Friday, November 27, 2009

Cold Thanksgiving on the Great Lakes

For this Thanksgiving weekend, a story of friendship and a holiday on the seas from Michigander Fred Smith, interviewed by WPA writer Jerome Power in the 1930s at the home of Smith's sister.
Smith was born in Iona, Michigan in 1885 and at 13 stowed away on a sailing ship to become a sailor on the Great Lakes. At age 52, he had broad shoulders, a rolling gait, “bronzed features” and a ready smile. For a sailor, he had “less than usual profanity and blasphemy in his speech.” His story about friend and fellow mariner Jack McNellis:
I have a vivid memory of how he was initiated as a wheel man many years ago. We were in Duluth, about Thanksgiving time, when we both shipped as part of the crew to take a yacht through the lakes to Brooklyn, New York. The name of the yacht was the "Salt Lake City". She had what is known as an open bridge, that is, the man at the wheel had no protection against the weather. Jack had experience as a wheel man and thought he was pretty good, too. The skipper assigned him to the wheel, which was all right with Jack, since that work pays more money than an ordinary A.B. He forgot to figure on the weather, however, on Lake Superior, at that late season. Cold rain, snow, sleet like bullets and plenty of fog was the daily dish. Poor Jack was so frozen when he came off duty that he could barely get the ice out of his system before it was time to take the wheel again. We kidded him a lot but I am quite certain he would have died rather than funk on the job. He stuck and we brought the yacht to Brooklyn without more than the usual difficulty … Jack and I are great friends and when we meet these days always talk about this trip, taken when we were both young sailors.
Smith’s story is on the Library of Congress site. Next week if you’re in Battle Creek, catch a free screening of Soul of a People.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Taking it to the Rocky Mountain State

In Denver, before an event at the Tattered Cover bookstore, I sat down with Gloria Johnston of Swing Vote magazine and Louie Wolfe at his BBQ spot on East Colfax St. near the state capitol. We talked about the WPA guides that Louie had collected through the years and how they'd guided his travels. And we talked about the WPA writers including Weldon Kees, who came to Denver after leaving behind his job on the Nebraska Writers’ Project, and his friend Rudolph Umland who came to visit him, and was surprised to find Kees had turned to poetry (with the encouragement of another WPA friend, as described in the book).

Louie suggested that before leaving Denver I visit Red Rocks, the park west of the city where an amphitheatre is set into the scarlet sandstone walls. He told me that Red Rocks had its own New Deal connection: the theatre was built by CCC workers. The WPA guide to Colorado calls them “public-spirited citizens” and notes that in the silt deposit layers of the stone walls where you can see “shells, teeth of curious fish, and plants,” archaeologists found the nine-foot-long thigh bone of an Atlantosaurus.

So I drove toward the mountains one afternoon and wandered the park as the late sun lit up the stone and the bare bronze back of the CCC worker statue.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Talking Books in the Texas Legislature

The recent Texas Book Festival featured, once again, authors discussing their books in the halls of the state capitol building, from literary biography in the House to novelists in the Senate. In one annex room, an SRO crowd reassessed the Writers’ Project and whether its members were un-American (as Congressman Martin Dies, of East Texas, had deemed as first chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities) or very American (as Jim Thompson, sometime-resident of Ft. Worth and the West Texas oil fields, had insisted).
Others in the Austin fray this year included Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, John Pipkin on Thoreau’s misdemeanors, and Douglas Brinkley on Teddy Roosevelt.