Separations of People (2/2)
(This is the second part of John Slades story. To read the first part click here).
Following my teaching jobs in Alta and Kautokeino, I was offered a position at the Bodø Graduate School of Business, also above the Arctic Circle. I taught Business English: my students compared the vocabulary in annual reports from SAS in both Norwegian and English, read articles from London’s The Economist, discussed business cases, and became experts at writing a clear, concise, logical three-page essay with footnotes and bibliography.
In the autumn of 1991, the Soviet Union, Norway’s giant neighbor, opened its doors to the world. The Bodø Graduate School of Business received funding from the government in Oslo to find a university in St. Petersburg – which until a few months ago had been Leningrad – where we could help to develop an entirely new school of business. The goal was to enable Russian students to learn western economics, which would enable Russia to do business with Europe and the world, and thus become a stable and peaceful neighbor.
In October of 1991, a dozen teachers from Bodø – including the English teacher – flew by SAS to Oslo and then to St. Petersburg. When we landed on the bumpy runway, we looked out the plane windows at St. Petersburgwritten across the airport building in Cyrillic letters; at an ancient fuel truck, at a battered blue truck that fetched the luggage, at an old, old bus that fetched the passengers.
We stayed for a week in a city where magnificent architecture from an earlier age mixed with contemporary wreckage. We visited several universities, and settled on a technical university which had been home of the Soviet space program: we could peer down through dirty classroom windows at rusting rocket engines in a courtyard.
The Russian teachers were welcoming, and the Russian students were excited. That’s what we needed: mutual motivation, mutual long-term goals. Had I been teaching at an American college, I never would have set foot in a Russian classroom; but as a teacher in a Norwegian college, I was part of a team that was about to make a solid contribution toward building a better world.
The teachers from Bodø developed a schedule which enabled us to visit Baltic State Technical University a couple of times a year, for a week or two at a time. Yes, our visits were short, but we took teaching materials with us which the Russian teachers could use, and thus we built up a new section of the university library. I made arrangements with SAS cargo in Bodø so that whenever I flew to St. Petersburg, I could ship cartons filled with paperback Russian-English dictionaries, which I passed out in class to my eager students.
Those students – whose highly educated parents had lost their jobs during the severe Russian depression of the 1990s – were the most motivated, and friendly, and helpful students of my career. I enjoyed teaching in Russia so much that I took a one-year sabbatical from Bodø so that I could live and work full-time in St. Petersburg, 1995-1996. The university had virtually no heat; our classrooms never got warmer than six degrees above freezing during the entire winter. My students wore their coats and boots and scarves and mittens all day in class. The windows were coated with frost. But our discussions were vibrant, and their essays were filled with passion.
Bodø’s program extended to universities in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, in the far north of Russia. The students of Arkhangelsk loved the poems of Robert Frost, for they too knew of birch trees and a woods filling up with snow.
These three cities in northwest Russia all had military importance; just north of Arkhangelsk was a base for nuclear submarines. I knew from earlier research that the cruise missiles beneath the wings of the B-52 bombers at Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York … were targeted on the kids who filled my classes with their energy, their hope, their cheerful friendship.
A separation of people as the result of old conflicts, old suspicions, is a crime against every young generation that would join the world.
* * * * * * * * *
My father phoned me while I was teaching in St. Petersburg and asked me to come “home” to take care of four elderly members of the family. So I left the classrooms of Russia, I left the classrooms of Norway, I left my old log cabin on the shore of a Norwegian fjord, I left the country that had become, after ten years of teaching, my true home and for which I had the deepest respect … and returned to the United States – to the family home on a lake in the Adirondack Park in upstate New York – where my mother was sinking into the fear and anxiety and oblivion of Alzheimer’s Disease, and my father’s hands were shaking so badly with Parkinson’s Disease that he handed me the key to the car.
We spent four years together, golden years, during which we never argued, and made sure that dinners – slow, tedious dinners – were a time of peace. My father and I became the friends that we had never been before. After a while, my mother no longer recognized me.
My mother’s mother had her 100th birthday in our home. Her sister, my Aunt Myrtle – who had given me that copy of Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings on my sixteenth birthday – was the last of my elderly angels. At the age of ninety-eight, she rode with me in my red Jeep as we drove through the streets of Utica on Christmas Eve, looking at the Christmas lights that decorated the city.
She died a week before the planes crashed into the World Trade Center.
* * * * * * * * *
During those five years with my elderly angels, I had some free time apart from taking care of family. So I launched into a project which required an enormous amount of research on an entirely new subject.
Despite the economic devastation that surrounded them, my Russian students still retained a deep knowledge of their history, their literature, their music. One day, when conditions improved, they would be able to build a new Russia on the solid foundation of their history and culture.
I wondered whether Americans – were they to experience such unexpected devastation – would be able to build a new America on the foundation of their own history and culture.
I began to read about the American Revolution, the foundation of an entirely new kind of nation, one based on democracy, on freedom, on equality. I soon realized that although there were many history books and many biographies, there was no historical novel which encompassed the entire American Revolution. Dozens of novels told the story of the Civil War, 1861-1865, but no one had written the story about America’s foundation.
My father had hired a nurse to help at home, so I was able to make a trip to Boston, where for the first time, I visited the Old South Meeting House where Samuel Adams had spoken from the pulpit. And Boston Common, where the British redcoats who occupied Boston had set up their tents. And Paul Revere’s home, and Faneuil Hall, and the monument at Bunker Hill. I visited every bookstore in town and began to put together a library filled with facts which I would weave into a galloping story.
I took pictures, so that later, while I was writing, I could look at a four-by-six-inch print of the Old South Meeting House, outside and inside; I wanted to be able to write about the bell tower and the pulpit with absolute precision.
My trips extended to re-enactments of battles at Fort Ticonderoga, and in Pennsylvania. I took pictures of redcoats in their elaborate uniforms, of colonials in homespun, and of Native Americans in war paint. In the evening, around their campfires, I spoke with the re-enactors, who were glad to share their knowledge of musketry and primitive medicine with someone who had clearly done his homework.
The pictures that I took had a second purpose. I could show them to my father who had been a student at the Harvard School of Business (he then worked for the Roosevelt administration during World War Two as an economist). Yes, as we sat together in front of the fireplace, he recognized that old church with its steeple, and the green sweep of Boston Common.
My grandmother and aunt, whose travels had been limited, now explored with me George and Martha Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, and Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello.
We looked at Independence Hall on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia from outside – the long, solid, red-brick building with large windows – then we stepped through the big white door into the room with the same tables and chairs which the Founding Fathers had used when they wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and then the Constitution in 1787.
Yes, and then we marched all the way south to Williamsburg, Virginia, which looks today as it looked back then, with a blacksmith shop and a colonial tavern, and people wearing mobcaps and breaches.
We marched a short distance further, to Yorktown, the site of the final battle between General Cornwallis and the British forces trapped in the town, and the combined armies of General Washington’s American troops and the supporting troops from France, wrapped around the town and laying siege with cannons.
When finally I had read through hundreds of history books and biographies, and had perused ancient tomes in the Library of Congress, and had even sailed in the topmost rigging of a replica square-rigger for ten days, I could begin to write the galloping story. Chapter by chapter, written on a typewriter but as if with a quill pen, I poured out Benjamin’s tale of his kidnapping in London, his voyage high in the rigging on a frigate from London to Boston, his enforced duty as a redcoat on the cobblestone streets of the occupied city, his march to Lexington, to Concord, and then his escape to … the troops on the American side.
And the tale of Genevieve, who grew up on a farm near the village of Lincoln, just south of Lexington, and who rode as a girl on her own horse with her father to the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston, where they met with Samuel Adams and James Otis and all the other fiery patriots who wanted a new nation, a free nation, where every man had his own future ahead of him.
As I wrote these chapters, I shared them with my weakening father, my white-haired grandmother, my sharp and energetic aunt. At one point, in the middle of the Battle of Monmouth – cannons raged on a hot summer day, the men were desperate for water, Benjamin was maneuvering with a band of troops toward the British rear flank – the phone on my desk rang. It was a nurse in a hospital in Utica; Aunt Myrtle had just come by ambulance from her nursing home to the emergency room. I told the nurse that I would be there in an hour and fifteen minutes. Then I hung up, finished the sentence that I had been writing, turned off the electric typewriter, and said, “I’m sorry, General Washington, but I’ve got to go take care of Aunt Myrtle now.”
All four of my elderly angels passed on during the writing of that magnificent story, leaving me with the solitude to write for a total of five and a half years, until Benjamin and Genevieve, married with two children born during the war, made the long trip home with their horse and wagon from Yorktown, Virginia to her family farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts.
Never, never, never in all of my life had I been so proud of America as when I was writing that epic story.
As always, no publisher in New York would even look at the manuscript. No literary agent would bother with it. I paid for the typesetting, I paid for the printing at BookMasters in Ashland, Ohio … and then I held in my hands a thick red book – 736 pages – which I called “my brick of love for America.”
I spent years trying to market that book, including multiple trips to the great bookstore at Williamsburg, Virginia on the Fourth of July. We sold over a thousand copies, but then the management changed, and the new guy dropped my book. I did not have “a sufficient marketing budget”, as did the big New York Publishers.
I visited all the bookstores in Boston, Lexington, New York, Philadelphia, and on and on, where I had bought hundreds of research books. No one had the slightest interest in putting my book on their shelves.
I sent copies to re-enactment groups, each with a vibrant letter. Zero response.
As it became very clear that Americans had little interest in anything beyond TV football and celebrity lifestyles and Bill Clinton’s blow job in the Oval Office, my spirits began to sink. I reached the point where I could no longer afford warehousing the 3,000 copies still unsold, out of the 5,000 which had been printed. I was paying $350 a month so that those three thousand red bricks of love could sit on a warehouse shelf in Ohio, gathering dust.
My only option was to have the books shredded. It was the summer of 2012. I had written a number of other books, primarily novels on the twin themes of climate change and clean energy. A good friend with an economic background counseled me to move from paperbacks to ebooks; he would help me to turn Bootmaker to the Nation: The Story of the American Revolution into an ebook trilogy. But that meant shredding all of the paperbacks – 7,000 of them, a dozen different titles – now sitting on shelves in that Ohio warehouse.
I tried to give copies to veterans back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought that maybe the veterans who were stuck in a V.A. hospital might like a story about the America that they – in their modern battles today – had fought for. I spent weeks phoning veterans organizations in Ohio, telling them that all they had to do was drive a pick-up truck to BookMasters in Ashland, where they could load up with cartons of books, for free. Not a single truck ever arrived to pick up any books.
In the background to all of this frustration was the growing war in Syria, which had begun in March of 2011. By the summer of 2012, the war had reached the city of Aleppo in northern Syria; barrel bombs dropped by helicopters were destroying apartment buildings while people were sleeping inside. Refugees were fleeing toward the border with Turkey. I was watching not only the American network news, but news from Al Jazeera, which included YouTubes taken by teenage boys out in the streets of the war zone. With headphones on, I could hear the gunshots, the bombs, the shouting in Arabic.
On the day in August of 2012 when 3,000 copies of Genevieve’s story, of Benjamin’s story, of America’s story, were shredded, I was a dead person. I felt a thousand times worse than I had felt at any funeral. I lay on my back at the bottom of a grave – not in a coffin but on the hard earth – waiting for someone to fill the grave with dirt. I could not move, I could not talk.
I was scheduled to speak that evening on a radio talk show in Boston about the American Revolution. The radio host phoned just before the show to be sure that I was ready. I spoke to him, saying that I was ready, but then I did not hang up so that the studio engineer could call me once the program had started. I sat in a chair for an hour with the phone in my hand … while the radio host kept getting a busy signal. I was vaguely aware that something was wrong, but I was too dead to think.
A separation of people, between those who left their farms and their businesses in order to fight a war that lasted eight and a half years, so that they could bestow upon later generations the blessings of freedom … and those who seem somehow to have forgotten about all that. And who do not want to be reminded.
* * * * * * * *
During the month of March, 2016, I stood on a rocky beach on the Greek island of Lesvos, looking through binoculars at the sea between Greece and the shoreline of Turkey, ten kilometers away. I searched for a tiny black spot with even smaller orange spots on top of it: refugees in orange life jackets on a black rubber dingy, trying to make the crossing to safety. Safety from the wars which they had left behind. Safety which would enable them, as they hoped, to start entirely new lives. Safety … especially for their children.
I was a volunteer with a Norwegian organization called Drop in the Ocean, founded by Trude Jacobsen and based in Oslo, with small groups of volunteers working on several Greek islands and in various refugee camps on the mainland.
After the books had been shredded, I consoled myself with the thought that the people in Syria were struggling with a far worse situation. In August of 2012, devastated, living at the black ragged edge, I did what I have done again and again when I want to escape my own day-to-day world: I forget about myself and create a new character in a new story. I feel her feelings, I think her thoughts, I face her decisions.
And so I created Rashida, a 16-year-old Syrian girl from Aleppo who speaks directly to the reader from her dusty tent in a refugee camp just across the border in Turkey. She can hear the artillery to the south; she can hear the voices in the night when another group of terrified refugees stagger into the camp.
With her high school English, Rashida becomes an interpreter for Doctors Without Borders, rendering Arabic into English, and English into Arabic. She accompanies Doctor Rosie from Ireland on the morning rounds from tent to tent, assessing the needs of shattered families. She is so devoted to her work that she is invited to translate for a Norwegian surgeon in the medical tent. Doctor Jakobsen quickly determines that this bright girl – whose dream is to become a doctor and then to return to Syria when the war is over – should be enabled to get an education in Norway, rather than wait and wait in the camp for who knows how long.
Thus Rashida, with her mother and younger brother, becomes a refugee in a small fishing village named Henningsvær, above the Arctic Circle in northern Norway. She meets Johan Erik, a 16-year-old boy who grew up on his grandfather’s fishing boat. He is deeply concerned that the polar ice cap, his neighbor at the top of the world, is melting; already the sea is warming, currents are shifting, and storms suddenly approach the fishing boats from unprecedented directions.
As Rashida is passionate about ending not only the war in Syria, but all wars, so Johan Erik is passionate about protecting the sea, “the cradle of life”, from the growing threat of climate change. Though from entirely different cultures, and entirely different childhoods, they first develop a respect for each other, and then a deepening friendship.
Now in 2016, having written this novel – which reaches into the future with the wedding of their daughter in 2050, and a celebration dinner in 2079 – I wanted to do something more than offer another book to an indifferent market. Thus I volunteered to join Drop in the Ocean, so that I could stand on the beach with binoculars and reach out a helping hand to a real Rashida.
During that month of March, the European Union came to an agreement with Turkey: in return for a large payment of money, and an easing of certain visa restrictions (which would enable Turkish citizens to travel more freely in Europe), Turkey would shut down all travel by refugees in their little boats from Turkey to Greece. If the refugees could not get to Greece, they could not proceed north into the rest of Europe. That, for Europe, solved a big problem.
But that, for the refugees, meant that they were now stranded in Turkey, or in prison camps in Greece, indefinitely.
So while I stood with my binoculars with fellow Drops from Norway, from Ireland, from Poland and Belgium and England and America, the flow of refugee boats dwindled to a trickle.
On a rainy day, I waded through the mud in the Moria refugee camp on the southwest corner of Lesvos, distributing a few orange rain ponchos to a group of young men from Pakistan. They were stranded; they were not allowed to leave the camp, nor did they have any way to return home. They asked me if I had any news from the world outside of their muddy camp.
A short time later, the Pope flew to Lesvos, visited this same camp, and selected a dozen refugees who then flew with him to the Vatican in Italy, where they would begin their new lives. The press took pictures; the Pope smiled and waved. But what about the thousands left trudging through the mud?
A separation of people, between those who profit from the wars that never end, and those who stand with their children behind barbed wire fences in refugee camps, grateful for the sandwich and carton of orange juice given to them for breakfast by volunteers with Drop in the Ocean.
* * * * * * * *
So where does all of this end?
The United States, pretending that it is responding to a potential attack from Iran, installs batteries of powerful missiles in Eastern Europe … right along Russia’s western border. These missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Russia, which has been invaded by the Mongol Horde in 1223, by the French in 1812, and by the Germans in 1941, has a horror of enemy forces on its borders.
America would certainly not tolerate Russian missiles along its Canadian border, nor along its Mexican border. Soviet missiles on Cuba in October of 1962 brought the world to the brink of nuclear devastation.
The Russians will do what they have always done: build a bigger missile, with a bigger warhead. Aimed right at YOU.
We now confront the twin evils of unrelenting wars, and unrelenting global warming. A double curse, which we ourselves have created. Either one alone could bring human civilization to a catastrophic halt; together, with nuclear radiation wrapped around an overheated planet, they all but guarantee centuries of unprecedented devastation.
And yet, we remain so blithe and oblivious. We are taking baby steps toward a world powered by clean energy, when we should be taking long, bold strides.
The sun, shining equally on all of us, wonders why we are so stupid. The wind, blowing equally on all of us, wonders why we are so stupid. We need to work, together around the world, to share their power, to share their multitude of benefits.
We need, at the high school level, at the university level, for all students around the world to take an autumn semester course which examines the Problems: climate change around the planet. And then we need a spring semester course which examines the Solutions: clean energy around the planet.
We do not need bits and pieces of Environmental Studies tacked on to other courses, for a few interested students. We need everyone to tackle the big challenges of the 21st century, beginning with a serious, comprehensive, 21st century education.
We need high schools and universities around the world to share their teaching materials, to share their expertise. Global warming is a planetary problem, and it requires planetary solutions. We need to weave our schools together, with students monitoring the wildfires of California working together with students monitoring the wildfires on the Russian tundra. We need students monitoring drought in Africa working together with students monitoring drought in Australia and China and Mexico and Nebraska. We need students monitoring coastal storms pounding the shores of Bangladesh working together with students monitoring coastal storms pounding the shores of St. Croix and Henningsvær and San Diego.
Got it? A young generation, working together. So that as they learn about melting ice and methane emissions, they also learn about each other.
They learn to learn from each other. They learn about different cultures, each one with a Creator who gave us life. Who gave us this round garden floating in a vast emptiness. And who gave us certain instructions about taking care of this Gift.
What we need is not a revolution in technology, but a Renaissance in our thinking. So that finally, finally, we are done with the separation of people.
The sun, the wind, the water pouring down the mountainside, and the great currents in the sea are waiting to go to work with us. And our young people around the world – as this teacher knows – are ready to work with each other. They are ready, deeply ready, to cast off the shackles of the 20th century – war and poverty and plunder and pollution – so that they can launch themselves into the 21st century. Their century, built by clean energy engineers, built by clean energy economists, built by Architects of Peace.
We need to build a new university in Aleppo. We need to build a new university in Palestine. We need to listen to the Sami. We need to listen to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. We need to listen to the people who once heard the thunder of buffalo hooves sweeping across the prairie.
We need to write new poems, new novels, new symphonies.
We need to believe in ourselves.
* * * * * * * *
Blessed is life, sheltered beneath the skirts of the universe.
The world was made for love,
And if ye love it not,
So much the less ye liveth.
The sun, that blesses me with richest earthly finery, Shines no warmer than my
hopes upon thee.
* * * * * * * *