Memorial Day 1973

As the U.S. remembers their fallen, I am reminded of a day years ago that made the war in Vietnam real to me. I was a teenager and a ball tournament near the border let me mingle with Americans.

At the beer garden after the games, I met a young man a few years my senior. We talked about the war and he showed me his draft card. His status teetered on the very edge of the draft lottery, which ended for good soon after our meeting. The reality of this fellow’s fate and how different it was from mine struck me and I think of it — and him — every year at this time.

A while ago I wrote a story based on that long-ago border town baseball encounter. “A Vile Insinuation” appeared in CommuterLit in June of 2016 and it’s linked here, along with the other pieces of the trilogy to which it belongs.

In June 2016 Toronto-based CommuterLit published “The Red River Valley Trilogy“:  “Encountered on the Shore” (Rerun Friday, October 6, 2017), “A Vile Insinuation”and “Without Reason”. The linked stories concern, respectively: the aftermath of a violent encounter on a city street; a young American leaving the ball fields of North Dakota for the killing fields of Vietnam; and a devout Mennonite man grappling with cancer and faith. These trilogy stories question “things happen for a reason” morality.


allfornow friends,

Mitch
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Season of Humiliation

IN GRADE SCHOOL, I found a lovely book in the library called, “The Red Schoendienst Story” (Gene Schoor, Putnam, 1961). It was the biography of an American baseball player. But for me, it may just as well have been a biography — if not an endorsement — of the country.

From humble beginnings, suffering through adversity and against harsh odds, a Germantown, Il coal miner’s son became one of the finest players in the big leagues. It was a story of determination. It was also the story – more deeply – of right conduct and moral authority.

“The Red Schoendienst Story” led me to believe that if you provided “good service” (the approximate translation of the surname Schoendienst) you were liable to succeed. Just like America.

I loved the USA, our newly mighty neighbour about seventy miles to the south. At the very least, I loved the idea of the USA. I loved the Kennedys, and the space program, the Peace Corps and the grainy TV broadcasts that came to us from this nearby titan. Most of all, I loved baseball.

I remember our minor hockey trips to Warroad, MN, where the Marvin Window company dominated the town. The Marvin boys were star players and their business was impressive – an icon in our part of the world. Everything about America then seemed like these grinning, shouting Marvin boys, their slapshots echoing off the boards in the brand new arena with their name in ten-foot letters on the wall. It was a place where sleeves were rolled up; where you expected to succeed by working hard and enduring without complaining. It was a place where one of the Marvin offspring – a daughter – ending up running the show for more than twenty years.

Life was good of a day in the quiet north woods.

I grew and aged and kept my eye on America. Some of my innocence was shed as a consequence of life’s confusions. Likewise, events seemed to conspire to impede America from its apparent course. The Kennedys were killed; MLK was shot down; Vietnam revealed its vile nature – from My Lai to napalm. I met Vietnam veteran helicopter pilots at a fishing lodge in Northern Ontario and knew – in minutes – how the world and everything in it was ruined for them. Irredeemably frozen in a horrible place and time, these were young men, not much older than me at the time. I was still a boy, but they had skipped that.

I saw the humiliation of Nixon and could almost smell the foul rot. I was reminded of a dirty halloween prank – back when quite a few farms still had outhouses, kids would throw fishheads down the hole. Next spring, on a still, sunny day after the thaw, it was like a bomb had gone off – the stench seemed to bore holes into your skull. It was unbearable and yet you were somehow drawn closer, sniffing cautiously – to see if it was really  that bad.

As a young man, I cowered, clinging to my naive, “Black Like Me” sensibility, as I met salesmen and business connections from the US. After sizing me up (how would I react?) they would probe a little harder. “How’s your red n***er problem, up there? Hear they are quite an issue!”

Shocked, I’d taste the bile in my mouth and quietly change the topic, my morals offended but my fear – to lose the account or jeopardize my job – prevailing. Shame on me. And why was I shocked? I’d heard that and worse on my side of the border. Hatred is not exclusive.

Travelling for business to Charlotte, Atlanta and Dallas, I saw the ugliness all around me. And yet, it was always counterbalanced – and more – by an abundance of bright, determined, decent-minded people. They had that old Marvin fervor; the can-do attitude. This rigorous, well-intentioned segment of American society knew what was nonsense and what was not. They discerned as I did, they believed as I did; they acted with courage in the face of hatred and bigotry. At least – they did when they were with me. As I did when I was with them.

Life carried on and then stopped when the planes crashed. So much violence distilled into a few terrible hours. I suffered too through “Shock and Awe”, watching bombs fall, missing only Slim Pickens riding one of them down, with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea.

I grimaced with the world when the “Mission Accomplished” banner was unfurled.

Columbine and the long string of gun deaths, ongoing today, have hollowed me out.

In recent years, I’ve watched as we scurry from place to place listening not to Red Schoendienst turning two at Sportsman’s Park, but to athletes-cum-entertainers who earn a lifetime or more of Schoendienst or Musial or Kaline salaries in a single year – regardless of the value of their service. We daily revere the repugnant and the loud and the swaggering. The world’s population, heads bowed and thumbs twitching, are bedazzled by Entertainment Tonite emperors, who know not what they do.

Who cares about content or character, so long as we click on it.

Just another old man complaining. But then on Sunday night, I crept as near to the stench as I dared: the Presidential debate. What has happened to the America I loved? Teetering, has it now been shoved aside completely by an unapologetic vulgarian? A blabbering pipsqueak pandering to racial, gender and religious bias. A merchant of hatred. The caricature of a misogynist in sad, pinstriped splendor, strutting the stage.

Is he not exactly the blustering bully you pick out — the one you walk up to and challenge to make the pack back down?

Who will disavow him?

#

Certainly, the America I loved was an idealism. It was a dream but it was based on truth. For me, a truth wrapped up in a invigorating, unassailable collage of people and things epitomized by baseball. It was Springsteen self-confidence and Dylan introspection. It was Kurt Vonnegut, Janis Joplin and Ken Kesey. America was awesome, before everything was awesome. Brash? Sure, sometimes, but big-hearted at the same time. Abiding and good.

I am hopeful that after this long election season of humiliation, the real America will come back. I doubt it, but I’ll keep watching, in case it does.

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

Red River Valley – Stories 2 & 3

THE SECOND STORY in the Red River Valley Trilogy takes place within a year of the first. It is set in Manitoba in the early Seventies.

A Vile Insinuation  At a bordertown baseball tournament, several young Canadians meet a ballplayer from the States. The issue of the Vietnam war and the draft comes up. The boys, from Hartplatz, a largely Mennonite village not far from the border, speculate on how life could have changed had their forefathers chosen to re-settle in the USA instead of Canada.

“So, it’s a low draft number. I’m going to Vietnam, unless the war ends, ya know,” Marty finished the thought, and his beer. “They are already in the eighties now. I’ll be called up almost right away after my birthday. You betcha’.”

.

We were quiet for a minute. “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple drifted across the beer garden from a boom box near the bar.

.

“What song is that?” said Marty.

.

“You said your Mom was a Menno from Winkler, right?” Cornie asked, ignoring Marty’s question.

#

The last installment of the Red River Valley Trilogy takes place in the present. The characters from the ball tournament have aged. (Or, they may have aged.) One of them is facing a situation he had hoped to avoid.

In Without Reason, the concepts explored in the preceding stories are tested and re-evaluated.

He loved that old truck. Dietrich had it just the way he wanted it. His one prideful excess – Lord knows he could afford it – was the retro Cragar chrome mags. There were two other customizations: he had one handle from a favourite pair of ski poles as the knob on the stick shift lever. Also, the kids had given him a Reggie Jackson autographed number 44 Louisville Slugger bat. He had mounted a gun rack in the rear window for the lovely wood bat to reside, riding shotgun with him on the still streets of Hartplatz.

I hope you enjoy these stories and I would love to hear your thoughts. Your perspective may be entirely different than mine and there may be things about the incidents that you can refocus. I welcome critical comment. (Honest!)

Even if these stories are not your bowl of borscht, CommuterLit is a wonderful – free – resource for readers. Give it a try!

In the future, if my stories pass this ezine’s strict editorial scrutiny, I hope to have more work published on CommuterLit! For a linked list of my published pieces:  http://en.gravatar.com/mitchtoews

…allfornow – Mitch

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016