Separations of People (1/2)
When I was a kid growing up in the cornfields of Illinois, the first separation of people that I encountered was Republican versus Democrat. Richard Nixon was running for president against John Kennedy. My parents were republican, so I as a boy in eighth grade naturally supported Nixon.
The next separation of people that I encountered was Americans versus Communists. Americans were free, but the Communists enslaved people and they were trying to take over the world. The Vietnamese were Communists, so in the spring of 1965, when I was a senior in high school, President Johnson dropped bombs on them from B-52 bombers in a military attack called Operation Rolling Thunder.
The third separation of people that I encountered was black people versus white people. We had only a couple of black kids in our high school in Illinois. My parents never talked about much; I barely knew that the Civil Rights Movement was happening – had been happening for almost a decade, December, 1955 to June, 1965 – when I graduated from high school. (Nobody in school mentioned it either.) My first two years of college were at the wrong college – Animal House in Hanover, New Hampshire – so it wasn’t until I transferred to Stanford University in California, where black students were demanding courses in black history and black literature, that I encountered, in close proximity, a group of people other than my own group.
I was a premedical student, very straight, buried in my books, so the hippies of California were a separate group as well. For a while. Until a friend at Stanford who had gone to high school with me in Illinois sat down beside me in a lecture hall just before a professor began to speak about “Renaissance Literature” … and told me that Carl Thorne-Thomsen had been killed in Viet Nam.
Carl had been the captain of my high school swimming team. He swam butterfly and won every race.
He had been the president of our student council. When he graduated, one year ahead of me, he was the kid who was thought to be “most likely to become President.”
He had gone to Harvard, but – as I knew from talking with him after his freshman year there – he was going to take a “leave of absence” so that he could join the military in Viet Nam. He did not want to fight against the Vietnamese people; he had no argument with them. But, as he explained to me, young men who were poor in America and could not afford to go to college got drafted, whereas people like us, from families with enough money to pay for college, got a deferment from the military. A lot of black men, like the ones who lived in South Chicago – the ghetto – were drafted into the army and sent to Viet Nam. Meanwhile, white kids like Carl and me were having a good time in college.
Carl thought that was unfair, undemocratic. So he was going to join those black soldiers, as a Green Beret, which required “the toughest training there is.”
I had known, while I was just getting started at Stanford, that Carl was in Viet Nam. But when my friend sat down beside me in the auditorium and told me that Carl had been killed … I went deeper and deeper into shock.
I made it through classes – I was double-majoring in both pre-med and English literature, with a minor in French – but that evening at dinner, I snapped.
When I transferred from Animal House to Stanford, I could not find a room in a dormitory. A fraternity on campus had a spare room which they offered. The guys wanted me to join, and I, out of gratitude, had said yes, I would be glad to become a “brother.”
Before every dinner in the evening, all the “pledges” had to stand on their chairs and recite the Greek alphabet backwards. If we made a mistake, the frat guys hooted at us and we had to start over.
When my turn came to stand up on my chair, I ran out of the dining hall, ran out the front door, sobbing, and began to walk the streets outside of the campus. I was still walking at midnight.
At one point – it was dark now, and streetlamps lit the tidy streets of homes where professors lived – a police car pulled up and the officer got out and asked me, “Where you going?” He had clearly been watching me.
I looked at him and all I could say was, “Carl was killed in Viet Nam.”
He stared at me for a long moment – his face softened, I was not a criminal – and then he said, “My brother is over there right now.”
I looked at him, silent.
He said, “You walk all you want. You walk all night if you want. When I go off my shift, I’ll tell the next guy to keep an eye on you. You need any help, you let us know.”
Then he got back into his car and drove quietly away.
The police in America at that time were often called “pigs”, but not by me. And certainly after that night, I have always had a place in my heart filled with respect for the police who are out there at night – out there at night in a deeply troubled world – trying to keep people safe.
I walked until the sky began to brighten with dawn. Then I went back to the fraternity house and slept – for the first time in my life – through an entire day of classes.
My friends told me that I did not have to bother with the Greek alphabet. I was welcome to room and board with them for as long as I wanted.
* * * * * * * * *
I encountered other separations of people. After walking out of medical school, I went back to Stanford and marched through a PhD in literature. I wrote my thesis on a novel by William Faulkner, A Fable, his only anti-war novel, set not in the South but in the trenches of World War One. On the title page, I dedicated my thesis to Carl Thorne-Thomsen, and sent a copy with its red cover to his mother, who had been my high school English teacher.
I taught here and there, high school jobs, until I watched pictures on television in April of 1975 of helicopters lifting from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon, abandoning thousands of Vietnamese people who had supported us in our hideous war. We had dropped more bombs on Viet Nam than had been dropped during all of World War Two; we had saturated their rice paddies with agent orange; we had tortured prisoners of war, keeping them in bamboo cages; we had lied and lied and lied in Washington from 1954 to 1975; and then we said, “Fuck it. Let’s go home.”
At a job conference for secondary teachers in Chicago, I spotted a teaching job on the island of St. Croix in the Caribbean. I tore the announcement off the wall so that no one else would see it, then went up to the hotel suite and had an interview that lasted over an hour. When the school director informed me that he already had several other candidates, I told him that I would fly from Chicago to Miami to San Juan to St. Croix at my own expense, then teach for a week in a classroom filled with West Indian kids. He was welcome to sit in the back of the room and watch.
And that’s exactly what I did. I loved the kids and they liked me. In one class, we took a survey: the 25 high school seniors spoke at home a total of eleven different languages, for their families had come from islands sprinkled throughout the Caribbean. Good bye, cornfields of Illinois.
For four magnificent years, I taught English classes at both the high school and the College of the Virgin Islands. I fixed up an old five-meter fiberglass sailboat and took the kids sailing out to a coral reef, where we snorkeled with turtles and angelfish and barracudas and foot-long squid. We camped on a beach and watched a giant leatherback turtle laying her eggs in the light of a full moon.
I told my dubious students that inside every person is a poem. Several shook their heads; they loved science, they loved math, they loved photography. But I took them step by step, and eventually turned back to 25 kids … 25 poems with a gold star at the top.
St. Croix has an oil refinery on it, and thus a number of the students were “Continentals” from the United States. I discovered among them three students from Norway; their father was a harbor captain, who boarded the giant oil tankers and then guided them to the refinery wharf. My blond Norwegian students told me that their grandparents were with them on St. Croix, “Bestemor og Bestefar.” I asked if perhaps their grandparents would be willing to give me Norwegian lessons.
You see, I was born in Buffalo, New York by mistake. I should have been born in Bergen, or Bodø, or Bø. When I was kid growing up, I had a vague interest in Scandinavia. My father’s mother came from a family named Jacobson, but nobody had bothered to track down her family roots. When I became sixteen years old, all I wanted for my birthday – when all the other guys wanted a six-pack of beer and a fast car – was a book called Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld. International peace-keeping. Mid-summer’s eve. Tall slender girls.
And so every Tuesday afternoon, when school was over, I met with Bestemor and Bestefar in their sunny yard. In the shade of palm trees, surrounded by pink bougainvillea, and breathing the scent of frangipani, we studied chapter after chapter in my book Teach Yourself Norwegian.
When a Norwegian cruise ship pulled into St. Croix, Bestefar and I waited for the swarm of tourists to come down the gangplank, then we walked across it and met an officer. Bestefar and I were quickly invited to the officers’ quarters, where we were treated to a dram of spirits from the Old Country.
I learned, from reading their Norwegian newspapers, about the International Summer School at the University of Oslo. I applied, and whooped with a cheer when I opened the return letter and discovered – Yes! – I had been accepted. That Norwegian spirit inside me, lurking quietly as I grew up in a country that made no sense to me, now stood up and told me, “We’re going home!”
Thus, during the summer of 1981, I joined hundreds of students from countries all around the world at the Blindern student dormitory and dining hall. I was the happiest guy in the world as I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with friends from Ethiopia and Nepal and Brazil and France and Mozambique. Those were the days of the Cold War and Ronald Reagan’s growing stockpile of nuclear weapons, so I took a course taught by the Peace Research Institute of Oslo … on Nuclear Weapons. (Not Renaissance Literature; not utterly incomprehensible Modern Poetry; not dreary, dreary Organic Chemistry.)
While riding a bus on a field trip to Bergen, someone handed me a Timemagazine that was being passed around. I discovered a short article about St. Croix: an American destroyer had fired, by accident, a Harpoon missile … right in the direction of the island. The missile was not nuclear, the warhead was “conventional”, and it hit the water and sank before it struck the island. But I knew from the class I was taking in Oslo that this same ship carried Tomahawk cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads.
And so my first novel was born. Children of the Sun, set on St. Croix, required an enormous amount of research, including unclassified documents in Washington which described the damage caused by nuclear tests in New Mexico and in the Pacific. I visited Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York, home to a fleet of B-52s with nuclear cruise missiles under their wings, ready to take off toward Soviet targets on the other side of the world.
In November of 1990, while teaching English at the Bodø Graduate School of Business, I attended an international conference of nuclear weapons experts in Stockholm. For five days, I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner with Nobel laureates, Soviet scientists, and the nuclear advisor to President Reagan in the White House; for five days, I asked them questions. That conference was an enormous confirmation … that the research which I had woven into a powerhouse novel was absolutely true.
However, no publisher in New York would touch that book. I published it myself – paid for the typesetting, paid for the printing, stood right there beside the press as the big sheets were rolled out – and then I discovered the joys of book marketing in America.
Shit. I sold three copies.
Reagan got his Star Wars. Reagan got his massive nuclear build-up in Europe, despite enormous protests in many countries. Reagan got his war in Nicaragua. Reagan took the country into unprecedented debt to pay for it all.
But that’s all right. Somehow, it’s good for the economy. Somehow, the money “trickles down” to … Americans sound asleep in front of a TV football game.
A separation of people. Yes, just take a look at where we are today.
* * * * * * * * *
During the summer of 1981, while I attended the International Summer School, I tried to find a job in Norway, this country which resoundingly felt like home.
No luck, so I flew to New York and got a job in a publishing house, to learn the ropes. I spent so many evenings at Carnegie Hall that they should have rented a room to me up in the attic.
In 1986, I returned to the International Summer School in Oslo, and this time took a course from Norad on “Third World Development”. Since Reagan was now fighting his clandestine CIA war in Nicaragua, I focused on that country in my research at the Norad library.
One weekend, I packed my library books into a backpack, along with a tent and sleeping bag, and spent Saturday and Sunday beside a little lake in the forest that wraps around Oslo. On Sunday morning, I started the day by swimming across the lake and back. While frying eggs over a campfire, I noticed a couple of people about fifty meters away, wearing absolutely nothing – good Norwegians! – as they swam and then dried themselves with towels. A short while later, they (dressed now) came walking toward me with their bikes. We spoke briefly, about the excellent weather, and the Summer School, and then they were about to leave when the woman asked me (having heard from my accent that I was an American), “Could you tell me why your Congress just voted another hundred million dollars to continue your war in Nicaragua?”
I replied, “Not my war.”
Then I opened my backpack and took out several books about Nicaragua. “These are from your Norad library. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
And thus began a friendship that has lasted for years.
I had to come all the way to Norway to find people who would talk with me – who could have an intelligent conversation – about the absolutely criminal American war in Nicaragua.
* * * * * * * * *
During that summer of 1986, I managed, with the help of a great friend from India who was also a student in the course, to land a job teaching English at the Alta Teacher’s College, above the Arctic Circle near the very top of Norway. I was thrilled. Good bye to Reagan’s war machine.
When I arrived in Alta, I visited the college rector on the first day of school. I asked him, “Why did you choose me to be your English teacher?”
He replied, “You were the only one who applied.”
To my great delight, I discovered that half of my students were Norwegians from small towns and villages in northern Norway … and half were Sami reindeer people from the tundra. I was offered a room in a felles hus, a yellow wooden house in a forest where I would live with a Norwegian teacher of religion, a Sami teacher ofduoji – beautifully crafted clothing and tools made from reindeer hide and horn – and the director of the Sami teachers’ program. While we sat one night having dinner in our communal kitchen, an enormous moose walked past the window, not more than five meters from us.
When, that winter, I paid my taxes to the Norwegian social programs – health care and education through college and graduate school – rather than to Reagan’s Rocket, I was the happiest taxpayer in the country.
That job was a one-year position. My Sami director, Jan Henry Keskitalo, suggested that I teach in the Sami town of Kautokeino on the tundra. There was an opening at the high school, and later at the new Sami College.
And so I learned to ski with friends across the vast tundra at night when the temperature was “forty” (they never bothered to say “minus forty”), and the snow was lit pale green … by green and pink ribbons rippling across the heavens.
I listened to the magical Sami music – a song is called a yoik – composed not with words but with haunting sounds that reach across the tundra when the Sami are herding their reindeer. They sing to the reindeer, they sing to the mountains, and they sing to each other with a musical portrait honoring a particular friend.
The original Sami moved north, following the wild reindeer, as the glaciers melted thousands of years ago at the end of the last ice age. Their language is ancient. When a Sami greets you, “Buorre beaivvi”, you are hearing words that are older than Latin, older than Greek.
The Sami taught me about the coming of global warming. The late autumns, and especially the warm early springs, create conditions which threaten the life cycle of their reindeer. In April, the snow should be deep, cold and dry. The sun, which has returned after the mid-winter darkness, warms the top layer of the snow, melting it into a wet slush. During the cold night, this slush forms a strong crust of ice … on which the reindeer can walk as they migrate to their summer feeding grounds. The reindeer give birth to calves during the migration; the little ones have no difficulty walking on the crust of ice.
But if the spring comes early, and the snow is too warm, the crust is not strong enough to support the weight of the reindeer. They sink into wet slush. The calves are especially helpless.
During a normal spring, the snow melts slowly while the reindeer are migrating, and thus streams coming down the mountainside are still a trickle. But if the spring comes early, then the snow melts early, and streams become a torrent pouring down the mountainside. The calves, which can make their way across a trickle of snowmelt, are unable to cross the powerful streams. If they try to cross, following their mothers, they are often swept away.
John Slade, teacher of English, began to realize that global warming was real, and that although teaching his students how to write a proper essay was important … what they really needed to learn about were the great challenges of climate change which their generation was about to inherit.
So he began to do the research on an entirely new topic, and to weave what he learned into stories with young characters who confronted a frightening world that was about to be dumped into their laps. He wrote not only about climate change, the Problem, but also about clean energy, the Solution.
He visited the Vestas wind turbine company in Denmark, spent an hour with the CEO, then spent three days visiting the research labs and the factories where the giant blades are manufactured.
He visited the department of fisheries in Arkhangelsk, Russia, and he visited the fishermen of Henningsvær in the Lofoten Islands of Norway.
He watched as European countries worked together to build a growing network of offshore wind turbines, which fed electrical power through underwater cables to the growing international grid on shore. By the summer of 2015, Europe had 3,230 offshore wind turbines spinning in 84 wind farms in the sea, powering a multitude of countries across the European continent.
By the summer of 2015, even 2016, the United States still had zero offshore wind turbines along the Atlantic coast, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific coast, and in the Great Lakes. Zero.
A separation of people, between those who care and those who don’t.
Between those who indulge in endless excuses, and those who understand that the sun and the wind will provide jobs and jobs and jobs, and survival, for the coming generations.
A separation of people, at a critical moment in human history.
* * * * * * * *
All photos by the author. This is the first of two parts of the essay “Separations of People” by John Slade.