June 27, 2022

The people at the Kansas state tourism department know their marketing. When visitors wander into the state welcome center at the western end of I-70, they meet larger-than-life-size cutouts of Dorothy, the Wicked Witch, Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion. Only the flying monkeys are missing. It’s not the Kingdom of Oz. It’s Kansas.

The cutouts stand next to another, of Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife Mamie. Eisenhower’s Presidential Museum is on the main street of Abilene, his boyhood home. The Ike and Mamie cutout brought home a few memories of that faraway time: Eisenhower, then Truman. They have no equals today.

We had visited the Harry S Truman Presidential Museum in Independence, Mo., a week ago and spent four hours there. We could have stayed longer. The collection covers his life and his presidency, but starts with his younger years in Independence. He returned from World War I service in France and opened a men’s clothing business, which went bankrupt. He didn’t go to college and dropped out of law school (a college degree wasn’t then necessary for law school) but with the backing of local political fixers was elected a judge, and in 1934 a U.S. Senator. In 1944 the Democrats, unable to agree on a running mate for FDR, drafted Truman.

When FDR died suddenly in April 1945 and Truman took over as 33rd president, national leaders groaned. He had been vice president for 82 days. Truman had met alone with Roosevelt twice. He had not been briefed on top-secret research on an atomic bomb. It was Truman who made the awful, still controversial decision to use the bomb on Japan.

Truman faced down the Soviets when they cut off road and rail lines to Berlin by authorizing the Berlin Airlift, which from June 1948 to September 1949 carried more than two million tons of supplies to Berlin. He instituted the Marshall Plan to support U.S. allies as they faced the Soviet-Warsaw Pact armies. He sent troops to Korea to counter the North Korean invasion, but later relieved Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who wanted to take the war to China.

Truman desegregated the armed forces, issuing an executive order over Congressional opposition. He called Red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy “the biggest asset the Kremlin has.” He fought steel strikes and corruption within his own administration. He declined to run in 1952, retired to Independence, and started work on his presidential library.

Before Kansas we stopped in Burlington, Colo., a tiny spot on a glistening flat sea of green and yellow grain. The town of about 4,000 keeps a museum of its history, which started around 1887. We paid the eight dollars to wander through the original telegraph office, barbershop, one-room schoolhouse, church, and other preserved frame buildings. Two or three others strolled the quiet grounds.

The plain, rough-hewn structures and the meticulous replication of detail told of the hardiness and hardship of life in these parts. We thanked the lady in charge and headed for Kansas, looking for meaning in the inscrutable mystery of Upper Midwest vastness.

What we know about Kansas is what most older folks know: Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, who followed Truman as President, grew up in Abilene. Sen. Bob Dole came from Russell. Both places sit along I-70. Dole, World War II hero, 27-year U.S. Senator, 11-year Senate Majority Leader, and 1996 Republican presidential candidate, now rests in Arlington National Cemetery. Truman is buried at his Independence site. Eisenhower and Mamie are interred on the Eisenhower museum grounds.

Eisenhower’s museum rivals Truman’s in scope, eloquence, and sensitivity in measuring the man. While Truman bounced around in his early years, Ike persevered through Army ranks. In December 1943 FDR named him Supreme Commander in Europe. Most know (I hope) about his command of the campaigns in North Africa and Europe leading up to D-Day, his focus on total victory. Fewer know about his visit to a liberated concentration camp, where he viewed burned and starved corpses, in order to publicize and reinforce the reality of the Holocaust.

In 1952 Ike was elected president in a landslide, the first Republican to win the job in 20 years. He led the West through the early depths of the Cold War.  He brought the North Koreans to an armistice in 1953 and promised to support the Republic of China (Taiwan), but refused to intervene in Vietnam to help the French when Dien Bien Phu fell to the communists in May 1954. He declined to start World War III when the Soviets sent tanks into Hungary in 1956. He opposed the French and British invasion of Suez in late 1956.  

Lake Wilson

At home, Ike backed Truman’s desegregation policies. In his second term, in 1957 he sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to protect black students as they entered newly desegregated Little Rock High School. He funded construction of what now is the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. He ended his presidency with his powerful farewell speech that warned of “the acquisition of unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

The lighthearted greeting to Kansas helped me out of the daze of squinting at the endless flatland of the corn and wheat belt along I-70. The sun beat down, the mercury hit 98F. In late afternoon we camped at Wilson State Park, bounded by 9,000-acre Lake Wilson, near Dorrance in the center of the state. The glassy surface of the lake shimmered among gentle hills pocked with evergreen. Orioles and sparrows swooped around our tent.

The evening was warm and humid. We sprawled in our chairs and stared at the hills and the lake, struggling to catalogue what we learned of this alien place. Two days earlier we left the jagged peaks and cool dry air of Wyoming and Colorado. This is another world, tranquil, not to say lonely, where thousand-acre farms and ranches create livelihoods for tiny communities.

The park was absolutely silent through the night. Towards dawn I perked up, cattle were lowing, the sound echoing off the lake. Thunder rolled, lightening flickered. We moved on that day through relentless rain. I wondered about leadership, about these giants, Truman and Ike, who came from this deep center of the country. They served, with different parties and philosophies, as the nation recovered from one grievous war, then endured the Cold War nightmare and the vision of Armageddon. Both stood against evil, both pushed us forward, slowly, yet still forward. Who remembers?

Sturgis, then Sheridan

June 20, 2022

We walked up and down Main Street in Sturgis, S.D., 20 miles north of Rapid City, a quiet place 51 weeks of the year. The remaining week, in August, about 250,000 bikers show up for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. They celebrate amazing feats of motorcycle design and engineering, and other things: biking skill, leather outfits, for some, booze, for others, politics. This year’s rally is set for August 5th through 14th.

Sturgis, for some who have never been within 1,000 miles of the place, has become an icon of a bizarre strain of American life. Depends on your point of view.

The streets leading to Main Street resemble the streets of lots of other small American towns: modest homes, churches, supermarkets, gas stations. Most of the year traffic to and from southwestern South Dakota suburbs and southeastern Wyoming scoots by on I-90.  In August Main Street and the adjacent neighborhood becomes Biker Paradise.

Many Americans think of bikers as rebels. Lots of classic films reinforce that idea. There was The Wild One, with Marlon Brando, in 1953. Then came Easy Rider, with Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson. The 1969 movie, released at a troubled time, surveyed the landscape of drugs, dangerous behavior, and redneck violence. The movie pitched drug dealers as rebels, the rednecks were killers. The themes were disturbing, but memorable.

Some bikers—not all—cultivate and advertise the Easy Rider shtick: the hair, the clothes, the unconventional behavior. But something happened in recent years to the biker mystique, if that’s what it was, or is. Some bikers—not all—went off the rebel reservation and became walking, er, riding advertisements for loutish, lowbrow America.

At Sturgis, booze, drugs, and asinine behavior get the same attention as the motorcycle design and ridership competitions. Then in August 2020, as the covid pandemic killed thousands, the rally went on as planned in the face of calls for it to be canceled. The studies conflict, some say the impact was minimal, others say it spread the virus to hundreds of thousands.

Sturgis also now is a friendly place for that strain of public policy analysis that holds that Trump is the fearless defender of the real America; Biden isn’t really President because the 2020 election was stolen; an AR-15 is a man’s best friend; the only good liberal is a dead one. At Hot Leathers, on Main at Junction Avenue you can buy a $300 leather jacket emblazoned with a giant skull. Across the street you can get a banner with a silhouette of an automatic weapon and the slogan, “Come and Get It”; a poster of Trump wearing aviator glasses and waving an AR; flags showing Trump with the legend, “Finally, a Guy with Balls.” Main Street is, in a big way, Trump Street.

Anyway, some folks come for the motorcycle contests and the beer.

From Sturgis we crossed the state line into Wyoming, heading into the vast horizon of green, empty range and brilliant blue sky of the smallest U.S. state in population with about 577,000 souls, fewer than Vermont, which has one-tenth the square mileage. We headed to Sheridan in the northeast corner, still the heart of Trump country, but also Cowboy Country.

As we settled in the hotel room we heard a knock on the door: our youngest daughter, Kathleen, appeared. She had driven the 500 miles up from Colorado Springs as a Father’s Day surprise. Truly lovely.

King Museum

Sheridan shows the class of cowboy land, aware of its huge place in the history of the West. King’s Saddlery, Sheridan’s “tack” store, says it offers everything the cowboy or cowgirl needs: saddles, ropes, bridles, bits, reins, halters, saddlebags, and items I never heard of, and you can get it all online. Don King’s Museum, behind the store, captures the story of the West, which is the tough spirit of the Polish and Italian settlers who became the ranchers, miners, cowboys, and businessmen. It captures eloquently the rodeo culture, the cattle business, the life of Native Americans, but also the bloody tragedy of the U.S. Cavalry-Indian Wars.

At the museum we talked to a mild-mannered guy who said he’s pushing 80, slim and handsome in cowboy gear, and it wasn’t fake. He told us how 40 years ago he fell from his horse chasing cattle and nearly bled out. The museum gave him a job, he’s been there these last 40 years.

100-Miler Start

I saw one, exactly one “Cheney for Congress” yard sign, and a sprinkling of signs for Harriet Hageman, her opponent in the Republican Congressional primary. Liz Cheney is the most prominent of the miniscule number of Republicans who supported impeaching Trump. Hageman is the Trump-endorsed challenger. She’s favored to win. Cowboys, like bikers, are Trump people, they like the aviator glasses look.

We were here for the Bighorn Trail Runs, four events starting in the awesome altitudes of the Bighorn National Forest west of town. On Friday we drove 25 miles out to a spot on a gravel road past Dayton along the fast-moving Tongue River for the start of the 100-miler, the mountains towering on all sides. We met old Virginia friends, took pictures, wished the runners luck. They took off in a hot cloud of dust, the mercury forecast to reach 95F.

Saturday I started the 32-miler. On the hour-long bus ride to the start we ascended into the rugged and spectacular Bighorn Mountains. The driver pointed out clusters of moose grazing in meadows. The race began in a blustery breeze. We slogged up mountainsides and through snow and mud. The sun rose higher. In early afternoon I started to fall apart on a six-mile stretch across open prairie in mid-eighties heat. I missed the time cutoff at the 20-mile point, and didn’t complain.

An aid-station volunteer, a local guy, drove me to the finish. Because of a snowdrift across an access road we took a teeth-rattling ATV trail back to a gravel road, a two-hour ride. He talked about life in Wyoming, family, and politics, usually taboo among strangers. “I can’t talk to my friends about some things,” he said. They’re worried about Democrats taking their guns away, he said. I said that sounds like South Carolina.

When she got a cell signal a volunteer called Sandy to let her know I was alive. At the finish we watched the successful runners cross the line, congratulated the finishers, and cooled down by wading into the frigid Tongue River. We said so long to everybody and I limped back to the van.  Sandy and I headed back to Sheridan. We’re looking, again, at 2,000 miles on the road.

Fort Massac

June 13, 2022

Two weeks ago we hiked up I-26 to I-40 then west on the long slog through Middle Tennessee. We headed the same way Saturday, this time aiming for Sheridan, Wyoming. We thought about flying, but at some point the inmost heart of America, with its vast skies and mesmerizing emptiness, can’t be denied.

For an hour or so once again the mountains held us back, long grades and short twisting ones through deep-green western North Carolina. The country is rugged out to the Tennessee Welcome Center near—well, near nowhere, really. Mountains and forest, more mountains, more forest. Eventually the mountains fade into hills and the highway becomes an eight-lane interstate into gritty Knoxville, home of the University of Tennessee Volunteers. The road is packed with cars showing the Big Orange Power T. You can almost hear “Rocky Top.”  

Traffic slows through the city but the pace picks up west of Oak Ridge. Three interstates, 40, 65, and 24 meet in downtown Nashville. I-24 is a straight 50-mile shot to Clarksville, on the Kentucky state line. The traffic clogs through Nashville and beyond the Cumberland River—where are they all going?

Beyond Hopkinsville we skirted giant Lake Barkley, 134 miles long, on the east side of the famed Land Between the Lakes. Barkley turns into the headwaters of the Cumberland, which meanders a couple of hundred miles down through Nashville. West of LBL is even larger Kentucky Lake, 190 or so miles long, which becomes the Tennessee River and loops down through West Tennessee, turns east, and flows through Huntsville before rising to Knoxville, then becoming North Carolina’s French Broad River.

We missed most of this country in the years we lived in Tennessee: it was too far away, we were too busy, too distracted by work and kids. A month after Laura, our first, was born, we drove this way once, en route to St. Paul. I recall a fleeting glimpse.

Ohio near Paducah

After 80 miles in Kentucky and 500 miles for the day we paid eight bucks to bunk at Fort Massac State Park in Metropolis, Ill., just across the Ohio from Paducah. The fort now is a rebuilt half-dozen log buildings at a high point above the river. The Spanish owned this territory from the 1500s. The French seized it in 1702. They built the fort around 1745 because the site commanded the intersection of the Ohio, Illinois, and Tennessee Rivers. They named it Fort De L’Ascension, in 1759 or 1760 it became Massac, after the French minister of colonial affairs. The British took possession at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.

The colonials took Massac when Col. George Rogers Clark captured the entire Illinois territory for the State of Virginia and the new United States. The place saw sporadic use by the Colonial Army and last was used for training by the Union Army, then abandoned. Illinois eventually rebuilt it as the state’s first state park.

The park is pretty and richly green, set among massive oaks. It’s also a level surface, important for campers, reminding us we’ve arrived in the Midwest. As we fished for our gear in the van a guy with a thick white beard trudged by and paused. Turns out he’s from South Carolina, making his way to Dallas. I frowned, Illinois seemed out of the way. “I wanted to see the Ohio,” he grinned, and walked on.

After cooking dinner we walked down to the river, at this point a good half-mile wide. Near Paducah a huge tug toiled downriver toward us. A dozen barges were tied up on the Kentucky side, waiting for a push south. I walked to the shore and looked across the wide expanse. The angry brown water surged by.

Fort Massac, looking south

This is a spot on the map, a place we’ve never before visited and likely won’t visit again. We flew through Kentucky in a couple of hours, barely noticing how the hills of Tennessee transformed into cultivated Midwest acres. Metropolis, about 6,500 souls, takes its name from Superman’s home town and sits square on the southern stub of Illinois. There’s a tongue-in-cheek billboard outside the park entrance. A small hiccup of fame.

Before turning in we sat outside the tent. In the distance some kids at a playground yelled. Campers started to file back to their campsites after their hikes and picnics. Local folks? I wondered. Fort Massac didn’t seem the kind of a place for outsiders, except our Dallas traveler—and ourselves. Who knows who’s here, and why? The interstate outside town will take you in three hours to St. Louis, or to I-57 and in five to Chicago. It’s no local byway.

The night air was warm and humid, we didn’t need the sleeping bags. At dawn the park was silent. I thought: here we are, a long way from home, heading into the Midwest heatwave.  Like everyone else we gag when we buy gas, yesterday’s fill-up (regular) in Clarksville was $75.00. The Post ran a piece Saturday about seniors coping with inflation. They’re cutting back. Not news.

It’s an old law: higher demand means higher prices, for everything. So why in heck are we making this trip? We could sit home and think about doing it at some future time, in some future year, when gas will be cheap again and everything will be fine. Not sure where I’ll be then.

In the morning I fired up the camper grill and heated my coffee. We walked a bit and looked around at Fort Massac. Around 7:00 campers started stirring. We got showers, loaded the van, and headed for the interstate.



June 6, 2022

The golden anniversary reunion came 11 months after we had last been up to St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., then for a funeral. It actually was Year 51, since covid canceled everything last year. So, back to Manchester, our favorite New England mill town. The mills all are closed or repurposed as offices and condos, but as we arrived for our three-day reunion, the look still is there. So is the feeling.

When my classmates and I arrived at St. Anselm (then “St. Anselm’s”—the apostrophe “s” has been dropped) in September 1967, we fell into an alien place. The college was and still is operated by the Benedictine monastic order, a community of priests and religious brothers who live by the 1,700-year-old Rule of Saint Benedict, which defines and regulates monastic life, captured in the phrase ora et labora (pray and work). They never stopped reminding us of the Benedictine tradition of higher learning. They lived in a gracefully designed monastery adjacent to campus. Early on, for most of us, the monastery might as well have been on another planet.

The city, Manchester, was a stereotype of urban decline. The mills were shut down by then, the textile trade long ago migrated to the low-wage South, and from there to Southeast Asia. The city still endured spells of air and water pollution that had ebbed and returned over a hundred years. The Merrimack, which flows fiercely through the city and south past the mills of Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., was a chute of foul chemicals. The air sometimes was tinged with orange, thanks to burning leaves and the fumes of coal and oil furnaces that heated the ancient frame houses of the central city.

We came to the hilltop campus, with its lush lawns and towering pines, in a dreamy state, teenagers mostly from suburbs scattered around New England, with a large crowd from Boston. Maybe a half-dozen, including myself, came from Jersey or New York or points beyond. The accents were jarring. The college now is co-ed, but then still was male-only with a tiny cadre of female nursing students, who lived in an old hospital dorm downtown. Most of my classmates cleared out on weekends. Late-Sixties Manchester was a desert for college students. It was no different when we graduated in ’71. Third-tier New England towns change slowly.

We didn’t know how little we knew about the world, abysmally little. Weeks after we arrived on campus Navy pilot Lieut. Cmdr. John McCain was shot down over North Vietnam, where he remained as a POW until being released in March 1973. The Army and Marine Corps were brutally engaged in Vietnam, with hundreds of young men, many our age, dying every week. Antiwar turmoil was rising in major cities.

Merrimack, downtown

We knew next to nothing about Vietnam or protests, the big story in Fall 1967 was the Red Sox-Cardinals World Series, won in seven games by the Cards. In February 1968 Richard Nixon came to campus, revving up his campaign. Hardly anyone noticed. The grind of academics wore us all down. St. A’s was not an easy-A school, grades given were the grades earned.

Over time, most of us settled into being at college. We made our peace with the Benedictines, many of them professors and administrators, but first always monks. It was at times a rocky coexistence. The new students, suddenly away from mom and dad, slept in Sunday mornings rather than get to Mass in the lovely chapel that marks sublimely the entrance to campus. The monks always were ready to shoot the breeze with students in the coffee shop and stay up late in the dorms to get party-happy guys into bed. But they lived in the timeless world of Benedictine monasticism: prayer, obedience, humility, intellectual rigor. It took us some getting used to.

Martin Luther King Jr., was killed in April 1968. The country shuddered, storefronts were shattered, buildings burned. Two months later Sirhan Sirhan shot Robert Kennedy, Jr. In August violent provocateurs and violent police tore apart the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In November the SDS led a “Vote With Your Feet” rally in Boston—nearly a riot—to protest American entrapment in Vietnam, and entrapment it was. Our shuttered world began to open up.

The nightmares kept exploding: Cambodia, Kent State, the draft and draft lottery, nationwide college shutdowns. Like others elsewhere, we were transformed. Transformed or paralyzed. But because of the Benedictines we avoided the worst. Sanity maintained on our hilltop. The nihilists with the Viet Cong flags were frozen in place. The centerpiece of Vietnam began to dismantle itself. The monks worked harder to drag us to graduation. They kept requiring us to take their theology courses.

In the roof of the refectory, or dining hall of the monastery is a series of small stained-glass windows that depict from start to finish the life of Saint Benedict as described in the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, Pope Gregory I. In sequence, up one side of the roof and down the other, they illustrate his doubts on his path in life, the pain and danger he endured, the gathering of his disciples, the miracles, the creation of monasteries, the death of Saint Scholastica, his twin sister, in 543.

Alumni Hall

The windows tell the story of the foundation of the Benedictine movement, the mission to educate and serve God’s people through, once again, prayer and work. Without much awareness of that mission over those four years and maybe not even now, the members of St. A’s ’71 grew, evolved, matured, slowly, some of us very slowly. We were kids, jocks, party animals, many the first in families to get into college and then finish college. In June 1971 we hiked across the lawn in front of the Ad building and picked up diplomas, our tickets to complicated futures.

The thrill wore off through Cold War, recessions, a dot.com bust, the 9/11 terror/mass murder, more war, a real-estate meltdown, all shuttling us into the most recent insults: one million covid deaths, an epidemic of mass shootings. Yet now back over a blur of days, months, years, decades, here we are again, our numbers whittled down by mortality and infirmity, the way of the world, the way of life. The New England tech and real-estate boom is still going on. The pollution is mostly cleaned up. We’re all wearing nametags to help us recognize each other.

The last reunion day was Pentecost Sunday. We filed back into the chapel for Mass. The Abbot, also one of us, gives his blessing: “In the spirit of Pentecost, all is transformed. Hope, in its purest form, makes all things new. In the pursuit of truth, beauty, and wisdom in Christ is found our salvation.” Saint Benedict is in the place, we know it. We stand, genuflect, and go on our way.