Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A Murfin Memoir—My Own Private Missile Crisis


I was in my father’s car.  I believe it was his official State of Wyoming 1960 Chevrolet station wagon.  We had the radio on.  Dad was doing me a favor.  He was a man of infinite patience that way.  We had just visited the Quonset hut that served as the official headquarters of Wyoming Civil Defense.  I had in my lap a box stuffed full of literature on how to build a bomb shelter, plan an emergency evacuation, explanations of the public shelter program, blue tri-fold brochures emblazoned with the triangle-in-a-circle logo of Your Civil Defense!
The literature was destined for the Civil Defense office that I had set up on folding tables outside my basement bedroom.  Ever since the election when John Kennedy kept talking about the missile gap I had been obsessed with what seemed like an inevitable nuclear war. 
In Cheyenne, where America’s first ICBM base had been built at Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, it was hard to avoid.  It was a matter of some civic pride that the missile base made us “one of the top ten nuclear targets.”  Students at Eastwood Elementary School regularly conducted air raid drills.  Sometimes we were instructed to duck under our desks and cover hour heads with a thick text book.  Other times we were taken out to the empty field across the street and told to lie face down with our hand interlaced behind our heads.  This was so the atomic blast could “roll over us.” We were also told not to look up lest the flash of the exploding bomb burn our eyeballs out.
Other kids might have shrugged it off.  But I was a patriot.  I wanted to do something for my country, just like President Kennedy had said.  I was informed.  I read both the Wyoming Eagle and the Tribune and got my own copy of Time every week in the mail.  Ok, it may have been a little unusual for a thirteen year old boy, but that’s the way I was.  

Often called the Rockefeller civil defence report helped set off the fallout shelter craze of the early '60's.  I read it avidly and took it to heart.
At some point I had gotten a hold of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s report on Civil Defense and actually read it.  It was meant to shore up a proposal that the state of New York build public shelters, but it had become the inspiration for the fall-out shelter craze that was sweeping the nation.  I was among those swept.  For some months I had been visiting the CD quintet hut and gathering literature.   I obtained a nice Civil Defense decal which I put on the glass of our front storm door.  I even found a real white Civil Defense helmet from World War II at an Army surplus store.  I buttonholed everyone I could think of to promote preparedness.
And my Dad took in stride.  Maybe he knew that I just felt better thinking that there was something that I could do.  He drove me on my trips to the Quonset hut and probably used his clout as a member of the Wyoming cabinet to get them to give me all of the literature I wanted.  They had plenty. 

Despite his tolerance of my obsession, Dad refused to build a backyard fallout shelter.
But despite my pleas, Dad would not build us our own shelter.  Not for him the trouble and expense of digging a big hole in the backyard, lining it with re-enforced concrete, installing a blast proof steal door and an efficient ventilation system, stocking it with food and water for our family of four for at least six months, and, yes keeping a good rifle on hand to shoot the improvident neighbors who had not planned ahead.  No he just wouldn’t do it.  Secretly, looking back on it, I suspect that he knew an atomic explosion in the neighborhood with either not survivable or not worth surviving.
Anyway, that’s what we were doing at 5 PM Mountain Standard Time when Kissin’ KIMN out of Denver, Colorado interrupted their regular broadcast of top 40 rock ‘n’ roll “to bring you the President of the United States.”  We drove home in silence listening to details of our confrontation with Communist Russia over those missiles in Cuba. 

President John F. Kennedy making the broadcast announcing the presence of Soviet missils in Cuba and declaring a blockade of the island setting the stage for a possible nuclear war.  We didn't see the TV broadcast but listened on the car radio.
Except for school time, I was glued to the TV set for the next two weeks eager to hear any glimmer of news.  Late at night I used Dad’s old Atwater Kent table radio which could pick up short wave broadcasts from just about anywhere, including the BBC and even English language broadcasts from Radio Havana.  We all breathed easier when we got the word that the Ruskies had folded and were shipping their rockets back home.
But what about next time?  There was sure to be a next time.  I got to thinking about those school drills and decided that they were not enough.  The school needed a real Civil Defense plan.  So I started writing one.  I typed copies out on my new Sterling Smith-Corona portable with several sheets of onion skin and carbon paper.  Each homeroom, I proposed, should have an elected student Warden to help the teacher with evacuation plans and keep order.  The Wardens should be equipped with helmets, webbed belts with a water canteen and first aid kit, and police night stick just in case there was panic.  I went down to the Army surplus store and priced helmets and clubs.  In addition each class room was to have a box containing emergency supplies, which students would be required to bring from home—things like toilet paper and bags for excrement, bandages and first aid supplies, a flashlight,  a transistor radio, and plenty of batteries.  In case of an attack the Warden and teacher were to scoop up the box and guide the class in an orderly manner to a designated shelter, which would adequately be stocked with K-rations and drums of water. 

These signs were ubiquitous in public buildings, schools, large office and commercial structures, and other places.  You could occasionally find them well into the current century long after the shelters they marked were abandoned or forgotten.
One morning I took my bundle of papers and presented them to the Principal, who solemnly accepted them.  He told me he would take the matter up with the School Board.  And he actually did!  A few weeks later I was told that my plan had been approved not just for Eastridge, but for the entire school system.  Of course they made some changes.  The helmets and night sticks were out, but they would allow the student Wardens to have nice official looking arm bands.  They had students in the Jr. High shop classes make boxes from galvanized sheet metal.  Every home room got one and kids got lists of what to bring from home to fill them.
Sometime the next spring there were elections for student Wardens.  Everyone in the school knew that the whole thing was my idea.  But in my homeroom, I was not even nominated.  One of the popular kids, one of the guys who were always picked first in gym class, was elected unanimously.  The next week when the student Wardens had their first meeting to organize and learn about the program after school, I just went home.  The Principle asked me why I had not come to explain my plan.  I told him that I wasn’t elected and didn’t feel I should.  He shrugged and went about his business.

Monday, October 22, 2018

The Romantic on Opium—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his early success.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born on October 21, 1772 at Ottery St Mary, Devon, England.  He was the youngest of the fourteen children of an impoverished vicar who died in the boy’s ninth year.  His early brilliance was recognized and he was accepted as a charity student at the School of Christ’s Hospital.  He was able to attend Jesus College, Cambridge with the support of an elder brother.  Despite his success as student including winning a medal for a long poem in Greek, he surrendered to the temptations of campus life—then as now alcohol, drugs (opium,) and sex.  Opium addiction would be his lifelong bane. 
Coleridge left school and enlisted in the Dragoons under an assumed name after a messy affair with the sister of a friend.  An indifferent soldier, he frequently fell off his horse.  The Army was not disappointed when a brother showed up and paid for his release. 
After another abortive attempt at school, he schemed to form a utopian plantation in Pennsylvania.  The articles of covenant of Pantisocracy required members to be married, so Coleridge rushed into an unhappy marriage.  Plans for the plantation, of course, collapsed and Coleridge turned more heavily to opium.  

William Wadsworth, Coleridge's friend, mentor, and co-author of Lyrical Ballads.
He was, however, serious about religion and literature.  He managed to become ordained as a Unitarian minister and made his living serving small chapels while he began to write seriously.  He became a close friend of William Wordsworth.  The two poets together published Lyrical Ballads, which included Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  His reputation as a poet was immediately made.  The fame from the poem led to a £150 yearly annuity from the wealthy Unitarian Wedgewood family, the famous manufacturers of fine china and porcelain.  He was able to give up the ministry and concentrate on his poetry. 
Despite success, he slid into greater opium dependency and fought dark depressions.  Kubla Kahn was written in 1797 and published in Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep in 1816 and is regarded by most scholars as the product of an opium vision.  

Coleridge's vision of Xanadu in his Kubla Khan is often thought to have been inspired by opium revels.  Illustration of the poem by Dugald Walker.
Coleridge accompanied Wordsworth on a European tour in 1799.  The two separated in Germany where Coleridge immersed in German philosophy, especially Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism.  On his return to England he published translations of Friedrich Schiller. He moved to the Lake District to be close to Wordsworth but his marriage was tension filled, his opium use increased, and he began quarreling with his friend. 
In 1802 Coleridge fell helplessly in love with Wordsworth’s sister in law Sara Hutchinson and composed his ballad Love for her.
Somehow Coleridge obtained a minor diplomatic position on Malta during an 1804 trip to that island and Sicily.  Despite perfuming his duties satisfactorily his health began to fail and he increased his daily consumption of laudanum.  When he returned to England in 1806 his deterioration shocked his friends.  After a short stay, he returned to Italy until 1808.

Unitarian industrialist and philanthropist Josiah Wedgewood II and his brothers sustained Coleridge with a comfortable annuity of 150 Pounds but reduced it in alarm as the poet sank deeper into addiction.
Now consuming up to two quarts of laudanum a week, Coleridge separated from his wife, alienated his friends, and finally breeched his relationship with Wordsworth. The Wedgewood’s reduced his annuity in alarm at his deteriorating condition.
In 1809 he established his own periodical The Friend in which he indulged his wide interests.  It lasted through 25 seldom read issues before failing.  Years later essays from the magazine published in book form finally found an audience and influenced philosophers John Stuart Mill and Ralph Waldo Emerson among others.
In a crisis of faith, Coleridge foreswore the Unitarian Church and returned to the Anglicanism of his father, sometimes rising to the defense of orthodoxy from attacks by his former comrades. 

Coloridge at 42 by Washington Allston
Finally, in 1817 his long slide to oblivion was ended when he moved in with the family of his London physician, Dr. James Gillman who kept his demons largely in check for his remaining 18 years.  While in residence at the Gillman home, he managed to write his major prose work, the Biographia Literaria, biographical essays and philosophical musings.  He also published new poetry including Sibylline Leaves in 1820, Aids to Reflection in 1825, and Church and State in 1826. During his final years he was regarded as a great talker in the tradition of Samuel Johnson and his weekly Thursday Salons became famous.  He died in London on July 25, 1834.
Adapted from the biographical notes for Four Hundred Years of Unitarian and Universalist Poets: From John Milton to Sylvia Plath, a readers theater presentation by Patrick Murfin.
Frost at Midnight
The Frost performs its secret ministry,
Unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry
Came loud—and hark, again! loud as before.
The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruser musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully.
‘Tis calm indeed! so calm, that it disturbs
And vexes meditation with its strange
And extreme silentness. Sea, hill, and wood,
This populous village! Sea, and hill, and wood,
With all the numberless goings-on of life,
Inaudible as dreams! the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
Only that film, which fluttered on the grate,

Still flutters there, the sole unquiet thing.
Methinks, its motion in this hush of nature
Gives it dim sympathies with me who live,
Making it a companionable form,
Whose puny flaps and freaks the idling Spirit
By its own moods interprets, every where
Echo or mirror seeking of itself,
And makes a toy of Thought.

                      But O! how oft,
How oft, at school, with most believing mind,
Presageful, have I gazed upon the bars,
To watch that fluttering stranger ! and as oft
With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt
Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower,
Whose bells, the poor man’s only music, rang
From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day,
So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me
With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear
Most like articulate sounds of things to come!
So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt,
Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams!
And so I brooded all the following morn,
Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye
Fixed with mock study on my swimming book:
Save if the door half opened, and I snatched
A hasty glance, and still my heart leaped up,
For still I hoped to see the stranger’s face,
Townsman, or aunt, or sister more beloved,
My play-mate when we both were clothed alike!

         Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the interspers├ęd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

         Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge