Sunday, April 15, 2007

This, that, and the other thing

At The Paragraph Farmer: Unrecognized beauty and its implications, Patrick O'Hannigan takes on beauty, art, music, film, worldviews, novelist Terry Pratchett's Discworld, and more - and ties it all together wonderfully. (I really enjoy Mr. O'Hannigan's essays when he cuts loose like this. And he has quite a few links for further reading, too. :)

Daniel Henninger, writing at OpinionJournal, notes that more people seem to be latching onto the idea that a rebirth of civility would be a very good thing. (To which I say Hear! Hear!)

From Bertie Wooster to Don Imus by Gina Dalfonzo is related. I don't often see Bertie Wooster held up as a role model of sorts, but she has a point. Or two. The world would be nicer if more men refused to be ungallant, and objected when other men were. (Is ungallant a word? I'm not sure it is, but you know what I mean, I hope.)

A dip in the use of fraud and deceit to gin up support for federal legislation would also be nice. Matt Barber has some background on that. (I'm issuing a parental warning on this one.) Be sure and read the part that comes after "Now, here's where it gets hysterical..." (Ninth paragraph onward.) Admittedly, Mr. Barber isn't as civil as he might be (was a Michael Nifong jab really necessary, I ask you?), but under the circumstances I think he's showing admirable restraint, don't you?

While we're on the subject of despicable behavior, did you know that several popular teen sites have been targeted by people daring kids to make and post blasphemous videos on the Internet? And offering rewards for doing so? Catherine Claire has info on that, and on a response being mounted by some Christians.

Apparently it's Holocaust Remembrance Day. Growing up, I remember being led to think that the Holocaust was a fluke, something that happened because the Germans had something in their make-up and society that made them go bad now and then, or at least more susceptible than the rest of us to really bad, sweeping ideas imposed ruthlessly. Bookworm claims that idea is all wrong - that it's significant the Holocaust was spawned in Germany because, she says, at the time Germans had come to be considered the world's most civilized nation.

And, finally, some original content. This week, at the laundromat, I met an old man who had driven across the country to visit his son. The laundromat I frequent has recently had some sprucing up. The walls have been painted, broken equipment has been removed, a new wheeled cart has made an appearance to make it easier to move wet clothes from washer to dryer, reading material has appeared on a new table, potted plants have made an appearance - and a bit of humor and perspective have entered the picture, in the form of some old photographs of washerwomen dealing with tubs and washboards; some of the pictures have captions added, others just drive home the point that laundry used to be more of a chore than it generally is today.

The old man, not ancient by any means but definitely retirement age, walking with a limp, looked at one of the washerwomen pictures and laughed. 'Oh, I remember those days!' he said, and with a little encouragement from me he was off on tales of growing up in coal country, soot on everything, and wash days in those days. His job was to get the wood for the fires used to heat the water. 'I was pretty little for that job, but that's what I did' he said, trying not to look too pleased with himself for having pulled it off despite having been awfully young for such a responsibility.

He talked about how poor the people were around there, and about cracks in the floors and the walls of most of the houses; how you had to keep fires burning in the winter just to survive. But, he said, beaming, people had come a long way since then. I should just see the town now, nice houses all over the place. Sound houses. People had brought themselves up.

I stuck my oar in with one of my favorite what-I-learned-working-at-a-newspaper stories. Back before Owyhee Dam was built in southeast Oregon, the land around was semi-desert, not farmable. But people, upon hearing that a dam was going in, smelled opportunity down the road and converged on the area, many of them so poor they couldn't afford even a tar shack. So some of them built dugouts in the hills, and lived in those until they got work, perhaps helping to build the dam, or until the irrigation system was operational and they could farm the land they'd staked out.

I forget what the main assignment was, but during the course of researching the article I wound up talking to some folks who had lived in dugouts as kids, and then moved up to tar paper shacks, and now proudly showed me their brick houses in a nice part of town. 'Only two generations, and look!' they said.

What set me back on my heels was that these folks were so proud of their parents. You never saw such open, honest pride in your life. 'They didn't have anything, but they knew opportunity when they saw it. And they worked. Only two generations, and look at our family now!' These people beamed with love and appreciation; they had profound respect for their parents. After having spent part of their childhood living in a hole dug into a hillside, mind you.

Well, that makes sense to me now (having learned more about the relative importance of things), but it was a shocker then, I tell you.

So, I told the old man at the laundry about those people and he knew, really knew, what I was saying. We just looked each other in the eye and he had a look of understanding and joy on his face: hey, someone else who gets it, yay might serve as a translation.

But then he got a troubled look and told me that his son could never seem to understand about stuff like that. That he couldn't seem to get it through his head about people who had to struggle. That he looked down on them. 'We don't see eye to eye on that. No, sir. We don't see eye to eye on that. But...' the old man faltered, 'he's always had somebody looking out for him, you see?'

I didn't know what to say. I'm more or less in his son's generation and I know how perilously close I came to turning out like that myself.

We talked of other things. I told him of an older lady who grew up in the Midwest and talked about how they didn't have roads that were passable in the winter until they got RFD (rural free delivery mail service). He laughed, and said when they got RFD it didn't change the road situation any because their mail came on horseback. He shook his head, and marveled about the postman and his wife, who more or less dedicated their lives to getting the mail delivered. 'But of course we didn't have all those ads and other junk then, you know,' he added.

He talked about surviving the Depression, of the family killing a hog every year and canning sausages, and how good the sausages were, and how fantastic meals cooked in pork fat were. Of tossing every bit of unused flour back into the bin, which was all right except for the lumps that got into it that way. Of how it was much better to live in the country in the Depression, because then you could grow food. How hard it was on city folks.

When he ventured into stories about neighbors and relatives who made moonshine and I didn't cut him off I was treated to some wild tales. Family feuds. Gunfire in churches. I mean really wild tales, told with chuckles and tears in the eyes, probably the sort of tales he gets shushed at if he tries to tell them back home. At a guess. ;)

But a couple/three more times he came back to his son, and how he couldn't or wouldn't understand people who had less than he did. Each time the old man faltered. Each time he explained, 'But he's always had someone look out for him, you see.' The son never, in other words, had to really struggle himself. I don't think this man was trying to excuse his son. I think he was embarrassed. I think he was trying to understand him. And couldn't. Not on this one thing. It was unfathomable to him, I think, how a man could grow up in a family that had overcome steep odds, and end up looking down on people facing steep odds.

I never did figure out what to say in reply.

Addition: In case you were wondering, the Owyhee name (which shows up here and there in the Oregon-Idaho border region: a county, a river, towns...) sprung up in pioneer days in memory of some men native to Hawaii, and is pronounced like Hawaii without the 'h'.


john said...

The name of the Owyhee River is a corruption of "Hawaii" (spelled phonetically as Owyhee and pronounced o-WYE-hee) dates to approximately 1820. Captain James Cook visited Hawaii in 1776 and named the largest island in the group "Owyhee." Later, American missionaries in the islands reduced the native language to a written form and changed the spelling to "Hawaii."

The Owyhee River was named for two or possibly three Hawaiian trappers, who were employed by the North West Company, and killed by Indians along the Owyhee River. It is interesting that about one-third of the men with Donald MacKenzie's Snake Country Expeditions of 1819-1820 were Hawaiians--commonly called "Owyhees" or "Sandwich Islanders" in those days.

It is believed three Owyhees were detached to trap on the river in 1819 and were probably killed that year. It was not until the spring or early summer of 1820 that Donald MacKenzie (Snake Country Expedition of 1819-1820)learned the news of their deaths (probably at the hands of men belonging to a band of Bannocks led by a chief named The Horse). Indians led other trappers to the site, but only one skeleton was located.

There is some debate if it was actually Donald MacKenzie who first called the river the Owyhee River, while other historians say it was Peter Skene Ogden, a noted Chief Trader and explorer of the Snake Country for the Hudson's Bay Company (which the North West Company merged with in 1820), who may have first called the river the Sandwich Island River, but also mentions it as the "S.I. River," "River Owyhee" and "Owyhee River."

Boise, ID

Kathryn Judson said...

John, Thanks! A lot of this I already knew, but some was new to me. And I certainly haven't covered it in any sort of detail in a blog post yet, so you've done a service to my readers. I appreciate it.