It isn’t clear when it began yet I’ve reached a stopping point in writing my autobiography. I had intended to breeze through my undergraduate education at the University of Iowa — touching key points only — so I could focus on my trip to Europe, military experience, and the time leading up to our wedding and the birth of our only child. I’m inside those years in Iowa City pretty deep and the dive has only begun.
As I wrote about my early and K-12 years in Davenport, it was easier to paint with a broad brush. The narrative I sought to reduce to paper had been forming for a long time, comprised of specific memories and a small set of people, places and things. I had never thought of my years from birth to high school graduation in a structured manner before. I’m learning about those times in a way I hadn’t considered. It was easy to avoid complexities as moving away from home, and what I became at university, gained more narrative importance. I have had to stop and take stock. That’s where I remain for the time being, likely for the rest of summer.
My last year of university was transformational and I’m just beginning to understand how much so.
Senior year, when I lived in a shared home on Gilbert Court, was the time when Oscar Mayer & Company offered me a job as a plant foreman. I appreciate the offer. They didn’t have to make it. Yet when they funded most of my education in the form of a grant from the Mayer family after the death of my father at the Davenport plant, it seemed appropriate. I recall the first summer I worked at the meat packing plant. One of the millwrights I was helping offered to take me to see the elevator which collapsed and killed Father. I had no interest in reliving that history then, or on a daily basis while working there. I declined the offer.
I had not developed any strong relationships with women by the time 1974 arrived. It seemed unlikely I would be ready to do so for a while. During summer gatherings with male high school classmates, they were often ready for sexual action. I was not and those nights we departed company so they could pursue their desires. I developed relationships with women at university, yet wanted to be friends. I couldn’t bear the possibility of a romantic breakup forcing us to separate. Lack of a “girlfriend” was a background tension I dealt with by living a full life in other ways.
The most important transformation may be coming to terms with the desire to be creative. After graduation I spent years considering what that meant. A group of poets and artists gathered at our house from time to time. Some are better known than others yet it was David Morice, Darrel Gray, Alan and Cinda Kornblum, Jim Mulac, and others who stopped by. I was enamored of Actualists, perhaps. In any case, I learned from them that a conventional approach to poetry, fiction writing and book making wasn’t necessary for success. I didn’t know any of them well, yet hanging with them in the living room helped me grow creatively.
I was taking art and art history classes to complete my degree in English. I dabbled in ceramics, tie dye, music, photography and other media. I realized there was no clear path to success as an artist, let alone the multi-media creator I vaguely wanted to become. I gave up a conventional career in the meat packing plant, in favor of a speculative future. It was unlike what I expected in high school and held a sketchy future at best. The desire to pursue this idea drove much of what I did throughout the rest of my life yet especially the following eight years.
The autobiography will be better for all this new understanding. Yet I have to get back at it. Currently, there is much work to get the garden planted. Once that’s done perhaps the muse will visit again.
Sunday’s high winds, with gusts up to 45 miles per hour, did their job. The wet soil turned over on Saturday has dried enough to till. Today’s list includes plant a row of early vegetables to be protected by row cover, dig a spot for the tubs in the photo, and continue the deconstruction of last year’s garden plots with an eye toward planting more early vegetables. Garlic is up. I chose the plot for tomatoes. Much planning remains.
I’d like to move the seedlings back into the greenhouse. The forecast later in the week is for ambient temperatures to fall below freezing again. I’ll think about that as I’m tilling the first row. I’m scheduling a five-hour shift, planning to use it all.
The main news since my last writing post is the 1950 U.S. Census was released. In it I found new information and as a result, need to re-write the chapter about Davenport in 1951. This is a positive development. The census provided the first specific evidence of family members living in Rock Island, something I’ve known, but with little detail. I found my Uncle Gene also lived there, separate from his father, working at a dairy where he “helps with milk.” He was seventeen years old. The census also clarified the status of the home to which I was brought from the hospital after being born. My grandmother was head of household with the three children from her second husband living with her. There is a lot to track down and the new census release makes it easier than it was. It also confirmed some things I knew with another, definitive source.
I scanned the 313 pages of double spaced manuscript. Boy, there is a lot more writing, editing, and proof reading to do! Some things seem solid. The outline I created this year will continue to serve as a coat rack upon which to hang things I write or discover. That will be followed by a re-write using the new information. The work I did before the coronavirus pandemic does not fit neatly into the new outline structure and needs a major re-write. Likewise there is much to accomplish to write through the period of time before I kept a journal, got married, and started working in transportation. Depending on my choices, there could be two volumes. The first through the birth of our daughter, the second covering everything else through the coronavirus pandemic. Reducing it down, last winter was a period of progress.
The unavoidable task ahead is going through all of my past writing and paper archives to distill something usable. Thus far, the writing has been fun adventures of me sitting in front of a computer screen making up the story. Once I tackle the physical record, writing will be real work. I’m looking forward to writing the whole thing so it may be time to put it in low gear and start climbing that hill.
Right now, all I can think about is getting to my shift in the garden.
Every time I read the name of a new city in Ukraine, I look it up on a map. When considering the vast expanses of farm fields depicted in atlases, I wonder how Ukrainian farmers will get a crop in this spring. I also wonder about the number of war crimes the west will tolerate before doing something more substantial to stop Russian aggression. The invasion began on Feb. 24, although it is being framed as part of a war that began in 2014.
U.S. interest in Ukraine has to do with so many of its citizens being Caucasian. Also, I got to know a group of Ukrainians who were guest workers at the orchard. Many locals have Ukrainian connections. The easy access social media provides to the war (especially via Twitter) makes it real. I was barely aware of other modern genocides, like in Darfur, Rwanda, Myanmar, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Bosnia and Herzegovina, East Timor, and others. With social bias about white folks, the Ukraine conflict is getting plenty of media attention in the U.S. People here are engaged.
Following the Russia-Ukraine war takes more than a little bandwidth.
All the same, I passed 70,000 words in new writing this year. The main change over last year is the process I developed (and have written about) is working. There is much to consider in a single human life, yet time to experience it only once. As I use a chronological framing to work through the story, I’m surprised at how much I remember and how vivid those memories are.
This week I wrote about my time at the University of Iowa. A valuable resource has been the online archives of The Daily Iowan going back to 1868. I also have letters I wrote and letters written to me, my main school papers, as well as some artifacts from the period. All of these resources aid memory in production of writing that is personally meaningful.
I participated in the May 11, 1972 anti-war demonstrations to protest the Nixon administration’s mining of Haiphong Harbor in Vietnam. The tendency is to accept well published stories about what happened, suppressing our personal experience. I believe writing the story I did provides an alternative. Here’s a sample:
Newspapers reported about 1,000 demonstrators by the time they got to Dubuque Street. Some 60 patrolmen with night sticks and helmets stood side-by-side across Dubuque Street at the Park Road intersection near City Park. They deployed smoke into the approaching line of students in front of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house.
At this point the newspaper narratives diverged. The Davenport Times-Democrat published a headline, “Patrolmen Block Sit-in Attempt.” However, a contingent of protesters returned south on Dubuque to Brown Street and we walked through neighborhoods, then into dense brush to gain access to Interstate-80. At least one person was treated for cuts from barbwire fencing as we found the way to the Interstate through a thickly wooded area. I was among the protesters clearing a path in the brush for others.
We reached Interstate 80, stopped traffic, and set a fire in the eastbound lane. As we did, a bus with Highway patrolmen arrived on the overhead crossing of Prairie Du Chien Road. They climbed down the embankment and formed a line across the eastbound lane. They charged toward us to break up the crowd and extinguish the fire.
From a draft of an autobiography in progress.
If we are not the main character in our own life’s story, then when are we? The new process helps me get a narrative down on paper. Once it is written, editing begins. By the time it is finished, the writing should be quite readable, I hope.
I’m having second thoughts about putting everything in this autobiography. There is too much previous writing I want to include. I see a second volume that is a collection of previous writing, with a section for each type of writing, including letters, poetry, newspaper articles, blog posts, journals and stories. Gleaning the best of this means reading it all. I’d better stick to my knitting and finish the chronological narrative first.
There is also a question of what to do with the images I have on hand. Part of me wants to close the interpretation of images by describing what is in them rather than publishing the image itself. That seems a useful technique. There are so many images there is likely another book with images with extended captions in them. I posted such a work on my Flickr account and it became one of the most widely read posts I made. I took it down when I exited the Yahoo platforms. There is a third book in images and the decision is whether to create it as a bound book, or to make a series of photo albums. It’s an open question.
Anti-war sentiment ran strong among my cohort of university students. Many felt like I did: we opposed the war yet as new students were hesitant to publicly protest. Spring 1971 was my first year experiencing student anti-war demonstrations at the University of Iowa. To hear then-university president Willard Boyd tell it, anti-war demonstrations were non-existent that year, receiving no mention in his autobiography, A Life on the Middle West’s Never-ending Frontier. Boyd had a specific narrative to tell about the demonstrations. The period from Kent State on May 4, 1970, until May 1972 encompassed most of the anti-war activity at the University of Iowa campus, he wrote.
During the 1971 demonstrations, he held a meeting in the student lounge at the Quadrangle dormitory where I lived. I attended and Boyd seemed engaged and reasonably open minded about balancing needs for free expression by students, law and order in the community, and controlling how events evolved through policy. D.C. Spriestersbach, dean of the Graduate College in the 1970s, presented a timeline of campus turbulence from 1965 through 1972 in his memoir The Way it Was: The University of Iowa 1964-1989. Because of his position, his narrative, like Boyd’s, is tilted toward the administration’s view of the protests. It is familiar yet it was not the whole story.
While in high school I participated in an anti-war demonstration outside the Davenport Armory after Kent State, and in a student strike of classes. I kept to myself in Iowa City. I was inexperienced at living away from home.
Feb. 10, 1971 was a day of student meetings about the Vietnam War at the Iowa Memorial Union. There was an all-day teach-in attended by more than 1,500 people. A variety of speakers made presentations about war itself, and the history of Vietnam War specifically. About 500 people met that evening to draft demands of the State Board of Regents and develop a plan of action to protest expansion of the war. The next day, Student Senate President Robert Beller read the demands at a meeting of the board of regents, saying in part, “We will act to stop university involvement in the war effort and university contribution to the domestic oppression related to the war-unemployment. Therefore, we demand that (1) The University of Iowa end complicity with the war – abolish ROTC, war research and war recruiters. (2) The university end all layoffs of campus workers.”
The next day there was a demonstration at the Iowa Memorial Union attracting about 50 people. The group walked from the union toward the Rec Building where a group of ROTC students was conducting drills. Finding the door locked upon their arrival, they next went to the University Field House where they ransacked the ROTC offices. They left the Field House and milled about near the Rienow, Quadrangle and Hillcrest dormitories, then crossed the Iowa River to the Student Union to see if they could gather more protesters. They then went to Campus Security and to the U.S. Post Office where the Johnson County Draft Office was located. The crowd had dwindled by that point.
A large-scale demonstration and celebration had been planned for May 1, yet there was no place on campus large enough to accommodate the number of people expected to attend. President Boyd granted permission for the event to be held at the Macbride field campus near Lake Macbride. The Daily Iowan estimated 12,000 people attended the non-stop day of speeches and musical acts. I attended and it was more rock festival than anti-war demonstration. Alternative activities and a 10 p.m. demonstration on campus were planned for those who couldn’t make it to the field campus for the main event.
While anti-war demonstrations began in April, violence began on Wednesday, May 5. Here is the description from Spriestersbach’s book:
Anti-War Violence Strikes City – Scattered Arrests Follow Three Hours of Trashing. A handful of people were arrested Wednesday night (May 5) after a crowd of anti-war demonstrators estimated at an average of between 400-500 people ranged through Iowa City for four hours breaking windows and blocking traffic. About 100 law enforcement officers, including Johnson County Sheriff’s Deputies, the Iowa Highway Patrol and the Iowa City and Coralville Police Departments, dressed in riot gear, charged down Clinton Street and into the Pentacrest to break up the crowd shortly before midnight.
On Friday, May 7, someone set off an explosion near the Iowa City Civic Center with two or three sticks of dynamite causing thousands of dollars of damage. Monday, May 10, for the first time during the demonstrations, law enforcement used teargas to disperse an anti-war demonstration at the University of Iowa Pentacrest. Also, that day, about 40 people conducted a sit-in at President Boyd’s office. Law enforcement made the decision to clear the streets of all people by the end of the day, according to the Daily Iowan. Each of these events was violent, so I stayed in my dorm room when not in class or at the dining hall.
On Tuesday, May 11, there were more demonstrations. Law enforcement called in members of the Scott County Sheriff’s posse to assist. I stayed away from demonstrations that included violence and vandalism, although that evening changed my mind.
After nightfall I walked from the Quadrangle downhill to Grand Avenue to see what was going on. A student had built a crude catapult to take to the roof of Hillcrest dormitory and send rocks flying down on law enforcement officers as they came up the hill toward the dorms. As a former engineering student, I cast a skeptical eye on the contraption. Descending the hill, I found officers had closed the intersection with Riverside Drive and were assembling there. There was construction halfway up the hill to the Field House on Grand Avenue and some students moved concrete culverts around and started them rolling down the hill toward law enforcement. As the first culvert reached the bottom of Grand Avenue, and officers began advancing up the hill, I turned around and headed back to my room to wait out whatever might happen.
According to The Daily Iowan, one of their reporters was at the police station when news of the disturbances near the dormitories arrived. They overheard Highway Patrol Captain Lyle Dickinson order officers to “take the gas gun. Lob some gas in and chase the others up the hill.” And so, they did.
I heard the commotion outside yet stayed in my room. That is, until I began to smell tear gas. I opened the window facing the courtyard and saw a tear gas cannister ignited and bouncing towards the center of the courtyard. I headed outside to escape the fumes. After it was over that night, we blamed the rough handling students got on the Scott County Sheriff’s Posse, although it was the Highway Patrol who were in command of the operation.
A junior student named David Yepsen, who later became a journalist, was quoted in the newspaper, “(the teargassing of the dormitories was) an over-reaction on the part of the police. It was totally out of line. They made a grave mistake in doing that.” None of us liked it and people who had been neutral toward the anti-war demonstrations were now provoked and activated after our dormitories were tear gassed. Overnight, seven persons were arrested, and 16 patrolmen and 3 students injured. Governor Robert Ray dispatched 200 Highway Patrol officers to assist local law enforcement.
With the presence of uniformed Highway Patrol officers on campus, Wednesday, May 12, passed without disturbances. Peace continued through Saturday. On May 14, President Boyd suspended outdoor rallies and Monday, May 17, classes ended for the academic year. The entire series of anti-war demonstrations in April and May made us feel powerless to influence our government and the interminable war in Southeast Asia.
I was much more active the following year when demonstrators briefly shut down the eastbound lane of Interstate 80.
This is an excerpt from a draft of an autobiography in progress.
These cold, windy days have been invaluable for writing. There have been some warm spells, yet the ground remains frozen, and desire to stay indoors is strong. Highs are forecast in the teens the next couple of days.
I found an old jar of applesauce, tasted it to make sure it was good, and baked an applesauce cake. This dense, slightly sweet cake could be split into two loaf pans and made as bread. Who wants to wash the extra dish? Topped with homemade apple butter, it is a mid-winter treat made from pantry staples.
A lot is going on in the political world. Reports say there is a high level of engagement among Democratic activists. Activists are one thing. Voters are another. More work is required on the latter. The field of candidates won’t be known until the filing period closes on March 18 for federal and state offices, and March 25 for county ones.
In the state senate district a bicycle ride away, Molly Donahue and Austin Frerick are in a primary for the Democratic nomination to replace state senator Liz Mathis, who is running for the U.S. Congress. I like Molly a lot and have attended her public outreach sessions held in nearby Ely. Frerick may be better known state-wide, and is expected to be better financed. It’s a race to watch. In the meanwhile, I am expecting a formal announcement from incumbent Kevin Kinney in my senate district in early March.
At the beginning, I didn’t think there would be much about which to write regarding my four-year stay at the University of Iowa. It turns out I was wrong.
The first third of my current project was written mostly from photographs and memory with a few history references scattered in. Now that I’ve entered the part where there is more written record, the story got complicated.
The period from Kent State on May 4, 1970 until May 1972 encompassed most of the anti-war activity at the University of Iowa campus. Both former university president Willard Boyd, and former dean of the Graduate College D.C. Spriesterbach wrote of the events in their memoirs. In addition, the Daily Iowan newspaper stores archived editions online at no cost for users. I have been able to re-read newspapers from the spring of 1971, my freshman year. Combine that with my personal documents and memory, there is a lot to go through and distill.
Music was important during university. I learned to play guitar and participated in the local music culture which included countless appearances by bands touring the country. There were big venue offerings like The Grateful Dead, Grand Funk Railroad, The Allman Brothers Band, and Leon Russell. There were smaller venue offerings with Muddy Waters, Luther Allison, and Ravi Shankar. I can’t recall all the long-time blues artists who performed in downtown Iowa City. My mates from high school and I started a rhythm and blues band about 1973. My record collection grew considerably at university. All that experience needs some clarity and compression, yet not too much.
When I moved to Forest View Trailer Court, I started cooking and have some memories of early experiments to share. I recall using the first loaf of bread I baked as a door stop because it was so dense as to be inedible. Food will be a major theme later in the story. I’ll be planting some seeds here.
I was able to graduate in four years, debt free. Things didn’t cost as much in the early 1970s. In light of the $120,000 expense our child incurred at a private college, there is a point to make about student loans and the cost of higher education.
The choice a writer has to make is whether to do all the work in the present, or to write one version today and add to it later. I’m likely to write my autobiography just once, so this is it. That makes the process longer than cranking out a 100,000-word work of fiction in a year. Progress was made this week. For that, I am thankful. Plenty of additional work lies ahead.
I arrived at Hillcrest dormitory in the fall of 1970 and decided I didn’t like my roommate and his clutch of friends from Western Iowa. I quickly moved into the Quadrangle dormitory with a high school classmate I didn’t know well. During my brief stay at Hillcrest, I met Jim, who would become my brother-in-law in the 1980s.
Construction of Quadrangle began during World War I. It was to be used as a training barracks to support the war effort. Work was completed in 1920 well after the armistice. It was a serviceable place to live with a big room, high ceilings, and a closet big enough for me to live in for a while – which I did.
We ate in the Quadrangle dining facility. I had been reading about macrobiotic diets and for a while adopted a no-meat diet. This may have been partly a reaction to the quality of dormitory food. Many complained about cafeteria food, yet once I went “macrobiotic” it was easy to find something to eat in the line. Macrobiotics caused me to lose weight, weighing less than 160 pounds for a while.
My grades were lackluster at university, achieving a 2.93 grade point average on a 4.0 scale. My approach after washing out of engineering was to graduate with a non-teaching degree in English and to take a varied assortment of classes to give breadth to my education in the humanities. The classes and instructors I remember most were Chaucer with Stavros Deligiorgis, Shakespeare with Sven Armens, American Folk Literature with Harry Oster, Modern Fiction with David Morrell, American Indian Signs and Symbols with Hyemeyohsts Storm, and Anthropology with June Helm. In addition, I took French for three years, enough to gain a basic level of fluency. There was philosophy, linguistics, engineering, art history, ceramics, anthropology, literature, and physical education. The classwork prepared me to become a writer, yet that wasn’t a specific outcome I sought. My attitude toward university was typified by the fact I skipped the graduation ceremony and spent the time listening to it on the radio while I tie-dyed some t-shirts in the basement of our rented house.
Tuition and fees in 1970 were $310 per semester. Room and board added $1,040 for the academic year. My $1,250 per academic year scholarship from the Oscar Mayer family, secured by Father’s friends at the labor union after his death, paid most of my expenses. I funded the rest with my savings from high school, summer jobs, and my share of the settlement with Oscar Mayer and Company over Father’s death. Occasionally Mother sent a check to help pay my U-bill. There was no presumption of going into debt to attend a state university.
My life at university was likely not typical. During freshman year I tried things out. Shortly after classes began, we went to a scrimmage of the University of Iowa Hawkeye football team. We spent most of our time there making fun of coach Ray Nagel. It was the only time I remember attending a sports event during the four years. I visited a couple of student organizations and didn’t feel enough connection to join. During sophomore year I went on a date with a female student. We didn’t click and that was it for dating during the four years. When I interacted with women after that, neither of us considered it to be dating. I did my share of studying and walking all over campus. I stayed busy with classwork even if I wasn’t that good at it.
Through my friend Dan from grade school and high school, I got involved with the Commission for University Entertainment. The university was a stop for touring bands in the early 1970s. My first year I ran a Trooper carbon arc spotlight for musical acts at the University Field House. I heard or worked on acts, including The Grateful Dead, Leon Russell, Freddie King, Albert King, Laura Nyro, The Allman Brothers Band, Neil Diamond, and Grand Funk Railroad. I also got a chance to hear musicians elsewhere in the region, including Ravi Shankar at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. It felt like we were part of what was going on in the national music scene.
I studied Renée Descartes at university and spent substantial effort considering his first principle, cogito, ergo sum, or in English, “I think, therefore I am.” I wrote about my Cartesian outlook toward life. We are isolated beings, wrapped in a veil of humanity, closer to God, or its divine essence than we realize. Such veil, metaphorical or not, is woven of delicate threads, like the lace of Morbihan, or silk from China. We could spend a lot of time marveling in its delicate needlework or shimmering surface. Yet we are compelled to reach out beyond the veil. A Cartesian view of life if there is one. Some say we should live our lives in the presence of God and perform all works for its honor and glory. The Sisters of Mercy taught us this and had us inscribe it on each sheet of schoolwork, “All for the honor and glory of God.” If God is reading this writing, my offerings may not be living up to divine standards.
University was a period of trying to figure out how I would live in society. During my freshman year I was introduced to R. Buckminster Fuller. The book, I Seem To Be a Verb by Fuller, with Jerome Agel and Quentin Fiore, blew apart my desire for consistency and predictability in life. “The most important fact about Spaceship Earth: An instruction book didn’t come with it,” the authors proclaimed. Chaos ensued.
These were the times of Marshall McLuhan, The Last Whole Earth Catalogue, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Phillip Berrigan, Richard and Mimi Farina, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and Bob Dylan. I read them all. They were in the wake of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, whom I also read. If there were few female influences, it speaks to my education and upbringing. There was learning my first year at university. There was little consideration of what I might do with it after graduation.
Folks may not recall Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel starred in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical, The Sound of Music, which opened on Nov. 16, 1959.
Maria Von Trapp published her memoir of 1938 before the Anschluss in 1949. It was immediately recognized as having commercial potential and two German films were made of the story, The Trapp Family (1956) and Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika (1958). While the Broadway production began without music, it was the songs, many of which have become standards, that engaged people. The play won five Tony awards in 1960, including best musical.
The Sisters of Mercy in my grade school had become enamored of music from the play, from the beginning. We performed several of the songs at the former Jackson School when I was in sixth grade. I had never seen nuns so enthusiastic about anything before. When the film version came out, it was a sensation among nuns, grandmothers, and parents who had lived through World War II.
The film starred a 20-year-old Julie Andrews as Maria and Christopher Plummer as Captain Von Trapp. It opened on March 2, 1965. My grandmother had heard about the movie, and in a rare instance took us all to see it at the Coronet Theater on Harrison Street in Davenport. She insisted on paying. The music of the play, and the character Maria spoke to her. The Coronet had been remodeled that year and the Sound of Music ran for over a year.
In school we sang and played the many recognizable songs repeatedly. The whole thing was a phenomenon for us Catholic school children.
There were other plays and films that came from the World War II experience, yet nothing like the Sound of Music.
I broke through 65,000 words on the current draft this week. What’s different this time is completion of the narrative from the beginning through 1970 without breaks in the text. It actually reads like a story.
There is a lot of editing to do. There is nothing to edit unless words get on paper. The writing went well and about a third of the main text has been drafted.
Once I established the process and got going, the words flowed. The section just finished, about where I lived with my family for the final eleven years, is by far the longest. I compressed many potential stories into fewer to make the key points of the autobiography. I wrote smaller inserted parts to set up some of the major themes.
I’m interested in dealing with a couple of themes.
When I was injured and hospitalized at a young age, I learned how interdependent we are in society. It helped me realize how much besides myself is going on. Learning about and leveraging our interdependence has been a part of my life for a long time. My outlook is what I call Cartesian, and I’ve written about that before. Is there anyone else out there? In the context of my hospitalization, the answer is definitely yes, and they can be helpful. We also have an obligation to give back.
My early experiences discussing ethnicity with Father led me to believe I was “American,” whatever that was. What I came to know through life experiences and research is there is a gaping hole in the oral history or what I’ve been calling “family lore.” My focus has been on the coal mining culture. Yet there were enslaved humans in Wise County, Virginia where the family came up, and a climate of racism that was never mentioned among family. The way I learned about Virginia and the Civil War, the enslavement of humans, post-Civil War racism, and the rosy portrait of Robert E. Lee and other southerners in school books, was problematic. Today I recognize being born into white privilege. How I came to that awareness is a major theme.
Lastly, in the first part of the narrative is a discussion of losing Father in an industrial accident when I was age 17. That affected my decision to leave home to attend university. It shaped my life ever since. Having a father and then suddenly not, was traumatic. There were no guideposts on how to handle it. Tracking the change and how I learned to cope is another theme.
What is new to me as a long-form writer is how setting these themes in the narrative is done. Simply put, I had no idea before now. Now that I am figuring it out, and as I do, the pace is snowballing. After writing thousands of blog posts, the challenge of writing in longer form is a voyage of discovery. I’m liking what I see.
It looks like it will be cold again this week, and a chance to stay indoors to write. The pace of social engagements is picking up and somehow I need to blend everything in and stay the course to finishing the main part of the narrative this year.
January has been good for my writing. I organized an approach and it served to reduce stress. I’m better able to sit down, write, and feel like I accomplished something.
I eliminated a daily targeted number of written words. I mean, there is no deadline. It would be great to finish the book so I could begin the next project, yet I’m in no hurry. I want to be true to myself, not to an artificial writing goal.
Instead of a specific daily goal, I make sure to do something related to the project each day. Some days it’s hours, and some days it is minutes. I feel I have a grip on what was an unmanageable project.
I stopped writing and that enabled me to write. It’s the way a lifeguard overpowers a drowning victim to save them. I stopped writing and organized. First I developed a chapter list, or as I call it, the “big sections” list. There are 31 sections and seven appendices. I typed them all in a new document and as I find previously written sections or write new ones I hang them on the framework. The same with fragments located in folders or audio tapes of interviews. It is less hodgepodge than the way I wrote last year. Last year’s work can be plugged into the new framework and rewritten. The whole thing works.
The writing divides into some clean big parts. After the dedication and preface there are five sections where I combined my personal experience with whatever artifacts I could locate or had in my collection. These sections involved historical research and probing my memory. The working titles are Minnesota, Illinois, Virginia, Davenport and 1951.
The next part is written mostly from memory beginning with my earliest ones in the duplex where my parents brought me after being born. We lived there and three subsequent places before Father died and I left home. I don’t have much documentary evidence from these times: report cards, a few letters written to parents, and a small folder of school papers. The 1960s were the beginning of an explosion of home photography, so I have albums and extra photos from that time. I also scanned copies of Mother’s photographs before she died. While documentation is scant, there is plenty to prompt memories. I find it remarkable the detail with which I remember things long hidden in my brain. The working titles of these sections are Madison Street, Starting School, and Marquette Street. I’m a few thousand words into the latter and have to get through grade school, high school, music, work experiences, and leaving for college. This section ends with the Kickapoo Creek Rock Festival I attended with high school classmates the day after graduation.
The next sections are better documented. Leaving Home is about my conversations with my parents about going to university, and after Father died, about whether I should give up college to stay in Davenport and help Mother. I have many letters received from friends, university papers, photographs and newspaper clippings. There are also a few pieces of ceramics I made, some musical instruments, and memories of my time at the University of Iowa. I began writing a personal journal after graduation from university. This section also includes my 12-week tour of Europe in the Fall of 1974, and the year I spent in Davenport afterward.
There is a gap in recent writing during the period when I left for military service, returned to Davenport, and then moved to Iowa City for graduate school. That takes the narrative through four sections titled, Military Service, Homecoming, Iowa City and Graduate School. By this time, I was a regular journal writer and had published a small number of pieces, including travelogues for the Belgian Society in the Quad Cities. I was still taking photographs with film cameras, I had begun to write letters to the editors of newspapers. This section ends with the job search to find something to enable me to stay in Iowa City after graduate school.
A good part of the next section was drafted last year. It takes us from finding a job at the university, our marriage, beginning a career in transportation, the birth of our daughter, and moving to Cedar Rapids, then to Indiana. These sections are titled My Spouse & Me – 1982, Career, A Daughter – 1985, and In the Calumet (1988). By now I’d developed an extensive document collection method producing financial records, photographs, journals, letters, and all the raw material to turn into something. These were years before we adopted email or owned a home computer other than a word processor. When I worked at the oil company, I was introduced to email around 1990.
The final big section is of our return to Big Grove Township in 1993, where we currently live. Because this section has the most documentary resources, I saved it to write last. There are currently 11 sections and the organization and titles of them is fluid. No point writing them down because they are sure to change. I lived here longer than any other place, more than twice as long as I lived on Marquette Street with my family.
The difference this change in organization and methodology made is I have a sense of purpose when I’m writing. When I write something, I know where it goes, or whether it goes. I started a complete rewrite from the beginning and am now on section 10 of 31. It lets me know where I am. I can sleep at night knowing I won’t lose the thread.
While revisiting my life history I’ve been increasingly aware of what doesn’t get said between family and among friends. In particular, a gap in the narrative exists on Father’s side of the family when it comes to the legacy of human enslavement.
I intend to use the 1927 Pound Gap, Virginia lynching of Leonard Woods as the coda to the autobiography. I have a photograph my spouse took of me standing in front of a Welcome to Virginia highway sign not far from where Woods was lynched, and a memorial of the event was erected in 2021. At the time of the photo, I did not know that history.
Below are two paragraphs I wrote Wednesday as an example of an approach to the section. Slavery was almost never discussed among family.
In 1860, the last year the U.S. Census counted enslaved African Americans, a third of the population of Virginia was enslaved. In Wise County, 66 enslaved persons were counted along with 4,416 white ones. Family lore does not include much about slavery. We note that Thomas Jefferson Addington, my paternal grandmother’s paternal grandfather, served in the army of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War. Family lore is men from Wise County served in both the Confederate and Union armies. There is no discussion of Thomas Jefferson Addington’s military service in his entry in The Stallard Connection, a thick family history tracing parts of our line back to the 17th Century. There is a Salyer – Lee Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Wise County. I have family photographs of Father playing with some of the Salyer girls when they lived in Glamorgan. They attended school together. During the two trips I made to Wise County, I don’t recall seeing any African Americans or even once discussing slavery. There must be more to the story, although it may be lost in history.
Leonard Woods, a 30-year-old black coal miner, lived in Jenkins, Kentucky, the same town where Uncle Melvin and Aunt Carrie operated a bakery. He was accused of murdering a white coal mine foreman named Herschel Deaton (no relation). On Nov. 30, 1927, a mob broke Woods out of the Whitesburg, Kentucky jail and took him to Pound Gap, Virginia, where they hanged him and shot his corpse many times. Accounts vary, yet when the mob arrived with Woods around 3 a.m., the crowd numbered 1,000 to 1,500 people, in some 500 cars. Members of the sheriff’s office who were present failed to note any of the vehicle license plates. It is difficult to believe members of my family did not know of this history or participate in it. It never came up.
Draft autobiography by Paul Deaton, Feb. 2, 2022.
I don’t know if it fits, yet I feel I should make it fit. Avoidance of the legacy of human enslavement is as American as apple pie. The sweetness is of short duration.