Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., does not consider newspaper journalists the enemy of the people. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Let’s think of this as an experiment.
Twenty people are brought into a room and are monitored by 20 other people. Each participant has a comfortable chair, perhaps a cup of coffee. The monitor is nonintrusive but alert to his or her assigned participant. The participants are given a copy of the Sunday New York Times and told they have one hour to read the paper. As participants choose sections of the paper to read, the monitors will record their preferred order and the titles of the articles they read.
Or maybe not. The premise of the experiment is, perhaps, a leap of faith. The idea of sitting down, reading the paper, developing a passion and a cadence for a paper’s nuance seems antiquated with the preponderance of devices that continually distract us.
And, it seems to me as I get older, abundantly necessary. J. D. Salinger once wrote, “(T)he goal of education should be wisdom, and not just knowledge.” Salinger’s words, extrapolated to a broader understanding, demand us to be thinkers, not simply reactors. Our democracy is not one of passivity, but rather one that is participatory. And can there be a more profound way to immerse ourselves in the social, political, and cultural world of our participatory democracy than the simple act of reading a newspaper?
I emphasize the order of the sections that we read for no great intent. I am simply amused that my newspaper reading habits are so rigid. Here’s my Sunday New York Times sequence: 1) Book Review; 2) Travel; 3) Sunday Review (opinion pages); 4) Arts & Leisure; 5) The New York Times Magazine; 6) front section. I book end my reading with something I dearly love—book reviews/discussions—and something I am driven to immerse myself in—the unfolding of the world’s events. In between, I vacillate between dreaming and thinking. During the week, I follow a similar practice with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. And you?
When I was 15, my father demanded that I read the morning paper (The Louisville Courier-Journal) from cover to cover before he awoke and came to breakfast. Perhaps my committed truancy sparked that directive. Suffice it to say, he was fearful that I would develop into an uneducated, ill-informed young man without a clue about the world. And I think he intrinsically knew that reading a daily newspaper and being forced to distill its disparate parts into something cogent was an education in and of itself.
When he was situated at the table, my job was to give him an accurate and detailed précis of the paper’s contents. His order, too, was unchangeable: 1) sports; 2) front section and op-eds; 3) local news; 4) arts. I think that what this practice solidified for me was the notion that there is a seamless whole between the past, the present, and the future, and that newspapers are indeed the first draft of history.
I am unabashedly political, obsessed with our electoral process, curious about public policy. I am appalled by the fear, loathing, and contempt currently practiced by our executive-in-chief. I am captivated by the young progressives running for public office who, to use Jon Meacham’s phrase, call us to our better angels, who are aspirational rather than dismissive.
The photo in The Last Resort of John Allen Moore intently reading the newspaper while seated on the Model T running board makes my heart sing. What is he reading, what is he thinking? What discussions did his reading prompt with Pud, Bobby, and any other visitors to the camp? No matter, he is simply reading.
A lesson for us all.
Joe Ford of Louisville, Ky., muses about Halloween and what is true. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Halloween was rainy in my neck of the woods. The few kids who braved the weather were either soaked—layers of costumes wet and matted together—or covered by plastic ponchos that hid their costumes entirely. I missed the costumes but took solace in the realization that the candy was, well, all mine. Of course, I buy the kind I like most—Snickers, Peppermint Patties, Dark Milky Ways—for just such a scenario. My wife, recognizing a temptation too hard to resist, won’t let the stuff stay in the house, so I take it all to work and eat it over the next couple of months, er, weeks. OK, days. I feel terrible though.
Some neighborhoods in my city declared Halloween to be the day before the true day in anticipation of better weather, or even the weekend before, to avoid a school night. This is disturbing, as bogus as a Donald Trump speech (i.e., “not genuine or true”). I do believe that teachers should avoid big homework assignments or papers due on November 1. But managing your homework and activities and chores—milking the cows, bringing in the harvest—are part of Halloween. Well, maybe not the milking part. I think that happens in the morning. And maybe not the harvest part, as that sounds like a lot of work. But you get my drift. Halloween is for Halloween. It is the day before All Hallows Day, that is, All Hallows Eve. What are all those saints supposed to do? They’re no doubt totally confused.
I did carve a pumpkin this year, in an effort to keep some traditions that make life enjoyable even though my daughter has moved away to college. Someone suggested I cut out the bottom of the pumpkin rather than the top. Let me say that again: cut off the bottom of the pumpkin. Duh! You would think that at my age I would have at least heard about that. I’ll say this: it works brilliantly! You can cut a larger hole to remove all the brains, and you don’t have to scrape the bottom part at all.
I did sit out on the porch with my cauldron of candy and jack-o-lantern waiting for the little devils and princesses and ninjas-too-old-for-this-but-want-the-free-candy kids. After a bit Mr. Scotch joined me, and I enjoyed the rain just a little more. I thought about The Last Resort and the boys talking into the wee hours of the morning with the rain pattering on their leaky roof. In the end, I did not get too many more trick-or-treaters at my house than might stop by the boys’ camp. But I did make a significant dent in that candy.
Be sure to vote.
My parents were enthusiastic bourbon drinkers long before craft bourbons and celebrity master distillers. They were loyal to reasonably-priced Kentucky bourbon that soothed the rough edges of the day or amplified the conviviality of a small gathering. As Kentucky natives, they were proud to offer the state’s signature elixir to friends and colleagues in Maryland and Massachusetts. I imagine for them it served as an emotional tie to the home they felt estranged from but so longed for.
So it was not surprising to learn that John C. Goodlett, only two years removed from an extended bout of homesickness as he was shuttled around Europe fulfilling his duties as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, would, in 1948 while a graduate student at Harvard University, write a paper titled “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.” He was still a long way from home, and perhaps he hadn’t yet fully reconciled why he had chosen to continue his studies at such a distance from all that he knew and loved.
What is surprising, however, is that the Harvard Botany Library still has a copy of that paper in its stacks. David Hoefer, author of the Introduction to The Last Resort and archaeologist extraordinaire, recently unearthed this relic during a routine search for books related to my father. Unfortunately, he also learned that the document is not available through interlibrary loan. My curiosity piqued, I picked up the phone to find out how I might access this bit of my father’s legacy.
It turns out that all of the holdings at Harvard’s collective Botany Libraries are non-circulating. I’ll have to make a trip to Cambridge to learn just how my father managed to write about bourbon from a botanist’s perspective, and perhaps why this work has been housed in one of the university’s libraries for 70 years.
The young lady who took my call was kind enough to pull the document from the shelves. She confirmed that what was identified as a “book” in the online card catalog appeared instead to be something more akin to a research paper. Nothing on the title page ties it to a particular Harvard class or professor or explains the thesis or genesis of the paper.
Obviously, bourbon is distilled from a number of plants—corn, rye, barley—so it’s not too far-fetched to imagine why the young grad student chose this topic for research. One can also imagine the department professors getting such a kick out of the subject that they made the paper available to their curious, nonabstemious colleagues by placing it in the library. And somehow, either by neglect or fond oversight, it’s remained lodged in its somewhat incongruous home for decades.
Someday I hope to make the trek up the East Coast to check it out.
This unexpected discovery took on more meaning when The Last Resort was recently reviewed by Steve Flairty in the Annual Bourbon Issue of the Kentucky Monthly magazine (September 2018). It seemed fitting that Pud’s journal about life along Salt River had found a temporary home among the articles extolling the burgeoning bourbon industry in Kentucky. It would have been hard for Pud to write about the Lawrenceburg environs in 1942-43 without mentioning the Old Joe and Ripy Brothers distilleries. In a contemplative moment in February 1943, he describes the two distilleries looming on the horizon as familiar geographic and economic markers of the county’s industry and history.
“Took a stroll across Mr. Holly’s* this afternoon. Went by the pond where I saw several robins, killdeer, and meadowlarks. I walked up along the old rail fence to the ridge and up through the redbud thicket to the crest of the hill. I just sat there for an hour and a half and looked around. I could see for miles—Woodford and Shelby and Mercer Counties, Ripy Bros. and Old Joe. Today is just like spring with bird songs everywhere.”
*Mr. Holly’s: Mr. Holly Witherspoon’s property on west Broadway, which included the site of the current high school and stretched north to Route 44.
Pud went to school with members of the Dowling and Ripy and Bond families. They were his friends. He understood the role bourbon played as an economic engine for the county.
In his handwritten notes on the “History of Anderson County”—which he kept in the same University of Kentucky loose-leaf notebook where he compiled the camp logbook—he inserts a brief but telling allusion amid more detailed information about the county’s founders, its courthouses, its industries, its churches, and its role in the Civil War:
“pop. 1870—373. Since 1818—50 distilleries.”
You can’t talk about Anderson County history without talking about bourbon. And it’s nearly impossible to recall a Goodlett family gathering without thinking about the bourbon that was poured. I expect the Johns Hopkins professor would have been tickled—or possibly mortified—to know that the paper he wrote about Kentucky bourbon as a first-year grad student is still available to curious botanists in 2018. I hope he would be happy to know that, in that same year, a book about his wanderings along Salt River would be mentioned in a magazine devoted to his favorite Kentucky beverage.
Reading The Last Resort has inspired Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., to reflect on what it means to put words on paper and how meeting an esteemed poet in a neighborhood bar at age six awakened his poetic sensibilities.
I have been thinking about essays.
The etymology of essay—from the French verb essayer, meaning “to try”—incorporates the idea of experimenting with something, or attempting something new. Most essays delve into new ways of thinking about a subject, sometimes playing with a new narrative technique or voice. In the end, an essay is a thought experiment, an attempt to gain a greater understanding of oneself and one’s position in the world.
Dedicated readers of “Clearing the Fog” are well aware of the disparate voices that cascade through this blog. David Hoefer applies his analytical bent to subjects as diverse as Steinbeck, fishing, and Pud’s cars. Bob McWilliams, Roi-Ann Bettez, Joe Ford, and others lead us to consider “a portion of unexamined existence,” as James Agee described his subject in the preface to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I suspect they would all tell us that their responses to Pud’s writing, their observations, are simply personal mental calibrations elicited by the descriptions of life at The Last Resort.
Agee goes on to say that his compilation of his stories and Walker Evans’ photos depicting the lives of several families in rural Alabama during the Great Depression “is a book only by necessity. More seriously, it is an effort in human actuality, in which the reader is no less centrally involved than the authors and those of whom they tell.” Likewise, Goodlett incorporated maps and drawings and lists of flora and fauna in his camp journal for his own reference, but perhaps also to draw any future reader into the experience of life at the camp. In its published form, The Last Resort, too, “is a book only by necessity.”
I am currently rereading Charles D’Ambrosio’s phenomenal collection of essays, Loitering. One of D’Ambrosio’s essays—indeed, my favorite—is entitled “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg.” It is a marvelous explication of Richard Hugo’s poem by the same name, and much like The Last Resort, it incorporates photography, notes, and the entire poem within its frame. It is Agee’s “effort in human actuality” in the best sense of that phrase, and it prompts me to relate a personal story.
I must have been six or seven years old. My father was a visiting professor at the University of Montana, and we lived in Missoula. I love to recall that I had a mountain as a backyard. In those days, there wasn’t much protest when an adult brought a child into a bar. My father, and many others at the university, was pulled into the orbit of a rural, working class bar just outside Missoula. After teaching and giving private music lessons all day, my father would round me up and head to the Milltown Union Bar for a beer and conversation.
There, late one afternoon, my father engaged a rather portly, balding man in intense conversation. I have no idea what they talked about. But after finishing his beer and getting us in the car, I apparently burst into tears. My father asked me what was the matter, and I could only respond that he had just spoken to the saddest looking man I had ever seen.
Years later, when he reminded me of that story, my father also let me know that the man to whom he was speaking was Richard Hugo, poet-in-residence at the university, and now one of the most highly regarded poets our country has produced. His poems “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg” and “The Milltown Union Bar” remind me of the portion of my youth spent in that region of graying, abandoned towns.
If I could tell this story correctly, if I could write this essay properly, you would see an empty glass of beer in front of you, and you would choke on the acrid cigarette smoke. A poet would be sitting next to you, spinning lines. And the actuality of that world would prompt you to reconsider your own.
Last week I had the privilege of hearing Kentucky resident and nationally-acclaimed poet Ada Limón read from her newest collection, The Carrying. Rich Copley, writing for the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader, said, “The book is colored by the deep green of Kentucky….Limón’s work is marked by exquisite, minute details that pass by many people.”
It is indeed a lovely book, with heart-rending personal reflections and keen observations of the world that surrounds her. After the reading—during which Limón exhibited her usual warmth and quiet exuberance—an audience member asked why she wrote so frequently about nature. I wish I had been prepared to capture her full response, but my general recollection is that she writes about nature because she has to. It defines her place in this world.
The first poem in the collection, “A Name,” reminded me of my father.
When Eve walked among
the animals and named them--
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer--
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered, Name me, name me.
At its most elemental, the journal my father kept at The Last Resort was a means for recording the natural world around him: the birds, the trees, the wildflowers, the river level, the snakes, the peepers calling in the spring. He documented the names of each, both the common names and the scientific names, as he prepared, wittingly or unwittingly, for a future career. He understood that in order to acknowledge the intricate parts of the natural environment, it was important to be able to identify each by its name. The name itself would then call up a fulsome list of traits and characteristics—some unique, some common with other similar species—that defined that particular plant or creature.
If the critters could talk, I suspect there were moments when they indeed had a name for my dad: threat, intruder, murderer. He describes a memorable moment after he has shot a young squirrel: “I can still see that tiny baby sitting hunched on that limb, chattering gleefully to himself and gnawing on a pignut. To think that I would snuff out such a happy existence. It will never happen again.” Sadly, it took being hunted by his fellow man during World War II for Pud to finally end his hunting of animals for sport.
Is there perhaps a more sinister consequence of naming others who share this world with us? When Eve named the things in the garden, did she innocently guarantee their ultimate destruction? Once they became separate from the two who claimed dominion over them, once they were identified as different, were they expendable? Insignificant? Unprotected?
On the other hand, it’s hard to truly see what we can’t name. During our daily rush to and fro, we pass trees and wildflowers and songbirds. If we can’t name them, we don’t see or hear them. We don’t recognize them or respect their importance. If we don’t recognize their value, we don’t feel remorse when they are destroyed. We stand by and allow their annihilation without understanding what we have lost.
Part of this journey for me, as I write about my father and the words he left behind, has been learning what it means to belong to the genus Goodlett. As my cousins and I gather more regularly to honor our long-gone parents, we ponder the mysteries of our Goodlett ancestors, and we try to figure out who we are.
If our name is Goodlett, what does that mean? What are our traits and characteristics? Would a dichotomous key distinguish us from the Smiths and the Joneses? Does the name carry pre-packaged notions? How do others respond to it? How do I live up to it? Or carry its burdens? How has my name defined who I am, or my ultimate fate?
In Limón’s poem, Eve’s plea to be named also feels like a voicing of her desire to be part of the community she is ordering. Perhaps a name would define her place, her role, her responsibilities among the others that share her space. Perhaps once we identify ourselves, we can see more clearly how we must defend and protect all the species that inhabit this earth.
For more on the importance of naming things in The Last Resort, refer to David Hoefer's blog The Power to Name.
“When I think of Pud, I think, ‘Here comes fun!’”
That’s how Diana Mountjoy Hill responded in 2015 when I asked her about any memories she might have of my father. I had just started working on The Last Resort, and I was trying to track down anyone I thought might be able to offer me insights into his life in Lawrenceburg. Bill Bryant, a Lawrenceburg native and retired professor of biology who had written an article about my father’s academic career—which included the statement “Common sense, and a sense of humor, were essentials for John Goodlett”—pointed me to Diana, whom I had always known as “Dyna.”
Pud and her dad, Lin Morgan Mountjoy, were great friends. The Mountjoy family had a big farm between Lawrenceburg and Pud’s camp on U.S. 62, so I have to imagine Pud stopped by there frequently on his way to or from Salt River, occasionally entreating his buddy to join him for some fishing. And I know Lin Morgan and his wife, Joy, visited the camp after the war with Pud and Mary Marrs.
Like nearly all of Pud’s buddies, Lin Morgan also served during WWII. Diana tells me that he and Joy wrote each other every day while he was in training at Deming Air Base in New Mexico and later while serving in North Africa at a base near Casablanca.
When they all somewhat miraculously made it back safely to Lawrenceburg, Lin Morgan was in Pud and Mary Marrs’ wedding in December 1947. Diana was born to Lin Morgan and Joy a couple of years after that. So she was still pretty young when Pud would stop by the Mountjoy farm on his rare visits home from the Northeast.
“Whenever I heard Pud’s Ford convertible careening down our long driveway, I would run to the front window,” continued Diana. “I knew all hell was about to break loose.”
I can’t think of a better legacy than to be forever associated with “fun.” When I first heard this anecdote, I admit I was surprised. Others had shared stories about my dad’s sense of humor and his ability to talk easily with anyone from any circumstances. I had heard him described as “folksy.” But none of this initially jibed with my recollection of a disciplinarian and a serious academic.
I’ve been delighted, however, to embrace this image of the man I never really knew. Sometimes, when I choose going outside to play rather than spending another hour inside taking care of work, I think of him. When I’m spending time with friends and I see myself fall into playful behavior unbefitting a woman d’un certain âge, I think of him. When I jump in the lake for a swim or paddle my boat to a back cove in search of turtles or Great Blue Heron, I think of him.
My cousin Vince, Pud’s nephew and namesake (“John Vincent,” named for his uncle John Campbell [Pud] and his uncle Robert Vincent, the youngest and oldest Goodlett brothers), told me, “He was a cool dude. He just seemed relaxed and easygoing.”
I’m not sure those are shoes I can fill, but a legacy of “fun” is one I’d be proud to continue.
Tim Cooper of Oakdale, Minn., responds to the recent post Whistling Past the Graveyard. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
T. S. Eliot once wrote, “Great works of art always mean more than they are capable of expressing.” Whenever I return to Pud Goodlett’s journals in The Last Resort and reread his thoughts as a young man, I am reminded of Eliot’s quote, of how even something as apparently straightforward and unencumbered as a camp logbook can resonate with unexpected intent and purpose. I am particularly cognizant of Goodlett’s love of place and family, and how scholarly success never weakened his ties to Kentucky.
When I read Sallie Showalter’s recent blog—which mirrors this attachment to family and place—I realized there must be a mystical connection between people and location that sometimes transcends all else.
As I was growing up, my family moved a dozen times to a dozen different states while my parents pursued graduate degrees and visiting professorships. I learned early not to form an attachment to a place. I am also the only child of an only child, and I can count my remaining relatives on one hand. I am watching my mother die from Parkinson’s disease. So I use the term “mystical” deliberately when thinking of those who experience this ineffable pull of family and place. As a young man, I was unaware of its power. As I contemplate the latter phases of my life, as I extricate myself from the shackles of my career, I yearn for those ties to a constant place and to people who knew me way back when.
That, in a roundabout way, brings me to Pud’s wife, Mary Marrs, and my brief encounters with her when I was young. I recall her as a woman of unassailable beauty and grace. She, too, served her country during WWII by leaving her small-town home in central Kentucky and going to work for the Navy in Hawaii. (A tough gig, that.) Like many of the more fortunate members of her generation, she returned to her roots when the conflict concluded.
I must have been 15 years old, a friend of her older daughter, when I met her. She always treated me with the utmost kindness. One story will suffice: I’m not sure where her two daughters were, but she and I found ourselves in her kitchen, drinking coffee early one morning. We must have talked for an hour, and while I don’t remember the thread of our conversation, I do recall that she took me—a 15-year-old boy and all that that entails—seriously. I also recall her discussing her deceased husband and telling me how I would have liked him.
It was only years later, after the death of my own father at an absurdly young age, that I recognized in the eyes of my mother the look on Mrs. Goodlett’s face during that talk: a look of bereavement, confusion, controlled anger, and a sadness that cannot be articulated.
And just as Mary Marrs had returned to Lawrenceburg from her home in Maryland after Dr. Goodlett’s passing, so my own mother left Kentucky and returned to her family in Minnesota after my father’s death. The pull of place, of family, of familiarity surmounted the grip of artificial roots. And while we could argue whether these two women made the right decision, who can argue with the gravitational pull that lured them home?
Camus wrote: “There are places where the mind dies so that a truth which is its very denial can be born.” The human condition is absurd: we plan, we strive, we rely on rational, systematic thought to live. And yet, our mortality tells us that our existence is provisional and transitory; it is irrational. We carve out careers, and they crumble into insignificance when we visit the gravesites of our relatives; we remember our deceased loved ones in their vibrant youth, and yet we somehow live longer than they; we live in exciting locales among interesting friends, and yet our profound meaning comes from our place of origin.
It is, indeed, when we delve into and accept the irrational—the “dying of the mind”—that we find our true selves, our “truth.” And for those, like me, who do not have roots, who do not have a family or place which circles the wagons and protects us, this irrational absurdity compels us to act, to rebel, to define ourselves by our actions, by our choices.
Pud Goodlett, writing home about what he witnessed at the Nuremburg war crimes trials, wonders if his brother Vincent, an attorney who had served his country in England, would have found the events interesting. And his widow, talking about her deceased husband to a teen-age boy as though this untamed youth were the most important person she had ever met, perhaps unwittingly reveals the most profound truth she knows: family and place are what bind us to this earth, and to each other.
David Hoefer, of Louisville, Ky., is co-editor of The Last Resort and the author of the book's Introduction. If you would like to share your thoughts on Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Some knock midcentury America for its supposed philistinism—remember, we’re talking about the generation that survived the Great Depression and would go on to win World War II, create history’s mightiest economy, and put men on the moon. Is being expert in the consumption of esoteric culture really a laudable achievement?
That said, there is a somewhat naïve, but also affective, quality to the camp journal in The Last Resort. This comes across in the relationship Pud Goodlett has with the two great loves he references, neither of which at age 19 was a young woman. I’m referring to Mike, his dog, and to Thomas, his 1925 Ford Model T pickup.
It’s Thomas that helps put to rest the notion of a sophistication deficit as a defining characteristic of the pre-war population. The Ford Model T was, of course, one of the signal success stories of American business. Henry Ford didn’t invent assembly-line production or standardized machine parts, but he was the first automobile manufacturer to wed mass-production techniques to design and marketing concepts. Just as importantly, his was a car for the middle rather than the upper classes, both domestically and abroad. In production from 1908 to 1927, the Model T ultimately recorded sales of 16.5 million units.
This explosion in low-cost but relatively fast transportation, with top speeds of 45 mph, had enormous impacts on American society, some good, some not so good. Automobile owners found themselves with the means to escape the intellectual isolation of a small town, but in the process they stumbled into the psychological isolation of an even smaller car—perhaps a busier version of loneliness.
But automobiles—and automobility—can foster values and virtues as well. As the philosopher Loren Lomasky has argued, freedom of movement, as aided by the triumph of horsepower over horses, can be important to the pursuit of life-projects:
“Movement, therefore, does not simply describe getting from here to there; it has normative richness. To move is to progress—though, of course, it can also be to backslide. Only stasis is morally neutral, and ours is a dynamic universe. The greater the variety of dimensions through which an individual transforms itself and things it encounters, the greater the scope for evaluative concerns. The grounds on which human beings appraise themselves and their fellows will be much richer than, say, the standards applied to horses or bottles of wine or the performance of machines. For people, there is not only a better or worse but a chosen better or worse toward which we deliberately direct ourselves. Intelligent automobility is crucial to the elevated status of human beings vis-à-vis other beings.” (Lomasky, Loren E. “Autonomy and Automobility.” The Independent Review, Vol. II, No. 1, Summer 1997, pp. 5-28.)
I suspect that Thomas was important in exactly this manner—he gave Pud the gift of automobility, of independent pursuit. He added to the richness of Pud’s experiences and pointed toward new vistas along the muddy, rutted roads of Anderson County. Beyond these, at much further distances, were the vistas that Pud eventually chose or had chosen for him: war under Patton in Europe, marriage to Mary Marrs, Harvard and Harvard Forest, teaching and scholarship at Johns Hopkins. There was nothing of the bumpkin in any of this.
Thomas’s end was opera buffa slapstick if not exactly funny, demolished by moonlight on August 22, 1942, when striking another vehicle on the way to Camp Last Resort. Neither car had its headlights on, a common power-saving trick in those days. The personal injuries weren’t life-threatening, but poor old Thomas was a twisted wreck, shortly to be replaced by Pud’s second car, Westbrook, a 1934 Chevy.
Like Moses, Thomas never entered the Promised Land, always waiting patiently for Pud at the head of the final footpath the boys took to camp. Here at least Mike the dog, who followed his master everywhere, had a singular advantage over the intrepid but less sure-footed Thomas.
Here’s a nicely done five-minute video clip about the Ford Model T, courtesy CarDataVideo’s YouTube channel.
In July 1942, Pud was attending summer school at the University of Kentucky. If he made any trips out to Camp Last Resort that month, he didn’t document them. In July 1943, he was already training at Camp Wolters, Texas, a member of the Enlisted Reserve Corps of the Army. Of that ordeal, he writes the following to his sister, Gin; her husband, Len; and their son, Slug (short for “Sluggo,” Pud’s nickname for young Dave Fallis):
"Well, here I am at the end of my fifth week of the training cycle, and I still don’t know whether we’ll take the full thirteen weeks or not. I suppose you know by now that I took my final OCS physical exam last Friday—or rather Friday before last—and passed O.K.
"The weather is fine today—the sky is completely overcast and it’s only about 90°—perfect for relaxing. It’s been rather hot—several days last week hit 120°. This part of Texas is really not so bad. The country is flat except for low flat-topped hills, and although the trees are almost all stunted, there are plenty of them—mostly post oaks. The soil is all sandy, in fact it’s not soil—it’s sand. Horned toads, jack rabbits, and chiggers abound, as do the sand burrs, which are the sharpest stickers you ever saw. They grow on very low plants everywhere, and simply cannot be seen, but every time I sit down, I find them.
"You’d die if you could see my face—my nose, chin, and both cheeks peel constantly, but my upper lip actually feels like cardboard. And don’t believe that I’m getting fat—the OCS physical only weighted me in at 133—so there!"
As I enjoy a stretch of languorous summer days beside my little manmade lake, I occasionally think how my father would have appreciated this setting. My backyard is filled with healthy trees planted randomly or allowed to grow where they please: sycamores, tulip poplars, redbuds, several types of oaks and hickories, a beloved black gum, a red maple, a couple of birches and bald cypress trees we planted near the water to replace the willows and cherries we lost, and Norway spruces and a few cedars we’re encouraging to grow into a natural barrier to shield us from others who recreate on the lake.
About 30 feet from my backdoor I can step onto a small dock that juts into our little cove. Moored to the dock in its custom-shaped slip is an old metal johnboat, sturdy and indestructible, awaiting anyone wanting to head out onto the lake to fish for the plentiful largemouth bass. The boat has stood sentry over the west side of the property through three homeowners. It’s largely retired now, which is a shame, usually left behind when the fleeter kayaks and stand-up boards get a turn on the lake’s placid water.
I think my father would have loved that I have settled on a small body of water in central Kentucky. It may not be a natural river with fishing holes and snags and treefalls. It may not change much with the seasons or with the level of rainfall. But it provides ready access for swimming nearly six months out of the year and easy fishing any time we’re willing to give it a try. We seem to have fewer snakes than Pud and Bobby encountered on the cliffs along Salt River, but we have an enormous variety of birds and lots of turtles—which appear safe from bored young men while sunning on their logs. Manicured lawns have largely displaced the wildflowers, but there are still areas of the neighborhood where mowing is erratic and the butterfly weed and bee balm and chicory occasionally peek above the grasses. And what would Pud and Bobby have thought about the deer—does, bucks, and fawns—that regularly graze on our lawn or bed down among our garden plants for the night?
During our first years here my husband and his buddies enjoyed a good bit of fishing on the lake. My dad’s old tackle box and fly rods stood ready in the storage room that opens to the back patio. I would occasionally find Rick sorting through the antique lures and fishing paraphernalia, either looking for something new to try or just reveling in the oddity of it all. A Styrofoam container of earthworms was usually in the basement refrigerator, along with the beer.
Yeah, I think Pud would have enjoyed this spot. I can almost see him stretched out in an old camp chair in the backyard, a Budweiser or a glass of bourbon in one hand, a cigarette in the other, watching the Green Herons or the Kingfishers as they swoop down the lake.
Empathy, like civility, seems to be a vanishing American quality. The ability to imagine oneself in another person’s situation and understand that person’s feelings typically engenders compassion and a sense of shared human experience. Without empathy, we tend to align ourselves with others whose experiences we can identify with. That results in homogenized communities and a bubbling fear of those who are different—the threat of “The Other,” as described so vividly in Ryszard Kapuściński’s book that borrows that title.
That’s where our nation—and much of the world—finds itself right now.
Bill Bishop, formerly a columnist with the Lexington Herald-Leader, relied on demographic data to sound the alarm about this phenomenon in his 2009 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. He argued that our choosing to live in neighborhoods with others who share our lifestyle and our beliefs has helped create the political and cultural polarization we see today.
Unfortunately we currently have political leaders who find stoking those fears useful for holding on to their power. By promulgating misleading data and straight-up lies, they are able to prey on people’s fears of those who are different—or simply unfamiliar—and push agendas that lack compassion and humanity.
Our nation has a long history of persecuting immigrants and those whom we perceive to be different. We have been callous, hateful, distrustful, even cruel—all while pointing smugly to the Statue of Liberty, our national symbol of compassion.
It is our responsibility as citizens to distinguish the facts from the untruths and to consider the effect of proposed policy on all people, not just those who look and think like we do.
So how do we build empathy for others who live very different lives from our own? If you live or work among a diverse population of people, it’s much easier. You interact with people with different backgrounds from yours every day. So talk to them. Get to know them. Ask them questions. Share a meal. I expect you’ll find you’re not very different after all.
If you live and work in an area with little diversity, as I do, you have to work a little harder to discover the empathy and compassion necessary for a united nation truly interested in justice for all. You can volunteer to work with groups of people whose life experiences are different from yours. If you have the means, you can travel. You can take classes or attend public lectures.
But perhaps one of the simplest ways to develop empathy is to read. Read widely. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read books by authors from other countries. Read history so you’ll know the struggles of those who preceded us. Read biographies about people you’ve never heard of.
And read fiction. Good fiction invites you into a world you know nothing about and engages your emotions in a way that encourages you to feel empathy for the characters. Whatever their situation—however different from anything you’ve ever known—you begin to identify with the fictional characters: you feel their pain, their sorrow, their happiness, their embarrassment, their fear. You struggle with their decisions. You want them to succeed. You live their lives vicariously.
If reading fiction is not a regular part of your life, here are a few suggestions to get you started. Of course, there are hundreds of others to choose from. Feel free to share a comment below listing other books readers might find compelling.
In the second Appendix of The Last Resort, Pud lists what he is reading while working as a researcher at Harvard Forest. The almost wacky list includes a historical thriller, a collection of essays by the humorist James Thurber, a contemporary novel, a telling of Maurice Herzog’s trek up Annapurna, and a book of Ozark folk tales. He was also rereading Thoreau’s Walden and working his way through Ridpath’s history.
In 1953, Pud and Mary Marrs had no television. Reading was their primary pastime. I suspect that in that era more people read more widely. With the widespread establishment of public libraries and the advent of paperbacks, books became more accessible. Newspapers were commonly found in homes. Magazines were popular.
But in the digital age, we read “soundbites.” We rarely dig deeply into a story or analysis. Fewer still pick up a book or download a novel to an electronic device. Who has time for that?
As we once again consider important policy and legislation relating to immigrants, refugees, foreign aid, and how we respond to national disasters that disproportionately affect the poor and marginalized, let us all summon as much empathy and compassion for our fellow travelers as we possibly can. Let’s all pick up a good book and read. And then let’s make our voices heard.
For another call to action, please read the comment left by Vince Fallis at the bottom of Tragic Patterns.