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Monday, September 22, 2008

Bloggin' in...

Here and now, Ted Landphair, who writes twice-weekly Only in America essays on VOA’s American Life page, begins a blog designed to connect your curiosity about the United States with his experiences, insights and quirks gained from forty years of reporting.

World, meet Ted, whom we affectionately call “Mr. America Without Muscles.”


This was my humble childhood abode. It
looks a lot more imposing in this
close-up view taken recently

Radio and newspaper assignments have taken me to every state, some of them many times. But you won’t find the roots of this new undertaking in my resume or travel vouchers. They trace, instead, to a wee but well-kept house just west of sooty Cleveland, Ohio, where I spent my formative years.

There, for an only child like me, imagination was a magical mystery ship. On the front porch glider, I read and daydreamed and -- often alone -- played “The Game of the States.” It described the industries, products, and key cities of every U.S. state. I soon knew all the capitals -- still do; you can test me! This gave me a certain suburban street cred.


When storms swept mayflies that we called “Canadian soldiers” off Lake Erie, I would picture Great Lakes ore boats, three football fields long, bucking out of the waves and turning into that wind. When thunderstorms and blizzards bore down, I conjured Oklahoma’s “Tornado Alley” and a North Dakota valley I’d read about called “Ice Box Canyon.” I wondered who would live in such places, and why.


A limited worldview

Mother was a beauty as a young
woman. She was also a firm and
dedicated teacher whom her
little students loved.
My mother, a teacher of small children whose homework papers I helped to grade, raised me with stern assistance from my pious grandmother. They rode buses and streetcars everywhere -- my mother to and from school; Gramma, night after night, back and forth to a Pentacostal church on the East Side. Neither drove a car even once. Mother was scared of automobiles; Gramma said they were the devil’s tool.

So we did not go far. But in my mind, I went everywhere.

I, too, rode the streetcar, past the Hungarian church (and wondered about Hungary), through a Ukrainian neighborhood (and wondered if my hockey player idol lived there), and over a high bridge above Cleveland’s “Flats,” where acrid smoke from steel mills and breweries below billowed into our railcar. I wondered about what went on down there, too.

This is a 1953 view of one of the streetcars
on the Madison Avenue line that I rode all
the time. “P.O.C.” on the beer billboard
stands for “Pride of Cleveland.”

The only trip we took beyond town was an annual visit “over the mountains” -- the ancient Alleghenies -- to my uncle’s fishing cabin in Pennsylvania. “The cottage,” we called it, though the spiders and blacksnakes and outhouse thereabouts were hardly refined. Mother and I would ride two streetcars to Shaker Heights, where my garrulous Uncle Robert, taciturn Aunt Edna, and irritable teenage cousin Bob would meet us in their Olds 88. Off we’d go, I wide-eyed, Mother terrified of each hairpin turn. Gramma stayed home to watch my cocker spaniel and to pray.

Pennsylvania roots

Uncle Robert and Mother, who were raised in abject poverty, would tell me about earlier trips to market over a single mountain from their meager, rented Pennsylvania farm to a shabby coal town. They would take the better part of a day on a horse-drawn buckboard. Rolling along in the Oldsmobile, I thought of the pioneer families who walked those hills, of Pennsylvania’s strange place names like “Riot” and “Scalp Level,” and of the Great Johnstown Flood of 1889, when a wall of water and debris twelve meters high roared down a valley like the one I was eying out the window.
I was younger than four here
(I'm bad at guessing ages in
photos), and a lot cuter then
than now.”


Mother, Taffy the spaniel, and I had made one other trip, by rail, all the way to Colorado, in a failed attempt to reconcile with my father. I was just four, but I remember a surprising amount: sneaking Taffy from the baggage car into our compartment; a gruff cop in sweltering St. Louis, ordering us to “remove that hound” who was coolly dog-paddling in the train terminal fountain; the exotic smell of fresh corn muffins as we crossed the Kansas prairie; goats high in the Rockies and bison low in the meadows; angry, stinging fire ants in my father’s scrubby yard; and my first encounter with live chickens, many of which became dead chickens when I loosed Taffy into their coop to “play.”

The jackalope is a rare and elusive creature,
but this postcard company's photographer
managed to catch one in a meadow.”

The wonder of America for me began in such small things. Why did my father wink when he described a hunt for the elusive “jackalope?” Why did his town of Pueblo have white fire engines? Fire engines are red. Why did Ohio, and not Colorado, have such a large lake?

(Did you, too, ever develop a burning curiosity about your nation or the world around you? I’d be especially interested in hearing about any fascination with America or some part of it. Perhaps I can write about that place here sometime.)

America through a viewer

We came home from Colorado without my father but with a set of “View-Master” wheels containing 3-D pictures of Indians of the Southwest, the then-treacherous road up Pikes Peak, and red-rock formations in the “Garden of the Gods.” I pushed the little spring that advanced the photos so many times that the viewer broke before we reached the Mississippi.

Downtown Cleveland today
has cleaner air, since most of
the factories and mills in the
“Flats” (foreground) have
been razed or turned into
night spots.

Late nights listening through the medium-wave static to Cleveland Indians’ baseball games played in exotic Chicago or Philadelphia further stoked my imagination. Save for that Pueblo journey and a class trip to New York City, I would not travel farther east than the Indians’ ballpark, south than the Cleveland zoo, north than Lake Erie’s shore, or west than a municipal park next door until I left for college.

That’s all right. Ideaphoric -- an aptitude-test word that would one day put a name to my curiosity -- I wandered every part of our land through a new View-Master viewer, in our cheap and condensed encyclopedia, and on television in black and white.

Later I would be fortunate to live and work in memorable places: New Orleans, Los Angeles, the red-dust country of North Texas, and here in Washington. And it would be a fortuitous and delightful development to marry and travel with Carol M. Highsmith, who has become one of America’s eminent photographers. You see a bit of her work here and will enjoy, I hope, even more of it in the weeks to come. As Carol and I have traveled and published photography books, we have come to appreciate the old-- she calls it “Disappearing America” -- the new, the obscure, and the celebrated parts of our land.

Roadmap to our nation

If you would like to hop aboard this expedition, check back. Please have a United States map at hand if you can. Touching a finger to each place that we go will enhance your enjoyment. The one to which I’ve linked will enable you to zoom in on detailed maps of any state we visit. By your leave, I’ll throw in some U.S. history (on which I also spent a lot of glider time) and a profile or two of some interesting, if little-known, American characters.

Not all of our land is “America the Beautiful.” Some of it has never seen a tourist, except maybe Carol and me. But if you pack your imagination, we’ll go there together.

(They tell me the success of blogs depends upon interaction with those who read them. So please tell me about the places in America that you’d like to hear more about, and if you happened to visit the country and have your own story to tell, please share it.)

TODAY'S WILD WORDS

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)

Conjure. To make things -- even ghosts, spirits, and the devil -- materialize, especially using chants or incantations. Magicians with this talent are sometimes called "conjurers." We often stick an unnecessary "up"* after this word, as in "conjuring up an excuse."
*As a bit of a grammatical stickler, born under the fussy sign of Virgo, extra "ups" bug me. Most grating of all to my ear is a request to "call me up" when just calling you would suffice. I'm always tempted to reply, "OK, Up " . . . as in "Call me a taxi." "OK, you're a taxi."

Glider. My kind of glider is not an unpowered airplane. It's a porch swing that looks like a living-room couch, hanging from a low frame. But it doesn't swing in an arc. It slides forward and backward gently without upsetting one's stomach. Combine that lazy to-and-fro motion with comfy glider cushions and a summer breeze, and you have a mesmerizing invitation to take a nap!

Mesmerizing. Since I just used that unusual word, I'd better explain it. It means hypnotizing, usually without a hypnotist present! A really good lecture can be mesmerizing. So can a song or a repetitive motion. You're not just interested in a mesmerizing performance or object, you're locked in, spellbound. The term appeared in the nineteenth century in reference to the work of one Franz Mesmer, an Austrian physician who developed a theory of animal magnetism that's so strong, it can hyptnotize people.

Taciturn. This is a word that I learned a long time ago from a challenging little book called 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. It describes not just quiet behavior, but deliberate, calculating silence. Someone who is taciturn wants to say very little -- and does. "The silent type," we sometimes call taciturn people.

Please leave a comment.

1 comment:

suggest said...

Great Blog. We look forward to following you and your adventures.
Dan and Sara