Civics 101

The Hungarian Uprising, 1956 ~ Erich Lessing, Magnum Photos

On October 23, 1956, I celebrated my tenth birthday.  There was cake, ice cream, and a small party with balloons and crepe paper streamers.  On that same day, in a world utterly removed from my cozy Iowa neighborhood, other children watched as friends, parents, and neighbors dared to cheer an occasion first known as the Hungarian Uprising and, somewhat later, as the Hungarian Revolution.

As I headed toward our kitchen for my post-birthday breakfast on October 24, or perhaps on the 25th, the Des Moines Register was lying on the dining room table, where my father always laid it before going upstairs to shave. A huge photograph filled the space above the fold, with the words “Revolution In Hungary” splashed across the top.

I never had met a Hungarian, and had only the vaguest sense of what a revolution might entail. But I could read, and I liked to look at photographs. Curious about the large print and big pictures, I paused to look at the paper. Suddenly gripped by a strange, vertiginous feeling, I realized I was holding my breath as hints of a world far larger than my own, and far less pleasant, began to envelop me.

Photo republished by Daily News Hungary ~ October 23, 2013

During the Budapest uprising, there was no 24-hour news cycle; no CNN; no internet; no embedded reporters and videographers. There was only the newspaper, lying motionless and mute in its accustomed place while my father readied for work and my mother drank coffee in the kitchen. 

As I stood at the table, my air of concentrated astonishment caught my dad’s attention. Stopping, he asked, “What’s happening?”  I pointed to the photograph. He picked up the front page and scanned it, then brought it to the kitchen. We talked about the events through breakfast. “Maybe you should tell them about it at school,” he said. And so I did.

Educated at a time when teachers were left more or less free to teach children as they saw fit, I benefited from my teacher’s willingness to set aside her lesson plans in order to talk with us about events in Europe.  She astonished us by finding the 1848 Hungarian national poem with the assistance of a librarian rather than Google — and we made its words into a poster.

Stand up, Hungarians, your country calls.
The time for now or never falls.
Are we to live as slaves or free?
Choose one. This is our destiny!
By the God of all the Magyars, we swear.
We swear never again the chains to bear. 

Even as a child, I was moved by the straightforwardness of the poetry, particularly its breathless assertion that chains could fall. Years later, turning over events of the time in a somewhat different context, I found myself pondering Karoly Nagy’s The Legacy of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution:

Liberty, democracy, human rights are like health. Servitude, oppression, discrimination are like sickness. Totalitarian tyranny is death. A revolution that overthrows tyranny and achieves liberty is a resurrection.
During the last week of October and the first few days of November, 1956, most of us in Hungary felt as if we were risen from the dead…
It was euphoria.  We sang our long-forbidden national anthem, embraced each other on the streets, laughed and cried with joy.  We felt redeemed. We were intoxicated by hearing and saying words of truth. We learned the truth and demonstrated it to the world: that what defines a country, what qualifies a society, is not any ideology, but the presence or absence of freedom.

As the days passed, we began to talk of freedom at the dinner table, as well as of freedom’s consequences and responsibilities. On November 4, as Russian tanks swarmed into Budapest to put an end to the uprising, I asked my parents, “Is that going to happen here?”  “Of course not,” said my mother. My father said not a word: not that night, and not the morning after.

But on the evening of November 5, he broke his silence. “When you get up in the morning, put on a good dress.You’re going to be late for school.” “Why?” I asked.  My father looked at my mother, and then at me. “You’re going with me to vote.”

From “Vote: The Machinery of Democracy” ~ Smithsonian Institution

In 1956, Dwight Eisenhower was running for a second term against Adlai Stevenson, the candidate he previously had defeated. During the campaign, my political involvement had been limited to wearing red, white, and blue “I Like Ike” metal stickpins: not because I supported his candidacy, but because I liked the sound of the words. My mother and dad were regular voters, and I knew they’d be voting on November 6. I imagined them voting for President Eisenhower, but I hardly expected to take part in the occasion myself.

Clearly, it was an ‘occasion,’ because I’d been told to dress up. In our small 1950s Iowa town, we dressed for every occasion: Easter and Christmas, weekly Sunday worship, trips to town, visits to grandparents, and travel in general. No one stepped aboard a bus or train without being starched and pressed to within an inch of their life, even if they were traveling only to Des Moines or Omaha. And if, by chance, someone were to board an airplane, nothing would do but the best suit, the prettiest dress, well-shined shoes, and a matching purse.

So it was that, on election day, I donned my best dress, patent-leather Mary Janes, and the pearl-drop necklace an aunt had sent for my birthday. As I settled into the car, trying to avoid wrinkling my dress, my dad looked at me and said, “Do you know why I’m taking you along?” I shook my head. “It’s time for you to start paying attention to these things.  Even though you’re too young to vote, when the day comes that you can vote, I want you to be ready.”

For years we continued the routine. When election day arrived, I got up early, dressed, and went with my dad to the polls, where I watched, waited, and grew ever more eager for the day when I, too, could participate.  After he voted, he’d take me back home so I could change clothes and get ready for school while my mother dressed for her own election day activities.

Once, as he was taking me back to school with my excused absence note clutched in my hand, Dad reminded me that voting is only part of the story of citizenship. “What we do day after day is important, too,” he said. “If the candidates we like win the election, we have to work to be sure they keep their promises. If our candidates don’t win, we need to work even harder to help elect them next time. But I’m going to work and you’re going to school because those are our jobs right now, and they’re important for the country, too.”

A lesson like that may fade, but it never is forgotten. Working on the docks some years ago on a sunny afternoon in late October, a radio appeal for early voting in Houston caught my attention. Harris County had lost most of their voting machines in a warehouse fire, and even though replacements had been found, officials were encouraging early voting to ease complications brought on by the voting machine loss. Though not a Harris County resident, I felt a sudden urge to vote; my choices already had been made, so there was no reason to delay.

Brushing off a day’s worth of sanding dust, the habits of those early years reasserted themselves. I drove home, showered, and dressed before heading to the polls, even though ‘dressing up’ meant resort casual with a good pair of boat shoes. Still, it was enough to release a flood of memories. Driving to my polling place, I thought about my dad: about the lessons he taught and the passionate love of country that enlivened him. I thought of him as I voted, and thanked him as I drove home.

This year, early voting in Texas begins on October 22, and I’ll be ready. My candidates may win, or my candidates may lose, but no matter the result, I’ll continue to work in one way or another on behalf of my country. As my dad reminded me so often, that work is the price of freedom, and freedom’s benefits far outweigh its cost.

Boy Scouts of America 1956 voting poster ~ Smithsonian Institution

Comments always are welcome.


Life On Rich Mountain, Part II ~ Some Stayed Behind

A June evening on Rich Mountain

Around mid-summer, Arkansas wineberries begin to ripen. Prickly tangles of fruit and vines native to China, Korea, and Japan, the wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) arrived in the United States around 1890. Intended for use as breeding stock for new varieties of raspberries and blackberries, the plant’s beautiful red canes soon were planted as ornamentals as well. Perhaps inevitably, the wineberry escaped cultivation and began spreading through the wilds of North America. Continue reading

Life On Rich Mountain, Part I ~ Building Up

A June morning on Rich Mountain

The earliest settlers in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas arrived about 1830, traveling primarily from the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky, and northern Georgia into the area’s fertile, if remote and isolated, river valleys.

In time, some left the valleys for higher elevations. The long, even crest of Rich Mountain, named for its uncommonly rich soil, was especially appealing. Wide enough to accommodate homes, small fields, and garden patches, it combined fertile soil with a multitude of springs bubbling just below the ridge. Aileen McWilliam,  herself a child of the Ouachitas and a historian of Rich Mountain, recalled:

[The soil was] in some places so deep that the rocks gave little trouble, and so loose that it required little tillage. A small pocket of soil among rocks could be planted by using only a hoe to make a depression for a few seeds. The atmosphere was conducive to the growth of lush vegetable crops.
Though the growing season is relatively short, growth is rapid, and the winds and cold temperatures of the moutaintop hold back the fruit tree buds that in the valley come out too early, and are nipped by frosts.

Continue reading

Laundry Days

My maternal grandmother, c.1920

Every era defines its necessities differently. For my grandmother, a clothesline was as much a necessity as her twin aluminum wash tubs and the assortment of scrub boards that hung in the mud room.

Even my mother, blessed early in marriage with an electric washing machine, found her clothesline a necessity. Laundry fed through wringer bars could be squeezed nearly dry, but nearly dry wasn’t good enough. With no gas or electric clothes dryers to finish the task, the piles of laundry — damp, wrinkled, and still heavy after passing through the wringers — had to be hung on clotheslines before being ironed, or folded into closets and drawers. Continue reading

A Little Less Dazed, A Bit Less Confused

Remembrance of technologies past

While the advent of digital photography has changed the way we take photos, it’s changed the way we view them as well.

Today, we’re awash in photos, but not so very long ago their relative scarcity gave rise to traditions that already seem old-fashioned: carrying family photos in a wallet; creating physical photo albums; trading annual school photos with classmates. Continue reading

Those Almost-Photographic Plates

In a world still characterized by four-digit telephone numbers, 78 rpm records, and vacuum tubes that had to be carried to the hardware store for testing when the radio or television wouldn’t work, my first camera fit right in.

A Christmas gift, it was a simple Kodak Brownie — perhaps the Brownie Holiday, but more probably the slightly newer Model 127. Of course it required film, carefully loaded into the camera one precious roll at a time. There were knobs to turn, holes to match with tiny, mechanical teeth, and a certain amount of ruined film that went along with the learning process, since childish excitement often meant forgetting the first rule listed in the Brownie 127 instruction manual: “Take the camera into the shade.”  Continue reading

A Celtic Legacy

The widow Mackinnon and Mrs. Neil Ferguson ~ St. Kilda, 1909

From Oban to Skye, from the Outer Hebrides to St. Kilda they traveled: two Aberdeen photographers intent on capturing and preserving the life of a remarkable people.  The beautifully colored lantern slides of  George Washington Wilson and Norman Macleod,  an iconic collection put into book form by Mark Butterworth, were produced in the late 1880s, fifty years before color photography came to Scotland. Continue reading