whatever was being sharpened cool during the process. Otherwise, the activity produced a potentially dangerous shower of sparks.

When I first began helping Uncle Clarence, there was a hired man there also, living in a cabin west beyond the workshop, a hired man quarters on the west side of the main drive, back among some trees. Joe Martel was a Chippewa Indian from the nearby Turtle Mountain Reservation near Dunseith. He had worked off and on for my uncle for a few years, I was told. Joe ate his meals with Uncle Clarence and I in the small dining area in the entryway of the house. One of the first tasks the three of us shared was to rebuild a long length of the fence in the pasture “out west”, as it was called. This quarter-section pasture was virgin North Dakota sod – about a foot thick tangle of grass roots, that you had to penetrate to sink a fence post. I remember Joe, peering down the fence, saying “a little nort” or “ a little more sowt” as a post and hole were located to be lined up with the others.

A week of so after my arrival, Joe was dismissed by Uncle Clarence, evidently because I was now the “hired man”. I felt pretty good that I was being counted upon to fill Joe’s shoes but some years later, I had heard that Joe who, like many other native Americans in the area, had a serious drinking problem, was found frozen to death in a snowstorm. I couldn’t help but think that I somehow shared some responsibility for this tragedy, having put him out of this job in 1957.

I enjoyed mealtimes that summer in North Dakota, not only because my Aunt Ruth was a good cook and made fabulous homemade bread and other baked goods, but also because there were four meals a day, not three. To this day I don’t know if it was a Baxstrom custom or a North Dakota farm custom but in the early morning you had breakfast, then at noon it was dinner, then around three or four o’clock, you broke for lunch, then after all the work was done for the day and you cleaned up, you had “supper” around seven. Breakfast, dinner and supper were full square meals, whereas “lunch” was more a few snacks – something to drink, maybe coffee or iced tea, and a sandwich or some summer sausage and bread. Sometimes a piece of Aunt Ruth’s rhubarb pie was served, or a few of her cookies. Anyhow, this mid-afternoon “meal” was most welcome as a break from a long afternoon of work. Interesting that Uncle Clarence and I always ate together, without Grandma and Aunt Ruth. They apparently always ate together at a table in the kitchen. I don’t remember ever sitting down as a whole “family” to a meal the entire summer I was there.

The dynamics of life there were interesting. My Uncle and Aunt, respectively the oldest and second oldest siblings in the Baxstrom family were never married. I don’t know why – aside from them both being properly crotchety and short-tempered as an old maid and bachelor are supposed to be, they both seemed entirely normal and certainly nice enough to attract a potential spouse. Uncle Clarence had worked a variety of jobs in his younger days, mainly as an oil field trucker, and apparently had returned home to keep the farm going after my Grandfather died in 1955. I know little of Aunt Ruth’s history, other than also becoming a fixture on the farm after Grandpa’s passing, to care for the house, plant and maintain the garden and see to Grandma’s needs. My Grandmother, a wonderfully warm and loving person, whose eyesight was compromised from cataracts, used to look at me close to her face and even feel my face and hair to “see” what I looked like.

The relationship between my Aunt and Uncle was tenuous. For the most part tolerant, it sometimes erupted in a storm of reproach, accusation, anger and raised voices, and in the case of my Uncle, a flood of colorful profanity. My Aunt raised a flock of turkeys that summer (and evidently every summer) whose presence around the farm would greatly irritate my Uncle, particularly when they would roost on his farm implements and soil them with their droppings. I can remember him chasing the turkeys off his equipment with a handful of gravel and a hail of curse words mixed with the frenzied wing-flapping and loud gobbling of the fleeing turkeys.

Other dynamics were noticeable as well. Another of my mother’s siblings, my Uncle Arnold, and his wife Alvida (actually I remember her name spelled Alveda but this spelling was featured in her obituary) lived in Mylo and farmed several quarters of land that he owned adjacent to the Baxstrom family farm land. There seemed to be some “bad blood” between Grandma, Ruth and Clarence and Arnold and Alvida. A couple of times that summer, when Uncle Arnold and I were on tractors on neighboring fields, he would stop his tractor, as did I, and we would walk across the field to greet one another and have a short conversation. While I was there Uncle Arnold was never invited to join us for a meal, nor did anyone in our household visit with him and Alvida. To this day, I don’t know precisely why because he was a very bright, educated and wonderfully warm, soft spoken and dignified man, but I would imagine it had to do with his wife, Alvida, who maybe was never really accepted by the rest of the family, or maybe it was the other way around. Aunt Alvida seemed to envelop and smother Arnold with her unseemly enthusiasm for religion and effusive and active love for her husband. I remember our family receiving snapshots of the two of them, with endearments written all over them and signed “The Mylo Lovebirds”. Perhaps some of this unseemly passion could be explained by their 17 year difference in age, Arnold 37 and Alvida 20 when they married. And maybe some of the estrangement could be explained by some likely sibling jealousy from Clarence and Ruth concerning Arnold and Alvida’s publicly passionate and happy marriage. They never had children and I never knew why. Uncle Arnold passed away in 2001 and Alvida in 2013.

The work I did for my Uncle varied from day to day but always included turning on and off the windmills – one near the barn in the small pasture where several younger cattle were kept and one in the big pasture “out west”, but the best, most exciting work, was sitting on a tractor pulling a harrow. Shortly before I got there that year, Uncle Clarence had bought a brand new John Deere 720 , a big, powerful two-cylinder diesel, for his field work. It was indeed an very exciting and pleasurable experience to drive this machine. First, it was huge, and to feel so close to its throbbing power, was thrilling. Second, it was easy to drive – it was the first tractor I had ever driven that had power steering, making a huge difference in how it handled. Also mentioned in the article were the two big John Deere model D’s we had – old but very powerful and still reliable. Also Uncle Clarence had a John Deere A which we used to bale hay and to cultivate a nearby field of corn. I earned a rare compliment from Uncle Clarence when, after we turned the row cultivators inward just a little and I used a daringly high gear to cultivate the corn, sufficient soil was thrown up against the cornstalks to completely choke out the weeds.

Pulling a huge, harrow up and down those expansive North Dakota fields, the ones we kept fallow, was indeed a thrilling experience. Often it would take as long as a half-hour to do a full course up and down the field. When the work was done you were often covered with a layer of black North Dakota soil which had settled on you from the cloud of dust which often accompanied the cultivator. North Dakota farm fields, very flat, present a broad endless vista and a glorious feeling of liberation and freedom. But their general lack of drainage results in their being punctuated with sloughs, occasional low, wet grassy areas, sometimes with a pond or small lake in the middle. These were areas around which you had to be very careful, in order to cultivate the arable land around them as closely as possible while avoiding getting so close as to get into the mud. Well, in one of our fields about a half mile from home, I was trying to get as close to the edge as possible to cultivate the maximum amount of soil but unfortunately got too close and suddenly saw the tractor’s tire treads filling with mud and the big wheels starting to spin. I raised the cultivator immediately reducing tractor’s load but it was a too late, the tractor sunk in right up to the drawbar resulting in absolutely no traction at all. I broke out into a cold nervous sweat, turned off the engine and walked all the way home with the bad news for Uncle Clarence. Wow, talk about the air turning blue with profanity. My mistake had evoked a real torrent. In a rage, with wheels spinning and dust flying, my uncle drove us back out to the tractor in the pickup truck, somehow unhitched the harrow, freed the tractor and then pulled the harrow out of the mud with a chain. After hitching back up, Uncle Clarence, still enraged, drove the tractor and harrow back to the farm at full speed with huge globs of mud flying from the deep tire treads while I slowly and ashamedly drove the truck back. After such incidents my punishment was a day or two of silence and no work assignments – retribution not easily borne in the limited confines of the farm.

Being banished to idleness was tough to take but the same thing happened more or less naturally on rainy days. Really on those days, if there was work to be done out in the barn or shop area, fine, I did it but usually any work out there was a little more technical and beyond my ability. So on most rainy days when I could not work outside I stayed inside and read. There was no shortage of reading material there on the farm. Uncle Clarence was an inveterate collector of National Geographic and Esquire magazines, which were stored in the washhouse attic and out in the hired man cabin. So I used to enjoy going through stacks of these during times I was idle. Particularly pleasurable in the old Esquires, especially for a 15 year old boy, were the gorgeous pinup pictures by the famed Alberto Vargas. Also in the living room of the house was a set of World War II photo books that I loved leafing through.

Another memory relating to my time on the tractors tilling those expansive fields of rich black North Dakota prairie soil was enriching the experience by smoking a cigarette or two. I remember vividly how I lit my cigarette by placing it in my lips, then leaning close and sucking in while touching the end to the extremely hot exhaust manifold of the tractor engine. As a surreptitious smoker all through my teens, sneaking off with friends for a few puffs, that first taste of the smoke was uniquely rich and something I will never forget. I started smoking habitually in my late teens as a college student and office worker and through my 20’s and 30’s as an educator as well, finally kicking the habit in dramatic fashion at age 39 while a doctoral student in Arizona. Of course I never smoked openly in North Dakota, assuming my Aunt, Uncle and Grandmother would disapprove and share this news with my mother and father. This in spite of the fact that my Uncle was a devoted cigar smoker, smoking one end and chewing up the other of at least one every day while he worked around the farm.

The mention of Uncle Clarence and his cigars brings me to our Saturday nights, when Uncle Clarence and I would go out “on the town”. These occasions were quite special, starting with getting really cleaned up, shaved, dressed in “go to town” clothes, i.e., for me clean jeans and shirt, or as with Uncle Clarence, dress pants and shoes, a nice ironed shirt and a new cigar. Also, we spritzed ourselves with some Old Spice. Then off we’d go to Rollette or Rolla for a restaurant supper, maybe a haircut (along with Uncle Clarence’s perennial joke about his baldness – “don’t take much off the top”) , some gossip, usually weather or crop price news exchanged with farmer neighbors, some shopping, some ice cream and then the trip home. I think Uncle Clarence had usually used these occasions to visit a bar or two in these towns and maybe visit a female acquaintance, but my presence probably cramped his style so his nights on the town with me were quite staid and simple. He probably felt some responsibility to his sister, my Mom, to keep our town visits toned down.

Image0317

Uncle Clarence ready for a night on the town

Uncle Clarence made a living on the farm for himself, Aunt Ruth and Grandma Baxstrom by raising wheat and cattle. That summer there was an extended drought that limited the supply of grass on our “out west” quarter section of virgin sod pasture. Accordingly Uncle Clarence scouted around for some additional pasture to rent and found some available land near Dunseith, in the “Turtle Mountains” a small town right next to the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. Mind you, these “mountains” would hardly qualify as hills in any other state than mostly flat North Dakota but the area was a little higher than our farm and therefore better watered. So Uncle Clarence rented a large area, maybe a quarter or so, already fenced and we moved the cattle, mostly Herefords, there for the rest of the summer. I remember when we were walking the borders of the new pasture land, good grass and a lot of scrub oak, we came upon a concrete pylon upon which was vertically engraved on one side “United States of America” and on the other “Dominion of Canada”.

One chilly clear summer night I was utterly dazzled by my first and only glimpse of the Northern Lights. Looking back I still marvel at this phenomenon – undulating pink-purple ribbons of light dancing across the sky in random patterns. If the daytime sun and the moon and stars of the night sky defied rational understanding by early mankind and gave rise to to mythological explanation, I can only imagine what the otherworldly sight of the northern lights provoked in their attempts at explanation. Truly I was thrilled beyond words at this sight, which occurred only on that particular night. It’s likely they appeared on others as well but that particular night I happened to be awake and outside.

It was while I was in North Dakota that I used some savings money for that great mail order that I described in my recent article about Sears and the clothing I got was perfect for my work. The engineer boots were perfect for farming as were the sturdy “Roebucks” jeans. And the girl I wanted to impress so badly that summer was Sharon Anfinson, whom I spotted at the Mylo Post Office one day and maybe caught a glimpse of a couple of other times. Blond haired and beautiful, I pined, ached and yearned for her all summer but to no avail. I understood that she and her family attended the Lutheran church in Mylo but we never went. And my feeble fantasies about getting introduced to her or introducing myself to her went nowhere. Uncle Clarence used to tease me about her occasionally, but why? Sadly I never even had the chance to meet her or talk with her.

North Dakota is a spring wheat state, in contrast to many states to its south which plant their wheat in the fall. Wheat is planted in April or so with it maturing and ready for harvest in mid August to early September. I participated in our harvest time that August, a time, if the weather was right, when every machine, every person, every pair of hands is focused on one thing – getting the wheat harvested and safely to sale or storage before the weather changed. And the harvesting operation began in the morning as soon as the dew dried and ended late at night before dew formed. Looking back on that important time I cannot remember whether Uncle Clarence used his own, rather old tractor-pulled combine, or contracted with a self-propelled combine equipped neighbor, Mr. Niemeyer, to do it, or employed one of the many “custom combine” operations that followed the wheat harvest across the country from south to north. I do know we did not use the really old power-take-off belt-driven threshing machine that was still on the farm, perched on its steel wheels. At any rate, we began in the morning and the harvested wheat was transported to Mylo in my uncle’s dump truck and behind a tractor in a towed wagon. The bright lights of the harvesting operation blazed in the fields until late that first night and the operation continued throughout the next day, completed in just two days. By the way, the combine earned that name because it combined the operation of the old reaper-binder machines and the threshing machine.

Image0090

Me, Grandma, and my dear brothers and sisters August 1957

In late August on the summer of 1957, I was working in the granary across the road north of the house, when I saw the Friedly family’s brown and tan 1954 Chevy station wagon coming up the road and turning in at the gate. So excited that I burst into tears, I left what I was doing, bolted across the road and ran to greet my family, who had come to pick me up and take me home. I had known they were coming but didn’t know precisely when. I was so excited to see Mom and Dad and once again embrace my dear little brothers – there they all were – little Glenn, Richard, Stan and the larger little brothers Rob and Charlie, plus sweet sisters Elaine and Barbara. Yes, they were all there – with me in North Dakota. Thank God.

Image0092.jpg

Little brother Glenn and Uncle Clarence on the 720

One little incident before we left together in the 1954 Chevy wagon, should be related. I was on the tractor, cultivating one of the huge fallow fields for one last time with my brother Charlie with me on the tractor. After finishing, I realized that I was missing my wallet out of my back pocket. Why I even had my wallet with me is a question I cannot answer, much less, how I had lost it. And why then, why not earlier in the summer? At any rate, since it had my money in it and a check Uncle Clarence had presented me with for the summer’s work, I was faced with looking for it among the acres of furrows of turned black earth. Charlie volunteered to help so up and down the long field we walked looking for my wallet. Who knows, it could have been buried by the harrow. But persistently up and down we went moving a little further in each time, like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. But suddenly Charlie hollered, “ There it is!” And there it was. My sharp eyed little brother Charlie had spotted my wallet among those many acres of freshly turned soil. Unbelievable!

Image0091

Glenn with the calf bottle, Stan in front seat with the real thing

Image0098

Mom 42 and Grandma 77 in 1957

Before closing this article I should say something about our little North Dakota town of Mylo. I guess when the Baxstrom children were young the town was quite prosperous. I have seen pictures of my mother and classmates at her Mylo school. And I have heard from other Baxstrom relatives about the town many years ago. In 1957 when I was there, it was still bustling. There was a general store, a post office, a very active Lutheran church, a couple of dozen homes in the town, which included that of my Uncle Arnold and Aunt Alvida, and very important, a John Deere dealership right there on Main Street. Owned by a huge man called “Tiny” Wiemeyer, it served customers from many neighboring towns. My Uncle’s John Deere 720 was bought from “Tiny”. And in 1957 there still was a huge wooden grain elevator on the south side of town right next to the tracks of the Soo Line, the railroad that ran through town and from which I could hear occasional passing freight trains and train whistles. And that grain elevator did a thriving business, and not only at harvest time, for it was the place where local farmers purchased their seed, fertilizer, weed sprays and other items. On one of his visits, my brother Robert, who in his teens, incredibly had learned to ride a unicycle, shook up the little town when on a visit, took his unicycle out and rode it up and down main street, causing the locals to stop in their tracks, cease what they were doing, emerge from their vehicles and from their businesses to stare open mouthed and dumfounded at this incredible curiosity. Nothing quite like that had ever happened in this modest and quiet little town.

Image0323

Ruth, Ida and Elma

Image0322.jpg

Mylo School, Mom on right (I think)

img283

Baxstrom family, Mom on left by her mother

Today the town of Mylo is depressingly empty. No more Lutheran church. The John Deere dealership had long ago moved to Rollette. The general store is long gone as are many of the residential houses in town. The grain elevator is no more and the Soo Line has disappeared, although on Google Earth, its old route through town can still be clearly seen. The present population of Mylo today is perhaps a dozen people, maybe that is even generous. So sad that this little prairie town, so dear to my mother and her siblings, is now for all intents and purposes, simply gone. Google Earth shows the “streets” in town, clearly labeled, but there is nothing on those streets. The north-south main street can be seen, as can the the farm itself (someone else’s now for the last 50 years or so, directly in line with main street, about a mile north from town. Actually, the farm’s attitude from main street reminds me that my Aunt Ruth used to use a pair of binoculars to peer at main street several times a day and would comment on who was where and doing what in town, with a memorable “Huh, there’s Mr.______ at the post office again – I wonder why two trips today….Huh, there’s Mrs.______ at the store, why she was just there yesterday, I wonder what she’s buying this time….Huh, there’s old Mrs. ______ at the post office…I thought she was still sick…” Etc. etc.

Image0324.jpg

Ruth, Elma, Mom (Ida) and Grandma

A search of the Mylo cemetery shows these Baxstroms interred there. Interesting that Uncle Vernon, who spent most of his life in the state of Washington, chose (or his family chose for him) to be buried in the town where he was born. Aunt Alvida’s grave is in the Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran cemetery in her hometown of Adams, N.D. I was unable to discover where Uncle Arnold’s grave was located.

Baxstrom, Anna Christina Jonsson b. 1880 ~ d. 1967 (Grandma Baxstrom)
Baxstrom, Nels b. 1871 ~ d. 1955 (Grandpa Baxstrom)
Baxstrom, J. Clarence b. 1903 ~ d. 1981
Baxstrom, Ruth I. b. 1904 ~ d. 1977
Baxstrom, Vernon E. b. 1905 ~ d. 1979

Uncle Clarence and Aunt Ruth were in their early fifties when I was with them in 1957. Grandma Baxstrom was 77.

Image0129.jpg

Aunt Ruth 61, me and Grandma 85 in North Dakota, 1965

The Backwards Hat

Tags

, , , , ,

When I started this blog a couple of years ago I was happy that I could write about whatever’s on my mind, instead of always having to write boring routine communications, rationales and reports as a principal or superintendent. Well guess what’s on my mind today for some reason? The fact that the sight of a kid, teenager or adult (or tennis player or rap singer) wearing his baseball hat backwards really offends me.

backwardscap

When I see this I first am struck by the total ridiculousness of the act. A baseball hat has a brim, visor, or bill if you wish, in front to shade the eyes from the sun, a bright sky or lights. That’s why baseball players wear them. And that’s the reason, presumably, the rest of us wear them. Then why on earth would any reasonable person turn the hat around, depriving it of its basic purpose. Heavens, the bill is shading the neck and the sun is shining in your eyes. To do this doesn’t make any sense to me.

But wait, there’s more. Not only do I wonder about the sanity and rationality of anyone who does this, but there is a definite quality of insolence, rebellion, rudeness and disrespect conveyed by the act that I find grating and irritating. Also, there is a definite quality of immaturity implied by wearing your baseball hat backwards. All this is much less so when a five or ten year old wears the hat backwards, but still, it conveys a naughtiness, impishness or contrariness even when a child does it. But my God, when older people do it, it really looks stupid and is truly offensive.baseballcap

The “Urban Dictionary” defines a “backwards hat” in this way:
1. The calling card of a moron
2. Something that white kids took from black kids and ruined
3. How to identify the true loser in the crowd
4. I can easily single out who is the real dope of the group because he has his hat on backwards.
I couldn’t agree more. The story is told of a foreign visitor who kept seeing Americans wearing their baseball caps indoors, and at times backwards. He determined this style indicated a direct correlation to the wearer’s apparent I.Q. Wearing a baseball cap indoors meant an I.Q. was reduced by 50%. Wearing the cap backwards meant an I.Q. was reduced by another 50%… so what’s left? Not much. Again, I agree.

Not long ago this photo of our supposedly dignified and intelligent “policy wonk” House Majority Leader Paul Ryan ran in the media. I didn’t think he was mature before, but take a look at the photo and decide what the backward hat and the biceps show connote. Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri describes him perfectly – “It’s the hat. It’s really the hat that does it….He looks like the 30-year-old actor pretending to be a teenager in your ninth grade health class video about Making Better Choices.”

Paul Ryan and weights

At the gym where I regularly work out there is a guy, probably in his early 60’s, who occasionally occupies an ellyptical trainer near the one I have selected. This guy, flabby arms and all, is wearing not only a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off exposing those pitiful arms, but also his baseball hat is turned around backwards. What the hell, I say to myself, who or what is this guy trying to be – a teenager? Or really macho ? Please, come on, grow up!

Early in my life I learned that the only people who wore a baseball hat backwards were baseball catchers, who of course could not properly wear their mask unless the hat was turned around with the bill in back. Later I realized that other professions, like welding, were included – tough to wear that mask too, with the bill frontwards. And I am sure there are other situations when turning the hat around is actually required, like when you are riding in the back of a truck, or on your motorcycle or in a convertible. Hey, I have no problem with this – if you didn’t turn it around it would blow off your head and you would lose it. But when you get off the truck bed, park the motorcycle or put the top back up on your convertible, turn your hat back around.

bbcap-22

I am not alone in my opinion. None other than the notable conservative columnist, George Will feels the same way I do. In fact, Mr. Will, with whom I agree on little (but his articles on baseball are wonderful!) wrote a column some years ago condemning this act and labeling it “a bit of contemporary infantilism”. In speculating about where this habit came from, Mr. Will suggested that it began with the J. D. Salinger novel, so popular with teenagers, “Catcher in the Rye”, in which Holden relates in Chapter 3, “…I put on this hat that I’d bought in New York that morning.  It was a red hunting hat, with one of those very, very long peaks…..The way I wore it, I swung the old peak way around to the back — very corny, I’ll admit but I liked it that way, I looked good in it that way”. Doubtless, all the teenagers who follow Holden’s example think they look good too. Mr. Will may be right but both Walter Matthau, playing the part of Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple” on Broadway in 1965 and Jack Klugman as Madison in the later TV series both wore a backwards baseball cap and consequently may have helped.

Catcher in the rye coverklugmane19a6db516b47d8388d2b99bdf5f80ee

And I have significant additional support in this opposition to backward hats. The inimitable, always irreverent and profane late George Carlin, also shares my opinion.

Hewitt_WM16_(12)_(28385918786)

As I noted in a previous article, I love tennis. Tennis players practice their precise and painstaking skills in the sun or bright lights of a tennis court. Some are purists and play without the benefit of a sun visor or a cap. But many others do indeed ply their craft with their eyes protected by the bill of a sun visor or a hat. But, good heavens, there are those fools, those imbeciles, who insist on playing tennis with a turned-around baseball cap. When I see this, that tennis player is automatically reduced to a teenager, to an unserious player, to someone whose cultivation of a teenage image is more important than being a serious professional. Foremost among these is Leyton Hewitt, the recently retired Australian pro. While I have always loved Hewitt’s enthusiastic and reckless win-at-all-costs game, I have always hated the turned around hat, which to me has always detracted from his game. I am convinced that he would have been a much more successful professional had he chosen to wear his hat the right way and shade his eyes from the sun and lights.Obama wearing hat backwards

Feeling the way I do about people choosing to wear their hat backwards, you can imagine the shock and the disappointment with which I reacted when I saw a photo of our very own President Barack Obama, the epitome of maturity and dignity, wearing his hat backwards at some kind of vacation cookout with Richard Branson. There he was, my own President, looking like a fool, like a doofus teenager, wearing his hat backwards. That did it for me and I resolved to someday write this article, trying to explain what it means to others when you choose to wear you baseball hat backwards. And so again, for yet another reason, thank you President Obama!

 

 

 

Sears, Roebuck and Company

Tags

, , , , ,

I was very distressed to read a recent article on Salon about Sears teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Actually, it’s a story that I’ve seen repeatedly over the last five or ten years. Sears is indeed having serious problems. Its sales figures and profit have been in free fall in recent years, facing wilting competition from Walmart, Kohl’s and other department stores. In an age of “niche” retailers, Sears has failed to carve out a defined place for itself. It’s not the bargasearsin store like Walmart, it’s not the hardware store like Home Depot or Lowe’s, it’s not the clothing store like Dillard’s or Macy’s, or the home store like Bed, Bath and Beyond, it is not the high-volume store like Costco and it is not the mail order store like Amazon. Sears has tried to be the “everything under one roof” store but has not been successful in carving out a successful and distinguished niche in the retail community. However, if Sears does eventually fail and closes all its stores, I will be very sad. Sears has been part of my life for many years, in fact for all of them.
sears-catalogue

The arrival of the new spring and summer or the new fall and winter Sears mail-order catalog was a huge event in the family when I was young. The appearance of the annual Christmas catalog, thinner but so very exciting to leaf through, and thoroughly tattered by the time the holiday itself finally came, was another important moment in our family life. These catalogs were indeed the “dream books” in our home, always perched in a prominent place for convenient access and easy perusal.

2131258175_2cd7affdc5_bAnd the catalog was not only a “dream book” but a helpful and readily available price reference. If you were trying to find out how much something cost, even though Sears was not to be the source  of the purchase, there it was, pictured in the catalog, with a reliable median price attached.

The Sears Catalog had serious competition in my childhood from the catalogs of Montgomery Ward and to a lesser degree from Spiegel. It was a sad day when they both closed mail order operations and their catalogs stopped coming, because they too always afforded a goodly share of childhood dreams. Sears’ mail order business lasted a little longer but it too eventually stopped, apparently for good in 1993.

1_thumb
220px-spiegel2It was so exciting to actually order some items from Sears and wait for the order to arrive. When the order did come, securely wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with twine, or in a plain brown box, it seemed like Christmas right there and then, regardless of the actual time of year. My father even used to order his baby chicks through the Sears catalog. One hundred fluffy cheeping little chicks would arrive in an excelsior-lined four compartment cardboard box with air holes punched in the sides, from Sears, mind you.

Sears and Montgomery Ward mail order catalogs played an important historical and economic role in the late 19th and early 20th centuries especially in rural American by breaking the hold of the local “general store” on customers. Finally a plethora of “ready made” items became readily available for a set price and with a “money back” guarantee. There was little that the catalogs of the day did not contain and remarkably at one point, Sears was selling a package of pre-engineered and precut materials for a complete house, even featuring several different models from which to choose.

engineer-boohsWhen I was fifteen years old, while in North Dakota for the summer with my grandmother Baxstrom and aunt Ruth and working for my Uncle Clarence, I conducted the greatest Sears catalog mail order in my memory. The order consisted of a pair of dream-come-true engineer boots, replete with big heel, oiled black leather, round toe, strap and buckle over the foot, and a strip of metal embedded in the back to keep the high top straight. Also in this order was a chambray shirt, always the perfect color and fabric to wear with bluejeans, and a nice light blue sweatshirt with warm fleece inside. Roebucks pocket.jpgMaybe the most striking item, next to the engineer boots, was a sleek pair of “Roebucks” jeans, made of heavy 11 ounce denim material and featuring their distinctive upward curved top front pockets and keystone-shaped center belt loop in the back. I don’t remember a pair of jeans ever fitting as well as these great “Roebucks”. I certainly enjoyed swaggering around in my stylish new jeanroebucks-belt-loops, chambray shirt, and engineer boots, waiting for a comely member of the opposite sex to notice me. (They never did, but I could dream!)

One of the aspects of Sears that I remember most vividly, was its own quality brands of categories of merchandise. The “JC Higgins” brand of outdoor and sports equipment always meant sterling quality and fair price. The first fishing reel I ever owned was a JC Higgins model for $1.99, that was later attached to a JC Higgins metal fishing rod from my father. A dream never realized was a JC Higgins bicycle sporting a large “tank” with fake portholes mounted in the cross bars and a spring loaded front fork, that I must have looked at hundreds of times in the catalog. Actually quite cumbersome by today’s standards, this bike was then to me the “Cadillac” of bicycles and would have certainly dazzled all of my friends, had I been fortunate enough to own one.

bike_jchiggins_550hOne dream finally attained but cut a little short was the saving for and eventual purchase of a top of the line JC Higgins baseball fielder’s mitt from Sears. It was the perfect size and shape, with leather lining and the thumb and finger loops in just the right places and when broken in, was unbelievable at scooping up infield grounders or snaring fly balls in the outfield. But my little brother Richard borrowed it (with my blessing) to take on a school outing where a ball game was to be played and accidentally left it there, lost forever, now the valued possession of the lucky finder. Richard was so upset about his carelessness and losing his big brother’s prized ball glove, that I really couldn’t get very angry with him. But I was certainly saddened at the loss of such a prized and valued possession as this marvelous example of quality JC Higgins sporting goods.

jc-higggins-glove

Other Sears brands come readily to mind. “Silvertone” radios were a permanent and prized part of childhood. And of course Silvertone televisions came along as well, although their price precluded their presence in our modest household. The “Silvertone” brand was applied to a range of high quality Sears musical instruments as well, mainly a line of guitars although I think my sister Barbara played a Silvertone clarinet.

silvertone6356front
And of course another famous Sears brand was “Allstate”, first applied to the lines of tires sold by Sears and then to insurance, when Sears decided to sell auto insurance through its mail order service. Allstate insurance maintained a lofty reputation and still uses its “you’re in good hands” theme in present day advertising. Allstate remained part of the Sears operation until 1993 when it was spun off as an publicly owned independent company.

allstateOther trusted Sears brands that have always meant extraordinary quality, are Kenmore and Craftsman. The Kenmore brand of appliances has always connoted great value and lasting utility and I have never owned a Kenmore appliance, from refrigerators to washers and dryers, that ever disappointed. And I have to say the same for Craftsman tools. They have always been of the highest quality, whether made in the US as they used to be in my childhood, or made primarily in China as they are now, and have never failed me.kenmore And if they did, there’s the famous Craftsman lifetime warrantee, which now may actually be in doubt, for earlier this year, it was reported that Sears had sold its Craftsman brand to Stanley Black & Decker for almost a billion dollars, to raise the cash it needs to survive additional store closings and declining revenue.craftsman-2 And of course the fabled Sears DieHard batteries have earned a well deserved reputation of superb reliability, always ranking among the most reliable batteries in Consumer Reports tests.

spin_prod_246710301I myself am the proud owner of a Craftsman riding mower which I bought because of the reasonable price and consistent high reliability ratings. Easy to maintain and repair with readily available replacement parts, it has served me well mowing my acre of Vermont grass every week or so during the summer months.

img_0200
So indeed if Sears does ultimately go the way of Mervyn’s, another chain of stores, headquartered on the west coast, that I still miss greatly here in Arizona, what will happen to these trusted brands? Kmart, whose parent company is now Sears Holdings and Ace Hardware, both sell Craftsman tools. If Sears and Kmart both finally fail, I assume that the new owner of Craftsman, Stanley Black & Decker, will carry on. And how about the Kenmore brand? Kenmore appliances are made by a variety of other manufacturers including Whirlpool, Bosch and others, so this trusted brand may simply disappear. But this will be a serious loss because Sears has made sure over the years that the Kenmore brand means quality, value and dependability, regardless of who the manufacturer was.

I hope Sears never leaves us and that its corporate heads find a proper niche for it and keep it going. Because if it does go under, it will be not only a loss for shoppers like me, who have always trusted Sears and the Sears trademarks, but it will be a serious cultural loss for the entire country because “Sears” and “Sears, Roebuck and Company” have deservedly earned true iconic status in our country and its history.