ALS Conquers, but Does Not Diminish, All

Posted September 27th, 2011 at 7:34 pm (UTC-4)
7 comments

This is the story of a remarkable, and I mean remarkable, man named O.J. Brigance.  I will take some time to introduce him so that you fully grasp the enormity of the battle he is fighting.

His enemy, vile and always victorious, is ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the cruel agent of death that took Lou Gehrig, about whom every American sports fan knows.

Lou Gehrig was a man of few words but many prodigious deeds.  (Wikipedia Commons)

Lou Gehrig was a man of few words but many prodigious deeds. (Wikipedia Commons)

The son of German immigrants living in New York City, Ludwig Heinrich Gehrig was a strapping slugger for the Columbia University baseball team in town.  His majestic homeruns caught the eye of the hometown New York Yankees, who in 1923 signed him to a contract and whisked him to the major leagues.

Two years later, Gehrig took over the first-base position, and it would be 14 years before he relinquished it.  He played in 2,130 straight games — a record that would stand for 55 years.  For good reason, they called him “The Iron Horse.”

But as baseball historian Harvey Frommer relates, Gehrig’s extraordinary career came to a sudden, unexpected, and tragic end:

It was said that “nothing short of a locomotive will stop Lou Gehrig; he will go on forever.”  But near the final one-third of the 1938 season the three-time American League [Most Valuable Player] began to falter.  As the season ended, no one really knew what was wrong with him. But it was clear that his great strength was waning. His zestful, energetic performance on the playing field had become dulled, muted and lethargic.

The next season, Gehrig was no better.  Once, he bent to tie his shoelaces and toppled over.  Yet he played on.

But on May 2, 1939, still confused about what had overtaken him, Gehrig benched himself and never played another game.  Again, Frommer:

The great Gehrig would tarry a while like a bowed oak. He was still the captain, still the Pride of the Yankees. He brought the lineup card out to umpires before each game, and then from his corner seat in the dugout watched others play baseball.

On June 19th, his 36th birthday, Gehrig got a grim diagnosis at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota:  He had ALS, which afflicts just 1 in 50,000 people.

Stephen Hawking on a visit to NASA in the 1980s.  (NASA)

Stephen Hawking on a visit to NASA in the 1980s. (NASA)

ALS is inexorable and irreversible.  The elderly or frail often succumb within months of their first symptoms.  Others have survived two decades or more — celebrated British theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, for one, has lived 46 years with the disease, almost totally paralyzed but still functional.

But most ALS patients are dead within five years after the onset of symptoms.

The disease’s very name, broken into parts, explains what befalls them:  a: without  myo: muscle   trophic: nourishment   lateral: side (of the spinal cord)  sclerosis: hardening or scarring

As KidsHealth online magazine explains, “amyotrophic means that the muscles have lost their nourishment.  When this happens, they become smaller and weaker. . . . [T]he disease affects the sides of the spinal cord, where the nerves that nourish the muscles are located; and . . .  the diseased part of the spinal cord develops hardened or scarred tissue in place of healthy nerves.”

For reasons not yet fully understood — though there’s a 5- to 10-percent family predisposition to ALS that scientists are studying frantically — motor neurons in the brain that control muscle movements shrink to the point of worthlessness.

ALS patients soon lose the ability to walk, move their limbs, speak, or control many bodily functions.  The indignities can be overwhelming to endure and wrenching for friends and loved ones to observe.

“It is not a kind disease,” writes Dudley Clendenin, once a gifted national correspondent for the New York Times, who developed ALS at age 66. “The nerves and muscles pulse and twitch, and progressively, they die. From the outside, it looks like the ripple of piano keys in the muscles under my skin. From the inside, it feels like anxious butterflies, trying to get out.”

An MRI image of an ALS patient shows increased activity, and not of a good kind, in the motor cortex.  (Wikipedia Commons)

An MRI image of an ALS patient shows increased activity, and not of a good kind, in the motor cortex. (Wikipedia Commons)

One day, ALS patients simply stop breathing because withered thoracic muscles haven’t the strength to properly inflate their lungs.  The volume of clean air diminishes to 20-percent levels or less, carbon dioxide fills the lungs, and the patient slips into a sort of narcotic state and dies, usually peacefully.  Some ALS patients die earlier from falls or infections.

And at a rate six times higher than in the general population, ALS patients who cannot abide the diminution of life and joy commit suicide, with or without help.

Dudley Clendenin is among the ALS victims who intend to take their lives.  “I just have to act while my hands still work,” he writes. “The gun, narcotics, sharp blades, a plastic bag, a fast car, over-the-counter drugs, oleander tea (the polite Southern way), carbon monoxide, even helium. That would give me a really funny voice at the end.

“I have found the way. Not a gun. A way that’s quiet and calm.”

Jazz legend Charlie Mingus died of ALS in the 1970s.  (Steve.D.Hammond., Flickr Creative Commons)

Jazz legend Charlie Mingus died of ALS in the 1970s. (Steve.D.Hammond., Flickr Creative Commons)

In and of itself, ALS is not painful.  But its complications — cramps, burning eyes, pressure sores — can be.  Even toward the end, ALS patients can see, hear, feel sensations, and, in most cases, think fully and clearly.

Thinking, tormentedly thinking, day and night, as clearly and intently as you and I.

ALS victims’ lives can be prolonged.  Some take the drug Riluzole, which slows the progress of the disease by suppressing and, in effect, sucking up excess toxic glutamate levels in the neurons that are wasting away.

Riluzole only delays the inevitable, however.  There is no known cure.

Ventilators can also add months to life, but they require a tracheotomy — an incision into the neck through which a tube is inserted.  Patients who choose this option lose the ability to speak, and they require even more caregiver attention.

About 95 percent of ALS patients choose not to go the tracheotomy and ventilator route.  They simply cannot afford the crushing costs.

In a scene portrayed by actor Gary Cooper in the 1942 movie “Pride of the Yankees,” Lou Gehrig was honored in a ceremony at Yankee Stadium on July 4th — Independence Day — 1939, about two weeks after his diagnosis.  He was embraced by his manager, Miller Huggins, and the team’s other superstar, Babe Ruth. Read the rest of this entry »

Tilting at (Golf) Windmills

Posted September 21st, 2011 at 4:45 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

In the novel by Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote takes his lance and “tilts at windmills” as the saying goes, imagining their blades to be a giant’s arms.

I can relate.  I, too, have tilted at windmills — and usually lost . . . on the putting green.

Not one of those manicured, meticulously shaved creations trod by real golfers in their lemon-yellow slacks and white spikes.  Naw.  Ones made of plain old green carpeting, glued to beds of solid concrete.

Sinking a long miniature-golf putt is more guesswork and luck than skill for most of us.  (Ben B Miller, Flickr Creative Commons)

Sinking a long miniature-golf putt is more guesswork and luck than skill for most of us. (Ben B Miller, Flickr Creative Commons)

I’m a miniature golfer, you see.  My game is the kinda, sorta putting part of golf — with a huge twist.  In my kind of golf, windmill hazards and polyethylene gorillas stand astride your sightline, and narrow chutes and bridges drop your ball down to levels where it rolls in a hundred different directions.

My ball, and the club I strike it with, look nothing like the ones that Vijay Singh or Tiger Woods or K.J. Choi’s caddie pulls out of a bag.  Mini-golf balls are colored — usually red, yellow, green, and blue — invariably faded and chipped from overuse.  Our putters are all the same institutional design, save for their length, and they, too, have been gripped by hundreds or even thousands of others before we get our hands on them.

No caddie hands them to us, that’s for sure.  The putter’s our only club, and we lug it around all 18 holes ourselves.  Any mini-golfer who brings a real putter to the course is called a pretentious poof, or worse, behind his back.

I am moved to write all this because the sport — activity? — of miniature golf lost a legend a week or so ago.  Ralph J. Lomma died at age 87 in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Ralph Lomma's the one on the left!  His zany twists to the staid game of miniature golf revolutionized the business.  (Peter Morgan/AP)

Ralph Lomma's the one on the left! His zany twists to the staid game of miniature golf revolutionized the business. (Peter Morgan/AP)

It was he who turned what had been the tedious game of miniature golf into an adventure.  An early sort of theme park, sprinkled with absurd monsters and mermaids and monoliths.

Mini-golf is thought to have begun in the mid-1800s in a fitting place: St. Andrews in Scotland, which real golfers refer to as the Royal & Ancient Golf Club.  Its members decided that their pestering wives and lady friends needed a dignified version of their game to keep them busy while the men whacked golf balls around the gorse.  It was thought unseemly for a woman to perform the violent swings that advance a ball down a fairway, but the gentle putting stroke would be acceptable, achievable, and amusing.

So the club created an 18-hole course of just putting greens.  They called it “the Himalayas” — odd, since greens are as flat as a flounder.  Over the years, other golfing clubs and fancy hotels followed suit, building putting courses on a miniature scale.  “Garden golf,” “pitch and putt,” or “par 3 golf,” they called the game that was played there.

Par, for the uninitiated, is the number of swings, or strokes, deemed right and proper to get the ball from the tee into the recessed cup on each of the course’s 18 holes.  Making par should be difficult, but not daunting, to achieve.

Another putt, another dratted windmill!  (vomsorb, Flickr Creative Commons)

Another putt, another dratted windmill! (vomsorb, Flickr Creative Commons)

In the case of miniature golf, that number is often made uniform the whole way through: 4, 3, or even 2 putts per hole.  That’s the optimum, and only sometimes the number of strokes YOU will take to put the ball in the cup down the carpeted way.

The first known U.S. mini-course opened in 1916 in Pinehurst, North Carolina.  It had a clever name: Thistle Dhu.  Or phonetically, “This’ll Do.”  A veritable boom in such courses followed.

Each had undulations, twists to the right or left, and idiosyncrasies.  A couple of pink, plastic flamingos stuck in the ground next to the holes, perhaps.  Various kinds of fake-grass surfaces, too.

Other than that, the mini game was pretty much the same: mildly interesting and challenging over the first few holes, a tad tiresome toward the end.

In 1954, Don Clayton of Fayetteville, North Carolina, created a miniature-golf layout that he called the “Putt-Putt” course, which he charged customers 25 cents to play.  It had a few refinements.  Each hole was a quick-playing par 2.  Sinking one’s ball into each distant hole was doable if you tapped a firm and true putt and didn’t hit a stone or a cigarette butt that someone before you had dropped.  Superior play could earn a player a modest prize, typically a free game.

Putt-Putt's not Coke in its reach . . . yet.  But you'll find these signs in unlikely places around the world.  (me and the sysop, Flickr Creative Commons)

Putt-Putt's not Coke in its reach . . . yet. But you'll find these signs in unlikely places around the world. (me and the sysop, Flickr Creative Commons)

Putt-Putt was rapidly franchised across America and much of the rest of the world.  Like dining at McDonald’s, you got pretty much the same experience playing it in New York or New Delhi or New Zealand.  The course was entirely predictable.

Ralph Lomma, who had been making and selling skillets and die-cast Christmas ornaments in Scranton, changed all that.  In 1955, he and his brother, Alphonse, opened a mini-golf course there that was loaded with wacky obstacles.  They included a revolving windmill whose paddles quite likely and infuriatingly would swoop downward and strike your ball just as it arrived, knocking it far from the hole.

Other Lomma courses added spooky castles, zig-zag misdirections, cement alligators whose gaping jaws stood between you and a beautiful shot.  Sometimes a plastic whale would spit your ball back at you if you missed the narrow opening inside its mouth.  Or a guillotine whose (quite dull) blade dropped, once again, right in front of a perfectly aimed putt.

Now THERE's a tricky shot!  (SeeMidTN.com (aka Brent), Flickr Creative Commons)

Now THERE's a tricky shot! (SeeMidTN.com (aka Brent), Flickr Creative Commons)

Lomma’s creations weren’t just thematic decorations.  They added elements of skill, a bit of trickery, and a chuckle or two to what had been miniature golf’s monotonous parade of putts.  To win at his game, you had to concentrate, not just whack the ball against the course’s wooden bumpers and hope for the best.

Ralph Lomma would create about 6,000 courses around the world, on cruise ships, at federal penitentiaries, and even, he claimed, on an aircraft carrier.  That one’s hard to picture.

Mini-golf courses are recession-proof “money machines,” he crowed.  For $20,000, a franchisee got a prefabricated course, an array of putters, a good supply of scorecards and pencils, and one embellishment: a happy clown face that collected, and kept, your ball after your last putt — whether you had successfully knocked it in the cup or not. Read the rest of this entry »

The Old, Under Foot

Posted September 19th, 2011 at 3:47 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

The other day, I was leaving work and fell into step with a colleague who toils in the VOA newsroom.  I hadn’t seen her for awhile, and I remarked, not very sensitively as I look back on it, that she looked awfully tired.  It was the job, I figured.

Yes, to a degree, she said.  But in the space of a city block walking beside her, I learned of her real burden: In addition to her fulltime job, she, and she alone, cares for her elderly father.  When I say elderly, think older than 100.  So there are many, many issues that she and a second companion — a scrappy little terrier — must handle.  She was stoic about her situation, resigned to it, embracing of it in a brave sort of way, for as long as it lasts.

Old people can be endearing, but also a handful.  And, if you're their only caregiver, there are few respites from those demands.  (brutusfly, Flickr Creative Commons)

Old people can be endearing, but also a handful. And, if you're their only caregiver, there are few respites from those demands. (brutusfly, Flickr Creative Commons)

Millions of other people across the United States, too, must — or choose to — provide long-term care to their sick, elderly, or disabled relatives.  Often these unpaid caregivers are middle-aged women who are raising children as well.  It almost goes without saying that these burdens can strain marriages and drain life savings.  And the effect on the caregivers can be devastating.

Some years ago on a trip to Georgia, I met such a person:  Shirley Loflin, who herself was 66 years old.  She told me she lived each difficult day — and every day for her was difficult — inspired by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s vow during the bleak early months of World War Two:

Never give in — never, never, never, never.

For the first 38 years of their marriage, life was slow and easy for Shirley Loflin and her husband, Geddie.  But then, two states away in North Carolina, her mother’s health began to fail rapidly.  After repeated trips to help her parents cook, can, and freeze meals, arrange live-in care, and deal with doctors, Shirley lost her mother, leaving her father alone and bewildered in the grip of early dementia.

So the Loflins brought Shirley’s dad home to live with them in Georgia.

Geddie Loflin ─ a traveling salesman who sold bedsprings and foam filling throughout the Southeast ─ helped watch after the old man whenever he could.  And despite their new challenge, the couple held onto their dreams of a comfortable retirement filled with travel, golf, and relaxation.

Shirley, Geddie, and Lili — the Loflins' miniature dachshund, who became Geddie's constant companion.  (Shirley Loflin)

Shirley, Geddie, and Lili — the Loflins' miniature dachshund, who became Geddie's constant companion. (Shirley Loflin)

But those dreams were dashed in an instant one cold December day just eight months after Shirley Loflin’s dad moved in.  Geddie had a bad stroke.  It took his speech and paralyzed him on the right side.  In a flash, Shirley was the caregiver for both men.

And before long, each of them grew jealous of the attention that Shirley was paying the other. Her days and nights became an unrelenting procession of toil and tears.  “I was fast burning out,” Shirley told me.

I had broken out in hives, and I had gained weight.  I was doin’ everything ─ three meals a day and the house and the yard and the car, and I just never had a minute to myself. I had to give up all my hobbies and everything.  After awhile, the mental stress on it was pretty bad.

After several years of this pressure, Shirley placed her father in an assisted-living home.  Within a few months, he, too, suffered a stroke and died.

Unfortunately it's not robots but humans, with newly strained lives of their own, who care for our elderly.  (willowgarage, Flickr Creative Commons)

Unfortunately it's not robots but humans, with newly strained lives of their own, who care for our elderly. (willowgarage, Flickr Creative Commons)

But back in the family household, there was no let-up in the demands of Geddie’s care.  Feeling alone, overwhelmed, and hopeless, Shirley Loflin watched her own health and spirits decline.  “I just thought my life was over,” she remembers.

For years, friends had urged Shirley to reach out for help.  Finally, she listened. She got some part-time help caring for Geddie and enrolled in a workshop at a caregiving institute founded by former U.S. First Lady Rosalyn Carter, who lived in nearby Americus, Georgia.

Encouraged and revived, Shirley Loflin took charge of the institute’s chat room on the Internet. She began fielding stories just like her own from all over the world. Read the rest of this entry »

English as MY Second Language?

Posted September 15th, 2011 at 1:59 pm (UTC-4)
5 comments

Millions of times a day, Americans say THIS to each other:

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Nothin’ much. How YOU doin’?”

“Fine.”

These quick, casual greetings are as predictable as the sunrise. Imagine someone’s SHOCK if he asked “How ya doin’?” and you replied, “Well, not so good” and launched into a lengthy explanation as to why things aren’t really fine right now.

Every culture has polite rituals like this for those times when you pass someone on the street, or get stuck in line at the bank, or have to say SOMETHING to someone in an elevator, at a bus stop, or at a party.

Americans call it “small talk”:

“Hot out there, eh?”

“How ’bout those Yankees!”

“Does the Blue Line go to Falls Church?”

Empty pleasantries that pass the time.  (We used to be able to ask, “Got a light,” but smoking is forbidden or frowned upon in all but a few wide-open spaces these days.)

Imagine this! Engineer Debra Fine turned talking, or writing about it, into a career.  (Hyperion Press)

Imagine this! Engineer Debra Fine turned talking, or writing about it, into a career. (Hyperion Press)

But Debra Fine says small talk can be SO much more.  She’s a former engineer — and we know how chatty THEY are! — based in Denver, Colorado, whose success with a little self-help book has turned her into a motivational speaker.  The book is The Fine Art of Small Talk.  And it has what is probably the longest subtitle in bookselling history:  “How to Start a Conversation, Keep it Going, Build Rapport, and Leave a Positive Impression.”

I think they call it “mingling” or “networking” these days.

Fine’s main point is that when we chit-chat half-heartedly, we miss a real chance to make friends and influence people.  It’s the superior small-talkers, it seems, who get the good jobs, the smartest husbands and cutest wives, and invitations to all the hot parties.

Awkward pauses are killers, Fine says.  Confidence is everything.  The best conversationalists are those who do more listening than talking.  One’s body language should match one’s words; that is, you’ll be spotted as a phony immediately if you ask a sincere question, then look at your watch or around the room while the other person answers.

Try as they might, some people just don’t get the idea that, by definition, a conversation involves two people.  Three offenders, in particular, are sure conversation killers, Fine says:

Animated talking in social situations is a good thing, but only up to a point.  (Jemima G, Flickr Creative Commons)

Animated talking in social situations is a good thing, but only up to a point. (Jemima G, Flickr Creative Commons)

Monpolizers (and you know who you are), who get a good dialogue going and then overwhelm it with abridged versions of their entire life stories and their views on life, politics, the opposite sex, or the host and host’s spouse.

Know-it-Alls, who profess to have experience and wisdom on any subject that you bring up, up to and including brain surgery.

And Advisers, who have suggestions and solutions for every big and little problem in your life, whether you asked them for help or not.

You don’t want to be any of those people, Fine advises.  “Mingle with moxie,” she writes, meaning that you’d be surprised at how eager strangers are to talk with you if you just approach them with confidence and genuine interest in what they have to say.

Now THESE guys (or gals) have small down down to a science.  (Michael Berenz, Flickr Creative Commons)

Now THESE guys (or gals) have small down down to a science. (Michael Berenz, Flickr Creative Commons)

So AFTER you’ve asked someone, “What do you do for a living?” and the person answers, “I lay carpet,” don’t be a mouse! Say something dynamic, like “That’s FASCINATING.  What’s your typical day like?”  And off goes the conversation and a new relationship!

No more hiding in the bathroom or hanging out at the buffet table.  YOU can be the Alexander the Great of small talk!

“How you doin’?”

“Good. How YOU doin’?”

OK, so it’s a little more nuanced than that.

 

Read the rest of this entry »

Sports and the Black Dog

Posted September 7th, 2011 at 6:03 pm (UTC-4)
5 comments

One night a couple of weeks ago, I was walking home from the Metro subway stop to my home, listening to a sports-talk radio station in my ear buds.  On came an hourly update that included news that a body had been discovered on the grounds of Mike Flanagan’s four-hectare country estate north of Baltimore, Maryland.

I can’t tell you exactly why, for there was no overt reason to suspect such a thing, but immediately a bleak thought ran through my mind: the body is Flanagan’s, and he has killed himself.

Mike Flanagan had been a Baltimore Orioles baseball star who in 1979 won the American League’s top pitching honor, the Cy Young Award.  Later, he became the Orioles’ vice president for baseball operations at a time when the once-dominant franchise had fallen into a morass of lost games and attendance.

Try as he might, Flanagan had no better luck than his predecessors turning the team around, and — local hero or not — he was fired following the 2008 season.

Mike Flanagan rose to baseball's hierarchy, on and off the field.  (AP Photo/Matt Houston)

Mike Flanagan rose to baseball's hierarchy, on and off the field. (AP Photo/Matt Houston)

But Flanagan was still beloved for his loyalty to the “O’s,” and for his rapier-like wit.  With the team owner’s blessing, he was hired as an analyst on Orioles’ televised game broadcasts.  Since those games are beamed into Washington as well as other cities beyond Baltimore, I began to watch and enjoy Flanagan and his droll style.

With a twinkle, Flanagan, a New Hampshireman of few well-chosen words, wrapped adept zingers about the Orioles’ pathetic play into his game analysis.

Subsequent reports confirmed that the body was that of Flanagan, the married father of three lovely girls, including one who had been the nation’s first in-vitro baby to be born naturally rather than via Caesarian section.

He had indeed killed himself with a shotgun blast.  Some news reports hinted at money worries, but his friends said they knew of none, and court records revealed no bankruptcy, foreclosures, or other financial issues.

In addition to the expected sad tributes, exceptionally warm reminiscences of Flanagan as a giving, warm-hearted friend poured in.

Flanagan was adroit on the mound and as the team wit.  (AP Photo)

Flanagan was adroit on the mound and as the team wit. (AP Photo)

Many recalled his irresistible wit.  In the year that he won the Cy Young Award, for instance, someone asked him about another Baltimore pitcher, Jim Palmer, who had earned the same honor years earlier.

“Yeah, Palmer is Cy Old,” Flanagan replied, without cracking a smile.

One time the Orioles’ mascot, a fellow dressed in a full-body bird costume, fell off the roof of the team’s dugout.

Flanny had a prescription for the Bird.  (paul-simpson.org, Flickr Creative Commons)

Flanny had a prescription for the Bird. (paul-simpson.org, Flickr Creative Commons)

Flanagan, who was nearby, called out to him, “Take two worms and call me in the morning.”

One more example, related by ESPN sports-network reporter Tim Kurkjian:

After a fellow Oriole pitcher who had only a fair fastball, averaging 87 miles per hour, overwhelmed the Toronto Blue Jays’ batters in a game played in Toronto in 1986, Flanagan cracked, “That’s only 82 Canadian” — a sly reference to the unfavorable exchange rate of the Canadian dollar in those days.

But Ken Singleton, his former teammate who is now a broadcaster for the New York Yankees, told Harvey Araton of the New York Times that Flanagan’s quiet good nature masked a silent burden. “Flanny,” as his friends called him, carried a gnawing sense of failure over his inability to revive the struggling Baltimore franchise. “He would read what people wrote on the Internet and take it to heart,” Singleton told Araton. “He wanted so much to make that team a winner again.” Read the rest of this entry »

Remembering the Twin Towers

Posted September 2nd, 2011 at 4:02 pm (UTC-4)
12 comments

Like many Americans, I’ll never forget, not just the horror of watching hijacked airplanes fly straight into the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in New York on the crystal-clear morning of September 11th, 2001, but also the immediate, defiant determination of the people of New York to rebuild the towers as quickly as humanly possible as a memorial to those who died there.

This photo, like all by Carol in today's posting, was taken, by happenstance, about a month before the Twin Towers fell.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

This photo, like all by Carol in today's posting, was taken, by happenstance, about a month before the Twin Towers fell. (Carol M. Highsmith)

While it became abundantly clear that the towers had become hated icons of American capitalism among our nation’s hidden enemies in the years prior to the attack — and thus both a symbolic and terribly real target — they had also become a growing, if grudging, source of pride for New Yorkers.

As the countdown begins to the 10th anniversary of the attacks upon the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington, as well as the crash in Pennsylvania of a plane that passengers tried and failed to take back from terrorist hijackers, you’ll soon be reliving those days and their aftermath.

Here, though, I’d like to go back to the time when the towers stood haughtily over the Lower Manhattan skyline, eclipsing any other structure on earth, including New York’s own longtime symbol of height and might and wealth: the Empire State Building.

There is no doubt that the Trade Center’s twin 110-story towers came to symbolize U.S. economic suzerainty, or that Americans as well as television viewers worldwide would be stunned to see them missing, like two front teeth knocked out, from the New York skyline.

Lower Manhattan today: still impressive, but missing something special.  (nosha, Wikipedia Commons)

Lower Manhattan today: still impressive, but missing something special. (nosha, Wikipedia Commons)

Yet like an amputee’s phantom limbs, to use another physical simile, the soaring towers still throb in America’s memory.  Nobody had ever built such a city within a cluster of seven buildings, including the two giant towers.  Fifty thousand people — about the same number as live in entire American cities such as Pine Bluff, Arkansas, toiled inside them for 430 banks, securities firms, law offices, shippers, engineering groups, stockbrokerages, and insurance companies.  Delicatessens and doughnut shops and shoeshine stands, too.

All told, the buildings were said to contain 10 percent of all the office space in Manhattan.  If you’ve seen the canyons of skyscrapers on that island, you can appreciate the enormity of that figure.

In 1999, Angus Kress Gillespie, a Rutgers University professor of American studies, wrote a book about the World Trade Center.  A modest 3,000 copies were printed, but only 2,000 had sold as of September 11th, 2001.

A week or two later, after the terrorist assaults from the air, the books could not be printed fast enough, and the obscure book became a best-seller.

One of two horrific moments of impact.  (TheMachineStops, Flickr Creative Commons)

One of two horrific moments of impact. (TheMachineStops, Flickr Creative Commons)

Why?  Interest in the people killed, the rescue workers, and the long-term significance of the tragedy is understandable.  But why the visceral fascination with the skyscrapers themselves?

“In the book, I argue that just as Big Ben represents London and England, and just as the Eiffel Tower represents Paris and France, so the Twin Towers represented America,” Gillespie told me at the time.  “They’re in close proximity to Wall Street, so by extension they represented American capitalism, and consequently, the entire American way of life.”

When the first of the Twin Towers was completed in 1972, it usurped New York’s beloved, art deco Empire State Building as the world’s tallest structure.  Sears Tower in Chicago soon took the title, but the World Trade Center towers continued to awe people because of their sheer volume, not just their height.

If you took the entire square footage of the Empire State Building — all 102 stories of it — it would not have filled the sub-basements of the two Twin Towers!  Each floor of one World Trade Center tower was about an acre  — four-tenths of a hectare — in size.  We think of the towers as looming aluminum and glass stalks into the sky, but they were also close to being cities unto themselves.

New Yorkers grew to embrace their twin monoliths.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

New Yorkers grew to embrace their twin monoliths. (Carol M. Highsmith)

Still, skeptical New Yorkers, who generally brag on their city as the biggest and the best, were slow to warm to their new twin peaks.  Architectural scolds said they were too big, too boxy, an imposition on the skyline, too far from the action in Midtown, and disrespectful of the revered Empire State Building.

Conservationists were appalled when they realized the buildings at first had no light switches, and thousands and thousands of the trade center’s offices glowed all night long.  And animal lovers were aghast because migrating birds kept bashing into the towers.

But visitors adored them, cherished the view from their observation deck, loved the Windows on the World restaurant on the 106th floor, thrilled to the express elevator rides to so-called “sky lobbies” on the 44th and 78th floors.  They loved to snap photos of the sun, and even moonlight, on the shiny towers at various times of day.  Angus Gillespie told me even workaholics who labored in the buildings found serenity, high in these twin aeries.

Looking at the North Tower's roof, with other Manhattan skyscrapers looking minuscule in the distance. (bill85704, Flickr Creative Commons)

Looking at the North Tower's roof, with other Manhattan skyscrapers looking minuscule in the distance. (bill85704, Flickr Creative Commons)

As you stood on the 110th floor of either building, and you looked down, you could see the hustle and bustle of the taxicabs and the buses, darting in and out.  But you couldn’t hear a thing because they were so far away.  It was like floating in a cloud, high above all the noise and confusion at street level.

The World Trade Center was the brainchild of billionaire David Rockefeller, who had put a resplendent bank building in Lower Manhattan and wanted something grand to go with it — something to dress up a financial district filled with decaying old buildings.

This is "Radio Row," photographed in 1936.  That entire neighborhood, and more, would be subsumed by the World Trade Center towers when they rose in the 1970s.  (Works Progress Administration photograph)

With the help of his brother, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, David Rockefeller and others saw to it that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey got control of the land.  This public agency would fulfill the Rockefellers’ grand vision.

In the months after another band of terrorists detonated bombs in the center’s basement one snowy February morning in 1993, killing six people and injuring a thousand more, New Yorkers took a fresh look at the Twin Towers and decided they liked them after all.

Eric Darton, a lecturer at New York University, who also wrote a book about the World Trade Center, told me the idea that the Twin Towers somehow represented the resilience of Americans after that first attack was multiplied after the ruinous and murderous assaults eight years later.

I had no idea until the towers fell that so many people — so many people around the world — had invested so much, psychologically, in these emblems.  And had to really feel our way through the next year — feel what it was like to be in this new world where two immense symbols of domination can simply crumble.  This horrific situation provided us with an opportunity to really reflect on our culture, and on our culture of cities in particular.

Early the very year that the towers fell, New York developer Larry Silverstein paid more than $3 billion for a 99-year lease on the World Trade Center.  It was the most money ever spent on a piece of New York City property.

The moon over Ground Zero.  (Carol M. Highsmith)

The moon over Ground Zero. (Carol M. Highsmith)

After the terrorist onslaught of September 11th, Silverstein and New York’s U.S. senators met and committed to rebuild the towers as a memorial to the victims, and as a statement of defiance to terrorism.

Eric Darton told me he understood this figurative shaking of a fist at our enemies.  He said he ran into people who carried his book around for some kind of comfort.

In some cases, people holding it in their hand is the closest thing to a material piece of the World Trade Center.  And that’s something that came home to me profoundly a couple of days ago when somebody actually handed me a copy of the book to sign.  And I hadn’t in a way even been thinking of myself as the author of the book.  I had simply been thinking of myself as a storyteller.  I really believe that a time when people and structures are being torn apart, it is narratives and stories that hold us together. Read the rest of this entry »

Labor’s Marching Tunes

Posted August 31st, 2011 at 1:49 pm (UTC-4)
4 comments

Next Monday is Labor Day in the United States.  The holiday dates to 1894, when the nation was emerging from a long and violent railroad strike at a time when trains were Americans’ principal means of long-distance travel.

Shining a light on powerful trusts' monopolistic agreements.  (Library of Congress)

Shining a light on powerful trusts' monopolistic agreements. (Library of Congress)

Then and for decades thereafter, music was a powerful tool that union organizers used to call attention to monopolistic abuses by railroads and other business trusts,” as powerful companies that secretly agreed not to compete with each other were called in those days.  Music sung openly and loudly at rallies also helped to expose appalling working conditions in factories, mines, and mills.

In 1915, for instance, Ralph Chaplin wrote, and union laborers lustily sang as they marched arm-in-arm, the song “Solidarity Forever”:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one

Solidarity forever, solidarity forever

Solidarity forever

For the Union makes us strong

Rabble-rousing songwriter Joe Hill.  (Library of Congress)

Rabble-rousing songwriter Joe Hill. (Library of Congress)

Some of these songs were composed to memorialize a union songwriter, Joe Hill — born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Sweden — who earlier in 1915 was tried and executed in Utah on murder charges that Hill’s supporters believed were fabricated to help quash the labor movement.

Hill, who wrote such songs as “There is Power in the Union” and “Casey Jones: Union Scab,” which described the harsh, combative life of industrial workers, most famously became the subject of a labor song that I remember hearing Joan Baez sing on recordings from the raucous Woodstock music festival in 1969:

From San Diego up to Maine,

in every mine and mill,

Where working men defend their rights,

it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill,

it’s there you’ll find Joe Hill!

Or find, for sure, some of his songs.

One classic labor tune, “The Banks are Made of Marble,” written during the Great Depression of the 1930s and sung by The Weavers folk ensemble, reflected what was then  widespread public contempt for wealthy bankers who seized homes when farmers and miners and oilfield workers could not keep up the mortgage payments.

I’ve seen my brothers working

throughout this mighty land.

I’ve prayed we’d get together,

and together make a stand.

then we’d own those banks of marble

with a guard at every door

and we’d share those vaults of silver

that we have sweated for.

As I told you in a recent posting about folk music's troubadours, Pete Seeger, shown here as a young labor-song performer, is still at it at age 92.  (Library of Congress)

As I told you in a recent posting about folk music's troubadours, Pete Seeger, shown here as a young labor-song performer, is still at it at age 92. (Library of Congress)

Those were the days when Woody Guthrie, the “Dust Bowl Troubadour,” sang of workers’ plight in the terrible Great Plains drought about which I wrote last posting.  Later, Pete Seeger, who sometimes sang with Guthrie, became the best-known labor activist among musicians. He, Guthrie, and Millard Lampell roomed together for awhile in a New York City apartment that they called “The Almanac.”

And before long they and others formed “The Almanac Singers,” who gave voice to a sort of social reconstruction of metalworking trades through the new and powerful AFL-CIO union.  In “Talking Union,” they sang:

Now you want higher wages. Let me tell you what to do.

Got to talk to the workers in the shop with you.

You got to build you a union, got to make it strong.

If you all stick together, boys, t’wont be long.

You’ll get shorter hours, better workin’ conditions,

Vacations with pay. Take your kids to the seashore. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s Next, Pestilence?

Posted August 31st, 2011 at 1:04 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

If the EARTHQUAKE wasn’t bad enough, along came Hurricane Irene, which wasn’t a big deal in our parts, but managed to knock a tree into our house and cut power just as I was fixing to write my next blog, about Labor Day and labor songs.  I’ve finally got the juice to do so, and it’ll be along shortly!

Weedpatch Dust Bowl Memories

Posted August 24th, 2011 at 7:39 pm (UTC-4)
2 comments

Reading about the incessant wave of 100° (F; 38° C) temperatures and terrible drought conditions that thousands of Americans living in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas have endured this summer, I got to thinking about the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl conditions that ruined the land in those very places in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Renowned Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange captured the despair of this woman who watched her farm blow away in Childress, Texas.  (Farm Security Administration)

Renowned Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange captured the despair of this woman who watched her farm blow away in Childress, Texas. (Farm Security Administration)

Back then, more than one million people — facing the unrelenting drought, dust and wind that descended upon the American heartland — were forced to abandon their homes and seek survival elsewhere.

In battered  trucks and jalopies, they carried everything they owned toward what they imagined was a land of milk and honey in California.

Dirt poor and uneducated though many of these refugees were,  they knew that the streets of Bakersfield were not paved with gold and that oranges the size of cantaloupes did not grow on California trees.

What they did know was that whatever lay ahead would be an improvement over what they left behind.

Imagine trying to make a go of life on the southern Great Plains, already an arid place come summer, when the rain stopped and the wind began to blow.

And blow, day after day across the thin layer of topsoil that held families’ lives together.

That's piles of dust around dead trees and farm cabins in Liberal, Kansas.  (Library of Congress)

That's piles of dust around dead trees and farm cabins in Liberal, Kansas. (Library of Congress)

As I said, in 1935 during the depths of the Great Depression, whole sections of the American Midwest suffered through a terrible drought that produced monstrous dust storms.  They sucked up what little topsoil existed on prairie farms and blew away the livelihood of thousands of small farmers with it.

One day that spring, a government soil surveyor named Hugh Hammond Bennett testified before Congress, pleading for creation of a federal service that would teach farmers how to plant the grasses that would save their land.

As he spoke, a thick cloud of dust howled by the window, almost blotting out the sun.  It had blown all the way from the Great Plains, more than 3,000 kilometers away.

“There, gentlemen,” Hugh Bennett told the congressional committee, “goes Oklahoma.”

That certainly made his point, and the Soil Conservation Service was born.  Too late, though, to help those whose topsoil had blown to Washington and beyond.

John Steinbeck described it in his book The Grapes of Wrath, which was also made into a gritty movie, starring Henry Fonda:

Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air. It settled on the corn, piled up on the wires, settled on roofs.  Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now.  The men were silent, and they did not move often. After a while, the men’s faces became hard and angry and resistant.

The crops withered and died.  So did much of the livestock.  Jobs in town, dependent on the flow of farm products, dried up too.

A classic jalopy, overloaded for the trip to California.  (weedpatchcamp.com)

A classic jalopy, overloaded for the trip to California. (weedpatchcamp.com)

Ashamed to be hard workers with no work, breadwinners sold their animals for whatever someone would give them, packed their families and every belonging they could carry into their rickety vehicles, and headed out.  Roads heading westward were soon clogged with these refugees, who pitched tents in makeshift camps along the road.

Okies,” these migrants were called, whether or not they had come from Oklahoma.  Among the disdainful residents of towns through which they passed, it was another word for “scum.”  Rumor had it the Okie camps were hotbeds of communism and anarchy.

There would soon be plenty of anger in those Okie camps, that’s for sure — anger about the mistreatment and exploitation of these migrants most every place they stopped.

Lange's classic Depression-era photo of Florence Thompson, whom Americans came to know, simply, as the "Migrant Mother."  (Library of Congress)

“’Cross the mountains to the sea/ Come the wife and kids and me,” sang Woodie Guthrie, the balladeer of the Depression.

“It’s a hot old dusty highway

“For a Dust Bowl refugee.”

Earl Shelton was four years old in 1937 when his mother died on the family’s Oklahoma farm.  When the cotton gave out for lack of water or fertilizer, Earl’s father, Tom, eked out a living catching and skinning skunks and opossums for ten cents a hide.  But he gave up and piled Earl, his brother, a nephew, and himself into a rickety 1929 Model A Ford and set out on what the Okies called the “Mother Road” — U.S. Highway 66 — to California.

Along the way, the jalopy broke down. But over a cup of coffee on which Tom Shelton literally spent his last nickel, he struck up a conversation with a man who gave him a job.  Digging the man’s pond would make him more money in two months than he had made all his life.

In early 1941, the Sheltons crossed the last pass in California’s chocolate-brown Tehachapi Mountains and beheld the valley of their dreams. Read the rest of this entry »

Quakin’ but Unshaken

Posted August 24th, 2011 at 3:46 pm (UTC-4)
Leave a comment

Before I begin a brief riff about the 5.8-level earthquake that rattled Washington and much of the American East Coast yesterday, let me assure those of you who have experienced severe quakes, up to and including the loss of life and homes around you, that I realize earthquakes are no laughing matter in much of the world.  Or even in much of America.

But a lot of us who live east of, say, Missouri and southern Illinois, where our nation’s most powerful earthquakes — two of them — devastated mainly uninhabited territory in 1811 and 1812, hadn’t felt, in singer Carole King’s words, “the earth move under our feet” at any point in our lives.

Blessedly, our building shimmered only briefly.  I was nonchalant, even gallant, about it, until I remembered how many tons of concrete were wiggling above me in our 1940 building constructed with extra layers of the stuff in order to hold the heavy files of the new Social Security Administration.  Thanks to a world war, SSA never got here, but the concrete ended up overhead anyway.

Since I couldn’t get any work done with the security system’s monitors screeching and a distended voice announcing “An emergency has been declared in your building,” I strolled down the stairs to leave.  Only then did I notice the cracks in the wall and some fallen plaster.

But all was calm as we milled around with thousands of other evacuated federal workers, directly beneath buildings whose massive antenna arrays could easily sail down upon us if a serious aftershock were to follow.  Maybe under my desk, listening to the distended voice prattle on over and over, would have been better after all.

But all turned out well here and at home — if you don’t ask me about my beer-bottle collection.  I took one peek at my den and shut the door, figuring I’d man the broom and dustpan this weekend.  I still have, oh, 1,900 (make that 1,800) bottles on the shelves.

So many people overreacted to the Great Quake of 2011 that the Internet came alive with mocking “updates” and “survival” stories, such as:

“In retrospect, I resorted to cannibalism rather fast after the earthquake.”

. . . and this little dig at President Obama’s negotiation skills:

“There was just a 5.8 earthquake in Washington. Obama wanted it to be 3.4, but the Republicans wanted 5.8, so he compromised.”

But best of all were photographs of the “devastation” that raced around the Web.  Check ’em out while I finish the blog I was GOING to issue yesterday.

And my favorite, clearly showing how widespread was the destruction:

 

 

Ted Landphair

About

This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

Calendar

August 2020
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
 12
3456789
10111213141516
17181920212223
24252627282930
31