Sometimes a Calamity


At first, it was a ping-ponging from one crisis to another—from Parkside to George Floyd to Me Too to Insurrection to Pandemic to King Sooper’s to Wildfires to Ukraine to Inflation—or, really, as the pace sped up, it seemed more like pinball, each ping a little different, each pong a little higher or lower, but each also an echo of the crash before, the ringing and dinging and flapping of flippers and punching of buttons and bursts of light increasingly loud and frantic and impossible to manage.

For a while it seems the more we flap, the more desperate we become; the more desperate we become, the greater the effect of each flap and flicker of light and ringing of bell, and then another ball comes shooting out from the top and a ball we’ve forgotten disappears in a flurry of flaps and foul language… Or maybe that one ball just rolls straight down the middle, abandoned for the other spinning, glinting spheres of crisis.

As much as I like the metaphor, this past week has made any (even an apt or evocative) comparison of the past months and years with an arcade game outrageously tasteless in an outdated way—like some grandfather’s joke about The Polack or The Blonde or The Rabbi/Priest/Imam trifecta in a boat or walking into a bar. We’ve instead been dropped into the center of some malign vortex, with the usual and unusual weather chaos of spring exacerbating Climate Change news and making the metaphor specific—the bicycle appears, the Wicked Witch cackles, and then Monkeypox (Monkeypox? Wake me up, Aunty Em!)—and then it’s no longer a metaphor at all; we’ve landed dead center in cataclysm. A shortage of baby formula (wait… the U.S. is shipping emergency supplies of baby formula to… Indiana?). A mass shooting specifically targeting black people (wait… didn’t this happen before? Or were those Mexicans? My God, forgive me, I can’t remember). A mass shooting of small children, the rescue bungled beyond belief. There’s still a war in Ukraine. There’s still a pandemic. There is still double-digit inflation, with gasoline and some grocery items now doubling and in places tripling from a year ago. And of course, we all have our own personal crises and genuine woes and upheavals bearing down on us.

(And monkeypox? Kimberly said, “I’ve already got more climate change worry—I’m passing monkeypox off to you.” I will take on monkeypox, as well as hammerhead worms; it is more than a fair trade, since I am also worried about asteroid hits and ashy volcanic eruptions, and we may come to appreciate a few extra degrees of cooling sometime in the millennium.)

I’ve never been the most composed person in the room; I would be lying if I claimed to be the one person anyone would want first at an accident scene. But I’m working on that. And so this afternoon I’ve found myself shaking my head a bit, brushing the dust off my chaps and looking for my hat, and whistling for my horse. I haven’t watched much television today, and I’ve (sort of) tried to stay off Facebook, or at least not comment. I’ve filled the birdfeeders and walked the dog and actually cleaned the litter box (which was close enough to an environmental catastrophe that I feel like I’ve made some progress on the environment). Somewhere in this more quiet corner of the chaos, I’ve been remembering a story my father told more than once, and which is told again in a blog post from November, 2013, in which he recalls a long-ago deer season; he and his buddy were scoping out their hunting grounds one morning, and return to find that President Kennedy has been shot. This was November 22, 1963.

These, too, were fraught times, most memorably the unsatisfactory non-resolution of the Korean War, the growing conflict of the Cold War, the conflict in Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, the violent reaction of white supremecists to the Freedom Riders, other violence against the growing Civil Rights movement, including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

I am grossly conflating all of these events of the few years leading up to and including 1962, but please forgive me, as “gross conflation” is, I suspect, what it felt like then—because “gross conflation” is what life feels like right now.

The memory of the Kennedy assassination is interesting itself, reminding us now that unbelievable (literally, “I can not believe”) tragedy has struck before during already trying times. But it is my father’s recollection of two days later that I find most striking. He and his hunting buddy are in a smoke-filled Wisconsin tavern, in my mind’s eye still bloodied from field dressing and dragging a deer out of the swamp (a buck that rose from the mist, too easy to miss), when they witness Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television.

My father does not dismiss the idea of a conspiracy in his remembrance; he was neither overly prone to nor dismissive of conspiracy theories while he was alive (I suppose the inclinations ebbed and flowed with his politics). In this telling, he lets the idea hang in the air like gunsmoke.

That not one, but two, seemingly unfathomable events of huge and tragic import could happen, one after the other, in times already dense with chaos and tragedy—might be two individual events, one, then the next, and not something more—is of comfort to me.

As much as those events may have changed the world, it was not, then, the end of the world—nor the end of joy, laughter, peace, prosperity, hope, love, country, family, friends—no matter how imminent the end of those things may have seemed. The end did not come before 1600, as Martin Luther had predicted, nor did it happen at the turn of the millennium in 1900, nor in 2000. It has not come now, no matter how much it may seem that the country, or the world, is up against the ropes and taking one punch after another on the chin.

I am not positing that any individual tragedy is unimportant, nor that there isn’t a collective weight to events of the times. I suppose I am simply hopeful that, sometimes, a calamity is no more than a calamity. Even if that calamity defies credibility, even if it is one of many, time will march on.

The spiraling vortex of the past few years has not been the end of the world yet. That’s my punctuation, and how it will stay.

My father’s blog post memory follows in its entirety. I have chosen not to edit his politics; it would be like editing the man, which is above my grade.

A note with regard to calamities: it was this last weekend in May, Memorial Day 2018, that my parents were killed in a single-car accident with no discernible cause. Everything since has felt like some chain of events precipitated by my family’s one great calamity in at least a generation; but that is too easy, and in time, I trust the impression will fade.

Art’s Bayfield Almanac, Friday, November 22, 2013

“A foggy, distant memory”

Friday,  9:00 AM. 23 degrees F, wind westerly, variable with some moderate gusts. The sky is clear.  The humidity is 79% and the barometer is up for now, at 30.15.” It is a chill but beautiful day.

It looks like it will be a brutal first day of the Wisconsin gun deer season and I had better dress warmly. Posts will be few and written in the evenings for at least a few days.

A lot of older Americans, myself included, are spending some time turning the calendar back fifty years this morning, trying to remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot to death in Dallas. If you are not old enough to have your own memories of that time, I will lend you mine.

Fifty years ago I was readying my gear and checking out my deer stand, and I am performing the same rituals today. This time I will be doing so by myself, whereas a half century ago I was doing so with my buddy Bill Ballering. At that time we were both working for a pipeline contractor and the whole business shut down for deer season, including the Friday before opening day.

Bill and I were going to hunt in a large swamp near the little village of Mapleton, Wisconsin. A portion of the swamp was then, and still is, owned by another old friend Bill Peebles, with whom I still goose hunt each September. The swamp is nearly inaccessible and we spent several hours in the morning tramping around looking for deer sign and fallen trees to stand on. In the afternoon, driving back to Milwaukee, I turned the car radio on and we were mystified by the somber, funereal music that was being played on every station. After a few moments the announcement was made that the President had been shot and killed. We were of course stunned, as was everyone else.  But that didn’t mean we weren’t going to hunt deer the next morning. Neither of us were married as yet so we had few personal obligations, and I have to admit we took the assassination sort of in stride as well.

We got back into the swamp at first light on Saturday, and by then Lee Harvey Oswald had been apprehended and was in the Dallas jail, Vice President Johnson had been sworn in as President, and President Kennedy’s body was back in Washington, DC. Neither of us saw a deer on Saturday. I certainly had plenty of time while sitting in a tree to think about the tragedy, but except for some fleeting feelings of sadness and confusion I can’t remember much else about the day.

I was somewhat apolitical at twenty-seven years of age (I had just celebrated that birthday) and being who and what I was, I was not much of an admirer of the Eastern elitist, Camelot crowd. I guess Bill was about in sync with that attitude, and undeterred, we made plans to hunt again on Sunday.

As I recall, the weather on Sunday morning was bright, sunny and a bit cold.  I think it was about eleven o’clock that Bill shot an enormous ten point buck. The deer had magically appeared in some marsh grass about a hundred feet from where Bill was standing and he killed it outright with one slug from his twelve gauge shotgun. Right through the neck and the jugular vein. Bill had never hunted deer before and would never do so again. He always said afterward that it was too easy. But I suspect it was because we almost killed ourselves getting that monster, that weighed almost two hundred pounds field dressed, out of the swamp. And we were both young, healthy and strong.

So there we were, on the edge of the swamp with the buck hanging out the back of my station wagon. It was almost noon, we were hungry and thirsty and still had to register the deer. There was a little country tavern that served lunch about a mile away, so we headed there. The news surrounding the assassination was all that was on the black and white TV in the tavern, and as we sat there drinking beer and eating hamburgers. . .it was 12:20 PM in both Dallas, Texas and Mapleton, Wisconsin. We saw Lee Harvey Oswald shot by the small-time mobster Jack Ruby as he was being escorted through the basement of the Dallas Police Department. We and millions of other viewers could hardly believe what we had seen, and a tragedy suddenly escalated into a conspiracy, one that has not been laid to rest in a half century.

Bill and I could well believe that a single gunman, Oswald, was able to kill the President with a couple of well-placed and maybe lucky shots. Either one of us, at that time, might have been able to do as much, so why not Oswald? But Oswald able to be shot by Ruby in front of a national TV audience? That stretched credibility a bit too far.

The Kennedys, national nobility though they were, had many, many mortal enemies. Kruschev and Castro were obvious, but the Kennedys had also made and broken alliances with the mob, the CIA and the Cuban counter revolution, all of which hated both JFK and RFK. One of the reasons I myself did not mourn much that fateful long-ago weekend was that I felt that the President had betrayed the Cuban freedom fighters by denying them promised air support for the Bay of Pigs invasion at the last moment, leaving them to die bleeding on the sand, or spend the rest of their lives in Castro’s gulag. Bill felt pretty much as I did.

Bill and I still keep in touch, and I called him yesterday to reminisce about that long ago deer hunt and the historic events surrounding it. He said again that deer hunting never did appeal to him, and as for that big buck, it is only a foggy, distant memory. Like that of JFK himself.

~ Greta & Art Ode ~