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Works and Days

The Chains of the Past

October 14th, 2007 - 10:01 pm

Prisoner of Memory

The end of the raisin harvest this year—I have rented out my vineyard to a neighbor the last several years—reminds me that a traditional Thompson vineyard is probably doomed. Some of these 6’x12’ vineyards were planted in the 1920s by my grandfather. Due to climbing costs, the future is in high-density plantings, perhaps up to 2000 vines per acre, trellised on pergolas, machine pruned and picked, water and fed by computerized drip irrigation, and requiring very little intensive labor per acre, but costing perhaps $5,000-8,000 per acre in initial planting costs.

Since the farm—the remnant of the original 135 acres that was parceled up between my siblings— will be very soon be in the city limits, its future rests with my son. For now I’m in a holding pattern, and enjoy walking around the house and vineyard, mostly for the recollections of the 1950s and 1960s when dozens of neighbors, small farmers all, used to congregate and talk after lunch about JFK, the dams in the Sierra, and new upcoming powerful 50-hp vineyard tractors (We had three older ones, a Ford Jubilee, an older put-put Ford 8N (I think it didn’t even have overhead valves) and a wonderful early model Italian-made Oliver. None would pull a 9-foot disk, meaning you had to disk each vine row twice in this age before the larger Masseys, Fords, and John Deeres).

I still have dreams that somewhere there will be a place, perhaps like the final scenes of How Green Was My Valley, where all these giants of the earth, the hired man Manuel George, the hulk Bill Hazzlehoffer, the other neighbor Harry Khasigian, and the Cherokee Joe Carey, the hardest worker and most honest man I’ve ever met, will reappear over the hill by the pond, as if they have never been gone at all.

Much of what I learned about farming—and life—came from my grandfather Rees Alonzo Davis who was at the center of all that, and who was born in my house in 1890, the grandson of the Lucy Anna Davis who came here from Missouri and built it much earlier. It is a dangerous thing to live in the past—Horace had a term for it in his Ars Poetica: laudator temporis acti—but as one ages, one increasingly can become captive to memory.

There were the widely variant mundane lessons—always shake hands and look one in the eye, value your name in the community, treat the common laborer with as much or more respect than you do the rich man, always pay your bills well before due, acknowledge deep appreciation of the natural beauty and bounty of central California, honor the United States, especially in times when others don’t, try to get up before dawn, expect things to break and try to maintain them in advance, adopt a rhythm in diet, activity, and habit, never smoke or drink (if at all).

Much of Rees’s advice about this lifestyle of the elder Cato was exactly the opposite from my wonderful father William Hanson who married his daughter, my mother, a Swede who flew on 40 missions over Japan in a B-29 and enjoyed cigarettes and whisky and hard living and hard fun all with a wonderful character of good will and a buoyant disposition.

It was a good balance between the two, but my father advised always “relax and enjoy things, life’s too short to be so serious;” his father in law countered with: “worry about things before they happen, be prepared for tragedy, to step up when others can’t (he tried to put away money to help pay for funerals, weddings, and anniversaries on the assumption that others wouldn’t).

He seemed to think hard physical work was somehow spiritual, and rarely worried about labor-saving devices or doing things differently that might save additional labor Calluses, sweat, soreness were all a sign of moral betterment, something deeply resented by me and my siblings when we were forced to join him for hours in shoveling or tying up vines on our knees, but later appreciated for teaching how the mind can tolerate hours of rote rugged toil.

My biggest worry? The loss of knowledge I inherited about the physical world. My grandfather could smell a storm on a southern September wind. He looked at the way birds nested to sense rain, and daily marked the phases of the moon, and tides and kept a precise diary for 50 years. He could judge the year by stunted or rich grape foliage, and weekly measured the water table, and checked the direction of the wind and the cloud formations. He had what I’d call a “sense”, the ability to know by intuition the impending physical world and the way humans would react to it, a Thucydidean in the fullest sense.

He had absolutely no interest in profit other than staying alive, and being able to farm and support his family. The appearance of his farm, not its profitability, was the key, since the aesthetics were a reflection of his own character. Shortfalls and farm losses were made up out of his hide, by avoiding expensive meat, and living off most of the things grown on our farm from persimmon bread to pomegranate juice.

We complained that he put all his money back into the farm—new end posts, vine wire, and irrigation valves—and only sparingly the house (I moved in at 26 to his run-down clapboard two-story pride and spent 30 years trying to restore it to what he once described it looked like in 1910 when it was only 25 years old).

I wish I could have passed on that natural wisdom to my old children, but only digested a fraction of it myself, more eager to leave the boredom and head to the coast, only in mid-twenties realizing how fortunate I was to have had such a refuge.

I think the most serious charge against my generation (born in 1953) was the blaming, victimization and self-absorption in which so often we faulted our parents or our family for our own ensuing problems. In my case, I owe any success I’ve enjoyed to my parents and grandparents who gave me such a wonderful youth, while the failures were all my own, usually as a result of not listening to their posthumous (they are all gone now) voices ringing in my head.

The Pulse of the Battlefield

War is the most unpredictable of all human events. Few can see how and when it ends. By spring 1918 after four years of horrific fighting, the Imperial German government was promising victory as its armies went on the offensive further into France and Belgium. Four months later they were in hasty retreat to a defeated Germany as the war drew to a close.

The worst campaign in the Pacific theater—the bloodbath at Okinawa that took 50,000 American casualties and 200,000 Japanese and Okinawa lives—was officially declared ended just six weeks before the surrender of Japan.

The four-year war to stabilize Iraq is similarly up-and-down, as the good news of Saddam’s defeat, the end of the Hussein family tyrants, and three successful elections are overshadowed by the insurgency, constant violence, and now 3800 dead American servicemen.

Politics always reflects this volatile pulse of war. In the bleak summer 1864 Lincoln had no friends, by April 1865 no enemies. FDR was considered by many a dangerous war monger in early 1941, by year’s end a sober war leader that was uniting the country against the fascist enemy. Truman left office despised in 1953 as an incompetent, but once South Korea was saved, he was seen as an architect of Cold War containment.

With the advent of 24/7 cable news, instant global communications, and a popular culture that is obsessed with the present and future, we became largely ignorant of history’s past lessons. But believe it or not, the war in Iraq is not immune from history and thus can also change once more and radically so—and has since early summer.

The most deadly area of Iraq was always the so-called Sunni Triangle where Baathists, Saddamites, Islamists, and al Qaeda all joined together to kill Americans. Now much of that area is quiet, as Sunnis have tired of the violence and are asking the Americans to both fight al Qaeda with them and broker a peace between themselves and the Shiite-dominated elected government in Baghdad.

If the Shiites were to follow the same script and turn on their own radical Shiite militias—and there is some reason to believe that is also possible—then it is conceivable to envision a mostly stable Iraq. And that would mean both sides could fight out their differences over oil revenues and government services in a mostly peaceful fashion.

Would anyone here at home believe that such a good turnout might be possible? Probably not, given the past four years domestic furor over the war. Remember that in 1974-5, after a decade of ordeal in Vietnam, the South Vietnamese government was still viable. But with Watergate and 57,000 dead the American public was sickened by the very name Vietnam. The Congress accordingly cut off all American military assistance, even as North Vietnamese communist forces invaded the south to finish off the its two-decade rival.

The administration and our military are heavily invested in securing Iraq, many on the left and in the Democratic party equally convinced that the war has been a horrendous waste of American blood and treasure and its long past time to pull the plug But amid this domestic back-and forth- the US military gets up each day to fight terrorists and train Iraqis to take over, and is suddenly getting better with it by the day.

The old blame gaming of the past—Was there ever really that much wmd?, Was Saddam promoting al Qaeda-like terrorism? Was Iran empowered by our invasion?—is now mostly irrelevant. Historians will decide whether a democratic Iran was worth the American cost, and whether the war was a grab for oil and hegemony or a mostly idealistic effort to end a genocidal dictatorship and bring constitutional government in its place. Today the question is simply how to stabilize the country, save lives, and leave it with a chance at a future unimaginable under Saddam.

So the only question left that really matters is not whether Iraq could be won—it can—but rather will it be secured before the American people demand an end to the mounting expense and withdraw? I think that would be a terrible tragedy. In contrast, I can imagine a year from now a quiet Iraq and a US military that deserves the thanks of the world for what it accomplished under almost impossible conditions.

Not Just Colonels

I mentioned the brilliant majors, LTCs and full colonels that serve in Iraq. But I should have noted that the ordinary soldiers, whether privates or sergeants, are equally competent and are the front line in the struggle. Whatever the critiques of America’s youth as I-pod and video-game addicted, and enjoying a prolonged adolescence, those in their teens and early twenties in Iraq seemed just the opposite. Many sleep on hard cots in forward bases, eat pop tarts and energy bars, and then climb into Humvees on mined roads—and never complain. It is often said the war in Iraq is surreal, perhaps—but being among our nation’s youth at the front lines was one of the great privileges I’ve enjoyed. No one could do what they do any better.

A final note.

I go in for more tests and some exploratory surgical procedures both Monday and Tuesday—after apparently losing this six-week effort to pass multiple stones and avoiding the resulting complications.

So I may be posting much less in the next week or so. But hope to be back to normal very soon.

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