Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 24

Part 24

John and Sean Lennon

North of Evanston, not far from Freedom Arms, my Grandfather Butler would have descended, as we now are, towards the last long stretch of the trail. Today, the road west—actually southwest—is calm, the drifts seemingly stilled by the persistence of the late-morning sun. This is the segment of the great American migration west where my ancestors on both sides made a departure from the Oregon and California Trails to the Great Basin anchored by a salt lake. It was the less desirable location to settle—dry, desert-like and isolated. But it was the place that the leadership wanted, a place this “peculiar people,” still in the early grip of polygamy, could call their own and be left undisturbed. And that is how the last day of our journey across the country began to end at the start of the second decade of the new millennium. The sky is big, the way is clear and the wagons in my mind roll along a path that is hardly a hewn trail, but more of a rock-strewn mirage of a path worn down by trappers, Indians and deer. The Donnor Party which became entrapped in the early snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to a devastating end were the only settlers to come this way before the Mormons. And the way was filled with mountain fever, dying cattle and the ennui of wagon travel.

Derek is headed back to school in a couple of days. And C. and I are back to work tomorrow. With the end in sight, am I feeling relief or nostalgia? The very things I have been internally railing at for the past five days—my country, my people, my family—is suddenly in my mind at rest even as we speed down Echo Canyon towards Coalville. At one’s home one must find sanctuary, no matter the cost. And so it is here for me. “This is the day thou gavest,” goes the old hymn, and this is the place we call the terminus of our travels though we may dream of California gold as another pioneer grand father of mine did before leaving his clan and heading further west. But it’s not just evening, the close of this “day” that “thou gavest.” The hymn says to me that you get what God gives you, whatever it is. And you can either be resentful of it and stymied or somehow grateful and move on.

Grateful as was my prodigal ancestor who reportedly returned penniless two years after he left the city of saints for the gold fields. He had in fact struck it rich in California, but on the way home he had been robbed of everything except a pony so small his feet dragged the ground, and his hat, it was said, was crownless. They took him back in, this grandfather of mine, twenty-something at the time, home being the place you go and they have to take you in.

Currently, home for us is a neighborhood in Salt Lake City near the cross streets of 9th East and 9th South and the sort of place that, after seven years in Brooklyn, seemed like the only possible home C. and I could endure as we returned to the reddest-of-the reds, what the Denver Post once tagged with the enduring moniker, “The Church State.” Our heavily-treed enclave sports urban Liberty Park, walkable streets and a left-leaning, mixed student, family, gay-friendly population. It is home to the art film house, The Tower, where the Sundance Film Festival takes up residency every January. It is also home to the tres gay Cahoots’ Gift Shop, along with the swankiest bicycle shop in the city (bicycles being very big) and The Children’s Hour—definitely harking back to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, not Lillian Hellman—with its insanely high-priced cutesy clothes for kids.

Since our return from New York to Utah in 2003 gentrification at 9th and 9th has spiked, and even during the current economic down-turn, home prices have stayed relatively high. But we are lagging, C. and I. We can hardly keep up with the taxes on the little house we dance in. The salad days of the airline have receded through a Doppler blue in our minds. Even with the flight benefits I maintain on furlough, we don’t have the means to do anything once we arrive somewhere. Then there are the complications of Derek. Traveling “non-rev” with three is a challenge, and he can’t be left at home alone. The trip East for Christmas has proven all of that—splitting up to get on separate flights to Maine—two of us through Detroit, one of us through Atlanta and LaGuardia. An extra night stay in Bangor. And now this. A five-night/six-day road trip west that has turned our first extended vacation with our live-in grandson into our financial undoing.

Maybe I can go back to teaching a class or two, to make ends meet. Return to the infamous Trail—that bone-crunching stream of immigrant grunts behind yoked oxen–as Grandpa Butler did five years after he settled in Utah with his multiple wives. It seems the crops didn’t come in sufficiently those first few years in Spanish Fork. Grasshoppers ate everything one too many times. So he left his first wife Caroline and oldest son in charge and dusted off the blacksmithing tools of his original trade that back east had made him so valuable to the people he called his own. Two summers in a row John Lowe Butler returned to The Trail that was both his escape and his terror, his hope and his sorrow to repair wagons before ferrying them across the Green River so they could continue on to the Continental Divide and South Pass. He did it. Why shouldn’t I have to scramble as well for a living in the promised land? Return to the trade. Go back East, temporarily?

Back in New York, it is 1975. The Beatles have long ago broken up. John and Yoko are ensconced in the seven-story Dakota on the upper-west side. And after two miscarriages, Yoko has delivered Sean. Lennon has moved from being just a rock star to presumptive leader of world enlightenment. But characteristically, Lennon is clueless as to what any of it means and it’s all reflected in his song “Imagine” which Elton John once parodied in a concert with,

Imagine six apartments

It isn’t hard to do

One is full of fur coats

The other’s full of shoes

Despite being, arguably, an insipid string of bromides, over one hundred artists have recorded “Imagine,” including David Archuleta as part of his American Idol outing two years ago. I guess you can’t really argue with success.

So it is after Lennon’s primal scream therapy songs and the global Rorschach test release of “Imagine,” that Lennon’s paean to his five-year-old son Sean, “Beautiful Boy” appears. And it seems to cut through the songwriter’s fog of heroin, the residuals of his tortured try at open marriage (“Whoopee!…But it was god-awful,”) and, though well-meaning in that now-that-we-have-a-platform-let’s-show-‘em-we-care way of faux activism often shouldered by celebrities, fundraisers. The song actually seems real, heartfelt. Something I can relate to as we descend out of the high Wyoming plain and into the Great Basin. In 1980, the year Lennon left us he said

The joy is still there when I see Sean. He didn’t come out of my belly but, by God, I made his bones, because I’ve attended to every meal, and to how he sleeps, and to the fact that he swims like a fish. That’s because I took him to the ‘Y’. I took him to the ocean. I’m so proud of those things. He is my biggest pride, you see.

And in the music video of the song, Sean, with his Dutch boy haircut is orbiting in and out of a cluster of adults, which include his parents. Then, in juxtaposition, the video melds to the final, pensive iteration of the scene, emptied of human life, the garden chairs and table sitting like sculpture.

I don’t know why Derek loves John Lennon, why he wants to read about every aspect of his life in an 800-page biography that he isn’t likely to ever finish. But I know why Lennon matters to me now. It’s because he loved a child in that hankering, drifty way that makes one exult in the repetition of

Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful

Beautiful boy…

And if, as the songwriter sings, “life is what happens to you/While you’re busy making other plans” then I am in trouble as a father to Derek. While I have been taking out whole life insurance policies for him, tracking him through the Salt Lake Arts Academy and East High, running after him down the sidewalk behind his tottering bicycle…all with some giant planning wheel spinning in the sky of my mind, Excel spreadsheets numbered and pulsing with what needs to happen to raise this boy to manhood–while all of this has been going on, Derek’s life has been taking place largely unbeknownst to me. Both C. and I have attempted to manufacture memorable experiences, including this trip back East for Christmas, to off-set the horrors and traumas before he came to live with us. And we have gone into debt, the consequence of which I am holding at bay somewhere south of my sternum. But quality time, in the parlance of family scientists (a contradiction in terms), isn’t something you can schedule. Because as with life in general, both on the micro and macro level—at the hearth and in the White House—plans are what we make to keep us from the realization that the world is an arbitrary and terrifying place. Beyond our control.

My brother-in-law Pete is right. America is not beyond a revolution—rocks being thrown in the street. Guns a-blazing. Dirty bombs. Some of our population already knows this. They live with some version of it virtually every day. But white middle class folk like me living in the Mountain West? Not a chance. We still feel as though we are immune from what the gears of a world that grinds on without knowing that it is grinding at all. It’s a regional expression of the poet’s “View with a Grain of Sand,” the grain that “calls itself neither grain nor sand/It does just fine without a name….” The world being outside from what we call it:

Time has passed like a courier with urgent news

but that’s just our simile.

The character is invented, his haste is make believe,

His news inhuman.

As with Lennon’s joy over his son, “the joy is still there” when I see Derek, even now in the rear-view mirror, the three of us hurtling home. And that joy is there only because I understand more today than ever before, here at the start of the second decade of the new millennium, just how aimless we are in a place that has never obeyed our naming of it.

Lennon frequently asked his Aunt Mimi, the woman who had raised him in Mendips, Liverpool, to come to New York for a visit. “I’m not going to a land where there’s guns, John” she said. On December 8, 1980, Lennon was shot dead by a deranged fan outside the Dakota in New York and “Imagine” and “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” both took on new resonance to a population on both sides of the Atlantic that could not seem to get over it for days, weeks…decades. The terminus for Lennon was outside his apartment on a winter day not so unlike today.

Manhattan and the Salt River Valley of Wyoming couldn’t be more different from each other, especially in terms of the goddamned, God-given right to bear arms. Pot-smoking John Lennon with the wire rims next to crew-cut, fierce “constitutionalist” Wayne Baker, armed and ready—it’s hard to think how both of them could have found a home in America without destroying each other. Maybe they did destroy each other. Maybe they still are–destroying each other and the country they both claim(ed) to love at the same time. “Give Peace a Chance” and “Guns, God and Guts”—two mantras that one could argue have always animated, however circuitously, the experiment that is America.

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 25 (End)

Part 25

July 2010, The Uinta Mountains, Utah

At Wanship, Utah the freeway curves so sharply below the escarpments of canyon walls that the speed limit drops to fifty miles per hour. We’ve left the original pioneer trail to deviate down Parley’s Canyon, past Park City. Many pilots and flight attendants live in this alpine town, 2,500 feet above their domicile at Salt Lake International and away from the city with some of the worst air quality in the country. They live in condos and McMansions on golf courses that are still only a half hour from the airport thanks to I-80. Today, passing by the familiar turnoff at Kimball Junction to the old mining-town-turned-ski-resort-turned-posh-mountain-city-of-the-beautiful-people it all seems unreal: familiar but strange now, considering the journey we’ve made, and we are silent. The goal is in sight, and for the first time, it seems, we have the critical cognitive mass to reflect on the costs and the compensations. Who we are now having gone nearly the full 2,535 miles from Farmington, Maine to the place we recognize as and call home.

Unlike his mother, father and his Nana, Utah is the only home Derek has ever known, the home I left only to return to…returned for him. He was here, needing us. But how badly he needed us, we couldn’t possibly know. We still don’t know, in a way, and never really will. And I’m told by my family of birth and others that C. and I have done this wonderful thing, stepping in as we did to raise this boy. But it wasn’t really C. and me. Derek located us. He knew what he needed and one day he just didn’t go back to his Mom’s. And what’s more, one day when C. and I are not the right place for him to be, he has the radar and the good sense to move on. He made it happen then. And he’ll make it happen at that once and future date when he says goodbye.

Derek is going to be okay. And perhaps it is not my relentless living of his life’s minutiae, but the quality of earnestness he sees in me that is valuable to Derek. In the end we can only inspire our children through our own growth. And in that way we can teach beyond the level of our own ability. And that will have to be okay with me–Derek elevated beyond my own abilities. Smarter, stronger, more intuitive…kinder.

We tune back into the local classic rock station which will wane in and out as we descend, the peaks rising above, the sun a-blaze in the cold mountain air. U2 starts up, a concert version of one of their biggest hits of all time first appearing on their breakout album “The Joshua Tree.” True to the album’s title and to its iconic image of the strange cactus “tree” with weirdly upraised branches, like arms to the square, the songs featuring the high-wire tenor voice of Bono are an amalgamation of Celtic and American root music. Threading through it are the strains and beats of jazz and gospel—ur-text to rock and roll. In fact, this version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” recorded in Mexico City features a full-throated choir of gospel singers in full exultation.

This is the kind of Rock I can resonate with. It’s more than an artifact wrung out of pop culture; it’s the musical embodiment of human evolution—the stream, the river that is never the same from step in, to step out. It’s what Lennon, perhaps, aspired to, and sometimes succeeded at, vetting and sifting through the detritus of every contemporary Western musical genre to create something new, like the surreal and wistful “Strawberry Fields,” or the most restrained and thus effective protest song, “Working Class Hero.” And it was all done unconsciously, bumping around in the dark through the “muff-diving” of Hamburg, to the break up of the Beatles and from the multi-genre experimentation with Yoko to the admittedly silly bed-ins. But it was fluid, malleable, and even at its worst, interesting. It helped keep the conversation going.

That is what the contemporary group U2 is doing, in my estimation. They are the natural successors of what’s best in classic rock and roll. And this re-imagining of one of their greatest hits, honoring , this time, the punch-to-the-gut soul of Gospel and all of its musical shadings, is enough for me to believe in more than the genre, but the connections it makes with everything painful and beautiful about being alive. In 2010.

I have kissed honey lips

Felt the healing in her fingertips

It burned like fire

This burning desire

I have spoke with the tongue of angels

I have held the hand of a devil.

It was warm in the night.

I was cold as a stone

But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for

That U2 can still elevate this anthem to a new realm by returning the song to its fundamental architecture, and re-imagining its glory enervates me. It gives me hope that our cultural forms have no end, only a new sensibility, a new vector to follow. Is this a love song or a bald command to come to Christ or just a nod that He in some way “broke the bonds and loosed the chains”? Bono may sing of “the Kingdom come” but he immediately undercuts any theological imperative with the new age notion that “all the colors will bleed into one.” It seems to have taken a rock band from Ireland, not from the U.S., to deconstruct this country’s religious obsession into transcendent spiritual longing. And U2 did so by brilliantly merging Celtic soul and Gospel.

Except for its dip down into the valley of the Great Salt Lake, Interstate Eighty follows the entire track of the first transcontinental railroad completed in 1868 at a place called Promontory Point, north of the Lake. The joining marked the end of the pioneer era and the end of the isolation of an intermountain “Zion” and the larger fantasies of my own people that they would become their own sovereign state—first literally and later spiritually. You see, the way west was paved with good intentions of promise, adventure and greed, sometimes marinated in religious feeling, but it is was also paved quite literally in freeway, rail, and, finally, “air lines.” And all of us traveled those roads and are traveling them still, the connections real and psychic, both the hard shoulder with mile markers and the cultural web that we are all suspended in. And along the way we figure out what we’re made of. And maybe why, in some big way, we might be here. Derek has had his late and troubled start. So did Grandpa Butler, who was so laden between age seven and twenty-two with “rheumatics,” arthritis and neuromuscular troubles that sound a lot like polio, that he wondered “about my future existence and I often thought what the Lord wanted of such a being as me upon the earth.” And yet Grandpa thrived, weirdly growing another two and a half inches between age twenty-two and twenty-seven and growing “verry stout indeed.” Stranger things have happened, I suppose. And even if the man-boy never finds his way into a single space I recognize as purposeful, I have a kind of secular faith that life is somehow naturally filled with compensations. I have religious faith that my spontaneous hand to his head as he leaves for school each day is a kind of father’s blessing that he will find the trail ahead of him safe, but more importantly one with high adventure and promise.

And what of Interstate 80, our companion of the past five days? Its western terminus in San Francisco was supposed to extend through Golden Gate Park to the Pacific Ocean near the famous Ocean Beach area. But public opposition was hot, so the second longest interstate really ends/begins at U.S. 101, a few miles shorter than originally planned, at the series of U.S. 101 exits near Van Ness Avenue. Some, however, still argue that it actually ends at the Embarcadero exit.

And where does I-80 terminate in the East? Overhead signage shows rather decidedly that it ends at the junction of Interstate 95 in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. But some argue that it really ends at the Hudson River. After all, the exit numbering on I-95 north of I-80 approximates the same numbering of I-80 if we think of it as extending to the river.

Everything seems in dispute these days.

One thing I do know for sure, I-80 does not go near Boston, as I thought when I lived in New England nearly thirty years ago. Back then it was admittedly a comfort to think that, connected to America’s birthplace by miles of asphalt through the lush countryside of Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, the drainages east to the Atlantic and west to Mark Twain’s Mississippi was my mountain-desert home. That skirting the Great Lakes in Ohio and Illinois, the hickory of Indiana and bisecting the plains of Iowa and Nebraska was that thread that belted the country’s bread basket, its industrial center and its western coast through seeming impossible terrain. That it was and is my toe-hold to the world beyond my view and the belief that fades with age and the changing rise-upon-mountain rise that I knew what was there—at least in its broad, stereotypical contours, and therefore who I might be. In my broad, stereotypical contours. But here it is. Less and more than I thought.

At home, Jiggs is there, wagging his tail. The cats still everywhere you want to be in the little house we dance in. C. is back to the business of making our home, thanking Kate for her dog-sitting. Sifting through the mail and the phone messages on the old answering machine. And my Derek, the man-boy, heads downstairs into his “cave” we call it to recall the life he left nearly three weeks ago and to imagine his life to come. I miss him already, and he still lives with us.


August 2010, Great Salt Lake, Interstate 80)

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue: Part 17

Part 17:

Kurt Cobain Getting Saved

Back in Liverpool, The Quarrymen have changed their name to Johnny and the Moondogs but are without a drummer and John Lennon is reduced to abandoning his guitar and standing between Paul McCartney and George Harrison, one hand on each of his buddy’s shoulder, as a vocal trio. Actually, the biography states, they looked kind of cool because Harrison was a leftie while McCartney was right-handed and the group looked like a winged animal on stage singing Buddy Holly songs, and it landed them in the finals of “Nationwide Search for a Star Competition” in Manchester. These were tough times for the group that would become The Beatles, missing out on the final heat of the competition they’d qualified for because they didn’t have the money to spend the night and had to scramble for the last bus back to Liverpool. But these are not the innocent boys we think of now, all wide-eyed and bonny-haired. In fact they left the hall that night having probably stolen another musician’s guitar in some kind of frustrated effort at revenge.

This is the part where I get insanely judgmental of Joe’s heroes. I get fusty about character and living the reasonable and mature life in a world that is shot through with fuck-ups like—most of Joe’s friends as well as the absent man in Joe’s life whose name here shall remain obscured. It’s the same Mormon self-righteousness, I suppose, that makes me sniff at Kurt Cobain smashing his guitar on stage after a set. This even though the man-boy has declared quite definitively somewhere outside Cleveland that Cobain did so out of honest frustration because he couldn’t even get a custom-made guitar to deliver the sound he demanded. An artiste of the most ego-blinding kind. Whatever.

In truth I’m insanely judgmental of Joe’s heroes because I am not one of them. This I am sure of. Instead, I find pictures of the absent man and him in full Halloween make up implanted in the medicine cabinet of his bathroom. A small 3×3” photo, dog-eared with the finger pulling and pawing of disquieting longing. It seems the absent man is the one who spoke wisely of life’s lessons, calmly holding forth on everything from work to love, from government (especially its unfair taxes) to cops–a.k.a. “pigs.” He is the one who ushers forth whenever his out-of-town and elderly mother starts asking her son uncomfortable questions like, “How is Joe? When will I see him? Did you give him my birthday presents?” He is the one who ushers forth to offer his abandoned son some pathetic little toy (a pocket knife, re-gifted I’m sure) or a bag of clementines (also re-gifted in their little netted sack).

Or Joe’s hero is sarcastic John Lennon, the mugging, Liverpudlian thug obsessed with shoplifting and mimicking cripples. And I stew, like a Christianist in the culture wars, about the corrosive impact of pop culture on our youth. But Joe does not demonstrate any of Lennon’s flaws, with the possible exception that he has a fierce, yet often undisciplined intellect, and a thing with growing his hair out. This is what I remember about Joe’s character. He is taking Muoy Thai boxing as a 12-year-old and there’s a kid at the gym, Denver, who at six-years-old has already boarded the flight to juvenile hall it would seem. So damaged is Denver, that even the muscled, tattoo-ed owner of the place, Craig, has banished him to the lobby where he must wait for his returning mom. Something about the kid kicking a kid in the face unprovoked, and then, with a laugh, succeeding at kicking Craig in the balls as the kid was being hauled off.

Joe is there too, with me as we wait for his buddy who is finishing his workout, and Denver is playing with a toy that looks like it actually could be an honest-to-god die-cast Matchbox car. Denver keeps rolling the damn thing off the bistro table like it’s a missile, ripping it out of Joe’s hand when Joe tries to pick it up to return it to him across the table top. The kid appears to be on amphetamines.

My point is that at twelve, Joe is kind. He even seems to feel compassion for a boy six years his junior who is destined to trod a path that Joe knows all too well. And Joe is moved by him. I can see it in the way he manages Denver with patient ease. It’s as if he’s saying through a kind of innate generosity that he finds that he has it in him to be kind to this troubled boy, and so he is. He is kind because he can be kind. He finds that he has a reserve, and without further ado he dispenses with that reserve to the object that needs something the most in that moment.

Despite having witnessed this, as well as Joe’s admittedly steeper learning curve with learning to care for our pets, I regularly panic that he will not turn out somehow. That he will become a guitar-smashing lunatic or worse. But really I’m afraid that when he thinks of the man that he wants to become, it will not be me. Pathetic, I know. But it’s true.

And that is why I am mean to him. Even here, in Kearney Nebraska, after we go for our obligatory swim in our skivs—Nana in her leotard—and we all shiver back to the room to toast the new year two hours early because of what looks like on the Weather Channel, another system moving in, and the movie of the hour keeps getting interrupted with a loud beeeeeep and the ticker tape warning of sub-zero, freezing rain. Yes, I am mean to him. Dismissive, touchy. “Get your boots off the bed. I don’t care if it’s a motel. Put your shit away…now, dammit. You said you hung that up. Why do you lie?”

Nana glowers at me. And she fights back too when she feels the internal storm in her own husband gathering like that over the Wyoming high plain northwest of here and her gangly chick with the mop of hair might be in its path. If the brew continues we will have words, serious ones that only make me feel more resentful of this boy who entered our life, not entirely invited, and now won’t get his goddamn boots off the bed. Resentful because even this marital scenario is his fault: it’s let’s you and them fight, he seems to saying in his silence, in his unflappable way lying on the bed there. And earlier I had even let him have half a glass of champagne, the little shit.

The road before us, through what looks like another ice storm, or at minimum the kind of freezing weather that, because it is far from home, is all the more threatening, stretches in my mind through unpardonable, high-elevation country. It’s a country I am well aware of, being a Westerner. Only in the west can one meet with not only mechanized, Detroit-crunching (in this case Tokyo-crunching?) death on the freeway but with the specter of no one there to witness it except the drifts over Elk Mountain and the implacable big sky above you.

This isn’t even Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where father and young son bond with a fierceness borne of terror, despair and the post-apocalyptic cold. A bond as bleak as it is tender. This is my own interior and fabled “Scotland Road” driving through the heart of the White Star Line’s most infamous vessel—the Titanic. Melodramatic, you say? Perhaps. But part of the zeitgeist here is that one’s private agony with a lost boy who somehow doesn’t cotton to you entirely is an objective correlative at the macro-level, the whole goddamn world collapsing just as it is collapsing in my head here in Nebraska. Just as it is collapsing in my heart.

I am kicked out of the hotel room. By Cheryl. Or perhaps I kick myself out. There are fifty places I could go tonight in Kearney to get wasted on New Years Eve, the last night of the last year of the first decade of the new millennium. Instead, I wander in the halls in my shirtsleeves the heaters at the two ends of the hall madly grinding away, keeping at bay the very death of us. I am bound to not only the hall but to the two people on the other side of the door marked 223.

I-80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 14

Part 14
          We detour onto I-35 south toward St. Louis.  Cheryl scrambles for the map.  About twenty miles later is our exit which Cheryl has ingeniously figured out in time for us to take.  Route 92 runs parallel with I-80, our ribbboned home away from home.  It is a quiet, snow-blown, two-lane path that stair-steps down in elevation as it rattles West towards Omaha.  We pass through Winterset, birth place of John Wayne—and appropriately named on this icy day—then Greenfield, then Griswold on the Nishnabotna River where we stop for fuel.  Ranchers and work men trundle by in air so cold it seems to crunch as one moves through it to the ubiquitous 7-Eleven-styled “Country Store.”  Back in the car, waiting for Cheryl and the man-boy, a workman in seriously scuffed boots clambers into the diesel truck and inadvertently kicks a clear plastic water bottle out onto the snow-scudded platform.  But neither the brush of it against his cold Levied leg nor the clunk of it to the ground—the diesel engine pulling under the hood—draws his attention and they drive off.  The water will be frozen in no time.
            Griswold lies at the western end of a series of terraced fields now vacant and forlorn, rimmed as they are with the shaggy mop of hair-like growth—flaxen-colored and stiff that tumbles over the edge.  There is pleasure taken in the contours of this remarkably busy land (in an agri-way) the gun metal sky behind it the perfect complement to its heavy earthen load.
            Griswold, quaint with old stores and civic buildings now lost, even here in rural America, to cyber-civic reality and the low grade comfort of home-bound televisions, is also very near the Mormon pioneer trail, a fact that is impossible to ignore as my brethren, ever industrious, have made sure, with the blessing of local historical societies, that the trail be clearly marked.  Outside of this town, about five miles near present day Lewis, IA, my triple great grandfather John Lowe Butler and a Brother Cummings were sitting in a wicciup getting their asses saved by Wacakasuck, who, along with his Pottawatamie band, qualified with the Mormons as yet another refugee of the American people and their government.   April in Iowa, apparently, wasn’t much better in 1845 than December is now in the Hawkeye State.  The weather sucked—rain, hail and ice so thick that it coated trees and grass in seeming crystal.  Complicated by Gramp’s “rumatism” (even in his 30s) the two “Mormonites” were not doing too well, wending their way through the grass and chasing a wild pony to replace John’s which had fallen and died earlier in their journey.  The Indian led them to a small village where they were served baked cornbread, a wood duck (which gramps had shot en route) and strong coffee with maple syrup which, according to Cummings, the scribe in all this and with a thing for misspelled verbal intensifiers, “went verry well…a verry good breakfast.”  After dining with the Pottawattamie village chief which Cummings made some effort to record was “a good looking fellow,” the not-so-bedraggled pair headed off on their journey, “feeling verry blessed.”
            Before all of this, in Missouri where the Mormons had settled after leaving Ohio, Butler made his name by roughing up some locals in the town of Gallatin at a poll where his people were being dis-invited to vote.  Pates were broken and Missourians scattered by the brawn and bravery of my 6 foot 2”, sturdily-built ancestor.  It’s a story that is told with immense pride even today in family circles and Mormon history associations.  We weren’t just the chosen people being driven out from state to state, our tails between our religious legs.  No.  Occasionally, we fought back, goddammit.
            It’s hard to really know what Butler thought of all this, if he thought about it at all.  I say that because as a relatively new convert to a new religion that was decidedly unpopular both on the frontier and in the nation’s capital, his decision to become a Latter -day Saint made early on in Kentucky with his wife Caroline had pretty much owned them from there on out.  Having been essentially disowned by his wealthy plantation in-laws, he and Caroline didn’t have a lot of choice except to hitch their wagon, at times literally, to the Gospel according to Joseph Smith and later to the machinations of Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, and head the hell west.  Along the way Gramps picked up seven more “wives,” including Caroline’s deaf-mute sister Charity and a mother and daughter with the last name of Lancaster who our faithful family histories stridently assure us was non-conjugal—something to do with making “proper” the taking of widowers and the abandoned on the trail to Zion under the care (and name) of a husband.
            This is all very exhausting to me—this history of the great exodus of Mormon pioneers not so much from point A to point B but in ever-growing, overlapping and concentric circles looping west like a spring sprung, jettisoned out then recoiling, moving forward but only from a birds-eye view or the galactic perspective of a god.  And John Lowe Butler was no exception, in fact in many ways he was the poster child of westward ho alternating with westward ho-hum.  For nearly two and a half years after leaving Nauvoo, the man who was a personal body guard first of Joseph Smith and then Young, was sent on wild errands, mostly to corral the scattered Latter-day Saints into organized companies that would eventually all end up at the Great Salt Lake.  In the migration of 6,000 (?) first-wave Mormons over grasslands and mountains that had little if no trail to follow and precious little provenance for the oxen that pulled those wagons, a vanguard was needed to pave the way.  They were tasked with growing and cultivating crops that would later be harvested by those to come.  It was a vast cooperative unlike those bee-lining along the Oregon trail in solitary bands, not bound spiritually to a collective burned from within by a religious quest. 
            So Gramps was sent by Brother Brigham to criss-cross the Iowa territory, bringing messages, reading letters, fording rivers and eating boiled corn and roast duck the size of quail.  His journey du jour near where we currently are, just off I-80, was designed to reclaim in South Dakota a renegade band of his brethren led by the freethinking James Emmett who, earlier, had been the very man to baptize the Butlers Mormon in Kentucky.  So while the first company left for what would become Utah, Grandpa stayed behind.  Even when the second train left the following spring he was asked to stay on at Winter Quarters, a gathering place on the bluffs of the Missouri near present-day Omaha of transient pioneers readying for the trek.  Brigham had this curious, persistent sense of privilege among the people he was leading.  (He actually used to charge the saints a toll in Salt Lake City for even new arrivals to cross through his land to City Creek.)  Still it seems particularly galling that the Young would tell Grandpa, who was a blacksmith by trade but, as is clear in the histories, the prophet’s unquestioning loyal gopher, “Oh…looks like you and your family really aren’t ready to be going west here, dude.  Looks like you need to stick around in western Iowa and get your shit together.  Maybe shoe a few horses.  Oh, and you know that shirt you’ve been wearing for five years?  Maybe it’s time to get a new one.  See ya ‘round campus.” 
Did Grandpa ever think of throwing it all over and going back to his in-law’s plantation, slaves and all?  Or return to somewhere at least slightly more comfortable than a wicciup or a sodden home in a settlement on the Missouri with the discomfiting name of “Winter Quarters”?  Finally, when he had the chance to leave the heartland, was he tempted by Ft. Bridger at the foothills of the Uinta Mountains, tempted to just gun for California instead of the Great Basin?  Had he done so, I would probably be obsessed with something other than a quaint religious movement that nevertheless still has a stubborn hold on me.
Today, as with the country of my birth, Mormonism feels like a colossal failure to me—a journey out of moribund frontier religion via the ecstasy of a mystic to another moribund faith 180 years later via industrialized dogma.  To wit:  we became the very thing we thought we were fleeing when we left the mid-west—intolerant, moralistic, suffering from a surfeit of Victorian mores.  Now, the best we can muster on the national scene as the pinnacle of who we’ve become is a carefully coiffed GOP presidential candidate with a first name at least as weird as “Barack,” if not weirder.
And yet despite this bile that lapsed Mormons like me can’t seem to rid themselves of, I am moved as we approach Council Bluffs overlooking the mighty Missouri and I ponder anew what the Almighty can do, to quote from the hymn.  Or what something seemingly almighty did.  There in the river bottoms now cluttered with interstate exchanges sits a history that defined a people, a land and generations that followed.  John Lowe Butler believed in something bigger than himself and in a country that despite shitting on his people he nevertheless believed was a promised land where God’s kingdom would be established.  And, truthfully, there was a socialistic impulse deep in his bones and those he aided west that identified more with the trodden down Native Americans, who Mormons considered Hebrew descendants, than with the eastern establishment. 

At the time, ours was an oppositional stance to a promised land of liberty that could not keep its promise to everyone.  (Some things never change.)  “We want to take you to a land where a white man’s foot never trod,” the people were told by one of many they esteemed as a prophet and apostle.  Why?  Because “we are not accounted as white people and I don’t want to live with the white people.” And so we were not accounted and not in the parlance of the royal “we,” but in the parlance of belonging to a group that seems in many ways to be ethnic. 
And so it came to pass, that “we” put our money where our mouth was.  We gave the finger to the East, shouted “damn the torpedoes,” married as many times as we were commanded, crossed the Missouri, survived the Sweetwater in the high plains of Wyoming…made the desert “blossom as a rose.” ….Mid-wifed George Romney and his son Mitt several  generations later.    

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 9)

PART 9: 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

We’re taking our Cleveland detour for Joe.  But I also realize that being the third day now that I’m wearing the same cardigan, admittedly over one of the new T-shirts Cheryl has bought me and Joe, that I am indeed in need of respite.  The sky is clear today.  A good day to see Cleveland.  We shoot up north on I-77 and into the city where we inexplicably drive right to the  building designed by I.M. Pei on the south shore of Lake Erie.  There it is, all winged and white, the giant drum on its pedestal where the actual “hall” is.  We park at the adjacent Science Museum and walk across the winter-browned grass and up the stairs.  To the north a giant tanker lies anchored in the lake, the breakers for the harbor in the distance, the horizon of what looks like a sea extending forever away and north.  The wind.  There is wind and sun and the blanched exterior of the mecca of music we have pilgrimaged to, and I am revived.  Our world actually stops existing on the linear line west that will take us to familiar waters—salty ones to be precise—and suddenly the world is 360 degrees again, peripheral and vertical, scrubbed clean of truck plazas and the thrumming of asphalt.  This might have actually been a good idea.  Thank God for credit cards.    
                Despite Pei’s claim that it was energy—youthful energy to be more precise—he was trying to capture in glass and metal, the building inside feels institutional.  The organizers of the hall and museum got what they wanted, I suppose:  the cachet of a high-brow architect whose oeuvre includes the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in Washington to elevate a traditionally “low-brow” art form.  “I didn’t know a thing about rock and roll,” he is reported as saying when the famous, Chinese-American architect was first commissioned in the early 90s.  Born in China in 1917, Bing Crosby was Pei’s America—not Elvis Presley.  Still, the structure is striking, even heart-stopping when the light hits it just right and the angled glass and jutting wings suspended above the ground reassemble what seems like an infinite number of shifting lines. 
            And…institutional or not, this feels like the nonprofit home I have found myself in since leaving the airline in 2005.  Memberships.  Subscriptions.  The infamous, self-congratulating donor wall.  You can almost hear the squabbling of the volunteer board, the luncheons of development officers relieving the wealthy of their money.  Everything has the patina of being “mission-driven,” but like everything else, it’s a varnish over the only portal accessible to Americans these days whether into family, religion or politics:  corporate money.  “You can buy anything in this world for money,” says the minion of Satan in the Mormon liturgy of my youth.  Got that right. But even my own people have forgotten that, Utah being the scam capitol of the world.          
Even so…There are always these—the qualifiers.  
By the time the three of us have paid our 22 bucks a head (“Your visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum helps fund our efforts to educate the world on the social significance of rock and roll.”…have our picture taken in front of a digitized night view of “Rock Hall” as it’s affectionately known, we have fully surrendered.  Down the escalators we are greeted with ZZ Top’s red 1933 Ford Coupe “The Eliminator,” and all is right with the world.  The music video of “Gimee all your Lovin’” with its nineteen-year-old garage mechanic getting a ride (literally) in the Ford with the stylized “ZZ” racing stripes and, more importantly, three older incredibly naughty women drivers in three-inch heels and stockings, well…  It’s a reminder before you even enter the Rock Hall that rock and roll is a euphemism—popularized by the genre’s first disc jockey and concert producer Alan Freed–for fucking.      
Joe and I stand there agape while Cheryl reads through the map of the 150,000-square foot place and tries to plan our visit (she will eventually give up and take to treading water in the flotsam and jetsam of the genre with the rest of us).  The next three hours in the museum will demonstrate how even music based on the rhythmic beats of carnal knowledge can get if not calcified then definitely gentrified, just like boxing and blue jeans before, respectively, T.S. Eliot and Calvin Klein.  Or so I think.
            This is about Joe, I think.  We’re here for my grandson because it’s one of very few things that we can safely talk about, share and even celebrate.  His love of music.  I remember when he was six and seven it was Mozart for him.  I’m the non-profit dude who in high school won the Shakespeare prize from my drama teacher, the late Mr. Ray Jones, for being able to recite from memory nearly 90 minutes of the stuff.  So music supposedly of my generation—including the 70s burp of disco–was peripheral, mere background noise to the deposition scene in Richard II.  But here is our Joe.  Immersed in music he prefaces with the adjective “classic.”  Never mind that he was introduced to all of American culture through “The Simpsons” which he has memorized and recited as much as I ever did the Bard.  This is what he’s gravitated to with his replica John Lennon glasses, his 150+ vinyl records sitting on the floor of my home office, a thousand facts about guitars, death in small plane crashes and record labels.  And finally, I can sit back and watch him in his temple of delights, hungry to return to any small relic of the thing that gives his life meaning.  It’s more than worth the $22 per head, if you ask me.
            What I didn’t expect was that Rock Hall was my temple too.  Between Cheryl, who was born in 1950, and Joe who was born in 1993, there’s my generation.  Too young to have smoked weed at Woodstock, but too old to be considered the real “lost generation” of Gen X, my people got Donna Summer and the Bee Gees for our trouble, Watergate and the first raid on Grenada, where, perhaps the country got the notion that war could be antiseptic—like playing a video game.  And yet we were there, wading through the stagflation and the Iranian hostage crisis and sort of waiting for the next big identifying American era which never came.  Our meaning was how many times one could change his or her major in college, what we could buy, and how early we divorced.  If you were gay it was whether you had dodged HIV and how you told your coming-out-of-the-closet story.  All of this is in Cleveland, heavily curated, yes, but there nonetheless.  It is the story of youth getting their first taste of power too fast and too early, of how “we” became an economic and social force to be reckoned with. And, like the generations we were reacting to, it was how we ended up fucking it up just as bad as our forebears. 
In case, dear reader, you haven’t figured it out by now, the glass is always half empty for Dave.  (At least at the end of 2010.)  Or, in the words of Woody Allen, it’s actually a glass half full, but it’s poison.  So why, then, as I stood watching the looped video of Elvis Presley in one of those blessed PBS-styled, drill-down tapings in a close-up studio with a live audience did I start to come unhinged?  The man-boy is gone, cut loose to ramble through the displays with abandon, as is Cheryl, and I’m left standing, transfixed by the magnetism of the King, his talent for conjoining the electric with the baleful, all suffused with an unaccountable trans-gendered sex appeal?  It was late in my father’s life before I realized that, born in 1929, he too was a huge fan of Presley. This surprised me since Dad is uber-religious, intractable, even, in his Mormonism.  In the end, I think my father, a handsome man in his own right, saw himself in the star’s smoky good looks. Even so, it felt strange buying my father the complete collection one year for his birthday.  What would all of his disciples back at the ward think?
But it isn’t just Presley.  It’s the whole slew of them.  Telling the story through the early days when Rock was the devil’s music, through all its co-option of gospel, the blues—country western.  It’s Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and scandalous-sounding Little Richard.  And it was the Beatles.  When I turn the corner, I am in the shrine of the Fab Four.  Fevered Joe is already there.   He beckons to me, even pulls my arm at one point. “Poppa, it’s his glasses!  John Lennon’s glasses!”  Under glass themselves, the spectacles are thin, fragile-looking really with no nose pads.  The man-boy has a replica of this pair, known, apparently, as the Windsor style that came into vogue in the late 19th Century and remained popular through World War I.   Joe’s, however, are sunglasses, and he looks fey in them, the green lenses round as the moon on his long face, instead of slightly oval as the ones here.  These, however, are the real things, and he is entranced. 
Word is that Lennon, horribly near-sighted, wouldn’t wear his government-issued black rims when he was a school boy.  Rather, he would sit at the back of the class at Quarry Bank School and resolutely flunk his classes largely because what was happening up front, including on the black board, was all a blur. 
We will be here for a while in this side chapel of the Rock Hall Cathedral.  There is clothing, sketchbooks of both Lennon’s early and later caricatures and other drawings.  There is a studio piano at which he is said to have composed while away from the city on Long Island, and the wax from a melted candle is still pooled here and there, hardened now of course, on the black veneer.  To me it seems careless and prima donnish of him—this abuse of the implements, to reference Lily Tomlin’s ringy-dingy operator from Laugh-In.  Maybe it’s just that what Cheryl and I call a piano—her mother’s spinet, schlepped across the country not once but thrice, and pretty much ruined because of it—has been inadequate for years, and I am envious.  Or maybe the bile in me is surfacing—again!—as I am reminded that today along with a pre-nuptial it is the American dream to be able to live like a rock star, the eternal child.  (“He’s a rock star!”)
            For Joe, none of this registers.  Or at least I don’t think it does.  In a place such as this, he’s in a pinball machine, bouncing off relics ranging from a faded yellow report card (pathetic marks) to the man’s British passport.  There are scribblings galore of lyrics that would become world famous and corroborate the cliché that Lennon was the spokesman of a generation.  While Joe approaches a series of guitars pinned to the wall like icons in the form of a triptych, I am drawn to a faded copy of the special Beatles issue of the National Record News.  “Anthony Corbett, a noted English psychologist,” it reads, “praised the Beatles as having provided a ‘desperately needed release for the inhibitions which exist in all of us.’” 
            What was new and thrilling is now this:  thrilling because it’s old, it’s passed, it’s under climate-controlled whatever.  But this retrospective of the last half century or more through the lens of a single musical genre is how we pass it all down the line.  How Joe will make sense of the world—or not.  It gives him the talking points in a vast conversation that both elevates and erases itself.  My impulse here is sincere.  I want to believe that, unlike me, in the conversational flow he will be able to hear himself.  And maybe, just maybe he can make a contribution to the world that is currently both our terror and our hope.
In another room, Cheryl is looking at a costume worn by Patti LaBelle, the mannequin with a finned headdress that, frankly, reminds me of the architecture of Rock Hall, but black.  “Joe is really enjoying this,” I tell her. 
“And you?” 
“It’s…it’s surprising me.”
“In what way?”  I have to think about this for a second.  Suddenly I’m looking at the crowds milling about, cameras dangling.  Every size and shape imaginable of my fellow Americans shod in Nike and blue jeans, spandex and down.  A small child has caught my eye as she hangs from a chrome barrier, a little pig-tailed thing not aware that, as with me, she is looking away from the displays and at something else.  Me.  Something live.
“I find it moving,” I say, and something catches in my throat.  This is the first time we have had two minutes to reflect on anything, it seems, other than getting the hell out of New England and out west where we belong.
“I’m not surprised,” she says sensing my emotion. She slips her warm hand under my arm and I’m suddenly self-conscious of what is apparently my visible reaction.  Cheryl never seems to suffer from envy.  Patti LaBelle’s glamour and wealth—she doesn’t covet it.  She has the uncanny ability of seeing past our projections on the people we deem celebrities.  She sees something else in all of it.
            “Nostalgia?” I ask.
“Maybe some of that,” she says.  “But I think there’s something more going on here.”  She looks around in thought.  Playing to its strengths, Rock Hall has recordings of music playing everywhere and where we are standing now we can hear the keening of someone that I can’t name, and yet it’s so familiar it almost makes me swoon.  The only thing missing is the smell of a rancid night club or the tang of a mosh pit.

There’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirmin’ like a toad
Take a long holiday, let your children play
If ya give this man a ride, sweet family will die
Killer on the road, yeah

            “In the Fifties, this was all very new.  Very threatening to some.  My Dad hated Elvis Presley.”  I picture my own father.  The man who admired Presley in the only way you could admire him—infatuation—but had to hide it.  Unlike my late father-in-law Frank who seemed to have no problem telling at least himself the truth. “You know Gary put himself through school playing in bands,” she continues, referring to her Ex…Josiah’s blood grandfather.  “He was actually really good.  Probably still is.” What she’s not saying is that she also sang for many years—at weddings, parties—but that she kept to the ballads and the folk songs, Joan Baez stuff.  The Standards, even.  I know she was good until, as she says it, she ruined her voice to smoking.   
The song continues.  I look around for Joe, thinking we ought to head out.  Or maybe upstairs for some lunch, a cup of coffee and a quick peek, if there is such a think as “quick” here, up stairs at the actual hall of fame.
Girl ya gotta love your man, girl ya gotta love your man
Take him by the hand, make him understand
The world on you depends, our life will never end
Gotta love your man, yeah
There is music and then there is “the only thing that makes sense,” to quote Lennon when as a young man he was craving the American stuff—Presley, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis–and trying to get the ubiquitous Skiffle bands of Liverpool to go Rock.  The only thing more nuanced, perhaps, more potent is breathing in a scent.  And it means something even when you don’t know what it “means.”  

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm
Into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown
Like a dog without a bone, an actor out on loan
Riders on the storm

Riders on the storm, riders on the storm
Riders on the storm, riders on the storm

Maybe Bruce Springsteen said it best.  On Level Five he’s featured in an exhibit emblazoned with this quote from him:  “People deserve the truth.  They deserve honesty.  The best music is essentially there to provide you something to face the world with.”
We may not be faced with the world right now, per se.  Not the whole world as Bruce Springsteen seems to be implying.  But we are faced with part of it.  The rest of Ohio, all of Illinois and Indiana and, getting to Iowa.  So we leave the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, angling south and west toward I-80 where we will pick up our trail.  Once we pass Chicago and bi-sect the northern fifth of the Hoosier State, I will feel as though we’re really making progress.  Something about crossing the Mississippi and getting lost in the corn fields of Iowa that makes one feel the barometric pressure falling, from East to West.  And yet Rock Hall has an aftertaste.  And it is strangely lingering in us across Illinois, as we skirt south of what is supposed to be Chicago through traffic that has an unmistakably urban aura.  Something in the air that’s aggressive but somehow aimless at the same time.