Benton Harbor: A Man For Our Time

Steamship “City of Benton Harbor” Near St. Joseph/Benton Harbor, Michigan Lighthouse

For nearly two centuries, the legacy of Missouri’s Benton family has continued to spread.

Maecenas Benton, United States Attorney (1885-1889) and Congressional Representative from Missouri (1897-1905) happened to be the father of Thomas Hart Benton, American regionalist painter and muralist.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which houses many of his paintings, is located in Bentonville, Arkansas, a town named in honor of his great-great-uncle Thomas Hart Benton, a five-term Missouri senator whose efforts on behalf of Arkansas statehood were substantial.  After the first county in Arkansas was named “Benton” as a tribute to the Senator, the site designated as the county seat became known as Bentonville.

Arkansas wasn’t the only state that profited from Senator Benton’s attentions. Only six months after Arkansas’s [¹] 1836 admittance to the Union, Michigan became the next state to join.  Benton Township was established there on March 11, 1837, and in 1865, one of the first towns in the area, Brunson Harbor, became Benton Harbor: also in tribute to the Missouri Senator who helped Michigan achieve statehood.

While I admire Senator Benton’s role in the opening of the American West, and enjoy Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings wherever I find them, I’m most fond — and sometimes grow sentimental over — Benton Harbor.

Given that I’ve never been to Michigan, let alone to the town of Benton Harbor, my affection might seem odd. But some will understand. Whisper the words Benton Harbor into our ears, and we explode with a cackle and a cluck:

He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!

For generations of devotees, he is Benton Harbor: not a town, but a person — a mild-mannered, crime-fighting shoe salesman from Midland City, USA. Popularized in the 1960s, Benton Harbor became known to thousands of radio listeners as Chickenman.

Chickenman, Guardian of Civilization & Crime-Fighter Extraordinaire

Created by Dick Orkin, Radio Hall of Fame inductee and Production Director for WCFL in Chicago, Chickenman first aired in the spring of 1966 on WCFL’s Jim Runyon show. Runyon served as narrator, and Orkin himself voiced Chickenman.

The two were joined by a cast of characters that included Police Commissioner Benjamin Norton, the Commissioner’s secretary, Miss Honor Helfinger, Chickenman’s girlfriend Sayde Leckner, and his mother, Mildred Harbor.  Also known as The Maternal Marauder, Mildred occasionally helped out with crime-fighting, riding along with her son in his yellow Chicken Coupe and dispensing motherly wisdom while he confronted such foes as the Chicken-Plucker, the Bear Lady, and Big Clyde Crushman.

It was old-time radio for a new day: a combination of comedy, crime-fighting, and drama that recalled the thrill of huddling around the Zenith or Philco for Fibber McGee and Molly, Lux Family Theater, The Shadow, and Dragnet. Story telling in its purest form, it wasn’t meant to be read or watched, but to be listened to — as in this episode, where Chickenman discovers his precious chicken suit has been snagged by a sneaky and stereotypical competitor.


Click to play The Case of the Missing Chicken Suit 

In turn earnest, insouciant, self-effacing, naive, bumbling, and screamingly funny, Chickenman was neither super-hero nor anti-hero. He simply was a guy with a good heart, a trusting spirit, and the best of intentions who happened to believe it was possible to overcome evil. 

That he thought donning a chicken suit and flapping his arms was the best way to do it may seem a bit strange until you consider the perspective of his girlfriend, Miss Sayde, who often said, “If you can get past the clucking and the feathers flying around, he’s actually doing some good.”

For those of us who don’t mind a few flying feathers, the best news may be that the spirit of Chickenman lives.  While most people consider Benton Harbor just another town, and nearly everyone is willing to leave crime-fighting to the professionals,  there continue to be people committed to doing good and being good despite others’ judgments: not to mention setting and meeting their own idiosyncratic goals even when they’re ridiculed or dismissed by an utterly perplexed world.

I learned of one such person a few years ago, after one of my blogging friends enjoyed a weekend ski trip with a group of old friends from high school. Like many of us, she wasn’t entirely certain the reunion would be a good thing. As she said,

I was sure that the weekend would be a recurrence of my worst grade 10 nightmares, when my best friend found a new group of friends and I had to eat lunch in a bathroom stall because I had no one to sit with.

Happily, the weekend was a success, filled with skiing, movies, drinking and junk food. Best of all, one of her friends provided the sort of experience that would have made Chickenman proud, however bemused it would have left the good citizens of Benton Harbor.  Sara wrote:

I spent most of my time skiing with my two friends, one of whom does not have a winter jacket, so he snowboards in a chicken suit.
He had rented a chicken suit in grade 12, partly to promote his campaign for student council, but mostly because he wanted to rent a chicken suit. However, he recently found a chicken suit on Ebay and bought it, because, really, there are too many times in life made for a chicken suit for renting to suffice.
So now he snowboards in a chicken suit.

According to Sara, her friend doesn’t do it for the attention. He doesn’t do it to make a statement, and he’s not doing it on a dare. He just snowboards in a chicken suit.

Having made that clear, and in all apparent innocence, she goes on to ask the one question worth asking: “What would life be like if more of us did the same?”

During the last Winter Olympics, I found the beginning of an answer while watching snowboarding with friends. As Shaun White flew above the halfpipe, there was an audible intake of breath. Someone said, “Oh, my gosh. I’d be so chicken to do that.”  Never one to miss an opportunity, another said, “Sure. But you’re chicken to do anything,” while another added, “Everyone’s a chicken about something.”

In one sense, that’s true. We’ve all been chicken — nervous, hesitant, fearful — about something, and, as a result, remained mild-mannered, unnoticed, and bored. But what if we chickened out in Benton Harbor’s way, donning a chicken suit (if only metaphorically) and heading out to confront life?

With a little less thought and a little more visualization, it’s possible to imagine what life would be like if more of us did the same.  Surely there would be less pomposity, a bit less self-importance, less worry about hierarchies, and far less concern for propriety.  With luck, there would be more spontaneity, more whoops and hollers,  a little more joie de vivre and much more laughter.

With luck, it wouldn’t be long before the Chickenman’s battle cry became our own. If enough of us could bring ourselves to get past our embarassment over clucking, waving arms, and flying feathers, even the good folk of Benton Harbor might look around and say,

“They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere!”

 

Comments always are welcome.
[¹] For those interested in the choice of Arkansas’s over Arkansas’, see this Chicago tribune article about Arkansas’s legislated punctuation.

Going Small, and Coming Home

With no rain to ruin the concerts and no drought to curtail the fireworks, Houston’s annual Freedom Over Texas festival has been expanded into what promoters call an “extraordinary extravaganza” — a day-long series of Independence Day concerts and amusements meant to conclude with a  “spectacular” fireworks display.

The festival exemplifies the sort of hyperbolic excess dear to the hearts of civic boosters everywhere. Washington, D.C. is promoting its own traditional fireworks as “spectacular,” and of course New York City will be “displaying its patriotism through massive fireworks.” Boston intends to celebrate “in a big way,” while San Francisco will provide “magnificent” and “breath-taking” sights. Not to be outdone, San Diego, Key West, Little Rock, and Huntington Beach have upped their game, promising to rival even the nationally televised shows. Every year, program planners around the country seem determined to live by the well-known rule: “Go big, or go home.”
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Flight From Floydada

Grain Elevator in Floydada, Texas
Yes, indeed. It’s that time again. About every two years, as summer settles in with its attendant annoyances — heat, mosquitos, politicians who drone on more loudly than cicadas — the urge to re-post one of my all-time favorite stories overtakes me.
Whether you’ve read this humorous tale once (or twice) before or whether you haven’t, I hope you enjoy both the story and the song. Some say humor is the best medicine, and I suspect we all could use a dose or two at this point.

Floydada, Texas is cotton country, although it’s also known for good pumpkins, and likes to advertise itself as the Pumpkin Capital of the US.

It’s a flat, expansive piece of Panhandle real estate, a land marked by impossibly distant horizons and days barely distinguishable one from another. Strangers develop a habit of looking around, as if to orient themselves. Even Texans who’ve grown up with the wind, the dust, and the storms say it aloud now and then, as if to remind themselves: “This place will run you nuts, if you let it.” Continue reading

Decorated Graves, Decorated Lives

As with so much in our national life, change has come to Memorial Day. Flags continue to fly, patriotic garlands hang from porch railings, and bunting flutters in late-May breezes. Nevertheless, in ways both subtle and obnoxious, Memorial Day has become primarily a beginning-of-summer ritual: a time to focus on beaches, barbeques, mattress sales, and the first road trip of the season.

In truth, the slowly-fading history and significance of Memorial Day is both more complex and more interesting than most Americans realize. 

With the ending of the Civil War, commemorations spread across the South as mothers, wives, and children of the Confederate dead decorated the graves of their fallen soldiers.

Thirty years later, American writer and illustrator Howard Pyle wrote about Decoration Day for the May 28, 1898 issue of Harper’s Bazaar:

At that time, the outward signs of that flaming and bitter strife were still fresh and new. The bosom of nature, ploughed by the iron of war, had not yet healed. Everywhere were smoke-blackened and shattered shells, each at one time the patriarchal mansion of some great slave-holding planter.
Woods and glades were thinned out by the storm of shot and shell that had torn through them with iron hail. In one place or another long rows – rank upon rank – of shallow mounds stretched up hills, along the level, through the woodlands: battalions of graves hardly yet covered with the thin young grass.
Upon a dozen battle-fields were great cemeteries, each consecrated with its baptism of blood, and there North and South lay in stillness, soldiers stretched side by side, in a fraternity never to be broken, because the Angel Israfel himself had set his seal of silence upon it all.
“In Memoriam” ~ Sophie Bertha Steel
It was to these battle cemeteries, greater or lesser, that the women of the neighboring country brought their offering of flowers.
There is something very full of pathos in the thought of those poor Southern women who had suffered so much and who had endured to such a bitter end – of those patient women of grief bringing their harmless offerings of flowers to these stern and furrowed fields of death, there to lay the fading things upon the bosom of each mound.
The North, it is said, was remembered at those times as well as the South. One cannot but hope this may be true, for it is beautiful to think of one woman of sorrows in the South reaching out an unseen hand to some other and unknown woman of sorrows in the faraway North.

On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued orders that on May 30th of that year all posts should decorate the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers – both North and South – thus formalizing what had become customary.

After World War I, the focus of the day was expanded to honor all those who had died in all American wars, and Memorial Day began to replace Decoration Day as a term of reference. In 1971, Memorial Day was declared a national holiday by an act of Congress and placed on the last Monday in May.

By the years of my midwestern childhood, the rituals of Decoration Day had become firmly established. On the weekend preceding the holiday, we traveled to family cemeteries to clear away grass from the stones, trim the bushes, and plant fresh flowers. The town’s Boy Scouts, 4-H members, and church youth groups helped the Veterans of Foreign Wars place flags on veterans’ graves, so that all who served would be remembered.

Classroom lessons included the history of significant battles, and Presidential speeches. We created red, white and blue pennants containing patriotic images – the Tree of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, or Lady Liberty’s torch – and posters containing words we barely apprehended: Freedom. Peace. Courage.

Always, there was time for personal memories. World War II lay only a decade in the past, so tokens of that time were common: rationing coupons for gas and sugar; ribbons and medals awarded for bravery; photographs and correspondence from the front.

Once year, I shared a letter from my Uncle Jack, who fought in the Pacific but lay buried in Manila. His letters somehow disappeared into the great maw of time, but I have my father’s words to his brother:

We got your letter today and were sure glad to hear from you and that you are OK. It must be something over there. We kind of figured you must be up in the front, as we had not heard of you for some time…
Saw in the paper that the kid I used to ask you about was wounded over in Leyte. From that I figured you must be in there, too, as he is in the same division as you. Things must be bad there in more ways than one. From the papers it sounds like you are doing OK, though. Sure hope so…
Had you heard that Don was wounded? He was hit by a piece of flak. I guess his flying days are over from what he says. Sure hope you get through this campaign without injury. It sure must be nerve-wracking to fight all day and stand guard all night…
Take care of yourself and be careful. Hope this thing is over and you get home pretty soon. Write when you can…

Once school was dismissed on Friday, the routine never varied. Saturday morning meant a parade. In the afternoon, we cooked for Sunday’s trip to my grandparents’ home and then, at Sunday worship, we listened as a deacon read the list of congregational members killed or missing in action. We sang hymns acknowledging the realities of worldly conflict, and listened to sermons meant to comfort those still grieving their loss.

On Memorial Day itself we returned to the cemetery for flag ceremonies and speeches: a different sort of comfort.

On May 30, 1896, Father John J. Woods, pastor of Brooklyn’s Holy Cross Church, delivered some typical remarks. After members of the Veterans and Sons of Veterans’ Mutual Benefit Union marched with a fife and drum corps past decorated houses and cheering crowds to Holy Cross Cemetery, they heard these words, later reported in The Brooklyn Eagle.

“Where in the history of the world can be found any preamble or constitution as that of America? Its enunciation carried hope and consolation to the downtrodden and afflicted of every country, its promulgation and realization by a handful of valiant patriots sent consternation to cruel tyrants and earthly potentates, and proved that more than a human hand guided the destinies of the young republic.
The corner stone of this republic was laid in the noblest blood that ever flowed in battle, for it was shed for principle and God-given rights that no tyrant or power can stifle, much less destroy.
Our forefathers grabbed the sword and musket not to extend their territory or possessions, not to further ambitious objects, but to protect their heavenly gift of liberty. ‘Who will dare,’ cried they to the world, ‘deprive us of our right to seek happiness? Who will dare fetter us by unlawful and excessive taxation? Who will deny us the right to worship our Creator according to the dictates of our consciences? None, unless at the loss of our fortunes, our lives and sacred honor.”

Always, Decoration Day closed with a concert in the park. Battle-scarred or whole, old or young, bereaved by conflict or blessedly untouched, we gathered to hear the familiar songs.

After singing along with Cohen’s “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and clapping and toe-tapping our way through Sousa marches, our program invariably concluded with “The Battle Hymn of Republic.” Sometimes there were tears, and Peter Wilhousky’s arrangment still touches me: recalling as it does a time, not so long ago and perhaps still recoverable, when people of every political stripe, of wildly varying economic status, of every faith or of no faith at all, were willing to set aside differences in order to stand together in reverence before the majesty and mystery of a nation “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

As we come to our own Memorial Day celebrations, honoring those whose graves we decorate and cherishing the memory of their service on our behalf, perhaps we would do well to remember that lives, too, can be decorated: draped with the selflessness, integrity, honesty, and valor that constitute the best garlands of citizenship.

If we choose to live by such values, we may yet ensure that our dead have not died in vain; that our nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that, in the words of Lincoln, “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Battle Hymn of the Republic, arr. Wilhousky

Comments always are welcome. Illustrations come from a collection of family postcards. The post, updated from one previously published, still is relevant.

Lunch At The Miracle Cafe

If I hadn’t stopped to chat with Jeffrey Casten as he loaded soybeans into his semi, or been drawn into the woodworking shop by the aroma of fresh sawdust, or taken time to wander the field behind the abandoned school, I might have been a little farther down the road. But three o’clock had come and gone, and I was hungry.

Dropping south from Osage City, traveling through country rich in scenery but poor in amenties, it occurred to me that lessons learned about keeping my gas tank full might also apply to my cooler. I’d grown accustomed to convenience stores every few miles in Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri. Their absence in rural Kansas surprised me. I began to suspect I’d have to wait until Emporia to find a meal. Continue reading

Unwriting The Unwritten Rules

With a set of jacks, a hopscotch marker, and a jump rope in hand, entire afternoons could pass before anyone thought to say, “I’m bored.”

While we envied the skill of the Double-Dutching older girls, we took our turns at the single rope and were content. Pigtails and ponytails flying, we jumped to rhymes still known today: “Teddy Bear,” “Spanish Dancer,” “Cinderella.”

We giggled at verses filled with favorite beaus, kissing, marriage, and baby carriages, but the rhymes weren’t freighted with adult meaning. Their short, easily memorized lines were nothing more than markers for the entrance and exit of jumpers from the ropes. Continue reading

Still Rolling, After All These Years

Union Pacific Steam Engine 844 Passing Castle Rock  ~  Green River, Wyoming
Photo courtesy of Eric Nielsen

For three years, Union Pacific’s magnificent Engine No. 844 cooled its wheels in Cheyenne, Wyoming while undergoing a major overhaul in the company’s steam shop. Returned to service in 2016, it traveled first to Cheyenne Frontier Days, and then to the opening of the Big River Crossing in Memphis.

Today, UP 844 is traveling again. The Boise Turn Special, an eleven-day round trip run to Idaho to help celebrate the 92nd anniversary of Boise’s historic depot, will have taken the historic steam engine over 1,600 miles of Union Pacific track: through Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho. Brief stops in communities along the way have allowed both dedicated railfans and the casually curious to see, touch, and hear an important part of American history.
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