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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Thankful for Tradition: my mom Joan, son John, and Studs Terkel

This Thanksgiving I’m thankful for tradition.

Joan was a great interviewer.  She grew up to be, after all, an oral historian.  Even when she wasn’t working professionally, she managed to get information out of everyone.  My brothers and I joked she worked for the MBI:  The Morrison Bureau of Investigation.  I think she was so easy to talk to and open up to because she was genuinely interested in people’s perspectives.  She didn’t want to impose her view of the world on others, but wanted to get the conception of life other people had.

Her work as an interviewer began early.  At Lakeview High, she was a reporter for the school newspaper, the Midway.

Friday, November 4, 1938

Hello! Well—guess what? We studied bread mold today—just before lunch too. It’s all gushy and green and full of spores and reproduction and all (biology is so indelicate).

Then I’m supposed to ask the leading boys of the school what their ideal girl is in life for “Vox Pop” next week. You know, I run the “Inquiring Reporter” column in the Midway—every week—four weeks so far. Some of the columns are pretty cute. This week was the “ideal girl.” In connection with my column, I asked Orville (him with the mustache) if he was a leading boy—he looked so embarrassed and modest and all, but he’s on the track team.

Orville blushing.

Orville blushing.

Then at U-High she continued her reporter work:

Sunday, February 5, 1939

. . . Church this morning. Did I tell you I’ve been wearing my hair page boy?

Page boy hair.

Page boy hair.

Today I didn’t however—wore it pretty and fluffed over my face, and with my green knitted hat I looked sorta cute.

Fluffy hair.

Fluffy hair.

Of course I wear rouge nowadays and a horrid but glamorous orangey lipstick that matches the yarn flowers on my brown sweater.

Took communion today but my conscience bothered me—I’m not sure what I think nowadays and there’s no use being hypocritical. (Anyhow, I was hungry).

. . . Friday I had a horrid Iliad test. A “well-greaved man” is one with good leg armor as I discovered (and rightly!) by the process of elimination. They hadn’t invented chain mail then, had they?

Jim Alter had been ribbing Barbara, the other third page editor, for using both “Aunt Polly” and “Inquiring Reporter” on the page for her week (space fillers). So I just laughed and laughed on Friday because, next week being his page:

He: “Oh Joan—wait a minute!” Comes up to me and begins to walk up hall with me, muttering incoherently.

Me (brightly): “Yes?”

He: “Gurgle, gurgle.” We finally reached girls’ locker room and I waited for him to speak. Finally: “Could you have both ‘Aunt Polly’ and ‘Inquiring Reporter’ columns next week?”

Me: “Oh—oh, yes, of course—” (smirk, smirk).

He (dashing away): “Gurgle!”[1]


[1] The 1940 yearbook, The Correlator, comments, “Feature editor Joan Wehlen suffered most, for there was seldom enough space for her excellent material.”

Once she was a grown woman with three children, she became an oral historian, eventually publishing two books and teaching at the New School in New York City.  One of the trailblazers in the field who inspired her was Studs Terkel.

Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel

From Chicago like Joan, Studs Terkel had a radio show and wrote numerous oral histories, most notably The Good War and Hard Times.

Last year my son, John, in his 8th grade Social Studies class had a Studs Terkel project.  They had to choose from a list of Terkel’s interviewees, edit the transcript, and perform a 60 second version of the interview.  What a super project!  Characters ranged from Frank Wills, “An honest guard who uncovered the Watergate Scandal,”

Frank Willis

Frank Willis

to Dolores Dante, “A waitress who worked in the same restaurant for 23 years.”

There was some cross-dressing going on:  girls played males, boys played females.  All the kids did a great job.

John was moved by the story of Florence Reese, “A tough 79-year-old Southern grandma who lives in her past.”  John did a super job with costume and accent portraying this amazing and groundbreaking trailblazer in civil rights for miners.

Florence Reese

Florence Reese

As John writes in his analysis of Mrs. Reece, “Well the first obvious thing I noticed was that she was old. She grew up in a very poor town with very little education evident by not the best grammar and her flat out saying that there was no high school. In most mining towns the distribution of wealth is extreme with the workers, which makes up most of the town, earning very little and the mine owners earning a lot and since she was a miner’s daughter she was on the lesser end of the distribution. She was poor. She is clearly very liberal. Most of the story is about unionizing the workers of America which is a liberal stance on things and that you shouldn’t drown the poor first just because they are poor.”

John as Florence Reese

John as Florence Reese

This is John’s “Costume plan:  I will wear my mother’s blue dress and grey/red shawl a scarf around my head to cover up my hair and to make me look like a babushka, even though I am from Tennessee, it makes me look older. I will also wear my mother’s slippers.”

John as Florence Reese

John as Florence Reese

I’m so glad the tradition continues of oral history in our family.  Maybe John will want to interview you someday!

John as Florence Reese

John as Florence Reese

Thanksgiving 1933

Imagine Thanksgiving in 1933.  The Depression had been afflicting the U.S. for four years.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been in office since March.  Were things going to improve?

On Thanksgiving, FDR makes his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation.

Thanksgiving Proclamation 1933

Thanksgiving Proclamation 1933

He says on November 30, 1933, “May we be grateful for the passing of dark days; for the new spirit of dependence one on another; for the closer unity of all parts of our wide land; for the greater friendship between employers and those who toil; for a clearer knowledge by all Nations that we seek no conquests and ask only honorable engagements by all peoples to respect the lands and rights of their neighbors; for the brighter day to which we can win through by seeking the help of God in a more unselfish striving for the common bettering of mankind.”

He adds that we should reflect on, “the courage of those who settled a wilderness, the vision of those who founded the Nation.” You can read another speech he made on Thanksgiving Day at Warm Springs, Georgia.

President Roosevelt celebrating Thanksgiving with polio patients at the Warm Springs Foundation for Infantile Paralysis Sufferers the Friday after the national holiday in 1938.

President Roosevelt celebrating Thanksgiving with polio patients at the Warm Springs Foundation for Infantile Paralysis Sufferers the Friday after the national holiday in 1938.

Thanksgiving had a odd custom in the 1930s-that of Ragamuffins.  Apparently children dressed in oversized rags and begged on Thanksgiving.  The New York Times in 1936 writes, “Ragamuffins Frowned Upon: Despite the endeavors of social agencies to discourage begging by children, it is likely that the customary Thanksgiving ragamuffins, wearing discarded apparel of their elders, with masks and painted faces, will ask passers-by, ‘anything for Thanksgiving?’

You can read more about them here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like FDR, Joan was also thinking about those early colonists.  In her little poetry notebook called Flutterings, she writes this poem on the last day of November 1933.

 Thanksgiving 1933

Thanksgiving

                        On the last Thursday in the month of November

                        Every one of us should remember

                        Those pilgrim fathers who gave thanks then.

                        So now, ‘most three hundred years again,

                        We give thanks for so much more,

                        Than those pilgrim ones of yore.

                        This day we dedicate to Thanksgiving,

                        When we give thanks that we are living.

                        So now this day in November

                        Of those pilgrim fathers we should think and remember.

Camelot in Joan’s imagination and the JKF Assassination

The 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death makes me think of one of my earliest memories.  I was four and a half when Kennedy was shot, and I remember it.  Not because I even knew who he was.  This memory is seared into my mind because it’s the first time I ever saw my mother, Joan, cry.

She was standing in front of our black and white Zenith television, weeping. I was upset, because she was upset.

A Zenith tv like ours.

A Zenith tv like ours.

Joan would have been 40 years old.  A life-long Democrat, she was deeply affected by his death (though she was a long-time Adlai Stevenson supporter ).  I think she must have empathized with Jackie’s plight as a young mother.

Kennedy’s time in the White House came to be known as “Camelot,” a reference King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.

Joan loved the stories of Camelot from an early age.

As she writes at age 16:

Sunday February 12, 1939

We are reading “Idylls of the King.”  Ah—Launcelot! Remember when Mom and I used to play Launcelot and Guinevere and King Arthur and Galahad and Camelot and so forth to each other and nearly drove Daddy crazy with our old English tales.

George Wooliscroft & Louis Rhead. "The Lady of the Lake Steals Lancelot" from Tennyson, Alfred. Idylls of the King: Vivien, Elaine, Enid, Guinevere. New York: R. H. Russell, 1898.

George Wooliscroft & Louis Rhead. “The Lady of the Lake Steals Lancelot” from Tennyson, Alfred. Idylls of the King: Vivien, Elaine, Enid, Guinevere. New York: R. H. Russell, 1898.  See here.

Joan is not satisfied with the class discussion of Tennyson‘s poem.

Thursday Feb. 16, 1939

Today discussed King Arthur and Launcelot and Elaine in Readings in World Cultures.  Oh, my Launcelot.  Our class being very low-minded does not appreciate the spiritual quality of his nature.  Which I do.  Also the class being very sensitive resented Mr. Denton’s theory (aided by notes) that Arthur represented Soul – with a capital “S”—and Guinevere Sense—with same.  Oh well—our class is quite, quite—oh well.  Mr. Denton calls Queen Guinevere Gwen.  Oh well.

“Elaine the fair, Elaine the lovable

Elaine the lily maid of Astolat.”[i]

All our class is doing it now.

It really is quite rhythmical.  

See the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester for other images.

Elaine worships Lancelot.  See the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester for other images.

We were trying to figure out Elaine’s age as long as Launcelot was 3 times it.  Dr. Dentil says, “Early teens”—front half of class claims 16, back half 13—no decision.

I feel so very deeply for King Arthur at the end—all the work he came to do ruined—his kingdom lost—the best loved of his knights proved treacherous, his queen unfaithful.  There in the moonlight of the ruined temple lies lies.  A broken temple and a broken man—and the weird white light wafting down upon him.  And he goes into the mysterious sea at last, from which he came. Perhaps he does personify Soul:  — No one knows where he came from nor whither he goeth.  When young, he took the sword inscribed on one side:  “Take Me”—on the other, “Cast me down.”  He had taken it up.  Now he had cast it down. And the white moonlight glimmered on the unbroken stretch of sea.  And Sir Belvidere walked sorrowing away.


[i] Tennyson.

Of course, the story of Camelot in American history causes many to be sorrowful.

Joan returns to think about Camelot a month later.

Sunday March 11, 1939

I’ve got my black sweater with gold chain and my hair is piled high on my head and tumbling down in back.

Joan's own drawing of her hair up.

Joan’s own drawing of her hair up.

And, as I’ve been reading John Erskine’s “Galahad,” I’ve been pretending I was Guinevere and once Elaine.  “Elaine the Fair, Elaine the loveable, Elaine, the lily maid of Astolat.”  But mostly Guinevere—and just once the other Elaine (of Corbenic—remember!).

Image of Galahad from a tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones, c. 1894

Image of Galahad from a tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones, c. 1894

Joan returns to her early love of Camelot in her last published book, written with my brother Bob.  It is an oral history of the 1960s and is called From Camelot to Kent State:  The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who Lived It (Oxford University Press, 1987).  You’ll notice who is pictured on the cover, front and center.

Joan's book written with my brother, Bob.

Joan’s book written with my brother, Bob.

As they write in the introduction of the book, “The assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and the subsequent killing of his assassin two days later, was a watershed in the consciousness of the Sixties.  An outpouring of sorrow during the days of mourning and a sobering national self-examination followed.  Was there something violent about our country?  Something uncontrollable, unpredictable?” (From Camelot to Kent State, page xix).

Jackie Bolden, later a teacher, describes how she reacted to Kennedy’s assassination.  “I was working in my office at the Air Force, and we had a radio on, and we heard the news.  It was just devastating.  I tried to call my husband at the National Institutes of Health, but those were government lines, and you’d pick up a phone and all you’d get was bzzz-bzzz-bzzz.

Jackie Bolden, one the the people interviewed for From Camelot to Kent State.

Jackie Bolden, one the the people interviewed for From Camelot to Kent State.

We left the office and it seemed like everybody wanted to gather around the White House.  It was so crowded, all the way from the Capitol building down to the Lincoln Memorial.  People were crying.  I was crying, everybody was crying.

When I finally got home, I made the decision to go down to the Rotunda and be with everybody–just to be there and to say this was a shame, how sorry I am, how sad for the family.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson placing a wreath before the flag-draped casket of President Kennedy, during funeral services held in the United States Capitol Rotunda, November 24, 1963.

President Lyndon B. Johnson placing a wreath before the flag-draped casket of President Kennedy, during funeral services held in the United States Capitol Rotunda, November 24, 1963.

Avant-Garde Art in the 1930s— “Degenerate” Art and Rediscovered Nazi-Stolen Paintings

The recent discovery of over 1,000 paintings stolen by the Nazis (more below about that) reminds me how lucky we are to freely view art, even art that might be considered offensive by some. Joan loved visiting the Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

The Art Institute of Chicago

and many entries in her diaries (1937-1943) describe her adventures going to this haven of painting, sculpture, and personal encounters.

Age 14:  Saturday, May 29, 1937

I have walked downtown and back today—about eight miles I guess and, oh, it’s so lovely out. Glorious you know—full flush of spring—tulips at their brightest—blossoming red and purples startingly vivid on the green. Sky as blue as ever could be and lake as blue-green—as—as—as—as, well, as the lake. Lilac bushes shedding loveliness and the pool in the park just covered with floating fallen petals. Bright-haired children reaching up to sniff vivid flowers or racing around ’plashing fonts in the park. (Excuse me if I get poetical—I walked eight miles).

Then going on to the Art Institute—lovely pictures—and pretty little garden in the center—the one I like. Sort of a relief to see cool white marble and green grass after all the color—but I do love the color. Then out to see the splendid “Fountain of the Great Lakes.”

 Lovely Goddess of the Waters pouring from her shell onto the sister lakes with nymphs sporting on the side.

Fountain of the Great Lakes.

Fountain of the Great Lakes.

Here is Joan’s own sketch of the Fountain of the Great Lakes from her diary that day.

Joan's sketch of the Fountain of the Great Lakes from May 29, 1937

Joan’s sketch of the Fountain of the Great Lakes from May 29, 1937

A year later, when she is 15, Joan describes the following adventure, an encounter with a piece of modern art.

Wednesday, June 22, 1938

This is Wotan’s Day. In the morning I went to that place to get X-rays taken for T.B. Met a graduated senior from Lake View there, Vernon Cowan. He reads [P. G.] Wodehouse, too. He said he’d call me up tomorrow, but I didn’t give him my telephone number. I wonder how my insides look in the X-ray. I wanted to take it home but they wouldn’t even let me see it. It was very awkward—a big machine and then they snap the picture.

[I] went to the Art Institute for the afternoon. Had [a] lovely half hour contemplating “Chemist Lifting with [Extreme] Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano.”

A Chemist Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano, 1936

A Chemist Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano, 1936

Modern art [Salvador Dalí]. There was a curly blonde fellow sitting next to me. We both considered the picture for a long time. Then I got up to look again to see I wasn’t crazy. I sat down. He got up. Ditto. We looked at each other. A woman came into the room, looked at the picture and started back (it has that effect). Then, thinking we were together, she started to discuss the picture with C.B. [Curly Blonde] and me. No decision, though we nodded solemnly.

I was thinking about Joan’s experience with Modern Art at the news that about 1,400 works of art lost since World War II have been rediscovered in an apartment in Munich.  You can read about that tangled history here.  Stolen by the Nazis, this art was considered “degenerate” and hence unacceptable.  Yet secretly Nazi officials had a dealer steal this art from rightful owners — museums and Jews, including some deported “to the Lodz ghetto”.  According to Spiegel, the artworks include “works by Liebermann, Marc Chagall, Franz Marc, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Picasso and Henri Matisse,” among others. You can watch this news report about the discovery of these artworks.

Here are some images of the uncovered art.

A sampling of works from the spectacular Munich find, clockwise from top left: An unknown self-portrait by Otto Dix thought to date to 1919, a Biedermeier-style etching of a couple playing music by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885), a painting by Belarusian-French artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), an etching of Padua by the Italian painter Canaletto (1697-1768) and "Landscape with Horses" by German painter Franz Marc.  From the Spiegel article noted in this post.

A sampling of works from the spectacular Munich find, clockwise from top left: An unknown self-portrait by Otto Dix thought to date to 1919, a Biedermeier-style etching of a couple playing music by Carl Spitzweg (1808-1885), a painting by Belarusian-French artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), an etching of Padua by the Italian painter Canaletto (1697-1768) and “Landscape with Horses” by German painter Franz Marc. From the Spiegel article noted in this post.

I imagine that the Dali painting Joan puzzled over would have been considered “degenerate”–after all, it has Goethe in a mysteriously surreal landscape.  How sad that art should be to humiliate, control, and abuse people.

As Joan writes on March 9, 1939 when she is 16 years old, “An impressionist painter, when he draws a moving train, does not draw it as he sees it at one particular moment; he draws it as he sees it where he stands; he draws the impression, not the true thing.  Instead of drawing each window with its shade and sash, he smears a blur of yellow light.  This is so that when a person sees the picture he will not say, ‘That is a train,’ but ‘I have seen a train like that.’  That is good painting.

            The same is true of a lyric poet — who is always an impressionist.  He must catch the mood of life, of a scene, of the world.  Mood is not tangible; as the painter cannot paint a mood on a piece of canvas with his paint, so a poet cannot write a mood with words.  But as the artist must recreate [that mood].”

Austin veteran, 107, honored at Washington ceremony

Veterans’ Day brought a flurry of news article about vets.  But I’d love to share this one about a local man in Austin–one of the oldest vets!  I’ve blogged about him before.  Congratulations, Mr. Overton!

Austin veteran, 107, honored at Washington ceremony.

Armistice Day: The Fascination of World War II in England and America

Today is November 11 when Armistice Day is commemorated in many countries to remember the end of World War I in 1918.  World War II stems out of the aftermath of World War I and both wars continue to haunt Europe.

The fascination for World War II plays itself out differently in England than in America. When my husband and two children and I were living in London 2003-2004, there was a photo exhibit in the National Theatre called “The Atlantic Wall Today” with photos by Ianthe Ruthven.

Ianthe Ruthven’s “Amfreville Battery, Normandy”

Ruthven visited German gun emplacements in Normandy that had been built as part of Hitler and Albert Speer’s “Fortress Europe.”  Now they look like medieval castles or temples, covered over with lichen, ivy, and graffiti.

Here’s another of Ruthven’s amazing photographs.

Ianthe Ruthven’s Tourlaville Battery, Normandy

On one gun emplacement, someone had scrawled, “Do you think I’m sexy?”  World War II isn’t “sexy,” especially for those in Europe, Asia, and north Africa, since fighting and suffering actually took place there.

The vestiges of WWII you can find on every street in London.  The house we rented was in an authentically grim Victorian street right by Waterloo Station, in an area that was once ignored and now gentrified.  The flats across the street had been bombed out during WWII; you can tell because the brick is a different color from the rest of the buildings on the street.

This is our beloved Whittlesey Street where we lived in London. The street was bombed on the north side of the street.

The memory of a famous boxing ring we passed right by every day when we took our kids to school had been destroyed by a V2 rocket in 1942.  It is commemorated with a plaque.  World War II is geographically present all over the UK.

Here you can see listed the V2 explosions. The one that destroyed “the Ring” I mention about seems to be described in this entry as “Blackfriars Bridge Road junction with the Cut E side.”  The Cut is a major thoroughfare.

We passed The Ring everyday on our way to our kids’ schools. It was destroyed in World War II and subsequently rebuilt.

The visceral death and destruction on the American home front was minimal.  Not, of course, for Japanese-Americans in internment camps, or German-Americans or Italian-Americans likewise sequestered, not for African Americans who were prevented from drinking from the same water bubbler as whites even though they were being sent over to put their lives on the line, not for the sailors torpedoed as merchant marines in the North Atlantic—no, the story of WWII is not “sexy” for all these people.  And not sexy for those who died, far from home.

If you want to find out more about what Armistice Day is, please look at this post of mine.

‘Wading about in a welter of wool’: Derby 1940

This link leads you to another blog about a teenage girl’s diary–but she lives in England!

‘Wading about in a welter of wool’: Derby 1940.

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