In his essay, “Pilot Light” (Winter, 2013) Thomas J. Cottle tells of living with the “low murmur of fear” related to being Jewish. He calls this murmur, a pilot light, the small flame that burns continuously, and that at any moment can be used to ignite the full flame of terror. Cottle goes on to speak of the hundreds of things that today, keep the pilot light lit, even the small things like a colleague’s off-handed remark or a tasteless joke. As a child growing up with parents who well remember the Holocaust, Cottle recalls below, the time when, as an adolescent, he came face to face with betrayal and physical assault at the hands of someone he thought was a friend for no other reason than the fact that he was Jewish. He writes that “the words of philosopher Michael Oakeshott are relevant here: ‘We are what we have learned,’ Let us add, and what we continue to learn, and, for all I know, what our forbearers learned.”
On Brecht, French Horns, and Pilot Lights
Thomas J. Cottle
I remember the heat, the oppressive heat that one summer morning and I remember being cut by the bushes when Sam, a boy who lived in the neighborhood, and another boy, my French horn playing comrade, someone I thought of as my best-out-of-school friend, shoved me face first in to the corner of the garden behind Sam’s house. There was dirt in my mouth along with blood, and the two of them sat on me and pounded me and told me I was a dirty, filthy, Jew. They hated Jews, they said. “We hate Jews. And you’re a Jew. So we hate you!” And they pounded my arms and back. My crying only made them hit me harder and shove my face more forcefully into the dirt. “You’re a crying Jew girl. Sissy girl Jew. Sissy Jew.” To this day I feel so hurt by the one boy, I can neither mention his name nor employ a pseudonym for him in these musings. He shall remain the French horn player. He went away for high school and college and I never entered his home again. Years later I learned that he had died; I think he might have been no more than thirty. It was from an illness. I remember not knowing what to think, or what to feel; not a single emotion came forth. But by then the pilot light had been burning for years. Continue reading →
Ralph Keyes’s essay, “The People’s Cowboy,” is a story of growing up in a left-wing, socially conscious household. It was published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Antioch Review. In it, he recounts how the family’s political proclivities colored even their preferences for cowboys.
Listen to Ralph Keyes read an excerpt from “The People’s Cowboy.”
As a child I did not realize how unique our family was. What was so odd about discussing the Rosenbergs’ innocence during dinner, singing “Union Maids” after dessert, then being read a book about Ferdinand the bull, who would rather smell flowers than fight toreadors? Responses to my Antioch Review essay about growing up in a politically charged environment like that reminded me of what a distinctive childhood I’d had. “Your upbringing could not have been more different from mine,” wrote one reader. “I came from factory workers and truck drivers who hated just about everything about the country (although they never would accept that characterization) except when somebody criticized it–very confusing.” Said another, “I had such a ‘normal’ upbringing during the exact same era, that these days I find myself thinking it might have been fun to grow up in the Sedaris family. Reading this, yours might have sufficed as well.” And a third: “Nice to know that you were ‘using your head for something besides a hat rack’ (as the nuns used to say) back then.”
I guess we all yearn for what we didn’t have as children. These readers might rather have been raised by parents like mine who steeped their family in current events from a left perspective. I might have preferred to grow up in a more conventional environment, one in which I didn’t feel duty-bound to challenge my teachers about the efficacy of civil defense drills, and inform my schoolmates that Douglas MacArthur had dragged us into the Korean War (or so my parents said).
With an upbringing like this even innocent childhood pastimes can take on a political hue. It wasn’t enough to consider Gene Autry a better cowboy than Roy Rogers. To me Autry was not only better but more enlightened— “The People’s Cowboy” (as my essay is titled). And the fact that my brother and I considered American Flyer trains to be far superior to Lionel made us suspect that Lionel was produced by fascists. Without concurring with this political spin one reader wrote “you’re dead on about American Flyer being far superior to Lionel, and it’s a shame the rest of the world didn’t see it that way!”
Well the rest of the world didn’t see lots of things the way I did, as a “red diaper baby.” As an adult I prefer, like my American Flyer-loving reader, to be able to assess things such as model trains on their merits, without always considering the political implications. So do I wish I’d been raised by less left-wing parents? Not really. Growing up in a family where political implications were the coin of our realm left a residue of awareness for which I’m grateful.
Ralph Keyes‘s sixteen books include Euphemania and The Courage to Write. He recently published an e-book titled Second Thoughts: The Power of Positive Regret. His language column “Back Talk,” appears regularly in The American Scholar. For more information see ralphkeyes.com
Marilyn Moriarty’s essay, “The Taking of Dead Horse Hollow: Eminent Domain Abuse” appeared in the Spring, 2013 issue of The Antioch Review. In it, Moriarty narrates the story of one family’s—the Jenningses—multiple fights with taking authorities over many years. In 2010, the court sided with the family in its suit against the Virginia Department of Transportation. “The trial represented the culmination of a process the Jenningses have endured for fifty years.” Here, Marilyn Moriarty provides backstory on her essay.
I used the bridge long before I knew its story. In the early nineties I moved to Virginia for a tenure-track job and drove to Florida at least once a year to visit family. Over the years I came to know well the segment of I-77 discussed in my essay. East-west Interstate 81 and north-south Interstate-77 intersect in Wytheville in the southwestern part of Virginia. About five miles from the cloverleaf, the interstate highway bridge crosses the New River. I used to love crossing the river southbound, coming down out of a curve as open sky flooded the windshield, woods dropped away on either side, and acceleration tempted the car into thinking it was a plane. Other times, northbound, the bridge marked my 90 minutes from home. One year, crossing northbound, I looked down at the river and caught a glimpse of a brick house immediately below. Even at the odd angle, the charm of its pitched roof, gables, and lovely green yard attracted my eye. The contrast between the charming house and its siting in the shadow of the bridge made me wonder about the inhabitants. Who would choose to live under the interstate? After I met Edd Jennings, I understood that no one would: the state imposed that miserable bridge upon the family. I say “miserable” bridge although I have been the beneficiary of it and the entire interstate network. But if you consider the lay of the land in its less developed state, the siting of the bridge between two family houses appears as an act of deliberate cruelty. A black and white photograph from the 1966 trial (below) shows the family’s two houses with the tenant cottage between them. The main residences would fit at either end of a football field.
Black and white photograph used at the 1966 condemnation trial, Edd Jennings v. Virginia Department of Transportation, showing Brooks and Edd Jennings’ houses as well the tenant cottage (white square between the houses).
A contemporary photograph (below) shows the same land at a slightly different angle. Explosives blasted out the V in the hills. Emerging from foliage in the lower right, the red chimney appears on a white roof: Edd Jennings’ house. On the other side of the bridge, Brooks’ house appears as a patch of white between piers.
Interstate 77 bridge (south-north). The Brick House’s red chimney and metal roof appear in lower right corner. Brooks’ house appears as a glimpse of white between two sets of piers.
When I asked Farmer Jennings why the bridge was sited exactly between two houses–couldn’t engineers have moved it a little to the left or a little to the right?– he replied, “Someone just drew a line on the map. Probably, to them, houses were just little dots.” With a dotted line marking the route, a photograph from the 1966 trial seems to confirm his conjecture. After the highway filled in the dotted line with the highway, Jennings had to take the tractor on state road 52, which runs in front of the house, because the cleared area offered the only access to the upper farm.
Photo showing the proposed Route 77 through the property.
I still wonder why someone labeled the walnut tree.
I had been wanting to write something about the bridge ever since I had seen it and the farm up close, in 2008, after I met Edd Jennings when he struck up a conversation in the history aisle of a local Barnes & Noble book store. A few years later, when I came across a literary magazine’s call for essays on the theme of true crime, I asked Jennings if he could use that opportunity to write about his life-long battle with takers. After all, he read a lot, had written and presented speeches to the legislature, and completed several manuscripts about wilderness trips to the arctic. Before he declined, he asked, “Can the state of Virginia commit a crime?”
The bridge that splits the Jenningses’ property.
I was the sort that thought anything taken for the common good must have been rightfully taken. I grew up in a military family, my father a decorated veteran of two wars. I went to Catholic school for seven years. My immediate family felt no shame about being distantly related to Reubin Askew, the 37th governor of Florida, known for his integrity. Growing up with rules all my life, I had some confidence in structures of authority. So I found Jennings’ question about the state’s ability to commit a crime thought-provoking. The trial proved that yes, the state can commit a crime, but the heart of the issue for me lay in the many paradoxes about the exercise of power, and how we understand the relationships between the common and individual good.
Eminent domain allows that the common good trumps the individual good. That concept is easier to support if the need for a sacrifice has not been imposed on you in particular. When property is seized for eminent domain, the property owner is dragged into court as a defendant with the government setting the price on the property. No subjective values can be factored into the transaction. Land is conceived only as real estate. In America, historically, our ideals of liberty and self-determination are tied to the ability to own property. The forced/enforced conversion of land into real estate rips apart the conceptual relationships people have created with other people, with their world, and with their government, and it wrecks the story we tell ourselves about what it means to be an American. The taking process turns human beings into ciphers and homes into dots on a map. As the common good is appropriated in the argument of oppressors, individual humanity becomes stripped in the exchange. That lack of humanity was embodied in the siting of the bridge, a permanent object lesson about the prerogative of power.
I love roads. I love travel. A road promises an unobstructed path for desire. Road trip stories saturate our culture. Even the internet is conceptualized as an information highway. I love roads, yes, especially the beginning of every trip, when I leave just before dawn as a slate gray sheen supplants night, the horizon gradually lifting like a gate where the sun floods through. The road spot lit down the way issues an invitation. My heart lifts. A music of the road starts in my head. But now, I appreciate that every foot of road, every inch, and every fence post once belonged to someone else — who may have wanted to keep it. Every mile might mark a trespass. In Ursula le Guin’s 1973 story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a fictional city exists where everyone’s happiness is balanced on the abject misery of one child and every citizen has full knowledge of the condition of their bliss. I feel trapped by the paradox that to walk away from Omelas, I would have to take a road.
Marilyn Moriarty is a professor of English at Hollins University (Roanoke, Virginia). She is the author of Moses Unchained (winner of the A.W.P. Creative Nonfiction Prize) and the textbook, Writing Science through Critical Thinking. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Faultline, The Kenyon Review, Mondo Greco, Nimrod, and Quarterly West as well as in other literary journals and anthologies. Her work has also been awarded several literary prizes. (Photo)