Sep 1997

Puritan Dreams

by Stanley Jenkins

And for the season it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms, dangerous to travel to known places, much more to search an unknown coast... —Governor William Bradford, "Of Their Voyage, and how they Passed the Sea; and of their Safe Arrival at Cape Cod," from Of Plymouth Plantation

I've always believed that our America is haunted. By what, I couldn't say. But drive through the Lincoln tunnel, and as you approach from the Jersey side, take note of the cliffs and the ferocity of the face of such stone—(covered now with graffiti—but nonetheless undaunted)—and tell me that you do not feel the watching of a something that probably does not love you, but doubtlessly understands itself as other than you—and all your pursuits—your plans, your destinations—your arrivals. There is something of the untouched and unmoved that remains in our America—even in a place like New York City. Especially in a place like New York City. When was the last time you saw a rat or a cockroach that wasn't surprised to see you?


I'm not real sure how it happened. If I'm honest about my recollections of the time—Jesus God! It's been about twenty years now—I remember one day being on, what Jesse used to call with such genuine pride, "the fast track to corporate success"—the real golden boy from out West—and the next I became the man I don't see in the mirror. You know the one—the guy whose teeth are all brown from too much smoking and no dental coverage—patches of stubble under the nose and in the corners where lips meet. A bad shave job. Somewhere in there was the call into the office—the measured tones—the firm but embarrassed silences—allusions to team players and Japanese management styles and things just not working out. It did not come as a surprise. I was gracious. It's not real clear to me just what you do after something like that.


Besides, what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men—and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not...

Governor William Bradford


Jesse, my father, is a very thin man. When he talks most intimately he does not look you in the eye but stares off into some other place of listening and understanding. Photo albums are filled with pictures of him standing in the middle of pine-lined roads pointing to something. There are a hundred thousand generations of refusal in those pictures—and yet also an acceptance that I have not even begun to grasp.

He use to sit on his haunches for hours just to prove he could still do it. Sometimes he would make my sister and me sit with him—until our knees gave out and we had to see him still sitting there. He'd sit that way with his buddies, long after it made any sense—as if around campfires or at guitar stoked union meetings—throughout his whole life. They'd all been farmers as kids—all left home during the depression. Woody Guthrie. My father owned his own Ford dealership. He had no more calluses, but he sat just like riding boxcars forever.


I managed to get the couch out of the apartment today. It was not easy. I smashed up my knuckles and caught my jacket on a bare nail. It ripped. I don't have too many more nice looking jackets. I pushed the couch to the stairwell and let it slide down. The front legs snapped off. It was a bitch getting it out the front door and onto the curb, but when I was done I felt a little bit better. I went back up and looked at the indentations in the carpet, the black halo on the wall where it had been—the untrammeled and unmatted bit of the carpet which had been protected by the couch, exposed and erect now like brussel sprouts.



Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes; for which way soever they turned their eyes (save upward to the heavens) they could have little solace or content in respect of any outward objects....


Jesse never understood why I came to the city. Coming to the city would have been the last thing in the world he would have done. Which, of course, is probably the best reason in the world for me to have done it. Still, after college when thinking about what to do next, I remembered the stories. It was never clear to me whether or not the dust bowl ever reached up into Missouri—but I know that the farm failings dominoed across the country. Even more than that though, Jesse was the third son on a four son farm—and times being what they were—and his littlest brother not being more than three or four at the time—somebody had to go. And so the rails were free if you could escape the watchful—but not too watchful—eyes of the railroad bulls. He headed West.

Some of the details get fuzzy in the telling—especially concerning just how he managed to feed himself along the way—but what is clear is that he ended up herding sheep for a while down at the bottom of Hell's Canyon in Idaho. He always made a particular emphasis upon that part of his life. He was proud of it. Loved being from Idaho.

Jesse was forty when he begot a son—and in-between that time had come World War Two (he had flat feet), an agricultural degree, Bill Monroe, work as a county agent, Hank Williams, marriage, a baby girl, Elvis' first recordings, and a partnership in a Ford dealership with a future Governor of Idaho. I grew up in the house the Governor built, made up of stones from the Salmon River when he and Jesse were just starting out. There were tracks on the beams from when they were doing the staining and couldn't keep the chickens away.

When I graduated from college he told me I was a man now and should call him by his first name. I told him I had an offer in New York. That was the first time I ever saw anything like surprise in Jesse's eyes.


For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue...


I remember leaving the office. I remember the sense of inevitability—almost relief. It was as if a seed that had been planted long ago were finally to burst its husk. I imagine great emptinesses methodically coming to the fore. To be fired—let go—released. No, I was not surprised—and I can't say I was even particularly upset. It was what I wanted—what was mine. I took my place in history.


The first thing you notice of the city—at least after things begin to clear a bit—is the sense of time. Everything moves a whole lot quicker—that's true. But at the same time, everything is a whole lot older. Buildings have stood here for a long time. Streets have existed long enough to retain a memory—and at least some neighborhoods retain a certain continuity despite the constant changes. It was 1976 when I arrived and the city was dying—but it had a long way to go. The thing is—when a place has been a place for a while, it takes a while to burn itself off.

To disappear is harder than you think—sometimes disappearance is just coming back under a different name. You have to watch for that. You have to go back and eradicate every trace, step by step.


If it be said that they had a ship to succour them, it is true; but what heard they daily from the master and company? [...] Yea, it was muttered by some that if they got not a place in time, they would turn them and their goods ashore and leave them...


Every week it's another object. This week the couch, last week it was the coffee maker and the week before that it was all the pictures hanging on the wall. I stood on the prairie once in the middle of my father's America and watched tumble weed blowing in. I was the only thing in its path.

Jesse sits in a gold and green, coarse, upholstered easy chair. He falls asleep in front of cabled re-runs of Hee-Haw. He's getting old. Bill Monroe, Hank Williams and Elvis are all dead.


There is no Idaho, my Americans. That's the secret. Idaho never existed...

Perhaps it's time to set sail again.

O my brave Governor.