Monday, September 24, 2012

Westward, HOooooooo

The season long blast furnace that is summer 2012 reminds me of how marvelous it was in years past to escape from our blistered yard, weedy garden, and empty cow lot for points far away.  

"GO WEST, YOUNG MAN, GO WEST" was an expression first used by John Babsone Lane Soule in the Terre Haute Express in 1851. It appealed to Horace Greeley, who rephrased it slightly in an editorial in the New York Tribune on 13 July 1865: "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country."

In the '80s, (20th century vintage) the Hurst family took these words to heart and set our sights on the sunset.  We were growing too.  By the time we loaded two coolers, two suitcases, three duffle bags, two backpacks, a tote of hardbacks and travel guides, two grocery sacks of bread, chips and cereal, a Tupperware container of chocolate chip cookies, a camera bag with 10 rolls of film, towels, pillows, one sleeping bag at I forgetting anything else?  Well, by the time the Econoline backed out onto 150th and spun the first gravel on its westward trek, it was full to the gunwales and testing the springs on its back end.  Ben would be nearly out of earshot on the back bench seat while his older sisters expressed their seniority by occupying the captain's chairs amidships.  Blake and I had our Casey's go cups full of home brew, a plastic bag of cassette tapes behind the console and a stack of paperbacks and travel books just behind the front seat where we could easily retrieve them...that is, until the entire leaning tower capsized around the first sharp curve or first sudden stop.  

But we had miles to go before we slept, 430 of them on I-80 across Nebraska.  Like the pioneers we followed the waters of the Platte as it wallows its way across the state.  Where does the West begin?  Cozad, Nebraska gives the imaginary line co-star billing just under its name over the myriad steel ribbons  that have connected the concrete skyscrapers across the state since 1868. A visit to these western Nebraska towns with their wide and dusty streets is a reminder that the 100th meridian is also the dividing line between humid and arid for dryland agriculture.  West of Cozad and its ilk, less than twenty inches of rain is all that can be expected.  In this drought year of 2012 I have an intimate affinity with the consequences of white hot burning skies for days on end.  As dust from hundreds of hooves and wheels choked the noses and scratched the eyes of the pioneers, its no wonder they bypassed the lands of Nebraska and took their chances over the mountains. 

Our prairie schooner was nearly as self contained as the Conestogas.  We kept our eyes peeled for the relief of shade and water for picnic lunches and room to stretch and run. The long ribbon of I80 provided respite at sun bleached rest areas where we honed our skills and imaginations attempting to identify the slabs and curls of metal labeled as public 'art'.  Fort Kearney offered a compound, a trail to a wooden bridge over the Platte, a soddie hut, and shady tables near gurgling irrigation ditches. 

But the West can hardly begin where corn rows still border the highways.  No, the Ford Econoline entered the West somewhere past Buffalo Bill Cody's iconic Scout's Rest, shrine to the Wild West Show and its creative genius.  Somehow, between the rising plains and the lowering skies, between the pinnacle of Chimney Rock and the Wyoming line, as the traffic thinned on the highways and human habitations hugged the life lines of cottonwoods, the view from our twentieth century conveyance merged seamlessly with the dust clouds of history becoming one with the Oregon Trail.

The pioneers probably didn't think they had it easy trudging the hundreds of miles alongside the Platte.  But the barriers of Windlass Hill and Scott's Bluff were harbingers of the hard work to come.  If a landmark bears your name in the West, you can assume you came to a bad end. Scott's Bluff is named for mountain man Hiram Scott, whose bones were discovered when spring arrived at the foot of the bluffs. No good mountain man deceases without a legend and Mr. Scott showed a lot of life after his death. In one version, a sickly or injured Scott was left behind by comrades on the north side of the Platte.  The next spring, his bones were found near the Bluffs...on the opposite side of the river.  Later tales have the ailing mountain man surviving a winter trek of sixty miles before succumbing at the foot of the Bluffs, and, finally,one recounting makes the pathetic Mr. Scott drag himself over a hundred miles to reach his resting place at the foot of his namesake outcropping.  

Nothing so arduous or ghastly for the Hursts, but we have our own history with this outpost of western Nebraska.  Way back in the dirty '30s, my grandfather, a civil engineer and bridge builder, worked on the road and tunnel to the top of Scotts Bluff; part of the federal works programs of the Depression years.  This piece of pavement was the first concrete road in the state of Nebraska, by some accounts.  I have a mental picture of my grandmother traveling by train out west....has someone told me this, or is it just a product of my imagination?  Visions aside, my mom was born in Scotts Bluff back in 1933 and lived there until she was three.  They came back east in 1936, a year that has been much on our minds in 2012.

The Oregon Trail sites come hard and fast right across the Wyoming line. Near Guernsey, Wyoming, the thousands of wagon wheels wore ruts two to six feet deep in the soft sandstone and emigrants incised their names and dates on the Register Cliff, the easternmost example of pioneer graffiti.  One hundred eighty miles, or maybe nine days away, was Independence Rock, a humpbacked granite outcropping in a part of Wyoming that even today feels isolated. The Hurst family arrived at the landmark one cool mountain morning, cruising silently through the valley of the Sweetwater past the Rattlesnake Mountains, the Antelope Hills, and miles of the Pathfinder Ranch. As pioneer children undoubtedly did, our kids clambered over the rough granite and searched for historic inscriptions.  Alas, granite is considerably harder to carve than sandstone; the pioneers wrote on the Rock with paint, wagon tar, or a concoction of buffalo grease, black powder and glue and little remains of their notations.  With their eyes on posterity, the Mormons stationed a carver at the rock to carve travelers' names for a fee. We were content to record our presence with photographs. 

Our western odyssey that year eventually crossed South Pass itself and wound  its way through the Rockies to the most iconic of all Western landscapes, Yellowstone National Park.  Making our way along the boardwalk to Old Faithful, we not only notched our pistols with a landmark memory but paid homage to all those travelers, whether Pullman car sightseers or travel and bone weary emigrants who had passed over the rails and trails for a hundred and more years before us.  Unless you make your way across this magnificent nation, unless you take the time to read the historic markers, walk the trails, stop at the waysides without plumbing, and take the time to visit the local museums in the windblown small towns, you cannot begin to comprehend the leaps of faith and foolishness our predecessors made  in traversing the forbidding distances and terrain of the western US. There is still empty space out there, not just the breath taking wilderness of the high country, but the formidable physical and spiritual barriers of weather, horizon, aridity and loneliness.  

Can we instill an appreciation or sense of wonder in a one week vacation?  Can we pursue our past across the country and hope to catch even an inkling of the people of that time and country?  Can we plant a passion for our nation's history and our ongoing responsibility in it?

A tall order, but we Americans have seldom backed down from the big picture.

Westward HHHOOOOOOOOOOOOooooooooooooo.!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Food, Glorious Food!

Just picture a great big steak --

Fried, roasted or stewed.

Oh, food,

Wonderful food,

Marvelous food,

Glorious food.

'Please, sir, I want some more'.

Ya want grass roots?  Ya want righteous indignation? Ya want claw marks down your face and the chance to be prey?  Just step up to a mom and tell her you know what's best for her kid.  I double dog dare ya.

But that's in essence what the First Lady of the United States of America and the Department of Agriculture have taken on with the guidelines now in place for the school lunch program.  Sure, they have good intentions: the same type of patronizing paternalistic impulse that used to be called "Victorian".  If Charles Dickens were to take on the school lunch fracas, he would surely set the Administration officials at the head of the dining hall in  the famous scene in his novel Oliver Twist.  The young boys in the work house are fed naught but "three thin meals of gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays."  They are so ravenous from near starvation that one boy finally hints he may eat his bunkmate.  After this declaration, the boys draw lots and Oliver is elected.  I remember the scene from the 1968 movie clearly: young Oliver walks timidly, solemnly to the portly, no, corpulent master, holds up his empty bowl in his two hands and asks,

'Please, sir, I want some more.'

This is a common enough request for parents and grandparents of school age children.  My kids would hardly drop their backpacks by the door before rummaging for sandwich fixings in the fridge, or pouring a big glass of milk, or scanning the countertop for telltale signs of cookies.  Breakfast was early for country kids with chores to do and a bus to catch; even though I knew by reputation and my own experience that the cooks at tiny Westboro prepared delectable lunches, I wasn't surprised by a desire for stopgap measures between lunch and supper.

But this situation is different. My grandson, who sometimes has to be pried from bed, has taken to setting his own alarm so he can make a peanut butter sandwich to take to school.  Anecdotal evidence abounds on the pages of Facebook and conversations between moms whenever they chance to meet.  Disclaimers from beleaguered cooks and school administrators lay the blame at the doorstep of the Department of Agriculture; 'if we don't comply, we lose funding!' is the reply to all those parents of all those would be Olivers.

Let's remember a few basic tenets.  First of all, school lunches were devised by government way back in Harry Truman's administration as a response to the large number of young men rejected for WWII service due to diet related health problems.  Over the years, school lunches , breakfasts, and milk service have been expanded to ensure public school children had adequate food and satisfactory nutrition.  The underlying assumption is that most parents take care that their kids have enough to eat and try their best to feed them healthful meals.  But some kids don't get enough; school breakfasts and lunches should fill the gap for these kids and fulfill their energy needs so they can learn .

But now the school lunch program wears a badge and carries a billy club.  ''Thou shalt only consume these calories from these sources and no more!", is the commandment carved above the cafeteria doors.  Forget about the bigger than life sized sports figures and celebrities sporting fake frothy milk mustaches pasted on the wall(Got Milk?): while we baby boomers bolted three cartons a day, today's kids get one cup max.  

Yes, kids need to eat healthy; but today's fixation with obesity will not be solved by curtailing the cafeteria plate.  Whether 5 or 15, active children will not overeat on school lunch fare.  After all, the folks behind the counter are not serving up potato chips and ho-hos.  Kids don't require that much variety; I ate a summer sausage and Swiss cheese sandwich every day of my elementary school career despite the varied offerings of the Orland Park school cafeterias. Kids are not even that picky about quality; after all, cafeteria food is mass produced, not hand crafted, not like Mama makes.  It is more akin to the Three Bears: too hot, too cold, too hard or too soft.  Pretending that school kids will go on  a hunger strike without artisan herb loaves, hand pressed cheeses, and hand patted tortillas is folly.  The kids I know often refuse their crust,and prefer their cheese smooth, shiny and wrapped individually in plastic.

No, what kids do notice is quantity. Let us remember that the boys at the parish house did not reject their gruel, as thin, tasteless, colorless, and unappetizing as it was.  No, they braved punishment and flouted the system just to have enough: 

'Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir! Oliver Twist has asked for more!'

"There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance.
'For MORE!' said Mr. Limbkins. 'Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?'"

Allotment?  Is that really what school lunches are all about?  Are cafeterias in school houses all across our country now to resemble the poor houses of Victorian England to their young patrons, even while the lawgivers and administrators who make the rules envision a cornucopia of fresh greens, whole grains and tiny 2 oz. portions of meat or meat substitute? Opinion makers lobby for free range poultry and unchained pork....but growing kids get only so much and no more, even though the foods ladled out have to run a gauntlet of regulation.

"The bowls never wanted washing. The boys polished them with their spoons till they shone again; and when they had performed this operation (which never took very long, the spoons being nearly as large as the bowls), they would sit staring at the copper, with such eager eyes, as if they could have devoured the very bricks of which it was composed; "

'Someone has been tasting my porridge and has eaten it every bit!'

Thursday, September 13, 2012

We Build...and Rebuild That

No number of compliments, accolades, reorders, contracts, ooohs, aaaahs,  or verbal pats on the back can compensate for one nasty phone call, one irritated email, or one dissatisfied client.  A won/loss record of .600 sends your team to the World Series; batting .400 lands a player in the Hall of Fame.  Its a rare year indeed when the team coming out of the Final Four has run the table. business, as we all learn eventually, statistics like these make for lonely days and nail biting nights. 

'Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail may stop the postmen from their appointed rounds', but neither are they excuses for flowers that are too little, too big, bloomed out or not colorful enough.  Selling service, personality, expertise, or creativity is all for naught if the so called factors out of your control take over and change the equation.  Dealing with Mother Nature is a fickle and frightening enterprise. cover all the bases you can.  You double down on...or the case may be, on numbers.  Perhaps ten percent overage is enough, but let's be safe as long as there's still a margin to be had.  After all, a deer might run through, followed by all the canines on the farm.  A straight line wind might play grim reaper and windrow a hundred pots against their neighbors.  These occurrences are not hypotheticals; they are data points on the graph of experience.

There isn't a safety net in this small business. 'Don't look back.  Something might be gaining on you,' is the admonishment of Satchel Paige.  With the admission of imperfection comes the wedge of vulnerability.  Someone, somewhere, is growing, and selling, and trying their darnedest to make a living too.  Maybe someday it will be easy and we can all get lazy and fat and dumb and happy.  

Or maybe not.  More likely, we will continue to scrape and worry and use all the means at our disposal to grow row upon row of mums as perfect as soap bubbles but durable as basketballs. We'll sweat in the summer and chill in the rain.  We'll admire our handiwork marching four by four in the slanting golden light of autumn.  

Yes, indeedy.  We have the cuts and scars and pulled muscles to prove we built that.   Not only that, but we'll pick up the pieces and build it all again if we need to.