Thursday, March 3, 2011
Events progressed, in spite of hazing in and out and despite the world growing in and out of focus. For certain rooms, upon my leaving them, appeared to disappear. And I left rooms, and tested these principles, walking out into the street. I walked back in the building by some other passage, dawdled on some other floor, returned by a different passage, stopped short of my door, walked past it and then quickly returned and swung it open. For a cataclysmic moment I thought there was no room there --- and no space inside the room as well --- just a curious negation --- spellbinding blankness.
In spite of these harrowing exercises, I did not mind my office, nor my work. In fact, my patriotic yearnings kept me at my task with officiousness. And there was so much to do in those early days.
The Vandemark’s, with their American connections, their deep pragmatic urges and conspiratorial drives, always turned their lily white faces toward grand stands wrapped in red, white and blue bunting every Forth of July. Father, before he left Mother, would don his broad brimmed straw summer hat, his white sports coat and flared tan trousers, would pack Mother, Homer, me and our governess off to the Central Park Grandstand and we would settled down in the sheep tooth shorn grass of the Great Lawn and listen to the stirring brass notes of patriot songs and wait with trembling limbs for twilight to approach and the first Roman candles to arch upward, exploding over the flat gray buildings of the nascent Manhattan skyline.
The bandstand was host to a score of fat, placid musicians in red suspenders, bow ties, bowler hats, and wide flared white trousers. A tuba bobbed up and down as it beat out a bass line; the brass of trumpets and coronets thrust out to the semi-circle of crowd surrounding the gazebo like brazen fetishes.
And standing in front of the assemblage was a thin, elegant man in a semi-military uniform, blue and black Union Army coat with golden tassels dangling from the epaulets; a peaked Army of the Potomac cap perched low over his head; blue trousers with a crimson piping running from waist to his ankles; dress shoes gleaming a patent leather black. Handle bar moustaches thrusting from the sides of his face like outlandish bolts.
A march wafted over the crowd; it moved around the Great Lawn in pleasing undulations as brass and drums paced out the regular syncopation of Yankee Doodle. But this time it was played with a more 18th century musical patterning (not the stereotyped modern version, a little ditty played too nostalgically to create a Revolutionary War milieu) but a rousing call to battle, a spirited rally for a new nation to take the terms of the disparagement of its enemies and make them their own.
The New Nationalism was everywhere. Hardly a person did not have at least a swatch of red, white and blue somewhere on his body. Before these multi-colored days the colors of the national emblem were more or less confined to the flag, and hardly ever espied any other place but the stars and bars.
Now is was as if the flag had bled. Red, white and blue burst from its confines and spilled onto clothing: red, white and blue broad ties, sometimes in an exact replica of the flag, at other times in a stylized pattern of free-floating stars, fluttering bars, developing into abstract patterns: red dots, blue slashes, white wavy lines.
People were suddenly wearing red, white and blue flag jackets; stars and bars pants. Then there was the nostalgia flag craze: Don’t Tread On Me, with that disquieting coiled snake rising from a stylized bed of grass. The Revolutionary War era continental flag: thirteen white stars orbiting in a perfect circle neatly centered in a field of late twilight blue.
Out beyond the grandstand near the green gold line of trees made hazily indistinct by the descending ozone of the summer evening, a field of brown canisters were laid out. A team of busy mustached, shirt sleeved Italians were laying out charges and running detonators.
They were being supervised by a neatly dressed Italian man in a mauve colored coat and matching straw hat; a waist coat spread over an expanding, prosperous belly. As a first generation Italian with the fireworks contract for the City of New York, he was nervous, excited, barking at his men in Calabrese, don’t screw up those charges, don’t cross those lines, be careful of that patch of grass, its still wet from the rain...
Another summer. Another Fourth of July! Why did the summers seem longer when we were young? Why does time seem to accelerate as we grow older, when we are in greater need of that precious, rapidly depleting commodity?
The sky turned a pale blue, then a deeper dusky blue black; and rapidly, for the light and color at twilight, when examined steadily without interruption, transforms more rapidly than any other of nature’s phenomenon. Light blue to dusty red; dusty red to flat yellow… yellow blending effortlessly to a dark blue to perfect undifferentiated black. An ideal backdrop for….
Stubby Calabrese fingers light a fuse, and with a sudden hiss, delineating the moment prior to ignition and the controlled cataclysm to come, rockets ascended into the even blackness and explode, mushrooming plumes of red, white and blue sparkles, mixing together like leaking neon, and somehow exploding again when they reached a lower elevation, plunging into star shaped patterns, before burning out, trailing downward to the earth in spent reams of smoke.
There would be the inevitable hush following the cacophonous finale; all that remains is the cloud of bluish smoke, a pungent gunpowder aroma. And people would begin to chatter again; small knots began to disengage from the crowed and filter down to subways, back to stifling apartments, heading toward the disappointment of July Fifth, an unlucky day indeed, so close to its cousin in name and chronology but drained of all the celebratory charm, another summer day, one step closer to the autumnal equinox, one more step Persephone takes toward hell.
Father, a medical doctor, was so imbued with the New Nationalism that he grew a moustache Teddy Roosevelt style. I believe his brash mannerisms were nothing more than a conscious attempt to transform himself into Tough Teddy. Somehow, at a point when the American frontier was officially closed, this fossilized imprint of American manhood sprang forth fully toothed and armored.
An American man was independent, self-willed, individually reliant, not prone to effacement, either of self or of his fellows. The frontier, the natural habitat of this independently driven creature, was no more than an imaginary boundary in the surprisingly fragile male psyche.
The actual frontier, now the enclosed prairie, with clumps of placid cows munching on fields of clover, was a far west parceled out into tame reserves and national parks. The American man was becoming undone; not at once, but at the borders, at the margins of the self which is actually more vital than the so-called center, for at the margins the interactions with the world are enacted; it is at the perimeter where fragile transactions with inside and outside transpire.
This brash swaggering man from Long Island, this Tough Teddy of the child’s bear fame, the Rough Rider who, after loosing his first wife on the birthing bed, was plunged into a world of darkness, took off to the West, the breeding ground for underdeveloped American manhood.
He wore round owl eyed eyeglasses, donned chaps, sported a nifty lasso, calf-skined hat, knee high boots, and took a photograph surrounded by surly cow-pokes and dusty bulls and cream colored calf’s. These images would set the tone for American manliness for most of our disjointed and ad-hoc century.
What had come naturally, due to necessity, pragmatism and bald need, now became a poise. What had been fluid, was rigidified. What filled a niche was now frozen form. The American man had become an urban creature, a bureaucrat, an office holder, a clerk seated at a pressed particle board desk in the open lobby of a great Wall Street banking concern.
But above it all, floating like a murdered ghost, disembodied and seeking its measure of honest retribution, was the spook of American manhood, burly armed, broad chested, deep throated, hairy legged, galloping up San Juan Hill, capturing Manila, marching through the winding alleys of Old Havana.
Father was so zealous that he made an unsuccessful bid to secure a commission when the United States entered the Great War, when he was too old, and should have known better. He never saw France. He grew more sullen after this, physically absent, mentally distant, then of course he decamped leaving our family. But his absence was not necessarily from this failure, but from a thousand mental defects that he had failed to transform in his active, subtle mind, into victories. All was laid out for Father, but he ignored essentials. He chose to let the obvious facts of his own power lie in the dust.
Regardless, the urge to serve, to serve at any cost, was handed from Father to Son with no dissolution. He passed the cup to me and I drank deeply. For Father had always believed in a certain uniformity of action and intent. He always strove to forget the past and plough through to the uncertain future, vague, indistinct or careless as he may have been in his methods and designs. He always put the best proverbial shoe forward.
Mother, parlor room Mother, really unaware of the Vandemark historical load, shrunk from Father’s pace; she was diminished in the wake of his dynamism. She began to disintegrate from the wear and tear of existence in the Vandemark churning mechanism.
When Father finally left Mother for that other woman and misadventures out west, she seemed to seep into a black vortex. She occupied a space, of course, but a dimension was lost that she never recovered. The distinctness of shade, color, and contour had been drained away at her margins leaving a whisy-washy Rose Vandemark.
A woman who had transferred those vital elements of self to husband and children and lost them forever to the vicissitudes of a blind masculine whimsy. How could she have known how much we would take from her and never give back? How could she imagine what depths her son would travel toward? How he would transform himself into an insubstantial shade. And how that shade would suspend itself over a ridiculous void; a tiny, meaningless point of nullity so simple in its dimensions that falling into it aptly illustrates how seductive such traps truly are.
For there is talk and there is action. There is faith and there is belief. There is form and there is matter. And both these dualities belong together in union, but are heart breakingly easily torn asunder.