Friday, August 10, 2012

Waiting for Doomsday

I’m sitting in a hotel room awaiting the end of the world.  It’s summer.  I’ve turned down the thermostat so I can at least be cool while I’m waiting.  I’m peeking through the shades and see no sign of doomsday.  Curious.  I’d turn on the TV and see what the news programs have to say about the end of the world, but all they do is spit out lieslies from the government and lies from corporate owners.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’m scared.  I don’t know what’s worse: dying here alone without loved ones or leaving this world with unfinished business.  I still have sins to expiate and regrets to dwell on.  I guess it’s ironic: I’ve contemplated suicide for so many years, and now I fear my demise?  Maybe I’m wrong about the Apocalypse.  Anyway, perhaps I’ll be checking out before it comes.  When the Earth breaks apart and the lights go out, I hope I’m sleeping.  I’ve purposely forewent the hotel room coffee for this very reason.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Barrage of Questions

People often come up to me and ask how I’m doing or what my opinion is on a given issue.  Sometimes they’re just inquiring about my mindset.  “Hey, Der, what’s your deal?” they say.  “What’s your take on life?”  And on and on it goes.  “How do you feel about what’s going on in the world today?”  Occasionally I’ll get something more specific like: “What’s your view of the presidential election?”  But usually it’s the same old: “What makes you tick?”  As you can imagine, I feel both frustrated and vulnerable.  I just look up in exasperation and ward these questioners off: Do you mind?  I didn’t come into this restroom stall to be barraged by questions, you know?  Some privacy would be nice.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Last Session of Summer Course

I finished up an eight-session summer course last night.  I still have some grading to do and the students have until Sunday to post their comments regarding this week’s reading on an online discussion forum.  It was a delightful experience.  The class was small, the students motivated.  I had the opportunity to design a course that would give undergrads a global perspective and expose them to history as a discipline.  In addition to various online primary and secondary sources, I had them read three books on the Arab uprisings, genocide in Rwanda, and prison camps in North Korea respectively.  Given my interest in the dark side, I naturally chose to focus on conflicts and violence throughout the world.  I entitled the course “Historical Underpinnings of Trouble Spots in Today’s World.”

For the final hour of the last session, I divided the class into the State Department and the Defense Department.  Their assignment was to brief me, the president, on regions of the world that are an area of concern and offer ideas for resolving them.  I explained that the State and Defense Departments would be approaching the issues from different angles, asking different questions.  I gave them about twenty minutes to collect their thoughts, not demanding rigorous research but that they simply reflect on the topics we had explored as a class for the previous four weeks.  We resumed for the briefing on the mezzanine floor of a hotel with coffee products in hand.  It was fun and hopefully educational.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Day It Rained Shit

The good people of Iowa didn’t see it coming, though in their defense no one could have possibly expected it.  It was unprecedented.  Such a storm never appeared on the horizon before or since, neither in the Midwest nor for that matter anywhere on earth.  Skeptics say it never really happened.  They claim the whole thing is a hoax perpetuated by shameless self-promoters to gin up business and bring in tourists; yet these naysayers turn a blind eye to the overwhelming evidence and the long-term effects of the deluge on this fertile land.  Trust me.  If you had been a resident of Glosserville, a farming town where most of the damage was done, you’d be whistling a different tune.

Of course these people didn’t know they were living on the brink of the apocalypse.  They were just like you and me: enjoying life’s pleasures, rolling up their sleeves for work, wiping sweat from their brow, harvesting the fruits of their labor, drinking and merrymaking at weddings, crying at the funeral parlor, worshipping their God on Sundays, pondering life’s meaning.  All the while an ominous brown cumulus cloud was hovering over the distant horizon on a fateful August day, its viscous precipitation flattening innocent cornfields in what looked like mud or even cinnamon from afar but with a vastly different odor, as if the bowels of hell itself had finally been released and the god-fearing community of Glosserville were reduced to a bucket.

It was 1896, an election year, and on the very day the storm hit every crook and scoundrel, that is to say, local politician, visited the town to get on the stump and make his case, promising heaven on earth for the folk and a day of reckoning for the fat cats in Des Moines.  They hardly seemed different from the quacks who’d periodically saunter into town selling worthless cure-alls to yet another sucker.  One pushed the gold standard, another a graduated income tax.  A businessman who manufactured grain elevators spouted off about tariff reform, antitrust laws, and more affordable farm machinery.  Another gentleman launched a verbal assault on his audience, like a Gatling gun turned loose on savages, except his unsuspecting victims were filled with lies instead of bullet holes.  Sizing up his listeners and seeing a healthy representation of ladies in the crowd, one of them even pledged his support for the women’s issue, an otherwise unpopular notion in this neck of the woods.  A populist by the name of McDoogan went so far as to guarantee a five-acre plot of government-owned land to every hardworking family in Branchard County.   Each one of these silver-tongued charlatans in their fancy suits and polished boots claimed to be a “man of the people,” but their platitudes and sophistry would soon be cut short.  Once the clock turned 4pm and torrents of dung rained from the sky, only a fool would keep yappin’.  They ran for cover under the pavilion to escape the onslaught, but it was too late.  Their mouths were filled to the brim with excrement, so much so that their bodies became bloated.

Knowing future generations wouldn’t believe this strange occurrence, my prescient great-grandfather saved a couple of news articles from the Great Plains Gazette, a paper then widely read but now no longer in circulation.  I found the severely yellowed clippings along with other mementos last week in a blue metallic box while clearing out my grandmother’s attic.   In the days leading up to the Brown Catastrophe, as the columnist dubs the disaster in a piece called “Scatological Storm Hits Glosserville,” strange things began to happen.  Barnyard animals, for instance, acted peculiarly:
Dennis Hanson, a self-described frog-catcher and corn-picker, explains the eerie lead-up to the strange storm in the behavior of his cow.  “Days before the river flooded back in ’89, my Mary Lou hid herself in the barn and barely moved.  This time around, she was squatting all over the place, likewise my dog Lucky.  It’s like they knew what was coming, I reckon.Farmers in the area describe seeing prairie dogs not content with sticking their heads in and out of their holes but exploding from their burrows in the hundreds and disturbing the crops.
The second article, “Piled Thick and High in Glosserville,” written by the chief editor of Great Plains, made an amusing connection between the stump speeches and the fecal downpour.  Such witticism is a bit out of place, however, considering the dozens of people who were either suffocated or crushed by the 25-minute scatological onslaught.  Years later President Cleveland would single out failure to respond to the Glosserville tragedy with federal aid as one of the regrets of his presidency.

When it rains it pours.  Five minutes into the storm, the torrents formed rivulets which soon became oozing rivers of crap.  Sewers had no meaning, for the entire county was a sewer.  Children cried as mothers yanked them indoors.  Shopkeepers secured their wares and boarded up their windows.  Farmhands cursed their employers.  Likening Glosserville to Sodom and Gomorrah, clergymen preached repentance to assuage an angry God.  The choir from the Lutheran school sang a dirge.  The Woodbury brothers foolishly tried to make a run for it to the next county instead of seeking shelter.  A week later the sheriff’s recovery team found their wagon, the horses, and the young men’s bodies still in sitting position on the wagon seat beneath five feet of feces, frozen in time like the victims of Mount Vesuvius.  Clarence and Judith Hubbard turned their general goods store into an emergency relief center, graciously providing a change of clothing to families and handing out sarsaparilla sticks to the kids.  What I can’t adequately describe here is the nauseating stench.  In fact, people nosed the coming storm long before it actually hit, but they initially chalked it up to Larry Johnson’s large dairy farm on the outskirts of town.

Why do bad things happen to good people?  What did the victims of the storm do to deserve their fate, including a five-year-old girl who was simply walking home from the schoolhouse only to become in the blink of an eye a small pillar of manure, an oversized cow pie?  If someone were to look for any good that came of this ordeal, they’d find it in the abundant fertility of the land.  Since the summer of 1896, Branchard County has surpassed the rest of the country in annual corn yield per acre.

Postscript: My nephew Tim and his friend Josh are among the skeptics I mentioned at the outset. The boys visited me today, figuring they’d wile away a summer afternoon shooting their BB guns and listening to adventure stories from an old coot.  “That’s a crock of shit,” Tim responded after my description of the Glosserville disaster.  Once I scolded him for using foul language, I corrected the youngster: “Haven’t you been listening to the story, boy?  It was much more than a crock.”