Monday, January 26, 2009

Somewhere North of Boston

I had originally planned to post this column last week (January 19). Instead, I offered up the first of what will be an occasional "Entr’acte" when I am unable to post my regular weekly essay on its scheduled date. In this instance, I was on what has become an annual early winter escape to northern New England to enjoy certain activities best accomplished when there is plenty of snow on the ground. This trip also coincided with a desire to flee Washington to evade the security headaches surrounding the inauguration of President Obama. With this plan in mind, I set off to commune with the spruce and moose. An unexpected blizzard and a dearth of wi-fi connections in the Great North Woods necessitated the inclusion of this first "Entr’acte" as I did not want to leave you, my patient readers, up in the air. So here is the piece I originally planned to post last week.

Traveling through northern New England during the winter I recalled some favorite lines from Robert Frost:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

Of course, these lines are from "Stopping by Woods on a Snow Evening," first published in 1923 and found in New Hampshire. The poem concludes with the now famous verse:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

During my travels I found myself driving many miles each day before I slept. I have been thinking and reading a lot about Frost lately. The catalyst of this rediscovery of a long-favorite poet was my reading of Brian Hall’s recent biographical novel, The Fall of Frost, a book recommended to me by Bruce Guernsey, the editor of the Spoon River Poetry Review and a Frost scholar who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the use of metaphor in Frost’s poetry, and more recently a fishing buddy on waters near his home in Bethel, Maine.

Another reason to think again on Robert Frost? Last week we witnessed the inauguration of a new American President and the excitement and expectation surrounding the new Obama presidency had several pundits, politicians, and poets drawing comparisons to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy 48 years ago. As I drove through New Hampshire and Vermont I listened to the festivities back in Washington on my car radio. It was a cold, sunny day, much like that day in January 1961.

I remember that day very well. It was a cold and snowy day in Asheville, North Carolina where I was living at the time. Schools were closed and so I was able to stay home and watch the Kennedy inauguration on television. It was my first memory of Robert Frost when the elderly poet stood at the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, the first American poet ever invited to participate in this national political pageant. I’ll be honest; I don’t remember Kennedy’s stirring speech in which he asked all Americans to consider what they might do for their country. But I do remember Robert Frost, the poet with a large, square face and a thick crop of white hair, when he asked the same question in his own inimitable way.

Kennedy and Frost were both New Englanders - Kennedy by birth and Frost by choice. Frost had once intimated that new England was in decay - a "compost heap" which gave America its poets and politicians. And so the poet spoke highly of the Massachusetts senator when he ran for the Presidency. As early as 1959 Frost predicted that the next president would be from New England. When pressed for more details, Frost offered up Kennedy’s name, calling him the "Puritan from Boston." Kennedy was familiar with Frost and his poetry, and he wrote to the poet in April of that year, on the occasion of Frost’s 85th birthday, apologizing that by doing so he might in some way steal some of Frost’s thunder on that special day. So, when Kennedy won the election, it is not surprising that the most famous living poet of New England would be standing next to him when he took office. But it was an Arizonan (and my fellow University of Arizona alumnus), Stewart Udall, who was responsible for Frost’s presence on the rostrum that morning.

A couple weeks after the November 1960 election, Frost arrived in Tucson by train to read at the dedication of the new Poetry Center at the University of Arizona. As the Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress, and while meeting with various politicians in Washington, Frost let it be known that he was prepared to comment on affairs of state. Udall, a young Arizona Congressman and a close friend of Kennedy, used the occasion of Frost’s visit to Tucson to inquire whether the poet might consider reading something at Kennedy’s upcoming inauguration. A short time later, over dinner at Kennedy’s Georgetown home, Udall told the President-Elect of his idea to which he joked that Frost might now find a way to steal his thunder in January. Nevertheless, the invitation was extended and accepted. "If you can bear at your age the honor of being made President of the United States," Frost wrote in a December 14, 1960 letter to Kennedy, "I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration." Despite his deference to the new President, Frost was fully cognizant of his place in history. "I may not be equal to it but I can accept it for my cause - the arts, poetry, now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen."

Kennedy asked Frost whether he might write a short poem especially for the inaugural festivities, but he seemed more than reluctant to do so. Frost did, however, agree to read one of his better known poems, "The Gift Outright," first published almost 20 years earlier, in The Witness Tree. He also acquiesced to Kennedy’s request that he alter a single but important word in the final line.

Frost would ultimately write a small poem - "Dedication" - for the inauguration and worked on it until late into the eve of the inaugural. His secretary then stayed up late to type it so it would be ready the following morning. When Udall retrieved Frost only a couple hours before he was scheduled to read at the inaugural Frost revealed this new poem to a surprised Stewart Udall, wondering if he might have time to read it as well. The new poem was twice as long as "The Gift Outright" and, unfortunately, the typescript prepared the night before was too difficult for Frost to read. Udall scurried about at the Capitol to have a more legible copy prepared in time for the ceremony.

The rest of the story is well-known. When it came time to read his poem, the bright glare of the sun on that cold, wintry day made it difficult for the elderly Frost to read the freshly minted and newly typed inaugural poem. Vice President Johnson stepped forward and tried to use his top hat to shade the text, but Frost brushed him aside and attempted to read the new poem. Finally, he put the pages aside and recited "The Gift Outright" in a strong and steady voice.

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

As promised, Frost altered the last line of the poem: "Such as she was, such as she would become, and – and for this occasion let me change that to – what she will become." I think James Reston was correct when he wrote in The New York Times shortly after the inauguration that every time Frost came to the capital "the Washington Monument stands up a little straighter." Unfortunately, Robert Frost’s appearance at the Kennedy inauguration is one of the last public memories of this great American poet. He would die two years later, on January 29, 1963.

This is a lot to think about sitting in a car and listening to President Obama’s inaugural address on the radio. But then I thought back to my trip which was quickly coming to an end, and remembered how I always experience a great solace anytime I find myself somewhere north of Boston. Frost must have felt it to in his own time as he admits in his poem "Good Hours":

I had for my winter evening walk –
No one at all with whom to talk,
But I had the cottages in a row
Up to their shining eyes in snow.

NEXT WEEK: Remembering Andrew Wyeth

Monday, January 19, 2009

Entr'acte I - Way Up in the Great North Woods

I am on the road, escaping the inaugural hullabaloo back home in Washington by opting for a return to saner precincts in New England. I flew from Baltimore to Manchester, New Hampshire a couple of days ago and since then I have been wandering the wintry back roads of western Maine and New Hampshire. Unfortunately, I got caught in a real New England blizzard. The forecast had called for a few inches along the coast of Maine so I was not too worried, but I awoke yesterday morning in Waterville, Maine and there was already 2-3 inches on the car and it was coming down to beat the band. The Weather Channel was now talking of up to a foot of snow in Maine, and as much as 18 inches in some places. Unfortunately, some of those places were where I planned to be. I picked up my rental car in Manchester but it did not have snow tires (go figure) and so I could not use the better route through Canada where there was much less snow. The Canadian authorities will turn you around at the border if you do not have snow tires (a new Canadian law this year), and if you get caught in Canada without the requisite snowtires, they impound your car and there is a very hefty fine. So I headed west on US 2 through western Maine and across the northern thumb of New Hampshire, the same route John Steinbeck used to access and escape New England in the autumn of 1960, a trip he later documented in Travels With Charley (1962). Some sections of this route were better that others, but I ran through several white-out areas that were pretty scary! A big-ass snowmobile rig passed me on a long hill outside of Gorham, NH (just north of Mount Washington) and ran me into a monstrous snowbank. This could have been the end of my trip, in more ways than one, but within minutes I had several offers of assistance and I was quickly extricated and on my way. This is one of the reasons I love it up here. Neighbors taking care of neighbors. How often can you say something like that? As a result of these circumstances, the column I had planned on posting today - "Somewhere North of Boston" - will be posted when I return home to Maryland in a couple of days. So please accept this meager report from the road and pray for my safe return to Manchester, and eventually home to DC.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Games Children Play

The country is gearing up with great anticipation for the inauguration of President Barack Obama after a long and grinding election campaign. This got me thinking back to the first election I can remember . . . one that pundits frequently compare with the one we just lived through . . . an election that gave rise to great expectations for a new direction for America and its people.

The presidential election of 1960 is when I first became aware of politics. At age nine I knew who President Eisenhower was; he was the only President I could remember and I had even seen him up close a couple years earlier when my parents took me to the local airport in Toledo, Ohio to watch him arrive on the presidential plane "Columbine" – before it was simply referred to as "Air Force One." I guess I had just assumed he would always be President, but one day at school I noticed that some of my classmates were wearing small metallic pins on their shirts and jackets, each with the face and name of an unfamiliar man who was running for President to replace Eisenhower. One name was somewhat familiar – Nixon. I had heard that name before, but I was not really sure who he was or what he did.

At home that evening I asked my parents why President Eisenhower was quitting. They explained to me that a person could only be president for eight years after which he was required to step down so that the American people could select a new leader. I mentioned the pins I had seen at school that day and my parents told me that people often wore these to show support for a particular candidate; these were the men who hoped to become the new President in an election later that year. I asked my parents who they hoped would win the election. It turned out they were supporting Nixon just as they had supported Eisenhower in previous elections. Our family always voted Republican, they told me.

A couple days later my Dad presented me with two or three different pins with Nixon’s face and name on them. I pinned them to my jacket and proudly wore them to school the next day. Having proclaimed my allegiance to Nixon and the Republican party, I now found myself facing off with friends and classmates who were supporting someone named Kennedy . . . Humphrey . . . Rockefeller . . . people I had never heard of before, and they wore buttons with the unfamiliar faces of their candidates. But I was convinced that these people were wrong for the job. Nixon was my man even though I didn’t really know who he was . . . or even what he looked like until just a few days before.

That summer my friends and I spent our days riding our bicycles around the neighborhood, swimming at the local recreation park pool, and hanging out at the local drugstore where we combined our nickels, dimes, and quarters to purchase candy and comic books at the front counter and rounds of cherry cokes at the fountain in back. There was the occasional game of Cowboys and Indians, and War, and we continued to argue who would be on which side and who would kill or be killed. But that summer we also played a new game. This time, when we chose sides, we argued about who was going to be a Republican, who was going to be a Democrat, and it usually came down to the side for whom our parents planned to vote in the upcoming election. Instead of pointing pretend weapons at one another and making gun noises, we pointed fingers and mouthed what we had heard our parents say when they watched the candidates on TV as they campaigned and gave speeches. Thinking back on it even now I can still remember in rather vivid detail the venom with which we castigated the new enemy. Not Germans. Not Japanese. Not Commies. But people who looked and sounded just like us.

Nixon lost that November by one of the slimmest margins in the popular vote. I was disappointed . . . crestfallen even. My candidate had lost and there was nothing I could do about it. Everything had now changed. Life would never be the same again. But I got over it as most kids of nine do. Twelve years later, in 1972, I had a chance to set it all right. Nixon ran again and won the election in 1968 and now he was running for reelection. I was 21 and it was time to put away childish games. This time it was for real. I was finally able to cast that important vote. I pulled the lever for McGovern.

NEXT WEEK: Somewhere North of Boston

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Final Measure of Kindness

Jim Harrison once professed that "to publish is to rid ourselves of a burden and offer it to someone else, pleasant or not . . . to present experiences that were more fully realized in the writing." I like that! I guess this is what I am trying to do with these weekly offerings that are becoming less and less random. True, I jump around from topic to topic, but I find myself thinking long and hard about what I am writing. So far I have received a number of very nice comments from my readers who seem to look at these little memoirs as pleasant diversions and not at all as a burden. I can only hope this is true and I am pleased that you think so. So let me wish all of you a Happy New Year and offer you something just a little bit different this week.

I have long been interested in Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Just over a year ago I came upon a wonderful compendium of writings on the subject - The Ends of the Earth, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert. And this past June I attended a literary conference held at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick Maine, and I took the opportunity to visit the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center on campus. Named in honor of Robert E. Peary (Class of 1877) and Donald B. MacMillan (Class of 1898), the museum includes interesting exhibits on Arctic exploration as well as on the Inuit cultures of Labrador and Greenland. The museum had recently opened an exhibit, "Northward Over the Great Ice: Robert E. Peary and the Quest for the North Pole," to celebrate the centennial of the 1908-1909 Peary expedition to reach the North Pole. I have read about Peary’s exploits, but neither the museum exhibit nor Peary’s writings tell the sad tale of a young Inuit boy Peary brought to the United States only to abandon him in a strange and foreign land.

The quiet Indian Stream valley is situated hard against the Canadian border in far northern New Hampshire. It is another one of my favorite places on earth and I have been coming to this region regularly for several years now. Although it seems typical of many isolated New England backwoods, it has a strange history and is the source of some fascinating stories. I will be writing more about this beautiful valley, but today I want to focus on the story of Minik, an Inuit from Greenland whose strange fate is bound to this quiet valley. I first heard this story during one of my early visits to the Indian Stream and since then I have tried to ferret out more details . . . to separate the truth from the myth. There were several versions of the story, depending on what one reads or to whom one speaks. A local historian Ellsworth Bunnell from Colebrook, New Hampshire, wrote an interesting profile on Minik back in 1969, but he passed away before I had a chance to talk to him. The best source of information, therefore, surfaced with the 2000 publication of Give Me My Father’s Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo, by Kenn Harper, a noted Canadian Arctic historian and ethnologist.

At the southern end of Indian Stream valley, where the meandering stream flows into the upper Connecticut River, there are two roads which give limited access to the area. The main one, for the lack of a more imaginative name, is known as Indian Stream Road and it parallels the stream for much of its course toward the height of land defining the international boundary. The other is Tabor Road, named after a prominent valley family, which runs only a mile or two past a couple of the remaining dairy farms in this region and up to the cut through a forested ridge known as Tabor Notch. From the top of this ridge one can look out over the hills and farms of the Eastern Townships of Québec. Wedged between Tabor Road and the stream is the small but well-groomed Indian Stream Cemetery. It is encircled with a simple metal fence and there is one large monument in the center which marks the Tabor family plot. The rest of the gravestones are rather plain, belonging to families who have lived in this valley since the 18th century. Probably one of the simplest and nondescript of these markers, located near the back fence and with a nice view of the stream, is that of Mene (Minik) Wallace who was buried here in October 1918. The local folks did not know very much about this young man who came to live and work among them. In fact, there was no stone to mark the grave until some 60 years after Minik died. No one alive today remembers him.

Of course, Minik was not from the Indian Stream valley nor did he live there very long. Nevertheless, his life is bound to this quiet valley through a strange and rather tragic series of events leading to his death at the young age of twenty eight. Minik was born circa 1890 near Cape York, in northwestern Greenland. In 1897, in the wake of his extensive trips across Greenland during which he studied and documented Inuit culture and traditions while attempting to become the first person to reach the North Pole, noted Arctic explorer Robert Peary brought Minik and five other Inuit, including his father Quisuk, to the United States, along with the Cape York Meteorite which Peary had located three years earlier. Bringing living representatives of Inuit culture to New York should have been an anthropological coup for Franz Boas and the Museum of Natural History. Frequently arctic explorers used the indigenous people for logistical support for their expeditions, but Peary promised to bring Inuit back to the United States where they could be studied more completely. Unfortunately Boas and the museum were not prepared to assume responsibility for its new charges and they were unceremoniously quartered in a dimly lit room in the museum’s basement. Before departing Greenland, Peary promised the Inuit they would be returned home the following year, but within a few weeks most of them had become sick and were taken to Bellevue Hospital.

The museum asked Peary to help it deal with Inuit he had brought there unannounced, but Peary had moved on to other matters and he never replied. All but two of the Inuit eventually fell victim to diseases they had never known back in the Arctic. Quisuk, Minik’s father, was the first to die in early 1898, and his brain and internal organs were removed for study at Bellevue. His skeleton was stripped of its flesh and returned to the museum to join the other Inuit bones Peary had surreptitiously disinterred from the local burial grounds in Greenland. A mock funeral and burial of Quisuk were held at the museum for his young son’s benefit, but his father’s skeleton was eventually mounted and placed on public display.

William Wallace, the museum’s superintendent, took Minik and the other Inuit to his farm in Upstate New York hoping their health and circumstances might improve. Nevertheless, all but Minik and a single adult eventually died and their bones returned to the museum to join those of Quisuk. The surviving adult Inuit returned to Greenland on a subsequent expedition led by Peary, but Minik, orphaned in a strange land (his mother had died before he left Greenland), was eventually adopted by Wallace and raised as a member of his family. For a couple of years he lived the life of an average American youth. He attended school and did those things any boy his age might do. But his happiness was short-lived. Wallace was fired from the museum and his wife died shortly thereafter and Minik joined his stepfather living in dire straits in New York. To make matters worse, in 1907 he learned the true fate of his father’s remains. Wallace and others came to Minik’s aid, hoping to find support for the youngster while assisting him in his attempt to return to his native land along with his father’s bones. Wallace asked Peary to take Minik home on his next expedition to Greenland in the summer of 1908, but Peary refused, saying there was not enough room on his ship to accommodate him. His father’s bones would remain at the museum.

In 1909, Minik set off for Greenland on his own with hardly a dollar to his name; he had been in the United States for 12 years yet he had nothing to show for his life here. He made it as far as Labrador before he returned to New York where his plight and his desire to retrieve his father’s bones drew national media attention, often at Peary’s expense with allegations that he had not actually reached the North Pole in April of that year as he had claimed. Peary finally agreed to take Minik back to the isolation of northern Greenland in return for his promise never to return to the United States.

When he returned home Minik found himself a stranger in a strange land for a second time. He could no longer speak his native language and he was unaccustomed to the ways of his people. He eventually adjusted to his new life but it was hard and he missed the life he had come to know in New York despite its deprivations. Irrespective of the promise made to Peary, Minik returned to New York in late 1916, but it was a different country than the one he left behind seven years earlier. Few were interested in him or his efforts to reclaim his father’s bones. He worked a series of odd jobs and talked again of returning to Greenland. But he never did.

Tired of life in New York, Minik struck out for New England during the winter of 1917 and eventually found a job in a primitive logging camp on the Upper Connecticut River. Alton Hall, a local farmer and logger who worked with Minik, invited the young Inuit man to come live with his family near Indian Stream. Minik found a small measure of happiness in northern New Hampshire, but for a second time his happiness would be short lived. A Spanish Flu epidemic spread through northern New England and Minik and several members of the Hall family died in October 1918.

In 1993, the Museum of Natural History sent the bones of Quisuk and the other Inuit back to Greenland for a proper burial. Minik’s bones were not among them. To this day he lies buried and nearly forgotten in the quiet little cemetery on the banks of Indian Stream surrounded by those who showed him a final measure of kindness. Each time I return to that valley I spend a few minutes by the small stone marking Minik’s grave and I think back to something Minik once wrote in a letter to a friend: "I don't think both ends and the middle of the Earth are worth the price that has been paid to almost find one pole."

NEXT WEEK: The Games Children Play