Sunday, November 9, 2014

1953: test pattern

i was about to jump into the 60's, when it seems everything changed (although i suspect appearances can be deceiving), when i realized i had skipped one of the most important events of the modern age, the second elizabethan period. 1953 saw the coronation of elizabeth the second (please, scots, forgive me.), and it was actually seen around the world. it was the first major event to be broadcast internationally. i watched it in the gymnasium of the jane redman elementary school, on what was probably a 14" screen. fortunately, i had a seat in the first row. because i was young, the revolutionary impact of what was  happening was lost on me at the time. because we were mostly unaware of what real revolution looks like, most of my elders had no clue either. but the ability to see anything anywhere anytime would change our world in more ways than we could imagine. it would make many of the events of the sixties seem revolutionary when actually what was unusual about them was just their visibility. it would allow the sort of coverage of the war in vietnam that the defense department would work strenuously to prevent occurring again.

also that year, the screen arrived in my home. it did seem like a revolutionary event. it came in the form of an crosley television set that was a major piece of furniture. it came in the back of a borrowed pickup truck. it
came from memphis, because televisions were rare in jonesboro. there was only one television station it would receive, wmct, channel 5 in memphis, and that one station was off-air most of the time. when i got home from school, there would be only the test pattern to watch until kate smith began the broadcast day. then there was howdy doody. it was magic, and it seemed magic.

it is hard to remember that awesome newness nowadays. i am typing on a screen in a room in which there are seven other screens. they range in size from about four times as large as the crosley (in area; the tv's about 2' thick, and hangs like any other picture) to the one on my wrist that has reminded me of two friends' birthdays, kept me informed on what music it's playing, and notified me of three e-mails while i've been typing. it is magic, but it no longer seems magic.

the test pattern may have seemed to be testing the success and fidelity of the signal broadcast. but it was also testing whether we would be willing to receive what the screen would send us. we were.

i suspect mr. mcluhan would be amused at the amazing parallels between the two elizabethan periods, both of them being entirely revolutionary. the reign of elizabeth the first would see the ascendancy of the sovereign printed word. the reign of elizabeth the second has seen  the printed word abdicate to the broadcast word. but no longer is it only words that are broadcast. both of the images in this post are broadcast, available on demand. i am listening to a swedish band singing 'blue on blue', also on demand. the sun may set on the british empire, this 61st year of elizabeth's reign. but there is a new empire out there now, which i watched begin sitting on the floor of the west school gym without knowing it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

1959: Snowed in

In 1959 C. P. Snow in the Rede Lecture claimed that the intellectual life of western society was split in two, with a great divide between science and the humanities. Certainly that split was felt in my education, and i was a willing if self-deluded victim of the split in a self-defeating way that plagued me for years.

I was. through the 8th grade, a math and science whiz. In the 7th grade I had been put ahead in my math and science classes because I was so bored by the classes I was in. My only 'C' came in 7th grade math because I just never bothered to turn in the homework. I was taking the U. S. Army's correspondence course in geometry at the time. I was not just a math and science whiz--on all of those stupid tests from mit or wherever in which one filled in little ovals with a #2 pencil, I always scored 99th percentile in both of Mr. Snow's divisions. But it was science that thrilled me. The 'humanities'--paintings and novels and music--seemed amusements, entertainments. But the 8th grade would be a time when I took refuge in the humanities much as the one might take refuge in the three jewels of buddhism, and for the same reason. I sought relief from the passions of life, most particularly from my passion for the dark-haired 9th grade science teacher, Mr. Cook, whose curly chest hair peeked out above his loose necktie, who drove a 56 chevy convertible, and who was a serious distraction from the elemental tables. I was entangled in elemental lust.

The humanities, however, were safe.  Mrs. Horne, the grammarian, was a rather brilliant teacher in a way that probably might not have been too uncomfortable in black leather, and Mrs. Toone was a large bundle of unconditional love who taught english literature and french. I disentangled myself from the excitements of chemistry and physics and began pursuing poetry and Victor Hugo. As a result, after junior high algebra (taught by a raving maniac who was also a basketball coach) and geometry (taught by a boring brown slump of a man whose only attraction was the mystery of his four initials), my science career was over. I was claimed by the humanities, all taught by doting and safe women who encouraged me to be a 'romantic' rather than a 'realist'--Willie Merle Toone's take on Mr. Snow's distinction. 

There were advantages in my proto-fag hag humanities teachers. I was encouraged to explore the poetry of Yeats, who remains one of my favourites, and the philosophy of Spinoza, with whom I felt some sort of inexplicable connection. Edith Shannon would introduce me to Teilhard de Chardin and Marshall McLuhan. I would join literary book clubs and read Henry Miller and Joseph Campbell. 

But the great events that were happening in physics would happen outside of my personal event horizon. The closest I would come to math and science as I majored in History and Philosophy was two course in Boolean Algebra, taught by another black-haired man with a loose tie on whom I was slightly crushed. 

I don't know what happened to Mr. Cook and his Chevrolet. Mrs. Horne and Mrs. Toone and Mrs. Shannon remained friends with me until their deaths. Edith Shannon died too young for her to know of my 'coming out' or of my gratitude for her introducing Teilhard de Chardin and McLuhan. Merle Horne and Willie Merle Toone took my 'coming out' in stride, and remained as supporting as they had been when I was trying to understand why Spinoza was such a challenge to his community. 

Only now in my old age, in my second childhood, am I comfortable in returning to my older passions and exploring physics with its not-subtle-enough connection to the physical. I pursued a career that was more 'spiritual'--a word I really find pretty meaningless. Often  I wish I had had enough self-confidence to ignore my fears and take the scholarship offer I had from Stanford, especially since in retrospect it seems to me that the real revolutionaries of the 60's were not the kids 'protesting' at Berkeley but the kids scribbling algorithms in Palo Alto. But the 60's are a topic for another post.

Monday, July 28, 2014


If you've seen the movie Red Dawn you have a clue about the mindset of many of my friends and me during the 1950's. I had a war surplus tent that i kept erected in the back yard. (The back-back yard, actually, our house having a yard for sitting and walking to the garage and such and a yard beyond the garage that had once upon a time been a garden. Beyond it was the alley where the remains of the old out-house were.) My friends and I called the tent 'Fortress America,' and we built weapons to repel the Russians should they attack. (We were also expecting aliens, and would try flashing morse-code messages at con trails in hopes we might lure little green men to land in our back yard on Jefferson Avenue.) Lengths of pipe with one end capped, a hole drilled through the cap for a cherry bomb fuse, were the basis of our most serious defenses. We also had bb guns and killer rubber band guns, which used sections of old inner tubes for missiles.

We also dabbled in rocket science, using balloons laminated with aluminum foil and rubber cement for our fuel tanks, and metal water pistols filled with denatured alcohol for personal propulsion when we reached space. (Denatured alcohol fortunately burns at a fairly low temperature, so we survived the tests with only minor injuries.)

The Russians beat us to space. Their rockets simply held much more fuel than even the largest balloons we could find at Woolworth's. Imagine--or remember if you're old enough--our disappointment to learn in October of 1957 that they had put a grapefruit-sized satellite in orbit over our backyard, and well out of range of our water-pipe bazookas.

But there were fringe benefits. Sputnik made math and science hot fields of study even in Jonesboro, Arkansas. My geekiness didn't quite make me popular in my school, but it afforded me a certain begrudged respect. I was allowed to 'perform experiments' on school time, and to post a daily weather report on the bulletin board in the front hall by the piano. Even though my predictions were more often correct than the ones published in the local newspaper, a comparison that would be the basis of a science fair project, I don't think the weather predictions were nearly so impressive to my classmates as my ability to compute batting averages.

More important was that sputnik and the other satellites and then manned rockets that followed gave Frank and Gary and Robert and me an optimism about our abilities that convinced us that we could indeed go to the Moon. My relatives who returned from World War II were expected to stay in Jonesboro. My Father, for reasons that escape me, had wanted to move to Fort Worth. His family was horrified. My uncle actually did move to Texas, but that was because he married a girl from El Paso. New York, California, the Moon or Mars seemed equally possible to me in 1957.

I still haven't gone to the Moon, but the amount of rocket science available to me now so far surpasses what was available to me in 1957--mostly the library's Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, the books of Patrick Moore, and my 1946 set of encyclopedia--that I may as be on Mars. I feel much more at home in the universe now. It is discouraging that  Russia is once more going into the burying business and much of the U.S. government is even more reactionary than Senator McCarthy. My friends and I had been ready to defend against the Russians, who had after all recently fought against kids about our age in Poland, but we were also ready to welcome aliens. It is encouraging to me that I still meet kids ready to welcome aliens, and I'm hoping that the Tesla Model R.2 might let those kids looking for aliens make the trip.

Friday, June 27, 2014


my parents had grown up in a time of scarcity. although my father's family had been less affected by the depression than had my mother's,  the stringencies of the war were nothing unusual to them. the post-war world hit them harder than the atom bomb, although the blow seemed much kinder and gentler. all of a sudden one could have just about anything one wanted. one of the first things they got was a kid, me. i was begotten in san diego as soon as  my father's ship landed. they wanted a son. i was one, fair-haired first born of the family, and first grandchild. i was a great hit.

by 1950 my father had graduated from college and bought a house, all financed with the help of the gi bill, and in 1951 he even bought a hudson, with which he intended to enter the panamerica road race. my mother threw a fit.

also in 1950 was begotten the second child. numero duo was to be a daughter. i was told i would have a little sister. i was thrilled, having no clue what a little sister was, but sharing my parents' excitement. i made room for it in my toy box. (those were the days, exuberant post-war prosperous as they were, when a kid's toys would fit in a foot-locker sized box; mine was pine, with a cowboy-lassoing-a-horse stencilled in red on the lid.).

 it was a hoax. the little sister proved to be a little brother, jack kenneth, born 20 february, 1951. i didn't mind the switch of sexes. indeed it would only be when gary sauheaver had a real little sister in about 1953 that i learned the essential difference. but it was not mine. even though my parents were disappointed, and my mother would remain disappointed 'til her dying day, that there was not a daughter, i was disappointed because it was not really mine. i could not keep it in my toy box. i could only hold it with supervision. and my parents slept with it just like i did my stuffed monkey boko, but it was much messier than boko ever was.

of course i had no idea how much becoming part of a two-child family would change my little solipsistic world.  like all the changes of the post-war revolution, it would be for the better, really, but not always easier for that. we now had better living through chemistry. my cousin fred would become rather rich by finding a way to take the static shock out of nylon carpeting. progress was our most important product, but the progress that was the civil rights movement, for instance, would tear holes in the fabric of my little home town of jonesboro that are perhaps still not entirely patched.

in 1952 i would start to school, and we would learn to duck-and-cover. it's probable that mutually assured destruction did prevent a bigger clash between the u.s.a. and the u.s.s.r., but north korea is still paying the truce tax. the world in 1951 was  much like my toy box, all prepared for events which would be nothing as we expected.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

a note on nell

nell was not entirely proper. in addition to her suspected sexual adventures, she liked to drive fast. every two years, she bought a new Chevy, which she kept if it were faster than the previous one. the test loop was a timed run up to walcott state park over the twists and hills of highway 141 with frank and me in the back seat on the verge of car sickness and blanche in the front with her scarf flying out the window as it originated from the neck of isadora duncan.

in her later years, after she and blanche  were sharing a room in a nursing home, and she had altzheimer's, she still loved to drive. her last chevy was, if I remember correctly, a '74, in which she would sneak out to drive until she ran out of gas and some kind stranger would call and say we (we usually being ruth) should come and get her.

children of frank and nora

i never met thomas franklin caldwell. he died on the sidewalk in front of the peoples' bank in jonesboro the year i was born, 1946. but nora--ne nora alice davidson-- would be a powerful force in my young life. they were, truth be told, carpetbaggers. frank had moved to jonesboro  soon after the btirth of my grandfather, cedric franklin caldwell, to manage the railroad station. for many years i romantically thought his family were welsh, part of the cadwalldr clad who became caldwells at ellis island.  his and nora's children had welshy names, and every summer their daughters nell and blanche--unclaimed treasures--would journey to flint, michigan, to visit cousins with names like cleffa and owen and gwen. recently i discovered that frank's family can be traced back to south carolina before the revolution. only nora was welsh. she looked like almost any member of a welsh men's choir in drag.

they were a proper clan, with wild cards. nora, blanche (named for frank's mother), and nell lived together in a little bungalow they rented from nell's employer. she was the book-keeper for the local chevrolet dealership. before frank died, they had owned a big two-story four-square house near the railroad station. the little bungalow on mcclure was much quieter. there was an eisenhower plate hanging on the wall in the corner of the living room, which had three chairs and a couch. each of the occupying women had her own rather personal space around her chair. blanche crocheted, and her blue leatherette hassock had  removable top to reveal the thread storage inside. it was surrounded by hanging white twisted fringes, which my half-uncle frank--one of the wild cards, and son of my wild card grandfather--enjoyed braiding to annoy blanche. nell's space was fairly austere, with a glass-based lamp with a plain conical shade, and probably a history of some sort on the table. nora--we all called her big momma--had a rocker with her bible and an odd assortment of religious tracts on her table. she was a fan of garner ted armstrong, as well as a staunch member of the first baptist church.

nora was very proper, with white gloves and hats with veils and a pot roast every sunday. she also had arthritis, almost certainly made much worse by the pot roast. she had many skills, including cooking and sewing and keeping house while confined to a wheelchair. but the one that amazed me and my half-uncle frank the most was her ability to change clothes while seated and never being nude. one moment she was all dark dress with fancy buttons, hair in a bun, little black shoes with perfectly tied laces, and then she would be in a flannel night gown with hair down to her waist and silk slippers. never was there even a wrinkle in between.

frank i knew mostly from a few stories centering around his propriety. dark suits, starched shirts. ties with little patterns. prompt. everyone knew him so when he had a coronary in front of the bank, no one doubted his identity--and his book and record collection. there was a wonderfully large and shiny mahogany philco radio and record player in the living room, and it was full of tubes and rca red seals. toscanini lived there, with rubenstein. the dining room was separated from the living room by french doors, and his books were in a case on one side of the doors, the girls' in a case on the other. he had a collection of naval history which seemed immense to me. i particularly enjoyed his i-think-it-was collier's naval battles of the great war, published when it still was the great war.

frank and nora had four daughters and one son. three we have met. georgia, named for nora's roman catholic sister who would come each summer to re-fight the twenty years' war--was said to have been the most beautiful, but she had died of rheumatic fever during the thirties.  nora, nell and blanche may have been very proper, but cedric and ruth, my grandfather and my aunt buck, were a bit wilder. (although i was told after her death that nell was indeed a lesbian, and entertained visitors in the bedroom she shared with blanche, and that sometimes they enjoyed menages a trois. so much is withheld from children.)

cedric had grown up around the railroad station, and would be assistant station master to his father, but he excelled in junk. he bought it, and sold it. perhaps the planes that bombed pearl harbor were made from scrap my grandfather was able to ship with a friendly rate on the frisco railroad. the stories of how he met my grandmother were murky, but the details of their divorce--practically unspeakable in jonesboro in the thirties--were often rehearsed. my father grew up in a family of which disfunctional would be a euphemism, except for the calming affects of big momma.  during world war ii a young dutch-american from iowa would move to jonesboro to replace the (male) telegraph operator had been drafted, and my grandfather would marry her. rena vanroekle seemed as calm and sane as my grandmother seemed otherwise, and she and cedric would have two children, my half-uncle thomas frank and half-aunt jan, both younger than i. she would live to be 91. a strikingly beautiful woman to the end.

cedric was, as his sister ruth said, a corker. he retired young from the railroad and the scrapyard to buy some farmland and a general store a few miles east of jonesboro. he sometimes like to drink, so he had a chauffeur. but his chauffeur's livery was overalls and his limo was a red chevy pickup. his nickname was bozo. one of his hobbies was exotic chickens. he drank busch bavarian and smoked camels and listened to the cardinals. the first 'record' i remember was on his ancient wire recorder.

ruth helen was the youngest daughter, and not proper. she liked fishing. she was want to cuss, with words like 'phooey' and phrases like 'ain't that the darndest thing?' she married the pepsi truck driver who delivered to her brother's store. she made the best lemon meringue pie possible. they had one son, fred, who was a pre-med student and kept his cat cadaverin big momma's refrigerator before becoming a second lieutenant in the korean conflict. during the war he sent weekly slides back, so that we saw the war in ruth and cecil's house in needham. after the war he became a chemist for dupont and moved to north carolina. he reverted to proper.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

cut to the chase

It has been more than a year since I last posted to this blog, and it's going so slowly I thought that cutting to the chase might help.  My last post was about my early childhood. This one is a about my concerns for decisions about the future. (In between I also started another blog that is sort of my intellectual history, chadagain, but it's sort of bogged down, too.) Mostly I think I've just come to think that examining life too much takes up too much living.

Still, I do examine my life, and this post is inspired by a phrase from Richard Gundrey's liturgy, part of my baggage from Santa Fe:  'We die daily to things and ideas that no longer serve us'. There have been many things and ideas, from swedish modern furniture to neoplatonism that have served me at some time or another, to which I have more or less died.  But some of the most damaging, time-consuming, distracting ideas cling. They become zombies. It's hard for me to die to them.

The photo in this post is from Robert Day's 1960 Tarzan the Magnificent, which I saw the first time largely because a thunderstorm interrupted my walk around downtown Jonesboro while I was in front of a run-down movie theater. It was unexpectedly exciting. Very exciting. The final fight between Tarzan Gordon Scott and the bad guy Jock Mahoney would remain one of the most erotic memories of my life.  In the picture above, Mahoney's character is abandoning Betta St. John's character, who no longer serves him. Soon she is eaten by a lion. Soon he is defeated by Tarzan. It is the beginning of the final chase.

I don't know of course how soon I will die, but I do recognize some zombies that no longer serve me, that are sucking the life out of me, and that need to be fed to the lions.

Sometimes the zombies have been so much a part of one's self-image that it hurts to let them go.  I like to think of myself as a explorer with few possessions, free to wander the world at will. While it is certainly true that I learned much from that period of time, it's not where I am now, nor do I need a repeat of those lessons. But the more sedentary, older person that I have become feels somehow less romantic, and I get crazy urges to sell everything and peddle off on a bicycle or paddle off in a kayak.  I feel somehow guilty about enjoying my little urban apartment with a convenience store a block away.

The zombies hardest to kill, however, seem to be those who are part of my public persona, the creature I have been professionally and that has attracted many of my facebook friends, the role I have played as a student and as a teacher, the zombie of religion.

My acceptance of religion started with a nightmare.  I was 8, and dreamed that some big one-horned monster was chasing me. My mother said that if I would give my life to Jesus the dream would go away. So I was baptized. Walnut Street Baptist Church gave me a little box of booklets whose smell I still remember. For years religion and the smell of ink on paper would be my defense against nightmares.  The wonderful part about religion, especially if one is a queer child fearing the disapproval of his own father, is that it holds out the concept  of a bigger daddy in the sky who is said to approve of one unconditionally--except that of course some terms and conditions may apply.  My growing comprehension of the real nature of the one-horned beast that pursued me came with an deeper immersion in the religiosity that killed my real life more effectively than the immersion in the baptismal font had killed my sinful self.

In my descent into religion, however, I met people who were intellectually interesting and sometimes sexually attractive. It was a world in which I was strangely accepted. Religious beliefs, if they are at all to be cognizant of the nature of reality, require sophisticated contortion. I can contort. But it is also an absurd world, in which the bloodthirstiness of sacred scriptures and holy wars must be made analogies even if the deaths and sufferings they cause are real.  'Good' Christians and Muslims plead that the atrocities committed in the name of their god are not part of their religion.  The 'good' pope talks about the evils of the rich while living in a palace and wearing spotless whitewashed clothes.

So, I am trying to decloak myself of the pomps and pretensions of religion. I don't think, looking back, that it ever served me.  It merely made it possible for me to lie and deceive myself within a rich intellectual tradition. But, as Jesus said, 'know the truth, and the truth shall set you free'. It's time for me to chase truth.