in a year
in a year
For the past week, I have slept little…my nights spent watching the family of Gray Foxes living underneath the old shed near my father’s house. Sleepy days give way to frenzied nights, as the three kits turn acrobat and lovingly and relentlessly tease their doting parents. I will always remember this trip to Texas and my new friends who opened doors in my dreams.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince the fox gives important advice to the Prince:
“One only understands the things that one tames….men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more… What is essential is invisible to the eye…It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important…[and] you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.”
Texas was my home when I was very young; I was born not far from the Chisholm Trail. Images of cowhands, cattle, big skies and prairies where you can see storms approaching for miles shaped me. Coupled with Western films directed by John Ford and Howard Hawks, I have a rich mythology that feeds and inspires my imagination. And somewhere along the way, I gave my father the mantle of JohnWayne, taciturn hero, wise in the ways of the world, a man of justice who could always be trusted to save the day. Myths. The truth would be revealed later. Maybe, it was easier to survive living in a fairy tale. Grown now, I realize the unfairness of saddling my father with that unrealistic responsibility; humans are human: beloved and flawed. But you cannot blame a child seeking safety in heroes.
In today’s world, where leaders make rash decisions and speak loudly and endlessly about their strength and prowess, I imagine the mythological “Duke” as Pilgrim John of Guadalupe the perfect Yin and Yang balance of the masculine and feminine come to save us from destruction in our desolation. Did I say I have a good imagination? And I hear John Wayne in the character Tom Doniphon from the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance say “Whoa there, take ‘er easy there Pilgrim,” as if to say, let’s calm down, take life a step at a time, and think about what’s really important, the impact of our actions, and what would be best for all concerned. Amen. A myth, but a grand one. Life is never as simple as a Western film; the solutions Westerns offer will not resolve the complicated challenges we face. But what we truly value is often expressed well in the clear and simple myths we enjoy and share. Yes, please “take ‘er easy there Pilgrim.” Hold steady…the planet’s future rests in our hands.
In the desert, on the plains, stripped of all familiar opaque comforts, under the hot sun, at the mercy of storms, we are exposed; and naked before the universe you find the truth. There will be chaos, there will be demons, but maybe there will be the blessing of silence – the pause that saves – contemplation bringing redemption.
We took the back roads, choosing to meander through the country, forgoing the fast pace of the interstate. It was a beautiful fall day – cool in Texas terms — the sky was bright blue and gorgeous cumulus clouds, like cotton balls, soared across the heavens. For over twenty-five years, I have taken this drive with my father to visit my mother’s grave. Reaching out, I took my father’s hand as we passed farmland, where corn and cotton was recently harvested and now farmers prepare the soil for winter.
Going fishing with Dad was fun. Hot & humid Saturday mornings, piling into the station wagon with our poles, thermos or two, and bologna sandwiches. I had a spincast, pretty basic, the kind you had to bait yourself; the worms squirming in a Styrofoam cup filled with a bit of dirt and old coffee grounds. Dad was a fly fisherman; I was fascinated by the hours he spent tying his own flies in his basement workshop; I was also captivated by the ballet of the line striking the water. What an elegant and enigmatic ritual of rod and line dancing on the surface, breaking the serene plane. We fished in lakes and rivers of our Southern homeland, first Texas and later Virginia. I never caught many, and I know he spent hours helping me when he could have been fishing. But I remember the early mornings, alone together adrift in time, the sound of still water and rich dirt, the smell of dawn, before the fish bit.
Driving home, my father always sang to me, and I loved his tenor, cigarette scratchy. Sometimes, he made me laugh with a song from his days in the Air Force; “Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he, and he called for his pipe and he called for his bowl and he called for his privates three,” laughing and singing our way through the ranks to the general.
But more often than naught he sang Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s The Blues in the Night. For me it was a song of mystery, filled with exotic places, the sound of whistlin’ trains, of pain, darkness and loneliness beyond my age of understanding. But I felt the sadness, the melancholy, and the blues in his voice. It touched me deeply. He explained to me that Natchez and Mobile, Memphis and St. Joe were all cities on the deep and long Mississippi River with headwaters near St. Paul, Minnesota rolling all the way to New Orleans and the Gulf, the land of dreams. Our river, became the river of song. Magic. Later, when I was able, I purchased a recording of Louis Armstrong singing and playing his trumpet with Oscar Peterson on piano. Listening now, I bring my own archaeology of understanding to this song and what it says about the space and time from which it sprang…a place limiting relationships between genders and races. But Louis’ deep growly voice always takes me back to the riverside where song began for me.
My mama done tol’ me, when I was in knee pants My mama done tol’ me…
“son, a woman’ll sweet talk,
And she’ll give ya the big eye, but when the sweet talkin’s done
A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing
the blues in the night”
Now the rain’s a-fallin’, hear the train’s a-callin,
(my mama done tol’ me) hear dat lonesome whistle blowin’ ‘cross
the trestle, “whooee!”
(my mama done tol’ me) a-whooee-ah-whooee ol’ clickety-clack’s
a-echoin’ back the blues in the night
The evenin’ breeze will start the trees to cryin’ and the moon will
hide it’s light when you get the blues in the night
Take my word, the mockingbird’ll sing the saddest kind o’ song,
he knows things are wrong, and he’s right
From natchez to mobile, from memphis to st. joe, wherever the
four winds blow
I been in some big towns an’ heard me some big talk, but there
is one thing I know
A woman’s a two-face, a worrisome thing who’ll leave ya to sing
the blues in the night
So, let me give ya fair warnin’
You may feel fine in the mornin’
But look out for those blues in the night
Storm fed by New Mexican arroyos, the Colorado River winds across the Texas plains and prairies nurtured by springs, through the Hill Country and the fertile black bottom land, gathering steam as the Concho, Llano, Perdnales and San Saba rivers contribute on the journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Great forces tell the story of this country, some natural and some manmade. Wind and rain, lightening and thunder, sun and drought, the migration of creatures in the air, on the land, and through the water dialogue with man’s domestication of the landscape, wrestling nature to some kind of tenuous draw.
In a collection of essay’s Sacagawea’s Nickname: Essays on the American West, Larry McMurtry wrote “man may have seven ages, but the West has had only three: the age of Heroes (Lewis and Clark), the age of Publicity (Buffalo Bill), and the age of Suburbia, for which the preferred term is Urban Sprawl. How we got from the first age to the third, and what we have destroyed in the process, is a story historians will be worrying for a long time.”
Leaving Austin meandering the back roads towards Waco, I purposefully took a slight detour to the northwest to visit the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. Spring is the perfect time to catch the wild flowers and glimpse migratory birds nesting in the Texas Hill Country. Austin’s culture of great music and good food combined with Texas’ tax incentives are attracting the computer industry and the countryside is increasingly being developed into suburban housing enclaves. My journey is a series of interstates, highways, and two-lane roads that are increasingly developed. Thank goodness the Refuge was formed in 1992 to ensure some land would forgo development and protect the habitat of two endangered birds: the Golden-cheeked Warbler and the Black-capped Vireo. And refuge it is. Although it is hard to completely loose sight or sound of the farm to market road, it is possible to loose yourself briefly in the surrounding natural history. Hiking on a ridge in the refuge, populated with juniper trees (known as cedars in Texas), I was rewarded with sightings of the nesting Warbler and a full stereophonic soundtrack of the bird’s beautiful song juxtaposed by distant thunder. My found treasure included a gorgeous view of the Colorado River of Texas with a threatening lightening storm looming on the western horizon.
I am conscious of the looming suburbs on the horizon, threatening like a storm this precious refuge. Back in the car, heading towards my Dad’s home, I queue up The Mountain on Steve Earle and Del McCoury Band’s album of the same name. I know the odds are stacked against nature; mankind’s greed and hunger scar the landscape with glacier like force. But I know we need to come to some compromise with nature, something more than this tenuous draw. We need to live and breathe stewardship; because the land helps keep us from worry and woe. As I merge onto the highway, Steve Earle sings:
“I was born on this mountain a long time ago
Before they knocked down the timber and strip-mined the coal
When you rose in the mornin’ before it was light
To go down in that dark hole and come back up at night
I was born on this mountain, this mountain’s my home
She holds me and keeps me from worry and woe
Well, they took everything that she gave, now they’re gone
But I’ll die on this mountain, this mountain’s my home”
In just under thirty-three days, the AIDS LifeCycle begins and we ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Cranking up the training, I’ve been riding some classic climbs in the Bay Area: Pinehurst to Skyline, the Three Bears and the Hicks Valley Wilson Hill Road. But recently I took a break to visit Austin, Texas the home of former Governor Ann Richards. Austin hosted the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) annual meeting. It doesn’t take much arm twisting to visit the queen city of Central Texas. Because in Austin you can easily find great music (we saw Squeeze Box Mania at Threadgills which featured the great conjunto tejano accordianist Joel Guzman and songwriter / vocalist Sarah Fox), local brews (Thirsty Planet’s Yellow Armadillo Wheat) and Southern comfort food (fried pickles)! And April is a beautiful time to visit Texas. Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush nonchalantly grace street corners and boulevard median strips. And a quick drive outside the city limits brings sights of mother Longhorns doting on their calves frolicking in pastures among the spring wildflowers. A meeting like SAH provides the opportunity to dig deeper into the urban landscape and we participated in the post-conference tour Transition, Gentrification and Hidden History in Austin’s Black Neighborhoods. When the Civil War ended in 1865, many freed slaves migrated to the nearest town where they settled and established neighborhoods such as Austin’s Clarksville and Wheatville. Some freedman like Orange Hancock settled on land formerly
owned by their masters such as the Moore-Hancock Farmstead. Built in 1849, the Moore- Hancock home is the oldest Austin log cabin on it’s original site and a tangible link to 19th century African-American history in north-central Austin. The Freedmen communities thrived until 1928 when the Austin City Master Plan achieved segregation by zoning East Austin as a district where services and amenities such as plumbing and paved roads would be provided to African-Americans. With this zoning plan, Austin sought to draw African-Americans to the East side of town and extinguish black neighborhoods encroaching on expanding white Austin. Some eighty-years later, East Austin is gentrifying as popular food venues such as Franklin Barbecue have opened (just down the street from the historic Chitlin’ Circuit nightclub the Victory Grill where one of my favorite blues players W.C. Clark got his professional start) and the Rosewood Courts Housing Authority seeks a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. To learn more about these neighborhoods, read Michelle Mears book And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African-American Freedman Communities of Austin, Texas 1865-1928.
 HBO documentary films just released the film All About Ann: Governor Richards of the Lone Star State and it is recommended viewing!
The night was a feast for the senses. We walked into hot, steamy and packed Vaughns, everybody dancin’, greeted by Kermit Ruffin’s wailing St. James Infirmary. Dan Baum’s book Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans came to mind: “what lit Wil up inside was the music – a ship on the river sounding it’s horn across the Marigny, the clickety-clack of the trains along the Press Street tracks accompanied by the eighth-note ding-ding-ding of the signal lights at Dauphine…the music was all around him and inside him.”
New Orleans, Dan Baum writes, finds itself “perpetually whistling past the graveyard.” It is somehow fitting that St. James Infirmary, a blues single was first recorded by the New Orlean’s trumpeter Louis Armstrong in December 1928. St. James Infirmary is a death lament, rooted in a 18th century English folk song The Unfortunate Rake. This same ballad inspired the birth of the cowboy dirge the Street’s of Laredo, which in turn inspired Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark to write in memory of Emmylou’s father the poignant Bang the Drum Slowly. New Orleans jazz funeral bands accompanying a procession to the cemetery typically play dirges and hymns, slow sober songs like Nearer My God to Thee, Old Rugged Cross or St. James Infirmary. The lyrics of the three songs mashup well, a testament to their origin…went down to St. James Infirmary, saw my baby there, sat down on a long white table, so sweet, so cold, so fair…get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin, get six pretty maidens to bear up my pall, put bunches of roses all over my coffin, roses to deaden the clods as they fall…bang the drum slowly, play the pipe lowly, to dust be returning, from dust we begin.”
In August 2005, just days before hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans forever, I attended the Society of American Archivist’s (SAA) annual meeting in The Big Easy. Eight years later the archivists returned to honor and engage with the life of this unique American city. The Quarter, six feet above sea level, experienced Katrina as just another hurricane, water rose, and it drained away. But the Lower Ninth Ward on the south side of the canal and below Lake Pontchartrain, was devastated when the levee broke, and an African-American community lay on it’s death bed and nearly passed away. Dan Baum described life across the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward in the mid-20th century as “heaven for newcomers from the country…the lots…big enough for chickens, pigs and even horses…neighbors understood each other…you took care of your family, sat on your porch in the evening, and went to church…a quiet country life right there by good waterfront jobs.” Change is the essence of life, and we must accept this truth. The Lower Ninth Ward will never regain it’s former self, but rebuilding is underway. Organizations like lowernine.org and Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation are putting volunteer energy and funding into creating new homes for the Lower Ninth’s community members. Many archivists participated in SAA’s service day serving as volunteers with lowernine.org during the annual meeting; Bill Ross, Head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of New Hampshire where he teaches a class New Orleans: past, present and future, organized this opportunity working with Lowernine.
The last week of August 2013 my stepsister Linda died after a five-year battle with cancer. Linda was a wonderful person: devoted to her family and friends, fun, and smart…so smart. I know life is about impermanence, but the pain feels so permanent for those that loved her. And so many loved her; she was a much beloved daughter, friend, mother, and wife. Attending her funeral at the graveside in Texas, I remixed (again) and riffed on the lyrics of St. James Infirmary, Streets of Laredo, and Bang the Drum Slowly: let her go, let her go, god bless her…we beat the drum slowly and played the fifth lowly, and bitterly we wept as we bore her along, take her to the valley and lay the sod o’er her, for she’s a young cowgirl and she did no wrong.
Summer is typically the time for blockbuster movies and their sequels: Iron Man, Star Trek, X-Men; the list goes on. But this summer, you don’t need to go to the movies to participate in blockbusters and their sequels. History it seems is a series of blockbuster events with sequels, taking the form of declarations, laws, court-decisions, executive-orders, opinion-pages, blogs, marches, rallies, and the unfortunate loss of dialogue manifesting itself as gridlock, filibuster or most regretfully as violence and battlegrounds on the streets where we work and live.
Several anniversaries of blockbuster events concerning freedom, justice, and rights in our nation’s history occur this summer; some are annual rituals, others are commemorations of significant anniversaries. Juneteenth celebrated annually on June 19 commemorates the day slavery was abolished in Texas in 1865 as a result of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969 were a series of spontaneous and sometimes violent demonstrations by members of the gay community (many of whom were angry and fed-up drag queens) protesting a police raid on gay bars. As a result gay rights organizations and newspapers were formed in New York and nationwide seeking civil rights for gay Americans. As a result, the first gay pride march was established in 1970, an event celebrated annually in cities throughout the United States and the world. July 1 – July 3, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg considered by many historians to be the turning point in the Civil War, whose origins lay in contentions over the abolition or extension of slavery in the United States. July 4th is of course our annual commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence proclaiming all men are created equal, a statement universally adopted as human rights. On August 28th, our country will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where in 1963 more than 300,000 Americans rallied at the Lincoln Memorial calling for civil and economic rights for African Americans; this march is credited for the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
This summer has brought several poignant sequels to these litany of History blockbusters. On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, originally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson aimed at eliminating various legal strategies to prevent African Americans and other minorities from voting by preventing racial gerrymandering among other actions. The Court’s decision freed nine states mostly in the South, to change their election laws without federal approval. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting from the bench declared “the nation’s commitment to justice had been dis-served” Shortly after the decision, the State of Texas announced the voter identification law would be in effect immediately and that redistricting maps would no longer need approval.
On June 26, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court supported gay rights with two decisions favoring same-sex marriage ruling the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional and the permitting a lower court ruling to stand that struck down the state of California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative defining marriage as between one man and one woman. Practically, the decisions mean that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits and by declining to decide a California case, effectively permitted same-sex marriages to occur there, increasing to thirteen the number of states permitting same-sex marriage. The Court did not say there is a constitutional right to these unions, and the ruling left in place laws banning same-sex marriage around the country. In expressing the majority opinion on DOMA, Justice Anthony Kennedy declared the law’s basic flaw was the “deprivation of liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.”
Although unrelated to the dilution of the Voting Rights Act, additional sequel events happened this summer raising concerns about the erosion of freedom, justice, and rights for individuals in the African American community. On July 12, 2013 the movie Fruitvale Station, opened in Oakland, CA at the Grand Lake Theater. Not a blockbuster by Hollywood’s box office standards, the movie is a passionate, powerful, and important film for the local community and the world. The film tells the story of Oscar Grant, a young black man tragically killed by a BART police officer at the Fruitvale Station in the early morning hours of New Year’s day 2009. Ironically, the next day, July 13, 2013, a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Travyon Martin, another young black man. Like the Grant experience, reaction to the Martin verdict included marches and demonstrations (some sadly degenerating to unnecessary violence and destruction) and sit-ins such as the Dream Defenders occupying the area outside Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office demanding the repeal of the Stand Your Ground law and the end of racial profiling. On July 16, 2013 Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that criticized “stand your ground laws” in the wake of the Florida jury’s verdict acquiting George Zimmerman ; in the speech Holder stated stand your ground laws “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.”  Accepting the jury verdict, President Obama on July 19, addressed the frustration of the African American community saying “it’s young men are too often painted with a broad brush as potential criminals….black men in the United States, himself included, commonly suffer racial profiling.” He also said that “thirty-five years ago Trayvon Martin could have been me”
The blockbuster historical events and their sequels continue. Will we take part? To be measured, History must be made, and each of us has a role in History making. History can be made by forming our opinions through reading, thinking, and by voicing our opinions through word and deed. August 28th, 2013, Washington, D.C. will host the the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Conferences and a rally will be held and a grassroots civil rights movement will be launched at 3PM that day called “63 Minutes of Peace.” 3PM was chosen, because that was the time Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech “I Have a Dream.” The idea is to take 63 minutes of your day to volunteer to help change someone’s world, be it mentoring a young person, aiding a homeless person, or participating in voter registration.” So, in some cases we have made progress, and in others, there is much work remaining to be done. In the end, we must progress forward; we must voice our opinions and take action to achieve freedom, justice, and rights for all persons.
 Former Miami Police Chief John F. Timoney called the Stand Your Ground law unnecessary and dangerous in that “[w]hether it’s trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn’t want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you’re encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn’t be used.”