The Truth of My Family Is Different

I’m happy to say that an essay I wrote, “Stories from the Lost Nation,” will be published next summer in an anthology of writing about fathers and sons their children. The essay originally appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Colorado Review, edited by Stephanie G’Schwind, who is also editing the anthology. Here’s an excerpt. You can read the whole thing here [pdf]. If you’re not familiar with Colorado Review, check it out and consider subscribing.

The truth of my family is different when I coast down off the hill. The bumps begin to add up. This is country where it is easy to get lost, even for my dad and my aunts, for people who grew up here and whose people once settled here. I once rode in the car with Dad and Mary K on a trip back—this was just a couple years before Mary K died, and her hair was white and Einstein-ish and her grin typically elvish; nobody could ever giggle with more high-pitched ambiguity than Mary K—and they spent the entire fifty-minute ride debating the efficacy of various routes to and fro, although “debate” is the wrong word. They weren’t arguing; this was more a ritual, a mapping out of Clinton County in conversation the way that Joyce is said to have mapped out Dublin in Ulysses.

“You always took the Such-and-Such Road, didn’t you?”

“Oh no”—and that voice of hers would dance up two or three octaves—“goodness no. Now, Tom. The only way to get to So-and-So’s was to take That Other Road.”

“But didn’t That Other Road go west?

“Did it?”

And so on, with rhetorical stops in DeWitt, Delmar, and Maquoketa. In Toronto and Lost Nation, Petersville and Charlotte—pronounced shar-LOT. When Dad turned off 61 to find the “old homestead,” as he likes to put it, there was the obligatory mention of Mr. McClimon, that cigar-chomping Irish farmer who, back in 1926 or thereabouts, obstreperously refused to sell his land to the government, which was trying to extend the highway. The line on the map was forced to loop around him.

And the conversation also began to loop, confusing even Dad and Mary K. It was as if the geography of Clinton County refused to sit still for them. On another trip back, a few years earlier, we actually did get lost, hopelessly lost. We were headed for a McGinn family reunion at the home of Father Ed Botkin, another of Dad’s cousins, and we ended up stopping at a Casey’s for gas and advice. My aunt and uncle and two cars full of cousins happened to pull in at the same time, retreating from the opposite direction. We hadn’t planned it, but we became a caravan and were all lost together.

Stories, you’ll recall, are like maps. They are the opposite of simple. As Mandelbrot suggested, the more carefully you study them—zooming in on perfectly straight lines until they begin to waver and then finally to squiggle—the less they’re able to perform their original function. They don’t answer questions but only ask them.

image: Route 136 east of Delmar, Iowa (Google Maps Street View)

The Untouchable

It turns out that a Wolfe relative was commissioner of public works in Chicago in one of the most corrupt, mob-infested administrations in the city’s history. How corrupt? Where the mayor was concerned, two words: Al Capone. Where Richard W. Wolfe was concerned: The Chicago Tribune published on its front page images of canceled checks and bank statements bearing Wolfe’s signature, suggesting that he helped divert most of nearly $140,000 in flood-relief money (some of which was raised from school kids!) into the mayor’s own coffers. It gets worse. When a state’s attorney subpoenaed payroll records from Wolfe, looking for evidence of graft, some mobsters showed up at the garage where the records were stored and killed a night watchman in a failed attempt to get at them first.

Yet nothing ever seemed to touch Commissioner Wolfe. Remarkably, obituaries in the New York Times and even in the Tribune, published in 1951, make zero mention of any scandals. And the Trib really, really hated Wolfe back in the day. (It must have been awkward for Wolfe that his sister’s kid was a reporter there.)

Don’t worry, though. The commissioner got his payback. In 1930, the mayor, Big Bill Thompson, planned to give a campaign speech attacking the Tribune bosses and the publisher’s sister-in-law, Ruth McCormack, who was running for U.S. Senate. A sudden bout of appendicitis prevented Thompson from delivering his speech, so he had Wolfe do it for him.

It was Halloween night at the Apollo Theater in Chicago:

Wolfe employed a verbal scalpel to tear open eighty years’ worth of Tribune misdeeds. Rambling and reckless, Thompson’s speech linked old Joe Medill to the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and Mayor Carter Harrison, accused the nineteenth-century editor of debasing half a dozen pre-pubescent girls, and blamed the death of Governor Len Small’s wife on the paper’s relentless hounding of “the greatest constructive governor the state of Illinois ever had.” Thompson also dredged up the affair between “the moral pervert” Joe Patterson and the wife of a friend, leading to Patterson’s fervent embrace of Socialist doctrine …

The mayor, through Wolfe’s Irish brogue (the commissioner was born in County Limerick), went on to accuse the current publisher of the Tribune of adultery and, to some ears, he expressed hope that “some courageous citizen” might kill him. Ruth McCormack lost her election, but, in the name of all things just, so did Thompson. And aside from having to appear before a grand jury, Wolfe faded into obscurity.

He had a great run, though. For a fuller accounting of his life, including how he fits into the Wolfe family tree, go here. Or, after the jump, you can relive his rocky time as commissioner through headlines from the Chicago Tribune. We could all wish for such an interesting career!

As a taste, here’s my favorite, in which an alderman (with the Tribune‘s help) makes fun of Wolfe for having published a forty-three-page book titled Culture, a volume I have just ordered, by the way:

images: Richard W. Wolfe (left to right) from the Chicago Tribune, May 7, 1931; Chicago Tribune, May 30, 1909; Chicago Tribune, November 12, 1916; headline from the Chicago Tribune, July 28, 1928

Continue reading

The Wreckage That Was Davenport

image: Robin Hood Flour Mill, 1975 (Flickriver user David Sebben)

In a new memoir, Ben Miller evokes our shared hometown in a way that is almost a little eerie. When you’re from Davenport, Iowa, as opposed to, say, New York, you’re not accustomed to encountering the streets of your youth in books. But in this passage, Miller puts us in the car with him and his mother, traveling from Rock Island, Illinois, across the Mississippi River to Davenport sometime late in the 1970s:

The junker galloped off the end of the end of the vibrating bridge grating and landed with a double thump. Urban Iowa hummed under our wheels. We shed the trestle shadows and veered onto River Drive. There was the modular Clayton House hotel, where a neighbor lady, Buddy’s mother, had once been arrested for turning tricks. There loomed the sooty French and Hecht factory, where Lonnie had once worked the line—Lonnie the red-haired live-at-home son of a Tennessee minister who had come north to study chiropractic science at Palmer College, wanting to combine preaching with medicine, and who, after graduating, had sold that brown house to Buddy’s mother and her husband in the raccoon coat, who, in turn, sold the place to the driver of a Frito-Lay delivery truck. There were the winks of the TIME & TEMP billboard, the bulb chorus blinking, blinking, blurting staccato notes of light.

Miller goes on to mention Al’s Wineburger restaurant on the left and the Robin Hood Flour factory silos on the right, particularly memorable to us Davenporters of a certain age for having exploded in May 1975, killing one man. Too much dust. You can see a bit of the wreckage in the image above. But you know, for whatever reason, it’s the “Time & Temp” reference that really got me: in the 1970s, you could get this information by looking at the clock, by watching the news, or by calling a special number on your rotary telephone. So a digital—digital!—billboard was so … cool!

I’ll write more about this book at some point. I have some strong feelings about it, not all of them positive. But for now, here’s how Miller leaves off:

I felt as if the car were suspended between industrial lots, as if we weren’t moving at all, as if instead it was the glaring night passing through us at a high speed that still everything. The river a blacker night flowing through thinner city dark. The river night of Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, who had first glimpsed the Mississippi at this spot, crossing from Rock Island into Davenport in On the Road.

image: Robin Hood Flour Mill, 1975 (Flickriver user David Sebben)