Cocolalla

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We had two cabins on a small lake in Northern Idaho.

Located between Lake Coeur de Alene, and the Pend Oreille, our little acre overlooked tiny Cocolalla, with large windows where we could watch the waves lap up on the beach. The original structure we astutely named the Little Cabin, later followed by the larger Big Cabin. This bigger cottage had been built with all the amenities of home; running water–hot and cold, a tub and toilet, a full kitchen, and electric heat.

Those early weekends in the Little Cabin hold many good memories. All of us crammed into that tiny wood box, the unfinished walls festooned with a lifetime of greeting cards, a big enameled wood stove, and a porcelain basin for washing dishes. Grandpa got his hands on a tall steel milk can and commandeered it for enough drinking water to get us through the weekend. As for entertainment, Grandma had an old radio that blasted the most impressive static, interspersed with Roy Orbison or Andy Williams fading in and out.

Once the Big Cabin was completed and my grandparents moved in, the smaller cabin was demoted to storage. It also housed a set of bunk beds, a fold-down couch, and one double bed; useful for my brothers who were just getting bigger. Now, in addition to greeting cards, the cabin stored every variety of water equipment. Fishing poles, life jackets, oars, and an outboard motor clamped to a metal barrel, with stacks of beach towels the size of blankets.

As I recall, a constant grit of sand coated the linoleum floor.

The property was my grandparents retirement dream, but a dream they happily shared with the rest of us. I knew, even then, that I was always welcome, always.

My grandpa was an early riser, a product of a lifetime as a mailman. He didn’t want to tiptoe around a little kid sleeping on his sofa at five in the  morning. At bedtime my grandmother and I made our way to the Little Cabin in the dark by flashlight. Under the covers of  the double bed, I would chafe my feet deep under the sheets to warm my toes. As we grew settled and peaceful she would begin to reminisce, talking to me for hours in that darkness. I learned of her life in those moments, warm in that cozy bed, listening to her voice, breathing the scent of the evergreen forest.

She told me of my biological grandfather, her first husband, who had left her bereft and penniless after my mother had been born. Despite the Depression, he liked to gamble away their money. My Grandma had to leave him and she struggled to find work as few jobs existed. Forced to farm out her daughter, my mother, in various homes, her the guilt still haunted her. Clearly it still broke Grandma’s heart that she was forced to separate from her little girl for months at a time. I could hear a wound that could never heal.

As the night grew deep, crickets and bullfrogs began to chorus. Flanked next to her, and pressed against some greeting cards, I prayed I wouldn’t spoil the magic by having to go potty. She kept, beneath the bed, a Chase and Sanborn coffee can that I hated to use. It felt cold and left rings on my little bottom. Still, considering options, the can was more appealing than a journey to the outhouse. Using that creepy outhouse in the daytime was bad enough, but at night unthinkable.

Finally poking her lightly, I would tell her. And she never hesitated. Showing no impatience at all, Grandma seemed to make my problem her own, reaching for the flashlight and finding that rusty can. She held the light on me so I could aim properly, then back into the warm bed. No recriminations.

She loved me.

I loved her.

Today my husband and I live in the woods. We don’t have a lake, but a river runs near and we can hear it on very quiet nights. I relax in my cozy bed in the darkness and listen to the crickets and bullfrogs, while breathing in a scent of pine. A sense of complete security, of love, of acceptance returns, synonymous with the love of my grandmother. She was home for me, and though gone these many years, my mountain cabin still echoes with her voice.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available at http://www.river-of-january.com and on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Smiling in Their Graves

As the fog of war lifted and an uncertain peace settled over the defeated Confederacy, anxiety grew among the vanquished as to what lay ahead. Abandoned plantations withered in disarray, and a popular idea gathered momentum it should go to the newly freed. “Forty Acres and a Mule,” became an expectation that, in the end never materialized. Instead Southern landholders who had fled, slowly returned to reclaim their estates and continue their lives. 

Outside of Freedman Bureau schools, and temporary bluecoated occupiers, no meaningful assistance for Freedmen materialized.

At the same time, three categories of defeated Southerners turned their attention to meeting the new reality. Military leaders, like Robert E Lee, and James Longstreet accepted defeat, and encouraged fellow veterans to follow suit. In fact, Longstreet, an old army friend of Ulysses Grant, cooperated with the Republican occupiers, earning the pejorative of “Scalawag,” a Confederate who collaborated with the enemy.

Outraged citizens who could not accept defeat were called “Fire Eaters.” Foremost among these was Jefferson Davis, incarcerated president of the Confederacy, Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee, who lost her ancestral home in Arlington, where Union forces buried their dead, and politician Edmund Ruffin. So enraged was Ruffin that when news of the defeat at Appomattox Courthouse reached him, Ruffin blew his brains out. 

Redeemers made up the balance of Southern Whites who were dangerously patient. These community leaders played their cards carefully, drifting into the Fire Eater lane at times, and back to deadly quiet redemption. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a great example of men who waited. Founding the Ku Klux Klan soon after the war ended, nightriders terrorized freedmen, discouraging blacks from enjoying their new guarantees as citizens. Other terms fit well into this particular era. Share Cropping, and the Crop Lien System invisibly chained blacks to the land that still bound them. Black Codes, and Vagrancy Laws sentenced laborers to the same bondage as before Fort Sumter. No serving on juries, no testifying against whites, Poll Taxes and Literacy Tests limited access to the ballot box. As Federal oversight declined over time, the Redeemers reasserted direct control.

Case law does remain on the books to protect minority voters but without vigilance and resolve remain fragile. These people, these Redeemers are still dangerously patient, and can shift to Fire Eater on a dime. In light of January 6, these zealots have demonstrated they still are quite lethal.  

By crafting misleading, banal language in new voting laws, the modern GOP has taken a page from that old Reconstruction playbook. Ironically, it was the Republican Party who protected Freedmen after the Civil War, but now play the part of oppressor, inserting bad legislation to cut off Federal influence. 

The old Redeemers must surely be smiling in their graves.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles are available on Kindle.

gailchumbley@gmail.com

The Spirit of the Age

In the post-Civil War era. John D Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, JP Morgan and others rose to wield unparalleled financial power. Emerging industries in oil, steel, and mining had grown into monolithic trusts, using innovative banking practices that fed an explosion of wealth. Titled “The Gilded Age,” these and other industrial giants earned another moniker “Robber Barons,” for not only the fortunes they built, but the ruthless practices that bred those millions.

The American public both admired and loathed these magnates. Critics argued the nature of such concentrated treasure was damaging to the lower rungs of American society. In pushback, journalists and economists lay bare the cruel tactics these industrialists utilized. Notable critics included Ida Tarbell, who investigated Rockefeller’s shady dealings in creating Standard Oil, Upton Sinclair did much the same through his novel, “The Jungle,” leaving readers both outraged and nauseous. And social reformer, essayist, Henry George, argued Carnegie had in no way improved the quality of American life, despite Carnegie’s philanthropic efforts. 

President Theodore Roosevelt found no friendship on either side. “Muckrakers,” he called these journalists, while still pursuing legal action against the excesses of what he termed the “wealthy criminal class.” 

In response, Andrew Carnegie published a work titled, “The Gospel of Wealth.” Centered upon the principles of 18th Century economist, Adam Smith, Carnegie argued that his success was no more than God’s will, and a gift to mankind. To Carnegie’s way of thinking, the Almighty himself, had conferred upon each certain gifts, and Mr Carnegie’s talent lay in getting rich. Left unmentioned were the unmet talents of those condemned to labor in the fiery pits of Carnegie Steel, and other factories. 

Confident in his beliefs, the tycoon believed he stood in God’s favor. And Americans swallowed the Gospel of Wealth, hook, line, and sinker, rendering reforms nearly impossible. 

After World War One America went on an unfettered spending spree. Throughout the Twenties President Coolidge rejected T. Roosevelt’s moral crusade, holding firm that “The Business of America is Business.” Then in October, 1929, at the beginning of Herbert Hoover’s administration the bottom fell out of the New York Stock Market. 

And somehow the rich no longer seemed quite as godly.

The 1932 Presidential Election issued a mandate for a “New Deal.” Desperate Americans were struggling, going hungry, losing their homes, writing the Franklin Roosevelt administration pleading for a hand up. And FDR acted quickly. Harnessing the power of the Federal Government, the President championed deficit spending, stimulating buying power to the underclasses. No longer would Americans tolerate the unregulated thievery of the past. By the 1960’s Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” extended aid even further, so regular people could tap into the financial support to get ahead. 

By 1980 the pendulum had swung to the right once again, regulation falling into disfavor. Laissez faire policies returned under Ronald Reagan. In turn, deficits blossomed, and the market crashed again in 1987 under the weight of the DotCom boom, and savings and loan scandals. Under GW Bush a scarier crash occurred in 2008, following the fallout of the mortgage market. 

America laws, passed in the heart of crises, need to be remembered and embraced, not discarded during better times.

Much like America during and after World War Two, private, public, and global financial institutions cooperated for just and equitable progress. Enlightened self-interest with carefully crafted guardrails enhance prosperity, and promotes financial stability.

Those lessons in economic policy made the 20th Century, America’s Century.