Hometown haiku

Marshall, Missouri, 1968.
Courtesy of Susumu Wakana

Old streets remind me
I did not know compassion
when I walked them then.


NOTES: I have come into possession of a treasure trove of photos from the late 1960s taken by an old schoolmate, Susumu.  He was our Japanese foreign exchange student when I was a junior in high school in 1968 and 1969.

Across the years and across the internet, we reconnected and he sent me the photos he collected during his year in my hometown.

Susumu saw things through his camera lens that I had long forgotten.  These are shots I would never have thought to take.  Simple street scenes.  Iconic buildings long since torn down.  Teachers and friends long forgotten.

The gift of these photos is almost indescribable.  It is as though I am seeing my hometown again, for the first time.  I’m transported back nearly half a century to the place of my childhood, to the places where I lived my formative years.

No fancy Instagram filters are required.  These photos already have the faded Kodachrome quality you cannot fake.  They come with authentic poignancy.

These photos take me back to my youth.  And my heart is filled with questions.  What if?  If only?  Didn’t I realize?

Hometown tradition haiku

Marshall High School had long marked the end of the school year by naming students to the esteemed positions of Honor Stations.
Marshall High School Honor Stations 1969. (Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana)

So blithely we scrapped
our outmoded traditions.
But what did we know?


NOTES: My high school had long observed a set of traditions at graduation time.  While probably only a few decades old, to us callow kids, those customs may just as well have  been prehistoric.

For as long as we could remember, our school had marked the end of the school year with a Baccalaureate service, a Commencement ceremony, and Honor’s Night. The first was inspirational, and still carried a whiff of religion.  Commencement was more perfunctory, and mainly served to get your tassel turned and your diploma into your eager, waiting hands.

But the real ceremony happened at Honor’s Night.  That was where academic achievement and athletic prowess were feted.  Scholarships were announced.  Awards and certificates of all types were handed out.  But while the awards were many, there was still a good measure of exclusivity. Not everyone got a trophy. It was the merit system on steroids.

The pinnacle of Honor’s Night was–as it had always been–the presentation of the Honor Stations.  Four couples from the senior class had been selected, each meant to represent one of the four cardinal virtues of our school.  They were to be arrayed on the stage of the auditorium beneath solemnly lit candelabras dressed in formal gowns and white dinner jackets.  They personified:

  • Most Industrious
  • Best Sport
  • Most Courteous
  • Best Citizen

(Historical note by way of full disclosure:  My brother Larry had been named Most Courteous in 1960, coasting to the honor on his winning smile and prodigious gift of gab.)

At the center of the stage sat Miss Fair Marshall, complete with a tiara.  We were not sure, but we suspected she represented all the good and pure and gracious qualities of Missouri womanhood.

I forget exactly how the Honor Stations were nominated and selected, but I seem to remember some sort of balloting by the student body.

THE DEMISE OF MISS FAIR MARSHALL

Miss Fair Marshall had a male escort, but he was merely unelected arm-candy.  The star of the evening and the center of attention was the fair maiden.

I should add one more fact, especially for those too young to remember.  The late 1960s were a time of upheaval and ferment.  Across the country, kids were growing their hair, listening to loud music and protesting the Vietnam War.

The times were a’changing, and although change might have come more slowly to our Missouri farm town than other places, we were not immune.

When I was a junior, the senior class of 1969 did a bold and daring thing.  (Many of my classmates and I admired our elders in the class of ’69.  We saw them as smart and sophisticated and worldly.)

The dramatic move they made was to vote to eliminate Miss Fair Marshall. It was a shocking move.

I’m not sure if there was ever a cogent explanation made why this was a good idea.  I suspect it had something to do with an unconscious awareness that having a “princess” without an equivalent prince was somehow unfair or sexist.  Or perhaps it was a rejection of the whole patriarchal-vestal-virgin vibe given off by the institution

I dunno.   But the hippies and the intellectual artsy kids rejoiced that year over the demise of Miss Fair Marshall.  And, I suspect that many would-be beauty queens wept.

THE NEXT YEAR, OUR CLASS HAD ITS TURN

I recall sitting the next year in our snoozy all-senior-class meeting called for the sole purpose of deciding whether we would bestow a clock or a plaque as our senior gift to the school.

At some point in the proceedings, I turned to my friend Clyde Smith and joked, “Wouldn’t if be funny if we abolished Honor Stations?”

He replied that that was a great idea, and that I should propose it.  I told him to do it.  He looked directly at me and said, “No, it’d be better if you did it.”

Thinking back, I do recall that there had been some earlier joking about how ridiculous the Honor Stations had become. The year before, the position of male Most Industrious had been filled by our older friend John Swisher.  Now John was one of the smartest, funniest and cleverest guys you’d ever want to meet.  But he was the first to admit that he was nowhere close to being the most industrious member of his class.

John had even made many a hilarious joke about his lackluster work ethic and the irony of him being named Most Industrious.

So, I had already concluded that the Honor Stations were hypocritical. And, with no more forethought than that, I popped out of my seat, walked to the front and made a motion to abolish Honor Stations.

I think I heard what you might call an audible silence.

I’m not sure exactly what happened next.  I thought I detected murmuring from the gaggle of popular girls.  Probably looking forward to wearing formal dresses up on the stage, I thought.

There may have been a person or two who spoke in opposition.  But I distinctly remember the debate ending after Tom Nicholas stood up.  Tom was the most rock ‘n’ roll member of our senior class.  He had long hair before anyone else.  He played guitar in a real band, and he exuded rebel cool.

Tom strode forward, leaned into the microphone, and pronounced with authority, “We have a word for this.  It’s called ‘ego-trip.'”

That pretty much sealed the deal.  Honor Stations were ego trips.  The question was called, and the motion overwhelmingly carried.

The Class of 1970 had finished the work of our predecessors.  We had killed off the Honor Stations and drained the pomp from “Pomp and Circumstance.”

I was exhilarated and pretty darn proud of myself–for a short time.

A UNEXPECTED LESSON

Later that day, I was pulled aside by Mrs. Van Meter for a brief, one-way conversation.  Dorothy Van Meter taught English, and was pretty much universally regarded as one of the “cool teachers.”  She conducted discussion nights at her apartment for students and former students.  These were heady salons where heady subjects like philosophy, truth and beauty were seriously discussed.

Mrs. Van Meter had hung a small peace symbol over the door to her classroom, and on the day of the Vietnam War Moratorium, she came to school dressed in black.  So, she had credibility with the free-thinking, progressive students.  She was actually the last teacher I suspected would hector me for my blow against hidebound tradition.

She was also known to take an interest in the character formation of her students. She was known to prescribe books or disciplines she thought would round out a particular student’s soul.  I was a muscle-bound jock and she told me to pick up a book on yoga.  And when I was flirting with the moral perils of agnosticism she gave me her copy of Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.  She even recommended weight-lifting for one of my classmates who was musical and brilliant, but soft and plump.

Her word to me on this day was matter of fact and brief.

“You know,” said Mrs. Van Meter, “some ideals are worth preserving whether they are fully lived out or not.”

That was it, and she wheeled around and left.

Her words took a while to sink in.  But that simple truth just might have been the most important thing I learned in high school.

Dorothy Van Meter was considered one of the
Mrs. Dorothy Van Meter (Photo courtesy of Susumu Wakana)

Sonnet inspired by a vile song

Love the one you're with ...

Illusions of Innocence

Time was, the sun stood high and corn grew green,
The juice of youth coursed through our throbbing veins.
Love easy and free as the night was keen.
The grass our bed, our bath the gentle rains.

We took up books of verse and lingered long,
Imagined we were wise as those in odes,
Took guidance from the lyrics of a song,
Cast off the quaint restraint of outworn codes.

All along, ignoring every sign:
The chill that comes and strikes the landscape dead,
The smut that spoils the corn and rots the vine,
The vulture drifting gravely overhead,
And, one subtle clue even less benign,
That not one selfless thought entered our head.


NOTES:  Reflecting back on my youth, I am chagrined.  There is an old aphorism that states, “If you stand for nothing you’ll fall for anything.”  There was a variation that went something like, “If you believe nothing, you’re liable to believe anything.”

By the late 1960s, many of us in my generation had pretty much had our beliefs in God, country and traditional morality watered down to pitifully weak broth.

Mainline churches increasingly didn’t even believe their own teachings.  Patriotism was dealt a severe blow by the national identity crisis over the Vietnam War.  The glowing reports of the sexual revolution made old fashioned morals seem not only quaint, but stupid.  If you were missing out, you were not only square, you were a chump.

It was only natural that we would adopt values from the popular culture of the time.  And the most influential popular culture of the day for the young was music.

Thankfully, there were some voices that seemed to have a moral compass.  Bob Dylan, for example, started out as a folk-protest-poet, and never stopped looking for truth, going down whatever roads it took him.

But prophets like Dylan were scare and rare.

A good part of the steady diet we heard on the radio was more on the level of “Light My Fire” or “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Teenage libidos probably didn’t need any extra encouragement if you know what I’m talking about.

Of all the songs from those days, one stands out as especially reprehensible.  Of course, I’m referring to Stephen Stills’ paean to infidelity, “Love the One You’re With.”

Set to a catchy tune with some nice acoustic guitar licks, the song’s poison message is wrapped in layers of cotton candy lyrics.

If you’re down and confused
And you don’t remember who you’re talking to
Concentration slips away
Cause your baby is so far away

Well there’s a rose in a fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove
And if you can’t be with the one you love honey
Love the one you’re with, love the one you’re with
Love the one you’re with, love the one you’re with.

That there is some great relationship advice.  Just great.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who hates the song.  Even former front man of punk bands Scratch and Jesus Lizard, David Yow — an expert in vile lyrics if there ever was one — agrees with me.

He says he hates that song so much he’d like to choke Stephen Stills to death.

I wouldn’t go that far.  I’m just chagrined that I once thought it was a cool song.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t hate all songs by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.  “Our House” is a wonderful little tune about domestic tranquility.  It was written by Graham Nash when he and Joni Mitchell were in love, living at her house with “two cats in the yard.”

It’s a pity that tranquility couldn’t last.  But with the band singing “love the one you’re with” every night, how could it possibly last?

Sonnet

We took up books of verse and lingered long ...

Illusions of Innocence ~

Time was, the sun stood high and corn grew green,
The juice of youth coursed through our throbbing veins.
Love easy and free as the night was keen.
The grass our bed, our bath the gentle rains.

We took up books of verse and lingered long,
Imagined we were wise as those in odes,
Took guidance from the lyrics of a song,
Cast off the quaint restraint of outworn codes.

All along, ignoring every sign:
The chill that comes and strikes the landscape dead,
The smut that spoils the corn and rots the vine,
The vulture drifting gravely overhead,
And, one subtle clue even less benign,
That not one selfless thought entered our head.

Love the one you're with ...