200th Blog Post

…And the timing couldn’t be better, since I cannot think of anything to write about!

So, I’ll do what I did for the 100 milestone back in 2016 and list some links to essays that I’m still fairly comfortable with.

I’ll keep the bullshit canned and go straight to the list, but not without saying “Thank you” to you readers, followers, commenters, and “likers” who have stuck with longitudes, even after my periodic silences.

The Night Watchman

Adolescence is a difficult and confusing time, and maybe more so when you attend a traditional, single-sex boarding school. My school was way out in rural western Pennsylvania. We wore coats and ties, shared formal meals, had strict study hours, and were required to play sports. A lot of boys struggled. Some were there one day, then gone the next. I made it until graduation, and I think what helped me glide over the waves was finding little chunks of floating driftwood to cling to. This brief, long-ago, personal drama was one of them.

Fascism for Beginners, Part 4: American Ambivalence

In 2017 I read William Shirer’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It really affected me, and it was no coincidence that I read it soon after the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. It became clear to me that a lot of the tactics Trump used to gain and consolidate power (and still uses, with the assistance of his party) were on full display in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s: attacks on the press, demonization of critics, far-right nationalism, sloganeering, authoritarian rhetoric, racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry, the “Big Lie,” etcetera, etcetera. So to deal with my disgust, I wrote a four-part series on Nazism before the U.S. entered WWII. This link takes you to my summarization, in the last part.

No, I’m not calling Trump a Nazi. But you’d have to either be willfully ignorant or a blind and deaf pig farmer in Patagonia not to recognize the parallels.

The Songs of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

Longitudes loves talking about music and movies. Here’s a link to a review of the music featured in Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s seven-part PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. [I also critiqued the documentary itself (click here), but it’s a shade more hard-hitting.] I’m still disappointed that Ken (“Mister America”) never solicited my input before choosing songs for his soundtrack. I think my two cents would have enhanced his project immeasurably. Then again, I could be overestimating my musical acumen. After all, I would never have picked Ringo to replace Pete Best.

Marching for Our Lives

Like “The Night Watchman,” this one is autobiographical. It describes my involvement in a march in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio to protest government inaction on gun control. Those of you reading from outside the U.S.A. probably shake your heads at the strange fascination America has with firearms. Well, some of us inside the country are doing the same thing. The march was precipitated by a horrific school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018 that killed 17 students and injured 17 others. The killer had known mental health issues, but at 18 years was able to legally purchase an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle from a local gun store. The massacre surpassed Littleton, Colorado as the deadliest high-school shooting in the country’s history…so far.

Both the march and a rally afterwards were significant for including a number of local children and students. When young people have to take to the streets to try and fix problems their parents helped create, your country’s in bad shape.

“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Justice Fascism:” A Comedy-Drama in Four Acts

(A different face of fascism.) Lillian Gish was a silent-film actress who extended her career into talkies and made over 100 films in her 99 years. She’s been called “The First Lady of American Cinema” and was a “pioneer of fundamental film performing techniques” (AllMovie Guide). She’s also from my home state of Ohio. In 1976 Bowling Green State University honored her and her actress-sister Dorothy by naming its theatre and film department after them. But in 2019 the college’s Black Student Union petitioned to rename the department, because in 1915 Lillian had acted in The Birth of a Nation, producer D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking yet controversial film that portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. (Gish was only 22 and had appeared in the film at the behest of Griffith, her film mentor.) University trustees unanimously voted to remove the Gish name.

This is my attempt to make a black-humor statement (note the Kubrick reference in the essay title) about a phenomenon of the 21st century known by its critics as “Cancel Culture.” Should we remove or tarnish someone’s name due to a single incident in their youth, or should we weigh their indiscretions against the context of their times and the full measure of their lives? And what does wiping out a name solve, anyway?

This one didn’t get a lot of “likes.” (Not that I use “likes” to influence what I write about.) Maybe I should have provided more backstory. Maybe most readers agreed with the name-changing. Maybe my attempt at dark humor was too acidic. Or maybe it just went over people’s heads. No matter. I like it, so here it is again.

Doris Day: On the Sunny Side of the Street

The legendary singer/actress died on May 13, 2019 at age 97. I’ve never been a huge fan, but for some reason her passing hit me hard. It might have been because she was one of the last remaining stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” She also symbolized a simpler time in America that required societal role-playing and which a lot of people now pine for…and not necessarily for the best reasons. I’m sure some of it had to do with the fact that on the day she died I visited her childhood home here in Cincinnati. There was something melancholy and palpable about being the only person there on that grey, blasé day.

So I did what I usually do in those situations. I wrote it all down.

Those Who Don’t Know History are Doomed to Lose Money on “Jeopardy!”

jeopardy

The evening game show Jeopardy! is a loose tradition in our family, encompassing three generations. My wife and I watch it faithfully, our son recently tested to compete, and my 93-year-old mom shocked me one night when, out of the blue, she called to breathlessly announce she’d gotten five answers correct. (God love her.)

Unlike most TV game shows, Jeopardy! is less about luck than skill and knowledge. On a recent show, there was a category about European history. One category answer was (WHAT IS) THE MAGINOT LINE?*

Only one of the three contestants got it right. He was Canadian. The other two were Americans.

Fear not, I won’t play the liberal parlor game of bashing Americans and extolling Canadians (as much as I like maple leaf country). Rather, I want to highlight that Americans today, as the Sam Cooke song goes, “Don’t know much about history.” And I will also add literature to history.

I use Jeopardy! as my proof positive because the contestants represent a healthy cross-section of educated people across America. Over many years of watching the show, I’ve noticed they do OK with subjects like science and math, and even better with technology, current affairs, and general trivia. And, like hungry canines, they gobble up modern TV and movies.

alex trebek

If Alex Trebek says “Oh no” for the Daily Double, it’s not only a wrong guess, but probably a dumb guess.

But questions concerning historical subjects prior to, say, the year 1990—and which haven’t been dramatized in a popular Hollywood movie—often result in ringing silence. This includes questions about Americans’ own history, to the embarrassment of Yanks like me.** Beloved Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek (a Canadian-American, and who recently startled fans by revealing he has pancreatic cancer) has also noted these difficulties with historical topics.

Jeopardy! contestants tend to lean toward eggheadedness. Therefore, if they struggle with history, one can only imagine how vacant Wheel of Fortune contestants might be.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian David McCullough (The Johnstown Flood, Truman, John Adams, 1776) has also expressed dismay. A few years ago, after giving a talk at a prestigious university in the U.S., he was approached by a young co-ed who said “Mr. McCullough, until your talk, I never knew where the Thirteen Colonies were located!”

Since history is joined at the hip with geography, knowledge of this subject also seems to elude many Americans. I once volunteered for a local GED tutoring program. One of the other volunteers was a full-time, accredited high school teacher. One evening, I mentioned I’d just returned from running a marathon in Vermont, and she asked me where Vermont was.

(To her credit, though, she was a whizz at algebra and geometry. She also had the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen shamrock.)

mccullough

David McCullough, dean of popular histories

Recent statistics show that the U.S. is ill-prepared to remain a global leader through the 21st century. A 2015 Pew Research Center study of 71 countries ranks America 38th in math, and 24th in science, based on worldwide scores of 15-year-old students. Americans’ reading and foreign language skills are also extremely low. Paradoxically, though, more Americans than ever are entering the workforce with a minimum bachelor’s degree.

This discrepancy between low educational scores and a plethora of university degrees tells me that, while high schools may be handing out diplomas like Tootsie Rolls, and colleges are spitting out graduates while adding decimal places to their tuition figures, there’s not much actual education going on. One-dimensional specialization, vocational training, and earning capability, perhaps. But not education. It doesn’t help that university history curriculums include fluff elective classes like “History of Rock and Roll 101.” (I speak from experience, having two kids who wasted our money on this cotton candy.)STEM-Logo

While I applaud leaders like ex-President Obama, who made science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education funding a priority, I’m concerned that other subjects are falling by the wayside. The inference, I think, is that the liberal arts—which include history as well as social and physical sciences, geography, philosophy, English, and creative arts—are “soft” subjects, and aren’t as important. In other words, they won’t insure America’s economic and military dominance. I guess the thinking is that we can accept slipping behind western Europe, and now even Taiwan, regarding education, health care, and environment, as long as we still have a powerful Wall Street and Pentagon.

I may lack certain education and research credentials, but my “man-on-the-street” observation tells me that de-emphasizing a well-rounded education is not only misguided, but also dangerous. I won’t go into the stick-figure political leaders Americans are now electing. I will say, however, that philosopher George Santayana was on the mark with his aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”map_glasses

Unless America returns to its desk from recess and determines that funding education is more crucial than funding an irresponsible notion like a “Space Force,” and schools return to emphasizing a full and healthy course diet—a diet that includes the dreaded vegetable known as History—we will continue to replicate our historical errors, and creep further into a global village version of Skid Row.

And with the handheld computer now a far more insidious distraction and time-waster than television ever was, even the most qualified and dedicated teacher faces an ominous fortification of apathy and indifference.

______________

* The Maginot Line was a line of French fortifications constructed after World War I and intended to thwart a possible future invasion by Germany. As we now know, it didn’t work. But at least the French tried.

** To avert charges of hypocrisy, Mister Know-it-all here had two good history teachers who probably discussed the Maginot Line many years ago. But Mister Know-it-all forgot about it, and his Jeopardy! clicker remained inactive. Sorry, Mr. Oswalt and Mr. Kozub. But, like the French, I try.

maginot line

The Night Watchman

owl 3

To the islanders, he was a nobody. To me, the most impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble – that I ever encountered.

(Author Herman Melville, writing about meeting Essex whaleship captain George Pollard, who ended his days as a night watchman on the island of Nantucket)

______________

As a teenager, I attended a boys’ boarding school for three years. It was a unique experience, as if 19th-century England had been transplanted to western Pennsylvania. I could probably fill a book with all the craziness that went down there. But since I only have a small space here, I’ll share just one memorable episode that occurred my junior year.

Like every school, there were a bunch of auxiliary personnel that made the place function: maintenance, administration, food service, etc. For example, during my sophomore year in Clark Hall, there was a maintenance man named “Putt.” He was an American Indian, and all the students loved him. I think he got his name because he was always “puttering around.” I remember he had an ongoing feud with the dorm master of Clark, whose name was Mr. Stokes. Putt called him “Stoke.” We never found out what the feud was about, but you couldn’t talk with Putt without him eventually bringing up “That damn Stoke.”

There were also the fieldhouse towel guys, Lyle and Howard. I’m sure they had other duties, but it seemed like their only role was to hand out clean athletic towels. Howard must’ve been in his 60s. He had a real soft voice, and he was one of these folks who can’t let go of a conversation. He’d go on and on, and you had to literally start walking away saying “Well, Howard, it’s been nice talking to you.” And he’d still be droning on when you were ten feet away.

But there was one person at that school that I don’t think anybody knew about other than me: the night watchman.

During my junior year, I had a bout of insomnia. (It may have had to do with chemistry class.) I remember lying awake one night, staring at the wood-paneled wall at 3 a.m., and hearing the downstairs door close. Then listening to footsteps on the stairs, and along the creaky hallway outside my door. Then up the opposite stairs to the third floor, then down, then out the door.

As far as I knew, everybody else was asleep. And this mysterious, nocturnal interloper somehow riveted me. Who the heck was he?

On the following night, at 3 a.m. precisely, I again heard the sounds. This time, I got up, opened the door a crack, peeked into the dimly lit hallway, and waited. As the steps became louder, I saw a yellow glow bouncing around the hallway walls, and heard a jangling sound. Eventually, strolling slowly down the middle of the hall, a man came into view. He looked like an oversized troll. He was short, bowlegged, mustached, and he wore a gigantic ring of keys on his waist and carried a monstrous flashlight. He looked somewhat like that Super Mario cartoon character, except he also wore glasses with really thick lenses.

I pulled my head back so he wouldn’t see me. Then I listened to the fading steps, and the door shutting as he left the dorm. I eventually fell asleep. But the following day, I saw the headmaster’s son and asked him about this strange apparition:moon_flashlight

“Oh yeah, that’s ____. He’s the night watchman.”

I asked him where ____ lived.

“He lives on the edge of the golf course. But nobody ever sees him. The school cuts him a paycheck every few weeks, and he picks it up on his nightly rounds.”

This fascinated me. Particularly when I realized there were no houses on the edge of the golf course. It was nothing but woods.

Later that day – instead of studying chemistry – I headed over to the golf course. I walked all along the line where the fairway hugged the woods. No houses…nothing. Then I saw a pathway that I’d never noticed before. It headed into the shadowy woods. Curious, I followed it.

After about a quarter-mile or so, I came to a building. I can’t really call it a “house.” It looked like it was made of cinder blocks, with a flat roof, and it had dark green moss and vines growing all over it. All the windows had closed drapes. No sign of life, and no sounds, other than a few birds chirping. Feeling a little creeped out, alone in the woods near this spooky building, I left.

Wow. This guy was Boo Radley and Bilbo Baggins rolled into one! As is typical with me, my mind started doing cartwheels. “Maybe I should visit him some time, as he’s probably really lonely.” Then a couple seconds later, “Better not, he could be a serial killer. I don’t wanna end up buried under his vegetable garden.” Those kind of thoughts.

I decided to compromise. So, during my next night of insomnia, I left him an unsolicited token. After everyone else was asleep, I placed a Three Musketeers candy bar on the edge of the hallway. (I figured a white wrapper would help my new friend notice it better.) Then I waited.

At 3 a.m. sharp, I heard the door, the steps, then saw the flashlight beam. Then he came into view. As I peeked through the door crack, I watched in anticipation as he approached the candy bar. When his flashlight beam landed on the bar, he stopped. Probably for a full ten seconds. Although I’m no mind reader, I can guess what he was thinking:

“Should I pick it up? No, I’m a night watchman, not a trash collector. But it sure looks tasty! No, I’d better move on.” And he kept walking, as I pulled my head back from the door.

I was crestfallen. How could he not accept my gift? It never occurred to me to step into the hallway and offer him the treat.

The foolishness of youth.

Well, it was the last time I did something like that, because later on during that sleepless night, I had a terrifying, and typically insomniac thought: What if he discovers I’m playing games like this and reports me to the headmaster? I couldn’t bear the idea of a confrontation:

“Peter, we’ve had some reports about you.”

“S-s-s-sorry, God.”

Not long after that night, my insomnia faded. And for the rest of my time in that school, I never heard nor saw my hermit friend again.

***

Like so many other things (such as chucking apples at cars…see previous post), I have regrets. Instead of playing games with candy bars, I should have just stepped into the hallway and introduced myself:

“Hi, my name’s Pete. I know you probably don’t get a lot of recognition, but we students really appreciate the work you’re doing. You know, keeping us safe and all.”

And it’s quite possible he wasn’t the lonely hermit my imagination made him out to be. He may have led a very rich life. He may have had family, friends, places he visited, and hobbies he enjoyed. Even if not, solitude doesn’t necessarily imply loneliness. He may have discovered his own peace and contentment living a nocturnal life away from people.

Maybe it was just me who was lonely.

Wilson Hall