For a moment, all I wanted was to be a kid again. To have no fear. To live in the moment. To scream out loud. To ride…the Zipper.
Every year, the local parish where my children attended preschool throws a fall festival, complete with carnival rides, a silent auction, and goofy games. One year, winding our way through the crowds, I saw towering above the horizon, a ride I recognized from my own teenaged years: the Zipper. Lost for a moment in the past, I am desperate to ride it!
I know. Nobody loves jury duty. (Perhaps I should have been a lawyer…) So I suppose it is not surprising that I was captivated by the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. I actually took a break from my writing to watch gavel-to-gavel coverage, captivated not only by what happened in the courtroom but also by live commentary given by a wide variety of lawyers.
The last time I watched a trail on TV was the OJ Simpson murder persecution, as KTLA in Los Angeles televised the entire trial. At the time, I was what people called a “freeway flyer,” a college instructor with adjunct positions at four different colleges across the city. So my hours were irregular, giving me the opportunity to watch much of the trial.
He took one last drag on his cigarette before putting it out in the small glass ashtray that he held in his hand. It was chilly outside, and he wanted to get back in to catch this week’s episode of Survivor.
He had been smoking for… what? Since he was in the army. That was when he was 22. So, for 65 years? Yeah. 65 years. There were a few years when he put the cigarettes away and switched over to cigars. He didn’t mind the cigars, but despite the constant pressure from his wife and children to quit smoking, they quickly decided they preferred the Pall Malls to the stench of the cheap cigars. So he easily made the transition back.
His doctor hassled him periodically. His brother, who smoked a pipe, had died of lung cancer. But every time his lung scans came back clean, even the doctor had to back off.
A large part of Clara’s Journal focused on women whose lives defy the popular narrative, whose stories of bravery, resilience, talent, and success are so often left out of our national discourse.
And it turns out that a story I missed, a story also ignored, was that of the thousands of African Americans who homesteaded in the Great Plains in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
One of my favorite parts about writing Clara’s Journal was the research: the books, the websites, the journals, the newspapers, ancestry.com, the phone calls, the emails, the family papers. And one of my favorite parts of the research, of reanimating lives from the past, was discovering how many of our assumptions about the lives of so many people are simplified to an inaccurate caricature.
She married young. She was only 19. But she was in love. And it was the 60s. Women married young. Her husband was handsome, charismatic, and talented. And in the 60s, women had children right away. Four children in six years – three girls and then finally, the boy. By all accounts, society smiled on her.
They were good years. Boy, were they good years. She enjoyed looking back on them.
They bought a six-bedroom house in the best midwestern suburb, surrounded by a neighborhood of manicured lawns, multi-car garages, and bikes abandoned in driveways. The ladies often gathered at her house, sipping wine amid bursts of uproarious laughter, while all their kids freely roamed the neighborhood seeking adventure.
It was the summer of 2001. There were five states that I had yet to visit: Hawaii, Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Maine. Growing up, our family took a yearly two-week vacation, camping in the tent trailer my dad proudly bought at Sears for $800, as he would brag to anyone who would listen. So I was able to knock off a lot of states before I reached 18.
Travel was in my bones, and just like I assumed I would go to college, that I would get married, and that I would have kids, I always assumed I would travel with my family. I had decided long before I had my children that I was not going to be someone who couldn’t go anywhere or do anything because they had kids.
The man I married was not a traveler. As a couple, we had travelled very little since we met and married. He was born and raised in Los Angeles and truly believed it was such a great city that there was no need to go anywhere else. How I made the decision to marry someone who did not share such an important part of how I saw life is a question I’ll have to explore another time.
Pets were a huge part of my children’s lives. We were the proud owners of, over time, lizards, frogs, fish, tortoises, rabbits, birds, a snake, a dog, and, of course, a cat.
During my own childhood, my family had two calico cats, both of whom lived for 18 years. The first joined our household when I was only two or three years old, before my sister was born. Her name was Pannie. Fairly obviously, my parents gave me the honor of naming her. Considering that when my own daughter was three she wanted to name her newborn brother “Swimming,” I don’t think Pannie was such a terrible choice.
Once my sister was born, the story I recall is that she pulled Pannie’s tail or inflicted some other injustice on her, and Pannie turned around and scratched her, as cats will do. Pannie’s punishment was to have her front claws removed, a procedure many today would consider cruel but one that she did absolutely fine with. In fact, for her entire life, she was an indoor/outdoor cat, and she never had a problem. So I’m glad my parents made that decision rather than to get rid of her. I cannot imagine my childhood without Pannie.
I recently took a road trip over several days. On the first day’s drive, the interior of my car was filled with the sounds of a wide variety of music, from Cat Stevens to The Shins to Elton John. But on day two, I was really looking for some silence. And that silence gave my mind space to wander.
I’m reminded of a story relayed in the biography of Charles Lindbergh, the famed pilot of the Spirit of St, Louis who flew from New York to Paris. Early in his career, he was a US Air Mail pilot travelling back and forth between St. Louis and Kansas City. In those days, before radios and complete music libraries tucked away in your back pocket, Lindbergh flew in silence. To ward off the boredom, he gave himself difficult problems to solve. One of those problems was determining how to fly across the Atlantic. And on one of his flights, he solved it and went to work.
I certainly did not go about solving such problems on my drive! But I did find some clarity that explained my confusion around how people discuss literature. Maybe not as sexy as being the first to complete a transatlantic flight, but in my corner of the world as a college professor, I appreciated the revelation.
This Memorial Day I remember 25-year-old Private Charles A Newell of Cresbard, South Dakota, who died on October 17, 1918 at Camp Lee in Virginia. He was part of the Veterinary Training School preparing to serve overseas in World War I. Rather than one of the 53,000 US soldiers who died in combat, he was one of the 45,000 who died of influenza after being drafted (see his registration card on the right).
Two weeks before he died, he wrote to his parents: “I am in the horse doctors corps and don’t have much drilling to do. They say we won’t be up on the front line, the nearest hospital is 25 miles from the front. We don’t get any guns at all, so our life is as safe as at home. I expect to go over sometime but don’t know when; not for a couple of months anyway. I don’t care much. I have given up caring since I got in the army; it wouldn’t do any good.”
Learn more about him and others in Cresbard through the writings of Clara Mae Horen in my book Clara’s Journal: And the Story of Two Pandemics…which comes out TOMORROW!!
Clara’s Journal: And the Story of Two Pandemics explores a year in the life of Clara Mae Horen, an 18-year-old living in Cresbard, South Dakota, in 1918, at the beginning of one of the world’s deadliest pandemics. And Clara is my grandaunt (the sister of my paternal grandfather)!
One of the pleasures of studying Clara’s journal has been learning how different life was 100 years ago, but maybe even more importantly, another has been discovering the similarities we have with a 1918 teenager and with a 1918 country coping with a pandemic.