Peer Review #4

Just My Imagination, Running Away With Me.

*Whitfield & Strong

The President fumed, crushing buttons on his cell phone, as if each tab detonated an explosion. On the big screen Wolf Blitzer, voice flat and controlled, droned on how the President continues to lag in the polls. 

“Fake news,” he muttered out of habit, and switched the channel.

Perched on the edge of an upholstered armchair, he clutched his remote in one hand, and his cellphone in the other, seething at the unfairness of the coverage.The broadcast cut to a political commercial; a carefully spliced montage of his public faux pas, ending with an endorsement from his adversary. 

“Ukraine,” he muttered, “Got to talk to Mitch and Kevin about a new Ukraine investigation.” 

“You cannot coerce them, you know.” The voice came from behind. “The people. They cannot all be manipulated, much as you may try. Most are not fools, and any goodwill must be earned by deed.”

Not accustomed to direct insolence, the President twisted around in his chair snapping, “Just who the hell are . . .,” then trailed off. A tall, painfully angular man stood near a white paneled door. Attired in a long black coat with tails, the visitor sported jawline whiskers, mid-19th style. 

“And they will never all love you. Ever. Such is the raucous nature of American democracy. Sowing divisions through fear and vitriol is not governing, and you shall fail.” The visitor stepped closer as he spoke, prompting the President to leap out of his chair, his phone and remote dropping to the carpet. 

“I recognize you . . .,” the President sputtered.

“We, all of us, sought this office fueled with purpose and ambition,” the visitor continued in a midwestern twang. “However, once under oath, the campaign is over. A president faces the duty of serving all Americans, a challenge in the best of circumstances.

From the flickering screen a news anchor admonished, “Aides have confirmed that the President knew of the virus as early as February.” 

“It’s those hacks,” the President stabbed his finger accusingly at the big screen. The press is out to. . .”

His visitor laughed without humor. “Criticism of elected officials is as natural as the sun rising, and as perpetual. ‘Baboon’ was the nicest insult slung my way . . .by a serving general, no less. Then he up and challenged me in 1864.” The visitor chuckled lightly. “Still, the truth is we are all better with free speech than without. In our differing views we find our deepest strength.”

By now the President began tuning out much of what the visitor was saying, his irritation making him bold. “You need to leave,” he snapped. “I have a busy schedule.” 

Unruffled, the unwelcome guest studied the President intently. “In my time an entire section of the nation disputed the results of my election.”

“You lost the popular vote, but won the Electoral?” The President couldn’t help but ask.

“Indeed. Eleven southern states chose the battlefield over a peaceful transfer of power.” 

“What did you do?” 

“I defended the Republic.”

His visitor continued sadly. “However the butcher’s bill for this unity came dearly; 700,000 American lives.” The visitor heaved a weary sigh. “And that delicate balance has endured through war, peace, depressions, and national crises, preserved only through considerable effort and executive leadership. A unity you undermine at every opportunity. ” 

“Wrong, wrong, wrong. My supporters all love me. You should see the crowds at my rallies.”

“And the rest of America?” The visitor peer intently at the President. “Remember Sir, we are friends, not enemies. We must not be enemies.” His voice quietly trailed off in an echo, and he was gone.

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.

Before They Were Men

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“It’s hard to remember that they were men before they were legends, and children before they were men..” Bill Moyers, A Walk Through the Twentieth Century. 

For Presidents Day I’ve been putting together a lecture series for my local library. These talks surround the childhoods and later experiences of George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

The thinking behind the series was that early life for all four men presented serious challenges. Complications in health, family tragedies, and economic circumstances appear to have shaped the temperaments and the world view of these future presidents.

It was how each overcame difficulties and setbacks, and how that endurance came to influence each of their presidencies.

This is a brief synopsis of what I found.

Behind the image mythologized in “The Life of George Washington, by writer, “Parson” Weems, obscures the reality of a more nuanced, and complex Virginia child. Born on February 22, 1732 in Pope’s Creek, George Washington came into the world as the first son of a planter, but from a second marriage. His position in the family line left him without any claim to his father’s estate, or assured public standing. In Tidewater Virginia, society strictly followed the rules of primogeniture, where only the eldest male inherited, and young Washington could claim nothing, aside from the family name. His father, Augustine Washington had two sons from a first marriage, and Lawrence, the eldest, stood to inherit all.

Augustine in fact died in 1743, when George was only eleven years old, the boy not only lost his father, but also lost the formal English education his older brothers had enjoyed. That particular shortcoming forever marked George, leaving him self conscious and guarded through his early life.

To find his way, the youth conducted himself with quiet poise; it was a conscience effort designed to enter the upper echelons of society. Over time, with constant practice, Washington successfully hid his insecurities behind a restrained, and formal persona. So proficient at playing the gentleman, Washington, in fact, became one.

The Revolutionary War that Washington later tenaciously served, cost young Andrew Jackson his family. Born on the frontier, in a region paralleling North and South Carolina, young Andrew arrived into the world without his father. Jackson Sr had died months before, leaving Andrew’s mother, Elizabeth, and his two older brothers destitute.

At thirteen Andrew, along with his brother Robert, joined the Patriot ranks as runners, only to be captured and imprisoned by the Redcoats. While a captive an officer of the Crown ordered young Andrew to polish his boots, and the boy refused. Young Jackson claimed he was a “prisoner of war, and demanded to be treated as such.” The officer replied by whipping his sword across Jackson’s insolent head and forearms, creating a lifelong Anglophobe. (In January, 1815, 48-year old Colonel Andrew Jackson meted out his revenge on the Brits at the Battle of New Orleans).

The end of the Revolution found young Andrew alone-the only survivor of his Scots-Irish family. His brother Robert had succumbed to camp fever from his time as prisoner, followed by his mother three weeks later. For the rest of his long life, Andrew Jackson lashed out, perceiving any criticism as a challenge to his honor and authority. He governed with the desperate instincts of a survivor.

Of a mild, more genial temperament, Abraham Lincoln came to being in the wilds of Sinking Springs, Kentucky, near the settlement of Hodgenville. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a hard scrabbling farmer, while his loving mother Nancy Hanks lived only until Abe reached the age of nine. Hard work, deprivation and tragic personal losses seemed to permeate Lincoln’s young life, and as he grew Abraham grappled with serious bouts of melancholy.

Exhibiting a quick and curious mind, he struggled to educate himself on the frontier. Largely self-taught, Lincoln grasped the rudiments of reading and spelling, but his father saw schooling as idling away time better suited to work. Young Lincoln had to find tricks to do both, such as clearing trees then reading the primer he kept handy.

His step-mother, Sarah Bush Johnston reported that Abe would cipher numbers on a board in char, then scrape away the equation with a knife to solve another.

By young adulthood Lincoln left his father’s farm, and relocated to central Illinois, and made a life in the village of New Salem. Over time, Lincoln grew remarkably self-educated, studied law and passed the Illinois bar in 1836.

Of all the resentments he felt toward his father, it was Thomas’s clear lack of ambition and self improvement that nettled the son most. Upward mobility was America’s greatest gift, and young Lincoln pursued it with relish.

From his first gasping moments Theodore Roosevelt struggled simply to breathe. A child of rank, privilege and wealth, he suffered from debilitating, acute asthma. His parents, Theodore Sr and Mitty Bullock Roosevelt, stood helplessly over his sick bed, fearing that their little boy wouldn’t survive childhood. Later TR recalled how his father would lift him from his bed, bundle him into an open carriage for a long ride through the moist Manhattan night. Small for his age, and nearly blind, young Teedee as he was called, began an exercise regime in a gym, built by his father on the second floor of their palatial home on East 20th Street in New York. Over time, using a pommel horse, the rings, and a boxing speed bag, Theodore Jr visibly grew.

As for his eyes, a hunting trip finally proved to his family that he just couldn’t see. With new glasses, a self made physique and a dogged determination, Theodore Roosevelt brought his indefatigable zest and energy into his presidency.

Today is Presidents Day, 2018, and there is great value in remembering those who have served in this experiment in democracy. All four of these presidents left a distinctive signature of governance, schooled by earlier experience. And all, even Andy Jackson, governed in the spirit of service, believing they could make a contribution to this boisterous, ever-evolving experiment called America.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com

Fifteen Minutes

A number of years ago I attended a seminar on President Lincoln.  The title of the course was “Controlled by Events.”  That name puzzled me when I first read the brochure.  Abraham Lincoln, in my mind, was the most dogged, determined figure in American History. Because of his resolve, the Union was saved.  I later learned that the title came from a moment when the President admitted that he couldn’t manage outcomes once the dogs of war were released, just grapple with the aftermath. Now, after our battle with cancer and my husband’s close brush with death, I realize what our 16th president meant.

Through rigorous exertion Chad, my husband, succeeded in sitting up for fifteen minutes-a significant milestone. Soon after, his doctors determined he was ready for transfer to a rehabilitation hospital. This move was designed to teach Chad how to function again.  Seriously, the man could not lift a styrofoam cup, brush his teeth, shave, or comb what was left of his hair.

The nurse notified us by nine in the morning that he was scheduled for transport to the new facility sometime before lunch. Of course that meant the orderlies arrived around two in the afternoon, and Chad was tucked into his new bed in the new hospital by three. Not too bad for hospital time.  But what we heard at the new facility left me despondent, and Chad frightened and frustrated.

One by one, therapists visited us until six that evening. They introduced themselves, and gently informed us that sitting up for fifteen minutes was only the beginning. His relearning would test his endurance, reaching new levels of exertion. Critically frail, Chad grew deeply stressed because what they were asking seemed impossible. I vicariously felt his fears, and could do nothing to allay them.

I couldn’t do anything about anything.

I bumped along the currents of endless medical advice. After all, he couldn’t come home until he reclaimed something of his former body.

There he lay, bag of feces on his belly, an open, seeping surgical cut, from his naval to his groin, and the hospital was forcing him to get up and live again.

The looming deadline ahead for me was school starting again. There was no question that I had to work. We had to have the insurance, and the income if we were to survive this disaster financially. The medical bills were piling up, and I had no choices but to accept my nightmare. Then events, for a change, turned for the better.

One of my students lived behind our home, and I had hired her to tend our dogs while I spent days at the hospital. It turned out her mother was a registered nurse, who, just steps away, could be at our house within minutes. Wow, what a miracle for when he came home. Secondly, my seventy eight-year-old mother informed me she was coming to care for Chad so I could return to work. Honest to God, I didn’t want to bother other people, but had no other options. And both our neighbor and my mother assured me it was no bother, and they were glad to help. Both parties kindly offering the gift of their time and skills.

After two more excruciating weeks in rehab, I got to bring him home.  That night my mother chauffeured by my brother arrived at our door. I was sure my husband looked so much better after four weeks of hospitals and treatment. But when the both of them came in, and their faces betrayed shock by his poor condition.

In the end, unlike Lincoln, my husband survived our intense, little war. Trapped in the maelstrom, careening from one disaster to another we had no future.

Events controlled us.

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

gailchumbley@gmail.com