Today is the third anniversary of the death of an old friend, Bill Baldwin, who set just about the best example I ever saw of how a life ought to be lived (in a word: unreservedly). Among his many admirable characteristics, Bill was an excellent and entertaining writer. I stumbled by the purest of accidents upon one of his essays a couple of days ago. Another friend of Bill’s had apparently posted it on his own blog on last year’s anniversary of Bill’s death, and I swiped it. I think I first read this piece back in the late ‘90s, and it had long since vanished on some diskette or hard drive whose technology is no longer supported by the Microsoft or Apple gods. So I’m sharing this bit of serendipity with Bill’s many other friends from the old Writers’ Cafe, who loved him and his writing as much as I did. Enjoy. -- Margie
A Meditation on Human Error
by Bill Baldwin
If you grow up where winter drills so deep it can split trees, you quickly learn certain truths about the physical world. The effect, for instance, of sticking your tongue to iron pipe at nine degrees above. It doesn’t matter that your parents told you never to do such a thing, nor that if your buds dared you, there had to be a catch; you need the experience. All our days we crave adventures of body and mind, even though more often than not our acts lead to disappointment or pain or compromise or confusion or to yet another doorway that opens on—a closet. A bloody tongue’s nothing compared to the pain of not grasping the lessons of those first steps up the learning curve that we mistake for a rainbow.
The message I didn’t get right away, still haven’t fully mastered sixty years later, is, in layman’s language, “You’ll never be an engineer or a holy man.” Which was nature’s way of telling me to stay away from inflexible verities like mathematics and physics, as well as religious dogma and philosophical systems that end in “ism.”
In this state of being, you are destined to go through life taking two or more wrong turns for every right one. And when all you have is questions, that’s only half the process. Thus barely out of infancy you begin to choose career paths. More precise, careers begin to choose you.
You are born. A few years later you wake up. When I was four or so, and I had collected enough sequential references for a rudimentary memory, I woke up to the fact that we were living in an absurdly small northwestern Iowa burg named Mallard. Why we were there is a mystery to this day. What prolonged Great Depression or wartime hardship (it couldn’t have been opportunity) dumped us in this cul-de-sac on the wide-open spaces I’ll never know. I didn’t think to ask my parents in later years, and now they’re gone. Mallard is too minuscule to have history or character or to be a home-place or quaint or charming. You could never get maudlin about it. There is no there there, as Gertrude Stein said about Oakland. Still, there we were.
Look at a map of Iowa. In the far northern and western sector, around the 42nd parallel, just west of Highway 4 there’s a dot representing Mallard. And if your eye draws a slightly bent line northwest to southeast through Mallard you connect with two other dots, Curlew and Plover.
Driving through rural America, especially in the prairie and plains states, you pass a blink of a town and wonder how it survives or how it came to be in the first place. What wistful adventurers would think to settle these X’s of nowhere, three in an oblique row, and then have the poetry to name them for water birds? And just to the west of Mallard is Rembrandt. (What’s its story?) And what Old Testament-minded sodbusters christened Gaza, Carmel and Lebanon still further west?
I conjure up a Wistful Pioneer — a post-Civil War, upwardly mobile consumer headed for the sunset, lured on (nothing changes) by the railroads’ hype: ads and brochures illustrated with amber waves and orchards, fat cattle, milk and honey, and limpid brooks—all beckoning the gullible to desolation. In fact, from Iowa on, the territory was an infinity of buffalo, buffalo grass, buffalo chips, buffalo bones, and buffalo-chasing Indians in no mood to welcome strangers. After that, a range of 14,000-ft. mountains, then desert, then more mountains. Picture W. Pioneer and the Mrs. and their six surviving children standing by the wagon at the western edge of the glacial blacklands. He looks to the west. Nothing as far as he can see. Spacious skies, but not a tree, much less fruited plains or purple mountain majesties. He recalls tales of starvation and scalping raids and a bullwhip wind that snaps across the prairie.
He takes inventory: two wagons, four mules, two horses, a baby bull, a heifer (bony), six piglets, a milk goat, a rooster, hens and some seeds, potatoes, dry beans, and rootstocks. Having a stroke of sense, he admits to himself how far away California might actually lie, how close winter is, how cold and hungry they might get, how mule meat would taste, and how naked and bloody their scalped heads could be. “We’ll stop here,” he announces. “It ain’t half bad. We’ll raise beef and pigs. We’ll plant corn and wheat. We’ll grow beans and taters. We’ll have chickens and a garden.” He makes a sweeping gesture: “and maybe we’ll open a trading post and name it for a duck.”
My great-grandfather Franklin Morton Baldwin was born in Onondaga County, New York in 1829. At 20, he left the family salt-manufacturing business and lit out with two friends for the Wild West, which for them was Chicago. He worked three years in a dry goods store, he bought land and sold it and finally, either disillusioned with the rough town on the cold lake, or hungry for adventure on the frontier, he resumed his trek and left his hometown buddy Marshall Field to conquer Chicago.
Fortune took me to northwestern Iowa a few years back and I couldn’t resist visiting the one-stoplight places of my childhood. You don’t really need maps to find the towns; look for the grain elevators. As landmarks, these are the Gothic cathedrals of the farmbelt. Homing in, I turn off Highway 4 and there’s a sign with a giant sculpted Mallard drake hunkered on top: Welcome to Mallard. We’re Friendly Ducks!
Most of the City budget must have gone into the sign, even though there’s hardly anything to be welcomed to. A half-century later, Mallard is the same and not the same. It is a single main street that stumbles over railroad tracks, runs straight for six blocks then becomes a sand road wandering off into the soybean fields.
Gone: the movie theater where the screen burst into flames as my father and I were engrossed in a Western. (I thought at first it was part of the story and even as my dad carried me to safety, I twisted around to watch the images of cowboys and horses projected upon a screen of smoke as the actual screen was being consumed by a fiery scorch.)
Gone: our little house, the church across the street, the doctor’s office. (Must have closed the practice after we left town. I was a regular customer.)
I spot a storefront library — in Mallard still called a “lending library” — and slow down to read the titles. The same as everywhere else: Stephen King, Sidney Shelton, Danielle Steel, Danielle Steel, Sidney Shelton, Stephen King.
From Chicago, my great-grandfather Franklin journeyed west to the Mississippi. He rode a boat headed downriver to St. Louis so he could catch another up the Missouri to the far West. At Keokuk, at the very tip of Iowa, he changed his mind, got off and walked more than 200 miles to the center of the state and decided this was the place. Why he did what he did is not in family lore, but I know why.
The first Christmas you can recall in sharp focus? For me this is the place. Probably 1942. In retrospect, I think I was the only little kid in town. I had to invent one-kid amusements, and this is where the first confrontations with reality came in.
Across the side street from my house was a church with a stairway that led to a second-story office. Alongside the stairs was a tall, slender, fir kind of tree, now extra picturesque with new snow on its branches. My thinking was that I could go up the stairs to the landing, climb on the handrail and leap onto the top of the tree. Being supple, it would bend gracefully to the earth, where I would step off. The tree would then straighten, gracefully of course, and I would climb the stairs again to repeat this stunt over and over. Free ride!
That was the theory. And it worked out exactly as I’d envisioned. Except for the velocity. And what pilots call attitude. When I pounced on the top, the whole tree whipped over like a Slinky, only at hyper-speed. I was instantly upside down (wrong attitude) and falling in that curious dimension of slow motion and muted sound often experienced in an accident-in-progress. The branches whispered, the snow crystals hissed, the treetop broke with a soft liquid groaning ooOOPS! The tree flipped me like a bug into a deceptively thin cover of snow and right down to the hard HARD ground beneath.
First time to see stars. First wind knocked out. First hematoma. First loose tooth. I was too hurt and scared to cry. Lying cruciform on my back, I saw a woman clomping down the stairs like a berserk flamenco dancer. Red-faced, bug-eyed, screaming, she scooted to my house to give my mother an earful. The birth of a bad boy. Were was the Christian compassion? Where was the first aid?
Not for the last time, my mother hugged me and said, “I’m so mad I could kill you.” Instead she carried me across the street to the unflappable doctor who pronounced me okay even as he told me I was going to have a dandy shiner. I visualized a really nice baitfish. (Vocabulary lesson: what’s a dandy shiner?)
My father tried to repair the treetop, taping and bracing it erect, and helped string lights on the tree. Still if you walked around it, you could see the top was crooked. One night before Christmas, people from the church gathered to carol outside our house. My mother dabbed at tears, and Dad said, “that’s swell.” But even though the singing was sweet and their candles seen through frosted windows were magic, I was embarrassed. Not about the tree or the mean-spirited church lady, but something I had no name for; it was the humiliation of the charity case.
Great-grandfather Frank settled in a place called Iowa Center, north of Des Moines, probably in the belief that, being at the geographical center of the young state, it would grow to become a metropolis. But I think the real reason was a girl. He married, started up a general store with his brother-in-law, began a family. Once, as my Great-grandmother and another woman washed clothes in a creek, three Indians crept up on them and pushed them in. Sioux comedy. Great-grandfather was so indignant, he cut off their credit.
Reality Lesson II: just before Christmas. My head cleared, my tooth hadn’t fallen out and my shiner was fading like the memory of the lamentable tree ride. I had another idea. Women of the time held their do’s in place with huge hairpins that, to me, looked electronic, like the filaments in the vacuum tubes of our broken radio Dad was trying to fix. So I thought, if I stick one of these in a wall socket, we might just be able to hear the radio shows we were missing. (I was four, remember.)
Okay, you know what happened: sparks, a zzzzzz noise, black burn marks on the wall, burned fingers, burned-out fuse, doctor’s office, stethoscope to make sure the heart still worked, a deep look-see into the eyes, topical pain killer, gauze-wrapped fingers, he’s okay. Did he really do that?
Reality Lesson III. Against all odds (given our poverty), Santa Claus
brought me a bicycle. Actually it was the smallest of bikes and had training wheels, which I scorned immediately and had my Dad remove, only to ask him to put them back on when I couldn’t master two-wheel balance. Inexplicably it had hand-brakes. In my mind, brake = stop. Instantly, like braking a car. You brake, you stop. And that’s pretty much how it worked. On a level street. But I needed a serious incline to give the system a real test.
Iowa’s not known for hills, but a nearby town where my grandparents lived had beauts. In fact, their street was one of the steepest. Two-thirds of the way down, I was just a blur and I knew this was a really bad idea. Still I had a spark of faith that the brakes would stop me at the bottom of the hill. And, in a way they did. I grabbed the hand-grips in a death squeeze. And then that eerie accident slo-mo again: front wheel stopping, rear wheel floating up and catapulting me into space, me rolling over and over then body-surfing the gravel cross street.
There was no doctor in my grandparents’ town. Dad said, “does that hurt? I don’t think there’s any broken bones.” They cleaned and doctored and bandaged the abrasions and my grandmother sewed a sling for my arm, which made me see myself as a wounded war hero. Later I found out the bike was second-hand and the rear brake was broken. Probably when the previous owner was killed riding it.
My great-grandparents had six children. One died in infancy. One became a well-known opera singer in Chicago, one an artist–a regionally celebrated painter–one a spectacular eccentric who outraged his family all his life (and he lived to 102). Two were musicians. My grandfather, for whom I’m named played trombone and other brass instruments, auditioned for John Philip Sousa, was in the San Francisco earthquake of 1903 and, while lying in his honeymoon bed in Colorado, blasted a cockroach off the bedroom ceiling with his six-shooter — my grandmother’s favorite Will anecdote. How these 19th century Iowa burghers were exposed to literature and art and music and the romance of travel, who knows?
On the ride back to Mallard, Dad said, “Got a big surprise for you.”
“What is it?”
“Can’t tell you; it’s a surprise.”
“Where is it?”
“Why can’t I have it now?”
“Because you have to wait till tonight.” Four-year olds can only wait so long, and then they fall asleep. I was still waking up as my mother dressed me over my pajamas and worked my sore arms into a coat. She pulled a stocking cap over my bandaged head. “Where we going?”
“It’s a surprise, remember?” I was instantly alert.
“What is it? What is it?”
“You’ll see.” I forgot about the sling. Puffing his pipe, my dad carried me to the car, already running and heated, and sat me in the back seat. My bundled-up mother climbed in front and we headed off for the
beanfield end of town. As we neared the last building, Dad said, “Okay, put your head down, no peeking.”
I was so excited it was hard to breathe. What air I pulled in was thick with pipe smoke. Then I had bad thoughts: maybe they were going to
take me out to the fields and leave me. I’d caused a lot of trouble. We drove on and on, up a road that rose to a ridge west of town. Lying face-down on the seat, I could hear gravel pinging the underside of the car. “When can I get up?”
“Almost.” They wouldn’t leave me out here. Would they? My dad stopped the car, but left it running. I heard him push in the light switch. “Oh, my!” said my mother.
“Shut your eyes.” He opened the back door, carried me to the front of the car and sat me on the warm hood. “Okay, open ‘em.” We were parked at the top of the ridge, looking north. It was too much to take in at once: the winter heavens, clear and sharp and spangled with stars against the blackest of black skies. And from the northern horizon, beams and veils and coronas of light, spiking and receding, shimmering and fading on a scale so huge the light seemed to rise from beyond the edge of the world. I had no idea, no reference. Maybe it was the war, far away. Cities burning.
“It’s the Northern Lights,” said my dad. “Aurora borealis. At the North Pole they see it all the time. We can’t see it from here very often. What do you think?”
I sat between my parents on the hood, warmed by the idling motor. There was nothing to say. My father tried to explain what caused the lights, but it didn’t sink in. We watched the show for a long time and then my mother said, “I’m going into the car; it’s too cold for me.” My dad hugged me closer and let me have a baby puff on his pipe. I pretended the steam I blew out into the freezing air was a great cloud of smoke. After a while there was nothing to do but go home.
In a history of Story County, Iowa, I read this: “Since that time, Franklin M. Baldwin has been senior member of Baldwin & Maxwell, one of the oldest mercantile firms of this commonwealth. So successfully has the business of this firm been transacted, that it passed through all panics and other trying times without financial embarrassment and has held its own in every respect for almost a quarter of a century. . .F.M. Baldwin has always been a Republican in his political views and is a man who has ever had the best interest of the country at heart.”
After my drive-through of Mallard, I spent the rest of the day checking out other towns of memory: Plover, Rolfe, West Bend, Algona, Cylinder, Emmetsburg, and after dark, circled back to Mallard. I looked for a cop or waitress or bartender to chat up, ask about the old days and the changes, where was this building and that. But there was no police station, no tavern, and the one café was closed. I drove west on the sandy road, retraced my midnight Christmas surprise of a half-century earlier. No Northern Lights tonight, but there was no moon either. I recommend the experience. Here’s what happens:
A clear moonless night sky with no light pollution or obstructions to the view is the ultimate theater, the ultimate temple. Just empty your mind, wait and see. As your preoccupation with getting and spending fades into
triviality, the vital questions surface: Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? What’s out there?
When you reflect that many of the stars you see no longer exist (except as light energy flowing through space), it’s easy to see your place in the continuum where, for instance, you can touch a great-grandfather who passed through panics and other trying times. . . and died nearly fifty years before you were born.
With the clarity of distance (and ignorant of the dull parts), I see him acting out a version of the timeless story of the hero and the quest — a
story not invented, but recounted from life and embellished over time to give it order and artistic truth. (Rescuing Helen of Troy, leading your tribe out of bondage in Egypt, sailing off in search of China and instead discovering a world no one knew was there, or just walking west by northwest until you find that exact place to stake your claim, marry your soul-mate, and live out your life. Never mind that Helen caused a ten-year war, that Moses never made it to the Promised Land, that Columbus got shipped home in chains, or that your great-grandfather ended up voting Republican.
I travel in time to the Christmas of the Errors and all the others when I strained my eyes watching winter heavens for Santa, and Baby Jesus, too, flying through the clouds. Later, when the myths and legends came down to Earth and down to size, I realized that something that’s impossible to conceive an end to in time or space is also infinitely more mysterious and wonderful than man-made saints and deities.
Think about this. Don’t squander the greatest wealth you’ll ever have: the story of your life — complete with pictures and captions. And keep in mind your story didn’t begin with you, nor will it end with you.
Forget the self-analysis, self-improvement, self-absorbed men are from Mars, left-brain right-brain, touchy-feely, New Age, occult, crystal-pyramid, Scorpio-rising, Tarot, encounter-group narcissism that can numb your brain and dumb you down. (In my view, scams to peddle books, DVDs, workshops, cults.)
Expunge your vocabulary of “proactive, empowerment, enable, permission, sensitivity, assertiveness, control freak, personal growth, visualization, unmet needs, healing process, co-dependency, dysfunctional” and similar fuzzy abstractions. Speak real words.
Use your self-help books to kindle a fire in the fireplace, curl up with a fat notebook (or a MacBook) and start writing the story of you. And when you run out of memories, ask your parents and grandparents —and anyone else connected — to sit around the campfire, metaphorically. (And do it now. When they, go, they take entire volumes of the story with them.) Illustrate it with snapshots and drawings and such. Really learn how to research. Keep a journal. For perspective take an extended trip to your homeplace. Or if you’re there now, go somewhere far away.
In the end, you’ll be smarter and wiser. And you’ll feel better. and have stronger defenses against charlatans. It’s not doctrines or superstitions or conspiracies or invisible forces that give our lives order and meaning, but the stories we tell about those lives. (Think of your favorite people, places, books and movies, and I’ll bet that the quality they have in common has something to do with the storyteller’s genius.)
If we really get ambitious, we find our stories intertwining with others to form a larger epic that will resonate forever. Or at least until our little red star self-destructs.
All the mistakes you made, all the dumb things you did, the loves lost, the business you didn’t get, the failed brakes, the busted heads, the bleeding tongues, burned fingers, the dissonance, the darkness, the leaps into the unknown, the suffering, the certainty of death: at the end of the day these are the flavors that made the good parts sweeter.
POSTSCRIPT: This first appeared in the December 1991 issue of Rough, once a monthly, now a sporadically published, magazine of the Dallas Society of Visual Communications, a non-profit outfit devoted to furthering graphic design and related communications arts. It started out a simple Christmas story, but then became what it is, a long meditation on larger themes and a memoir of a slice of my childhood in the farm towns of Northwestern Iowa. The story as is, is as close to my recollections as I could make it. That is, I didn’t embellish much at all, just compressed time and events and imagined others. The backstory of my Great-grandfather is from family lore and some old newspaper clippings, both of which may be of questionable accuracy.
I apologize for muddying these themes with a descent into didacticism at the end, and dated at that, but I was in a hurry to wrap and I had my audience in mind, mostly young-uns just starting out in our “industry,” or still in school. If I ever rewrite it, I’ll delete or soften a lot of that.
Since this was published, I’ve been back to Iowa on an assignment and had a little time to re-visit yet other places of my early days, including the famous bridges of Madison County and the blink of a town not far from Des Moines, Maxwell–named after my Great-grandfather’s brother-in -law and business partner in Baldwin & Maxwell.
There’s no trace of their once-thriving mercantile establishment, only the name of the town, the references in historical society archives, and the main residential street, which is Baldwin Avenue.