A Yankee Notebook

June 6, 2016 For week of 6/5/16


MONTPELIER – Even as a young man, I could tell, getting home from work, what kind of night it was going to be. In January, it made a big difference. Clear and still at four o’clock meant a night well below zero, and that old Plymouth flathead had to start in the morning or I wasn’t going to get to work. I kept a spanner of the right size in the glove compartment. Reluctantly I dug it out, loosened the battery terminals, and then the wing nuts that held the battery down. I laid an old army surplus blanket over the engine, let the hood down easily, and carried the battery inside the house for the night. Just in case that wasn’t enough precaution, I filled my little Svea mountain stove with white gas, should I have to heat up the crankcase in the morning. By spring, I couldn’t help but notice that the fronts of the upper legs of my jeans were disintegrating in little holes that grew larger with each washing. Sulfuric acid from the battery.

That scene played often in what are sometimes called the good old days. Even with engines of relatively low compression, the old six-volt batteries often didn’t have the oomph to get them going in cold weather. Sometimes you could get the car rolling, jump in, and pop the clutch to turn it over, but with an automatic transmission you were out of luck. Twelve-volt batteries saved us all. Looking back, I remember that back in the good old days I was under the hood of that Plymouth at least twice a week – points, plugs, fuel pump, valves – and now I’m under the hood of my truck so infrequently that I have trouble finding the release catch.

The probable Republican nominee for President has been campaigning on the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” I can never read or hear it without recalling the old Vermonter’s reaction when a door-to-door evangelist asked him if he’d found Jesus. “Goll!” said the old man. “I didn’t know he was lost!” The notion that the United States has slipped into a Slough of Despond and is no longer “great” is not part of my view of our history. Even less credible to me is the assumption that we were once greater – whatever that may mean – than we are now. Ever since the first starry-eyed British settlers arrived at the Chesapeake and the grumpy theocratic puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay, we’ve been a fractious, disputatious bunch of malcontents.

I can’t personally go any farther back than the days of the Second World War, but I can attest that during the 1940s our nation was indisputably great. We successfully fought a world war on the far sides of both our oceans, against enemies so powerful and dedicated that we were given little chance, at the outset, of succeeding against either. Afterward, we helped the losers get back on their feet, which we had neglected to do after the First World War. To ignore the systemic problems with which we were still plagued – most notably poverty, Jim Crow, and the segregation of the armed forces – would be fatuous; but if ever we came close to greatness, it was then.

The greatness and good old days to which the current slogans refer are not, however, what the candidate is trying to evoke, or what his angry devotees are yearning for. It’s hard to blame any citizen today for being upset with the patent obstructionism of Congress (many have suggested its members be paid piecework, instead of salary, expenses, and retirement). What Trump’s supporters – generally white, better educated and more affluent than the average American – are threatened by is an inexorable rising tide of diversity and their own imminent minority status. The good old days for them are those during which lesser people knew their places and could be kept there.

How could anyone be nostalgic for the good old days of the military draft? Your number was chosen by lottery, and if it was a low one, you went – barring a few dozen possible reasons for exemption. New York Representative Charles Rangel has since 2003 unsuccessfully proposed a reinstatement of the draft, for men and women, and a war tax to pay for foreign military operations. There’s no question but that passage of such a bill would radically reduce our overseas adventures.

Only a madman or masochist could feel nostalgia for the days before painless dentistry. My first dentist, Dr. Hochstrasser, had never heard of novocain, I’m sure, and burned his way into my pulp with a pedal-operated drill, much like an Iroquois fire-making bow, and with much the same result. Who of us doesn’t remember the skeletal articulated arms with the dark string drive belt that curled around several pulleys and spun the hated drill? When Novocain arrived at last, it was delivered with a long needle that, inserted into an outraged gum, penetrated to at least the cerebellum. Where did those delightful experiences disappear to?

In the good old days we burned coal in our home furnaces. I can only imagine what all that smoke did to the urban atmosphere; I can’t remember because we couldn’t imagine anything different. But I sure could imagine something better than carrying ten-gallon pails of ashes down to the curb for the trash man to pick up.

We wrote by hand, with pencil or ink pen. A fountain pen, in spite of its potential for disaster in a shirt pocket, was a marvel. The ball point pen was another. Then in 1952 my grandfather gave me my first typewriter, a Smith-Corona portable that I still have. The first chain saw I had the pleasure of using was made by Disston, weighed about fifty pounds, and took two men to operate, one at each end of the blade. That’s hard to miss.

The radio was squealing and staticky AM only, the record player 78 rpm. It took forever to make a long-distance telephone call, so we made them only in extremity. Those guys who want to recreate America and make it great again are welcome to it. I’m going the other way.

Photo by Willem lange