I went with my wife to visit her parents. She comes from a small town in southern Illinois, Duqoin, which is slowly dying, its hey day long past. Its basic industry had been coal mining, and everyone was bitter about natural gas killing off the mines and killing jobs. Many blamed President Obama. I tried gently to explain that the discharge from the burning of coal was a horrible polluter, but my arguments bounced like peas off one listener, like peas off a steel helmet. But clearly the town is down at the heels, with no relief in sight. My wife was very saddened by the sight, driving by and looking at the old houses she and her friends had grown up in.
We prayed at the grave of one set of grandparents. I prayed too. I asked God to bless their souls; noting they had loved and inspired and made a mark on the souls of their children. I always remember the sentence by Civil War historian, Bruce Catton, writing of the war’s veterans, saying at first, they were admired, then tolerated, and then forgotten.
Isn't that the same for all us? We enjoy two generations of being remembered, and then we too will be forgotten. But hopefully, we imparted values in our children that will stand them in good stead in living their lives.
Thoughts and Insights
Several things occurred to me when we were there.
Never ever dismiss a stranger. They may look commonplace, their speech may appear dull and insipid, their appearance may be unkempt, but that person is liable to be the one who performs the Heimlich maneuver when you choke over a steak. That is not to say that we should try and make use of any new stranger you encounter. Simply try to remember that they were human souls just like us. Admire people for what they think they are and leave the rest alone.
There is one golden rule when you see a stranger or a group of strangers: look and overlook. By disliking a stranger totally, you leave them no room for compromise; because what you are demanding is that they have to become a different person for you to like and admire them. Yet no one can, by an act of will, alter his or her own peculiar individuality. You cannot alter their moral character, the intellectual gifts, their temperament and physique. A short man is a short man. A tall man in a tall man. If you dislike someone and break into a rash at the thought of them, you leave them no course but dislike you and enter into a disagreeable conflict with you. Even an idiot can sense another’s contempt right away. .
It is every person’s habit to view another and think that you are more intelligent or have better morals or more physical talents than they have. This is a grievous error and a symptom of blind conceit. We all of us suffer from parts of our personality that fall short; areas of the mind that are dense, feelings that are tone deaf to certain gifts of others. Conversation with strangers will soon make clear what such areas are. Don’t defend your shortcomings. Keep silent.
Steer clear of labels. Labels are as touchy as explosives. In any political discussion step wide of labels. If someone strays into politics, examine the qualities that you admire in leaders. Be truthful. But above all things, don’t declare what side you are on. Even in the best of us, politics brings out the worst in us. Allow them the freedom to be wrong, just as they would allow us the freedom to be wrong as well.
No man can see over his own height. You can only admire in an others, what you possess in yourself. A man who is color blind will never be stirred by discussions of the color blue or red or yellow. He knows that it is admired, but really doesn’t know why and never will. You cannot convince a colorblind that there is such a thing as color. Don’t make the effort. If a person has gifts of a low order, and then said next to Hemingway, little of you say about Hemingway would be intelligible to them. Don’t ever voice an admiration for something only in order to try and make someone who doesn’t share it feel stupid. An ordinary mind roams on a very narrow road, a very narrow orbit. All of us exhibit an ordinary mind at some point or other.
The first rule of traveling to a strange place has two intellectual requirements, look and overlook. You should right away judge of the people you meet and talk to. Therefore, listen carefully and don’t talk. If you are waiting until there is a pause in the conversation which allows you to start to exposit the merits of The Iliad or The Odyssey, don’t waste your time. They are not interested, their experience of life doesn’t allow any such interest, and so don’t be a nuisance. Confide your ideas to your diary.
Like dispositions feel an agreement right away. Never mind how absurd their opinions sound (yours are just as absurd) and simply listen and enjoy what they have to say. There is no intellectual competition between friends. They have their experience of life and you have yours. At certain points, an insight of their will excite interest in you and you want to reply. Do. But be brief and begone.
When on a trip, the best rule is, have no contempt for what people cannot help. A short person is a short person. A tall person is a tall person. To be critical of what they cannot change is heartless An overweight person may prompt questions about that person’s self discipline, their power of will, their ability to curb self indulgence, and you may feel a bit of superiority to them. We see TV series about hoarders or one called, “My 600 pond Life. Why did they not see what was happening to them, and why did their appetite for food end by marring their figure and resulting in disability? We do not know.
I knew of a young kid who had always been chubby. He was a dreamy, ineffectual kid and he noted the ridicule sent his way by being overweight. So one day, he grew sick of it. His solution? Stop eating. He had nothing but milk and water for six weeks. His weight went from 172 to 122. A relative jeered as his scrawniness by saying he looked like a survivor of Auschwitz, but he was undismayed. Every evening that summer he went and lifted weights for two and a half-hours. This was overtraining, but he didn’t know better. He kept doing his exercise and by the time school had begun he had put on 15 pounds f muscle. Soon, he began to get straight A’s where before he had earned only C’s and became a member of the Dean’s List where he remained until he had graduated. He had not lost the weight in order to obtain praise, but it was nice that the praise came.
A woman in her late forties or early fifties sat to my right one seat up on the aisle. I first noticed her because as we were waiting to take off, I saw that she was jittery. In fact, she had never legs crossed and I saw she was wiggling her foot 4 beats to a second. In a seat up from her on her side, a young man had his laptop open and was studying the spread sheets of a musical score. He read that for a long time, for one and a half hour. The jittery woman opened her lap top and for the next hour, played “Wheel of Fortune," a TV game show.
Anyone who flies thinks of their plane crashing. I don’t mind turbulent weather, but it scares my wife. I’ve told her that if it looks as if our plane is about to crash, we are not to panic, but give each other the most lavish, lingering kisses before we die. Such things take away unreasoning fear. I want my last thoughts to be of her.
At one point, I thought of the first death I had experienced as a little boy of six, I had a classmate named Patricia Blood, who, during the summer vacation, had eaten some red berries which had poisoned and killed her. As far as I can recall, she was cute.
The death I saw occurred when s one of my mother's Christian Science church members suddenly died. Christian Science in those days was a form of positive thinking for rich Republicans. The woman’s name was Mrs. Bull. She was a heavy set woman, and made no impression on me, but the family, including my grandparents, went to her funeral. I don’t remember what was said, just that the atmosphere was very lugubrious and gloomy. I was a freshman in public school when the next death occurred. In the grade above mine, there were two twins, a brother and a sister. The brother one night felt frisky and adventurous and climbed atop a stopped train at the Pelham New York station. When he stood up, he accidentally brushed his back against a power line carrying hundreds of volts. He was executed immediately. The town was speechlessly shocked. They were horror stories relating how some medic had injected him with anesthesia only to have it drain out from his horribly burnt leg.
The first thing about World War II I learned death with the death of a merchant seaman from Pelham New York, who was a gunner on a merchant ship during the Battle of the Atlantic in 1941. His name was Kenny Muir. A German submarine had surfaced and shelled the ship and Kenny was killed near his gun. My mother never got over his death, and she told his story ceaselessly. I was only two years old when I got the photos of the wrecked battleships at Pearl Harbor. My father, who was an expert builder amateur trains and layouts, was also Ham radio operator and who made records of Walter Cronkite talking of the battle of France in May of 1940. I tried to hang onto these but when we moved to El Paso a few years later, but they were dumped as worthless rubbish. With them went books like Tarawa by Robert Sherrod, Thirsty Seconds over Tokyo, Guadalcanal Diary and more. They are very valuable today.
The other event I recall was the sinking of the French liner Normandie. My mother drove me down to the harbor on the Westside, and I gawked out the window to see this vast, overturned hull. My mother told me that the Nazis sank it, and only much later, did we learn that the Mob was responsible.
And soon, the crew of the plane alerted us that we were about to land. Our brief flight was over.
Quite a philosophical tour, Richard. Your comments on interacting with strangers struck a chord. I don’t particularly enjoy socializing but one exception is interacting with strangers. Especially those from different cultures. You can almost always find something to like and truly appreciate in a stranger and when you do it can turn into a most interesting afternoon. You don’t learn much hanging around the same friends all the time but from people with different experiences and beliefs.
Richard, thank you. Look and Overlook. I will try to remember.
There once was a time when lawyers offered information [hopefully accurate] and professional judgments [as to the best of all possible legal approaches]. Now only a signature is offered after bargaining over a price of that signature.
Wisdom the goal with calibration of judgment the mechanism?
After all looks can be deceiving, especially in an age of television!
I absolutely agree. Our driver was from Morocco, and we ended up talking about Mohammad and what a great man he was. Another thing that helps is if you have learned about their civilization or their poets, etc.
People are always proud of their countries and histories. It helps to listen.
It does work.
The famed Ron Unz has this Viet gentleman contributing to his blog.
He has random conversations with strangers aplenty across America & abroad.
May this be of interest to you.
Thank you for your stories: it makes a [boring] Sunday after-noon more tolerable.
‘Tis pleasure learning from you (& others your age — thank you too, Mr. W. R. Cumming).
I reside in a backwater neck-o’-the-woods surrounded by Asiatics (ragheads, Ginks & Chinks) for whom opening up to total strangers about their past is nigh impossible as well as taboo.
In addition, they have not lingua franca save that raghead tongue which I’ve little inclination/enthusiasm…
Just a lovely bit or writing, Richard. It provoked many reflections.
One random thought. I am a colorblind and my defect is in red/green and combinations thereof. At times, I long to see what others see and know that I miss much. In a sunrise, a field of lavender, in a blush or in temper. It gets downright comical when some cashier asks me to push the green button. It gets a little harrowing when trying to figure out which toll booth is open on a highway. Or being asked to follow a green line in the floor of a medical clinic.
And, mostly, I just don’t think about it and greet the world as it comes along. I try to remember that when I speak to anyone, particularly strangers.
Your comments were extremely moving.
Arabs strangers in the cities of Morocco or Tunisia will engage you in conversation and frequently share with all sorts of personal details and problems – something that would never happen in UK.
Also, in Germany and in US, you can go on for days getting things done without needing to say anything to anyone. A colleague mentioned to me that while working in Germany, no one spoke to him. He was from Tamil Nadu.
Off topic but have you considered covering
either the Democratic or Republican conventions?
I recall your 68 Chicago articles. This might be
a reprise of that period possibly more turbulent
and certainly historic. Your first person accounts
were riveting. I could smell the tear gas!
Those people you met in Du Quoin and the ones who have left in the town’s steady decline in population are going to vote in the belief that not only did their government abandon them to their Malthusian destiny but it also actively sought to destroy the industry that provided their income and stabilized their lives. IMO most will vote for Trump. pl
Yes, the Perfidious Albionians hate everybody else…
But that too depends where they’re from, I was told (the Welsh & Scots differ from their English counterparts?)
Moroccans are [curiously/strangely] friendly towards Jews.
(Germans & Americans detest their own brethren?)
Sadly, we now live in an era where TV images enthrall/enrapture many who have basically reptilian mindsets & needs.
An iPad or iPhone shall suffice. “Human contact” is very much undesirable…
As for your friend from Tamil Nadu, p’raps his skin tone ‘puts off’ those arrogant Krauts whom he had the misfortune of encountering. Either that or they heard too many ugly stories from the subcontinent (i.e. rape of female tourists, swindlers, thieves & such).
That was very moving. I’m a lefty, but also a Christian and need these constant reminders that God values humility much more than my supposedly correct political opinions.
nah, I think it was just that German culture at the present time does not encourage intimacy.
There is also a lot of loneliness in US – see here:
In the recent American novels and in much of the TV drama, there is no context to the wider world and, furthermore, “Family” does not exist.
It is a curious thing since in Mexico both Death and Family have a very strong presence in public space, the former, in fact, in all of South America.
Knowing of the importance of Family in the Far East, I am sure you share with me my astonishment in this observation about US.
Yes, my great grandfather was killed in the mines, my grandfather worked them for 30 year, had black lung and got nothing from the coal company for his trouble. Your are right, the sundown counties of Southern Illinois will vote for someone who is of the same ilk as Peabody. They will still lose.
The Du Quoin “Evening Call” July 1 1914. Hiram Thornsberry Killed at Majestic>
Yes, many poor souls in these dystopian times suffer loneliness.
People now die alone in their homes & shelters across America.
Their neighbors unaware of them leaving this realm.
(A horrid trend that also afflicts the Nips since the late 80s.)
[I bet many envy the brown people across South America where deaths in the community are a concern for all – remnants of native culture prior to the arrival of conquistadors.]
At least the atomic family model & church Sundays in the 50s & 60s allowed communal living & close ties.
But the past 3 decades or more of ‘civil rights movements’ (e.g. “feminism,” lgbt, “liberalism,” etc.) across Yankee America have slowly eroded these essential binds amongst people.
In addition, wages-per-hour have gone down drastically since the late 70s (since oil crisis?), forcing breadwinners to sacrifice family time for more dollars.
If women do not marry & conceive (like they do these days in Germany & other ‘liberal’ parts of Europe), when marriages do not last, where there is no fear of God or Retribution, where TRADITIONAL rôles amongst men & women cease to prevail, the “total net worth” of societal disorder is the result to-day.
The antiquated Chinks (old Confucius) quipped: “A liege not behaving like a liege; a minister not like a minister; a father not like a father; a son not like one.”
Speaks volumes about the mess the occidental west faces.
Thank god! for Redneck “hicks” in the Confederate South.
Thank you very much. I’ll try and put together some more articles.
When Mohammed Ali died, I spotted his photographer, Howard Bingham in the pictures. He and I had each other’s back. I’ll see if I can get in touch with him.
Most of them will. They detest President Obama.\
I always enjoy your stories. Your lesson to look and overlook should indeed be taken to heart. It would be good for our sanity and souls.
God gave us each of us souls. I try and honor that gift.
“Coal mining has been an economic motivator in this part of southern Illinois. In 1855 the first shaft mine was sunk near St. Johns, and with the rest of southern Illinois, coal mining became important to the region at the turn of the 20th century. However, since the late 1980s, the coal industry here has suffered significant decline due to the decreased demand for high sulfur coal. Mining facilities continue in operation near Du Quoin still today.”
So coal mining has been in decline since the 80’s and the people hate Obama because of what he’s done to the industry. Uh huh.